Even after the Jets began to rally in the second period Friday night, Washington occupied a position of strength. The Capitals entered the third period up 3-2 – they hadn’t lost once all season when beginning the final frame of regulation with a lead.
But that changed when the Jets pushed forward to claim a 4-3 overtime win at Verizon Center, making Washington now 22-0-1 on the season after entering the third period with an advantage.
From the beginning of the third, Winnipeg’s push to remain relevant in the race for the postseason knocked the Capitals back on their heels. To a man after the game, the Capitals said they knew the type of urgency their foes would play with under those circumstances but rather than offer countermeasures to the Winnipeg attack they retreated into a defensive shell.
“You defend but you’ve still got to press the issue at times and still get a forecheck going,” Mike Knuble said. “Give them a lot of credit, they were buzzing they knew they kind of had momentum going there and they could sense it was coming.”
Under Coach Dale Hunter, defense-first has been the Capitals’ mantra. But going the first 16 minutes and 54 seconds of the third period without a shot, surrendering lengthy and exhausting shifts in the defensive zone with regularity is far from a recipe for success.
“They were bringing it. We were backing in too much,” Hunter said. “The D were backing in too much and they were giving them the opportunity to carry the puck more.”
With Winnipeg throwing everything at the Capitals on offense, bringing both defensemen up into the play and searching for any potential offensive spark, it’s understandable that there will be a certain amount of protecting the lead required.
When the scale shifts to clinging to that advantage and simply trying to withstand a push, and much of the period passes by without even a shift of offensive zone pressure in the Capitals’ favor is a dangerous game. Brooks Laich, who saw more ice time in the third period than any other forward (7:57), said there is a balance that Washington wants to find when attempting to protect a lead.
“You want to push back, but there’s times to do it and there’s times to defend,” Laich said. “They had a lot of cycling, a lot of possession in our zone; they had a few shots but most of them from the outside and Michal [Neuvirth’s] going to make those saves. You play the clock a little bit. We’re confident in our defensive game.”
The Capitals didn’t demonstrate composure when faced with the test from Winnipeg, though. Clearing attempts were picked off, turnovers kept them hemmed in their own zone and even though Washington was playing in the second of back-to-back games, tiredness wasn’t an excuse that players wanted to hear.
“It wasn’t a hard travel schedule, it wasn’t too far from Philly to come here,” Jason Chimera said. “We didn’t run out of gas.
“We were just panicking, throwing pucks everywhere,” Chimera added. “We knew they were going to come at us. Their season was on the line. It’s a disappointing end to a good period and a half of hockey that went to waste.”