Playing at home is supposed to be the thing that the Washington Capitals could fall back on as they attempt to reach the playoffs. On Friday night, though, all of the bad habits that have haunted them on the road came to roost at Verizon Center.
The New Jersey Devils put a 5-0 drubbing on the Capitals, another gut punch in a year marred by frequent flat performances and inconsistencies. With the significance of each game magnified, the players were at a loss to explain how they deflated so quickly and fought back so little.
“You hope that we play a lot better at this time of year and the race that we’re in,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said. “I don’t know.”
Washington (32-27-5), which sits in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 69 points, entered this contest excited about the possibility of moving up the standings over the weekend. The opportunity seemed ripe with the Capitals coming off a three-game winning streak and with three games in hand over Winnipeg, the team they trailed by just one point for the eighth and final playoff spot. But games in hand only matter when they result in a victory.
Instead, the Capitals were left with a loss that had players questioning their collective resolve, critiquing their ability to play with pride, and further evidence of the team’s deficiencies at this late stage of the season.
“After the third goal, we just seemed like a deflated team,” forward Jeff Halpern said. “It’s a complete knock on the guys in the room. All of us, myself included, for having absolutely no response.”
For the opening 10 minutes, things went well enough. Washington created chances but couldn’t finish despite odd-man rushes and clean looks as shots went wide or were turned away easily by Devils backup netminder Johan Hedberg (23 saves).
But after Matt Hendricks went to the penalty box for high-sticking 11 minutes 5 seconds into the first period, the Devils needed all of 24 seconds to make it 1-0. With his back to the net in the slot, David Clarkson sent a backhand pass below the goal line to Zach Parise, who scored on a sharp-angled wrist shot. It was the result of a series of stunning displays of skill and the only New Jersey goal that wasn’t the result of a Capitals turnover or miscue.
Parise scored again at 17:50 of the first when a shot by Ilya Kovalchuk trickled between Michal Neuvirth’s pads, allowing the New Jersey captain to poke it over the goal line for a 2-0 edge. Neuvirth finished with 15 saves in a rough outing.
Twenty nine seconds later it was 3-0 Devils after a failed clearing attempt by Alexander Semin led to a rush the other way for Dainius Zubrus. Neuvirth stopped the initial shot but was helpless to prevent Zubrus from backhanding his own rebound into the open cage as he fell. Zubrus somersaulted in celebration as New Jersey (36-23-5) took a commanding lead into the intermission.
“We went back to our old habits, trying to do too much at the lines, trying to get a little individual and everyone wants to be the hero,” Capitals forward Troy Brouwer said. “We have to make sure that we’re doing the right things and playing the right way.”
The start of the second offered little change as another miscue resulted in a puck in the Washington net. Bryce Salvador won a battle against Brouwer to chip the puck back to the Capitals’ blue line. Mike Green tried to step up and retrieve the puck before the Devils did, but Parise tipped it past him. With Green out of position, New Jersey had a two-on-one rush where rookie Adam Henrique set up Parise for a shot that beat Neuvirth high on his glove side.
With just 3:08 gone in the second period, Parise had recorded a hat trick and the Devils held a 4-0 lead after taking only 10 shots on goal.
Frustration was visible in hard checks, but that started to dissipate though the mistakes continued. A power play just more than 15 minutes into the period offered the Capitals a chance to perhaps climb back in the contest, or at least offer something to build upon. Instead, it provided another dagger.
Zubrus poke-checked Brooks Laich to create another two-on-one for the Devils. He passed left to right to Patrik Elias, who tipped a shot past Neuvirth to make it 5-0 and add to New Jersey’s league lead in short-handed goals (14).
From there the Capitals appeared to accept their fate. The team’s play in the third period was “lacking,” according to Brouwer, and spoke to a “lack of pride,” Halpern said.
“I don’t think we worked very hard in the third period,” Brouwer said. “I thought we packed it in. We looked like a real timid, beaten-down hockey team. We have to make sure there’s no quit in us ever ’cause nobody is ever out of a game.”