ST. PAUL, Minn. — The question facing the Washington Capitals is not whether they can play well — they show that potential in shifts and even entire periods. Rather, it’s can they avoid undermining themselves?
Saturday night, in a 5-3 loss to Minnesota, the Capitals again sabotaged their own efforts, this time in historic fashion. The Caps became the first team to yield five goals on just 11 shots since shots were first recorded 40 years ago, with frequent trips to the penalty box unraveling a two-goal lead and a dominant start at Xcel Energy Center.
Star defenseman Ryan Suter recorded his first career hat trick as Minnesota scored five goals on its first 10 shots, including three power-play tallies, beating up Braden Holtby (six saves on those 11 shots) in his first start in two weeks. The Capitals have lost four straight and seven of their past nine. Philadelphia’s 5-3 win over Phoenix meant the Capitals have dropped to third in the Metropolitan Division.
“It started with the penalties,” Marcus Johansson said. “That changed the whole game. I think we owned the game in the first period and I think we outplayed them five-on-five in most part of the second, too. . . . It’s tough when it’s not really going your way and you feel like you’re playing good still.”
The result was a divergence from the opening period of play when Washington set a commanding tone, working the puck down low in the offensive zone and taking advantage of a disorganized Wild defense. As has been done to them on frequent occasion, the Capitals picked off clearing passes and turned neutral-zone turnovers by their foes into extended shifts of opportunity.
On a power play, Alex Ovechkin threw an unassuming shot on net, creating a rebound that Johansson was able to tuck past the right skate of Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom (27 saves) for a 1-0 lead 12:02 into the contest. Thirteen seconds later, a pretty wrister by Mike Green, who danced past Matt Cooke, made it 2-0.
“I can’t see us doing much better than that,” defenseman John Carlson said.
Washington entered the first intermission not only up by two goals but with a commanding 11-1 lead in shots having dominated possession — a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the home crowd here in the self-proclaimed State of Hockey. The Wild, with Coach Mike Yeo on the hot seat given the team’s recent struggles, was heavily booed while heading to the dressing room. Minnesota had lost six of seven, as the Capitals have now.
But what seemed like a comfortable contest would turn ugly for the Capitals quickly in the second, aided by the struggles of Holtby, who had faced only one shot after his lengthy layoff.
“It makes it tougher but you can’t use that as an excuse,” Holtby said. “Performance just wasn’t good enough. It is tougher without a workload but you still have to make the saves when you’re called upon.”
On Minnesota’s second shot of the game, 2:16 into the second period, Nino Niederreiter beat Holtby glove-side to cut the Capitals’ lead to one. Washington had lost track of the playmaking forward on the play, allowing him to drive the net, receive a centering pass from Charlie Coyle and fire a shot before realizing what had happened.
“They had nothing, then we made mistakes on the first goal, gave them a little life,” Coach Adam Oates said.
Where the middle stanza shifted, though, was when Steve Oleksy and Karl Alzner took roughing and delay of game penalties five seconds apart to give the Wild nearly two minutes of a five-on-three power play. It took Minnesota 21 seconds to tie the game at 2 when Suter blasted a slap shot from the point with Dany Heatley and defenseman Carlson in front preventing Holtby from ever seeing the shot.
“The penalties, putting it in the stands. We talk about details all the time,” Oates said. “We get two [delay of game penalties] tonight and they score on both.”
Forty-two seconds later, on a traditional power play, the Wild converted on essentially the same play. With Heatley serving as a 6-4, 220 pound visual impediment for Holtby once again, Suter sent a snap shot in from the blue line that found its way through the bodies to give Minnesota its first lead. The Wild had managed to score three goals on five shots, including goals on consecutive shots by Suter.
“We have to do something about it, avoid our mistakes, stay out of the box and make sure we play five-on-five,” said Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom. “I think that we’re fine five-on-five but [the penalties are] tough that’s for sure. We didn’t help Holtsy back there at all.”
The Capitals caught a lucky bounce when a shot off the end boards by Green caromed back out into the Wild netminder into the net to knot the game at 3. But Washington again hurt itself before the period came to a close, as Mikhail Grabovski fired the puck over the glass to put the visitors shorthanded again.
Defenseman Keith Ballard sent the puck on net but it took a deflection and popped up over Holtby, landing in the blue paint and trickling over the goal line with help from winger Jason Zucker, who received credit for the marker that put Minnesota up 4-3.
With more than 14 minutes remaining in regulation, Suter received a minor penalty for tripping. But rather than taking advantage of a power play without Minnesota’s top defenseman off the ice, the Capitals recorded just one shot on goal. And when Suter came out of the penalty box, he would create a two-on-one rush against Green and score a final time to ice the Wild victory.
“We’re going through a lousy stretch right now where we’ve played some good hockey and we’re getting lousy results,” Oates said. “Eleven shots [against] on the road should be good enough. It’s not so we’ve got to figure out another way to play that much better.”