Even when the Washington Capitals were hobbling along, unable to score goals and rolling over for opponents, they could count on two things: Their penalty-killers would shut down the opposition, and backup goalie Craig Billington would keep them in games. Neither could be counted upon tonight.
Billington was benched midway through the game, the penalty-killers struggled mightily and the Edmonton Oilers had little trouble wrapping up two points, taking an easy 6-2 victory at Skyreach Centre. The Capitals (12-15-5) fell to 5-11-1 on the road and yielded at least five goals for the second straight game.
"We made positional mistakes," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "A couple of guys aren't playing the system, and it really caught up to us tonight."
Billington entered the game having stopped 139 of 149 shots he faced as a starter, but he struggled tonight, yielding five goals on 13 shots. The Capitals' penalty-killers--who were nearly flawless for two months, pulling from last in the NHL to third-best--allowed three goals on four chances. They were merely part of a team collapse.
The Oilers (11-15-9) scored first and never trailed. Winger Chad Kilger attacked from the right wing, slashed through the slot and slapped a shot flush off the post. Offensive defenseman Tom Poti knocked the rebound into the net 3 minutes 17 seconds into the game.
The Oilers added to the lead on the power play. Hefty winger Bill Guerin planted himself in the crease, and Sergei Gonchar failed to move him. Guerin deflected Poti's shot into the net; Gonchar looked up in frustration, realizing his gaffe. The lead was 2-0 less than eight minutes into the game.
Edmonton went back on the power play a few shifts later. But before the Oilers could set up, James Black--who had 100 friends and family members in attendance--broke up the play along the boards and found improving rookie Jeff Halpern for a clean breakaway from center ice. The Potomac native never wavered, using his speed to stun former Capital Bill Ranford, capping the play with a backhanded flick with about five minutes left in the period.
The Oilers were still on the man advantage, however, and the lead expanded to 3-1 just 85 seconds after Halpern's goal. Mike Eagles blocked Roman Hamrlik's blast, but the puck shot right to Janne Niinimaa, who fed Jim Dowd cross-ice for a one-timer. A team that once went 25 straight games without allowing more than one power-play goal in a game gave up two in consecutive contests. A chance to seize momentum had slipped away.
"Tough night," Capitals defenseman Ken Klee said. "They got three power-play goals and that was the game."
Ranford did not return for the second period after being struck on the foot by a slap shot from Klee. Tommy Salo replaced him and the Capitals made the first shot count. Defenseman Calle Johansson crossed the blue line and sent the puck to goal. Chris Simon redirected it past Salo about five minutes into the second period, continuing his stellar play since joining center Adam Oates on the top line. He has goals in three straight games (matching his high with Washington) and seven on the season.
"This is the best I've ever seen Si play," Oates said.
But, as they did so often in Saturday's loss to New Jersey, the Capitals quickly surrendered another goal. Guerin's one-timer beat Billington to the near post 39 seconds later. The lead was now 4-2. With two seconds remaining on Mike Eagles's holding penalty, Ryan Smyth dove to the net, poking the puck between Billington's legs. The penalty-killers allowed three goals for the second time this season; Billington was pulled for the game and Olaf Kolzig entered. The game was already out of reach.
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Brendan Witt left the game in the first period with a rib strain and is listed as day-to-day. . . . Simon left the game after a fight with Sean Brown late in the second period because of what Wilson called a sprained neck, aggravating an earlier injury. Wilson said Witt and Simon are 50-50 for Wednesday's game at Vancouver. The Capitals have recalled defenseman Nolan Baumgartner from Portland. . . .
Forwards Peter Bondra (knee) and Jan Bulis (groin) did not play. Bulis said he expects to play Wednesday. . . . Oates played his 999th game. . . . Washington went 0-5 on the power play and blew a two-man advantage. . . . They lost 8-2 in Edmonton last season. The Capitals are 6-25-4 against the Western Conference in last two seasons.