Goalie Craig Billington had not started an NHL game since the spring. He had never played a full game for the Washington Capitals with his new set of teammates. He had done nothing but practice and play preseason games for the past two months.
Sunday night, in his first start with the team, Billington did everything in his power to reverse the futility of the Capitals' West Coast trip. It was not enough. All of his key saves--from the first period until the final minutes--were wasted in a 2-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks. The Capitals return to Washington with just one point from their four-game jaunt, a tie in Phoenix in which they blew a two-goal lead in the third period.
The Capitals (2-6-2) are winless in their last six games (0-5-1), failing to score more than two goals in any of those games. They have been outscored 24-10 in that span and have lost three in a row. Last season, when they failed to reach the playoffs, they did not fall five games below .500 until Dec. 1. Their play improved in the last two games, and they have a chance to turn their luck around with seven of the next eight games at home. But frustration is mounting, and precious points are getting away.
"It felt good to get in there," Billington said. "Unfortunately, we didn't get any points out of it. I thought the effort was really good [Sunday], but we're not there yet. It's disappointing. We were right there with a good opportunity to take it. Even a point would have been nice. We did some good things, but it was a tough road trip. We have to keep working."
Billington stopped 20 shots, many of them from point-blank range. He robbed Stephane Matteau on a clean breakaway from center ice. He stopped Jeff Friesen's blast from the low slot. He went post-to-post to deny Owen Nolan a few feet from the net. He survived a flurry early in the third period. He played like he was in midseason form, though Olaf Kolzig probably will be back in net when Ottawa visits MCI Center on Wednesday.
"Craig's always had the ability to come in from the cold," Coach Ron Wilson said. "He's like the spy who comes in from the cold and gets the job done. We've wasted a couple of real good efforts from our goaltenders on this trip and only came away with a point; that's the disappointing part."
The Capitals played a strong game against the Sharks, but entered the first intermission down a goal on a fluky play. After a routine chip off the boards, Ron Sutter outraced James Black and put in his own rebound.
Washington gradually began to take the game over and dominated the second period--outshooting the Sharks, 15-6. They tied it on a four-minute power play when Steve Konowalchuk knocked in a rebound, one of the few times they have generated much offense around the net. Their reliance on shots from the perimeter is part of the reason they have fallen near the bottom of the league in goals.
"We didn't finish our scoring chances," Wilson said. "We have to find a way to fight through traffic to the net. We really have to be better at that. It's something we're going to harp on until we finally get a goal where we actually drive to the net. We have to find a way to get to the front of the net.
"When you're on the rush and you fire it from the blue line, you're basically telling me you don't want to take the puck wide and go to the net. We've got to find a way of getting inside. If you don't ever get there, you're never going to score."
Wilson also was irked about the defensive coverage on the game-winning goal, when Alexander Korolyuk was free to bang in a pass from behind the goal without being tied up. The Capitals entered the third period tied or leading after two periods in three of the four games on the trip. After outscoring opponents, 5-0, in the third period to start the season, they are now being outscored, 12-8, in that period.
"It's a pretty bad time right now," center Jan Bulis said. "But I see some good things in our future. I think we're going in the right direction."