By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Under Coach Bruce Boudreau, the Washington Capitals have forged a reputation for rebounding from bad loses with big wins. Last night, though, they slipped deeper into their funk.
The power play was sloppy. The effort level remained low. Toss in some soft goals yielded by surprise starter Michal Neuvirth and the result was a 5-2 defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes, an ugly setback that left Boudreau contemplating changes to the lineup and calling out his players for celebrating after a late goal in a lopsided loss.
"There are a lot of individuals making a lot of mistakes," Boudreau said. "And short of sitting them out -- I don't know if we're at the stage yet -- it's bringing them in, showing them, talking to them in front of the [other] players. When you try to do it individually, good things don't happen. Teams win games. Teams win championships. Individuals don't."
Boudreau praised Alexander Semin for scoring a highlight-quality goal and setting up the other. But the coach wasn't impressed with the Capitals' other "best players," he said. Boudreau didn't name names, but it was clear that he was referring to Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. The trio combined for eight giveaways and a plus-minus rating of minus-7.
Washington surrendered the game's first five goals before the contest was 40 minutes old. Two of the Hurricanes' tallies were scored short-handed and two came off the stick of Patrick Eaves, who had three goals in his previous 57 games this season, and for the second consecutive game, fans headed home from Verizon Center early after showering the Capitals with boos. Washington had allowed six short-handed goals all season.
"They just outworked us," forward Brooks Laich said. "I don't care what you say about talent and everything, this game is about heart. The team that works the hardest is usually the team that's going to win. Tonight, they wanted it more and that's not easy to sit here and say."
The Capitals, who have now lost two straight in regulation for the first time since a three-game losing streak from Jan. 9 to 13, were dealt a pair of blows before the game even started.
Starting goaltender José Theodore came down with the flu, Boudreau said, after the morning skate, forcing him to turn to Neuvirth. Then during warmups, top defenseman Tom Poti was pulled after aggravating the groin muscle injury that has dogged him all season. Poti was replaced in the lineup by John Erskine.
While it's tough to say what effect losing Poti had on the Capitals' performance, it seemed Neuvirth was caught unprepared. The 20-year-old rookie won his previous two NHL starts, but wound up yielding five goals on 30 shots. He finished with 25 saves and was outplayed by Cam Ward, who stopped 39 shots, though few came from in close and really challenged him.
"I know poor Michal didn't know he was playing until tonight," Boudreau said. "I don't know if that had any bearing on his ineffectiveness."
Boudreau also wondered whether today's trade deadline and the rumors floating around the Capitals disrupted the team's focus. Maybe the passing of the deadline "will put some ease to some of the guys who been hearing rumors [about Islanders captain Bill Guerin] and whatever rumors they've been hearing," he said.
The lack of focus was obvious early. Semin misfired on an empty net after taking a deft pass through the slot from Ovechkin less than a minute into the game. The Capitals tested Ward 10 more times in the opening 20 minutes, but they went into the first intermission trailing 1-0 because of defensive breakdown.
Eric Staal sneaked behind the pairing of Green and Shaone Morrisonn, who hauled down Staal before he crashed into Neuvirth. Staal was awarded a penalty shot, which he converted by snapping a wrist shot over Neuvirth's glove a few strides from the harsh marks with 35 seconds remaining in the period.
Matt Cullen extended the Hurricanes' edge to 2-0, scoring short-handed on a misplay by Ovechkin and an outstanding play by Cullen. Ovechkin pinched from the point in an attempt to keep the puck in the zone, but Cullen chipped it around the reigning MVP, raced into the Capitals' zone and beat Neuvirth at 3 minutes 52 seconds of the second.
Washington was awarded another power play a few minutes later. But instead of getting back into the game, Eaves scored another short-handed goal to grow the lead to 3-0 and the Capitals never recovered.
Semin scored a pretty goal from his knees late in the second period and Sergei Fedorov tallied in the final minutes to provide the final margin. After Fedorov scored, he threw his arms up in the air, then fell over while hugging Ovechkin and Morrisonn.
"I was really disgusted when we scored our second goal and we were all excited about it," Boudreau said. "I turned to [assistant coach] Dean [Evason] and said, 'What are we doing?' We just made it 5-2 and we're jumping on each other like we won an overtime game. It was pretty embarrassing. If I was on the Carolina bench, I would have been going, 'Look at these idiots.' "
Capitals Notes: Two streaks were snapped: the record run of sellouts ended at 11 games, and for the first time in 16 games, the Capitals failed to score in the first period. The attendance was announced as 17,903. . . . Veteran center Michael Nylander was a healthy scratch for the fourth consecutive game.