By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009
NEWARK -- With Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble sidelined, the Washington Capitals needed a near-perfect performance Saturday night to beat the red-hot New Jersey Devils.
The effort, however, was far from textbook.
They scored the game's first two goals less than a minute apart early in the first period. But the disciplined Devils exploited the Capitals' penchant for penalties and turnovers and a sub-par showing from goaltender José Theodore to rip off five consecutive goals in a thorough 5-2 victory at Prudential Center.
"We needed to play a real sound defensive game with almost no turnovers, and we weren't able to do that," defenseman Brian Pothier said. They had a lot of three-on-twos tonight. Their whole game plan is they wait [for mistakes] and then pounce on it. This was a big test for us as a group."
The loss was the Capitals' first in five games but third to the Devils in three games this season. Martin Brodeur and the Devils, meantime, extended their winning streak to eight in a row and pulled even with the Capitals atop the Eastern Conference with 28 points.
While Washington struggled in a number of areas before an announced crowd of 16,521, Coach Bruce Boudreau singled out two -- Theodore's problems in net and Alexander Semin's turnover on the Devils' second goal.
Theodore yielded five goals on the first 18 shots he faced (he faced 23 in all). Going back to Wednesday's game against the New York Islanders, in which he was pulled before seven-minute mark, he allowed eight goals on 23 shots.
"He just has to stop the puck," Boudreau said. "The power-play goal was a clear shot by [Jamie] Langenbrunner, no screen. [Zach] Parise's was a breakaway, but he made it look pretty easy. The next one was short side over the blocker from outside the dot. Those things, José has to stop."
Theodore agreed, saying: "You need to make some big saves, and tonight, pretty much, all the good chances they had they scored. It wasn't all bad goals, but I have to find a way to make saves. I'm really not happy with the way I've been playing the last couple of games. I have to get back to being really focused, that extra edge that I had."
Boudreau said he has not lost confidence in Theodore.
"His history has been that he'll play a whole bunch of good games, then a couple of bad games, then will turn it around because he's mentally strong," he said.
Theodore certainly has had better games, but there was plenty of fault to spread around in this one, particularly during a defensively sloppy second period in which the Devils seized control.
Langenbrunner scored on the power play at 5 minutes 44 seconds, blasting a one-timer over Theodore's glove to even the score at 2. Later, Semin made a poor pass in the offensive zone that was picked off by Travis Zajac and resulted in Parise's goal.
"I don't know," Boudreau said when asked what Semin was attempting to do. "But it's not the way we play. You can only tell certain people so many times."
New Jersey kept the lead the rest of the way. And with less than a minute remaining in the second period, Matt Halischuk finished off the Capitals with his first NHL goal. The rookie winger converted a three-on-two with a blast over Theodore's blocker to send the game into the third period with the Devils leading, 4-2.
When Cory Murphy scored at 3:15 of the third period on a long shot that hit something, the Capitals found themselves down by three goals for the first time all season.
Something else that worked against the Capitals was their lack of power-play opportunities. Tomas Fleischmann scored his seventh goal in eight games early in the first period, but they didn't get another man advantage for the rest of the game, which in effect eliminated one of their most effective weapons on a night when they already were without Ovechkin (strain near his left shoulder) and Knuble, who underwent surgery on his broken finger on Saturday.
The Capitals know they'll be without Knuble for three to four weeks. But they're hoping to get Ovechkin back in time for Tuesday's game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
If there was one bright spot Saturday, it was the continued contribution of rookie Mathieu Perreault, who scored his second goal since being called up from the minor leagues six games ago. It was also his fifth point in his first NHL stint.
His goal should have been a springboard for the Capitals.
"The first period, we were really, really good," Boudreau said. "We did exactly what we wanted to do, then we quit doing it."
Capitals notes: Boyd Gordon's return from a month-long layoff with a recurring back injury did not last long. The checking line center left the game in the second period. . . .
Defenseman Milan Jurcina missed his second straight game with a lower-body injury Boudreau has described as a muscle pull. . . .
Defenseman John Erskine was a healthy scratch and was replaced in the lineup by Jeff Schultz as Boudreau continues to rotate players on the blue line.