By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 10, 2005
The building buzzed with excitement and the opponent ranked among the league's premier teams. It was, in other words, just the type of atmosphere that's brought out the best in Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
And for more than two periods last night, the Russian rookie and his teammates gave the Western Conference-leading Detroit Red Wings all they could handle. But their hard work and grit weren't enough in the third period. Detroit dynamo Pavel Datsyuk netted the go-ahead goal early and defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom scored on the power play late to seal the visitors' 4-3 victory in front of an announced sellout crowd.
"You have to take some positives from this," Capitals left wing Matt Pettinger said. "Five on five, we've kept pace with the Western Conference's top teams, Detroit and Nashville, the past two games. That's a positive. We've improved vastly from two months ago."
Ovechkin scored a power-play goal, Pettinger delivered a short-handed one and goaltender Olie Kolzig made 26 saves for the Capitals, who lost for the seventh time in eight games. Detroit, meantime, got a pair of power-play goals from Henrik Zetterberg, a timely one from Datsyuk and 27 saves from Chris Osgood to earn their second straight win and fourth in six contests.
Special teams were expected to play a major role in determining the outcome, and that's exactly how things unfolded. Detroit's league-leading power play unit was 3 for 6, two nights after Nashville enjoyed the same success rate in its victory over the Capitals, whose penalty kill is ranked 27th. Washington's 29th-ranked power play didn't fare much better. For the third time in four games, it came up empty on a lengthy five-on-three advantage, a failure that allowed the Red Wings to keep its one-goal edge midway through the final period. It finished 1 for 7.
"We had a great chance to score five on three," Ovechkin said. "I shoot it and I miss it. We must score. We need better shots. If you shoot, you must score."
The game was tied at 2 entering the third period. But it didn't stay that way for long after a defensive lapse allowed Datsyuk to dance into the offensive zone and deliver the decisive tally. He picked up the puck at the blueline, skated in front of the Capitals goal unchallenged, luring Kolzig out of position, then fired a low wrist shot past the sprawled goalie to put the Red Wings ahead, 3-2, at 4 minutes 1 second. Lidstrom's goal at 17:07 put the game out of reach. Capitals defenseman Jamie Heward netted a long slap shot with .3 of a second remaining.
"We expect in due time to win these hockey games," Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said. "I've got nothing bad to say about our guys."
Last night's game marked the end of a challenging homestand that brought three of the NHL's best teams to MCI Center. The Capitals, who have been at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings nearly the entire season, held their own, handily defeating the Atlantic Division New York Rangers, threatening the Nashville Predators on Wednesday and putting a scare into the Red Wings.
"Their team was excited and they played hard," Detroit Coach Mike Babcock said. "People get excited when we're in their building."
The announced crowd of 18,277 was the largest crowd at MCI Center for a Capitals' game this season. And early on, the home team fed off the energy, even if the majority of fans wore Detroit jerseys.
About five minutes into the contest, Ovechkin extended his goal streak to three games. Ovechkin controlled a rebound in the slot and unleashed a laser beam of a shot over Osgood's glove hand, giving the Capitals a 1-0 lead. It was Ovechkin's rookie-leading 18th goal of the season and eighth on the power play.
But Zetterberg and the Red Wings' power play came right back. He took a pass between the faceoff circles, turned Capitals' defenseman Steve Eminger inside out, then whipped the puck over Kolzig's blocker at 18:06 of the opening period to tie it at 1. Pettinger's second-period goal was his seventh of the season (second short-handed) and gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead about three minutes into the period. It also equaled his previous career high for goals. But the Capitals couldn't hold that lead, either. Zetterberg scored on a five-on-three power play goal less than two minutes later to make it 2-all.