NEW YORK – The Capitals followed one discouraging loss with another, falling 4-1 at Madison Square Garden to the New York Rangers in a game where their bad habits proved too much to overcome. Washington has lost five straight and both Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom know it’s up to them and the rest of the leadership group to get the team out of this funk.
Five thoughts on the loss in New York.
1. Bad penalties. There were a few minutes in the first period after they had fallen behind by a goal where the Capitals controlled the play, where they cycled and generated solid chances against Henrik Lundqvist. All that progress was undone rapidly, though, as ill-timed and unnecessary penalties crept into Washington’s game.
First Martin Erat takes an offensive-zone hooking penalty against Dominic Moore. With rare exception, offensive-zone stick penalties are the avoidable type and this was no exception. Then 23 seconds into that minor Karl Alzner, caught a step behind off a faceoff, hooked Mats Zuccarello and was whistled for hooking as well, forcing the Capitals to kill off 1 minute 37 seconds of a 5-on-3 with less than five minutes remaining in the period.
Those are two penalties by experienced players who know better.
“We’re down 3-0 [and] they didn’t really have to earn it. We took a penalty in their zone for the first one and the hook we got beat off a draw that we won. They got a 5-on-3 that fast and we’re fighting an uphill battle,” Coach Adam Oates said. “They’re mistakes and I know they’re not happy about it but they still end up hurting. We’ve got to figure out a way to not do it.”
Rick Nash scored on the two-man advantage and Derek Stepan added a third goal two seconds after Alzner’s penalty expired. But as the game progressed, the penalties kept coming.
Erat was glaringly guilty as he took both an interference and slashing penalty in the second period, bringing his total for the game to three avoidable minors. The interference, drawn by Ryan McDonagh in front of the Capitals’ net, negated a would-be goal by Mike Green that at least could have helped the team gain more traction overall. Then he speared Brian Boyle in the groin while the big Rangers’ center sat on the ice with the puck underneath him.
“It’s just bad penalties and I have to avoid those. I didn’t see what happened on those, some games it happens and can’t do it, that’s the bottom line,” said Erat, who was asked specifically about what happened on the interference call. “I don’t know if we’re playing hockey or soccer here, you can’t touch anymore anybody. I don’t know.”
Erat, who asked to be traded back on Nov. 25, isn’t helping raise his value with a showing like that in which he was unable to adapt to how tightly the officials were calling the game, costing his team dearly.
2. Rough trip for Orlov. The young defenseman has made significant strides in his game over the past several weeks as the Capitals have relied on him to play top-four minutes alongside Mike Green but this three-game road trip offered a reminder that Dmitry Orlov still has plenty to learn.
Let’s start with the New York game. It was Orlov’s pass intended for Nicklas Backstrom that Nash picked off high in the Washington zone and then swooped in on a breakaway for a backhander and a 1-0 Rangers lead just 70 seconds into the contest. In the second period, Orlov was stride for stride with Ryan Callahan as he headed toward the net on a shorthanded rush but then failed to tie up the stick of the Rangers’ captain, allowing him to score on a rebound.
“I feel bad because Orly’s been playing bad hockey and it’s a bad turnover [on the first goal],” Oates said. On the fourth “lost his man, yeah. I think he relaxed when he got in front of him and Callahan kept working.”
In the 5-1 loss at Columbus, Orlov was one of many caught without their focus for both the second and third goals against. He didn’t tie up Cam Atkinson in front when a scrambled ensued, leading to the second, and didn’t notice when Ryan Johansen snuck in on a rush behind him as the late trailer on the play for the third. Back in Pittsburgh, Jussi Jokinen got positioning on the 22-year-old in front of the net and then knocked a shot off Orlov’s stick and into the net to tie the game in the third period.
While it’s been a bad trip for the entire team, Oates acknowledged that it’s been a rough road trip for Orlov in particular.
“Which is a shame because he’s played good hockey. You’ve gotta remind yourself he’s a kid and we’re putting him in a situation where we’re asking him to play a lot of minutes,” Oates said. “It’s very difficult and he’s playing good. And it just goes to show you one mistake and it’s in your cage. It’s a tough lesson to learn that fast.”
3. In search of offense. The Capitals have been held to one goal in four out of the five games on this losing streak. That the power play is 1 for 13 in this span as the offense has dried up is no coincidence, either.
Since the season started it was clear the Capitals would need consistent scoring at even strength but haven’t gotten it. Forty-nine games through the season, they’ve relied on the power play for 30.6 percent of their goals and when the man-advantage dries up, they can’t count on getting production elsewhere. Given the defensive inconsistencies, counting on holding a team to one or no goals isn’t exactly a viable option either.
They’ve been outscored 15-7 over these five games with Alex Ovechkin accounting for three of the team’s goals. In addition to needing offense at even strength, the Capitals could use more offensive output from everyone not currently leading the league in goals as well.
4. Goalie roulette. For the second time in as many games Philipp Grubauer was pulled in the first period. He allowed three goals on eight shots in New York, bringing his two game total to six goals allowed on 22 shots. Oates didn’t fault him in Columbus, where the goals were clearly the result of disastrous defensive play, and didn’t blame him exclusively against the Rangers either.
“Obviously first shot’s a breakaway, second shot’s a 5-on-3 and then the third goal I’m sure he wants back but at that time he’s still a kid too. I’m sure he’s not happy but we put him in a situation that’s very difficult and we’re down,” Oates said. “Do you want a save? Sure, but I can’t fault the goalie for the first shot being a breakaway.”
While Oates didn’t criticize Grubauer, the goalie himself admitted he should have had Nash’s second goal regardless whether it came on a two-man advantage.
“The second one, I know it was 5-on-3,” Grubauer said, “But for me it was a bad goal from the side, five-hole.”
Braden Holtby stopped 17 of the 18 shots he faced in relief, bringing his two game total from the bullpen to three goals allowed on 40 shots. He’s now had two solid appearances and even though they came in ugly losses, perhaps this has helped rebuild Holtby’s confidence a bit. For as well as Grubauer has played, I’ve long thought that the Capitals would need to lean on Holtby again at some point if even as a tandem with the rookie. It’s now anyone’s guess who will start on Tuesday against Ottawa.
5. Twenty-two. That’s how many times the Capitals have given up a goal within two minutes of scoring one themselves this season after Callahan scored 1:26 after Ovechkin did. For as much as Washington does it, the phenomenon is still as deflating and demoralizing each time it happens. Precious little else (a bad penalty perhaps?) can extinguish their momentum so thoroughly but seeing as the trend has gone on this long, there’s no reason to think it won’t continue.