DETROIT – Michal Neuvirth recorded a stellar 42-save performance but neither his efforts or a late-tying goal by Alex Ovechkin would be enough to propel the Capitals to a win at Joe Louis Arena. The Red Wings claimed a 4-3 shootout win Friday night in the first of consecutive games between these two teams, which will meet again on Sunday at Verizon Center.
Five thoughts on the Capitals’ loss in Detroit.
1. Chimera on the power play. When the Capitals received their first man-advantage late in the first period there was a change to the top power play unit. Jason Chimera was serving as the low man around the net, rather than Marcus Johansson. Coach Adam Oates said that based on tendencies of the Detroit penalty kill and some observations the coaching staff made of their own power play efforts, the Capitals wanted a different look with more size in front of the net.
The switch paid off. Before they went out on the power play Chimera and Nicklas Backstrom had discussed the former trying to find a way to get open by going around the net to the far side. So when Backstrom held the puck along the half wall, freezing every Red Wings penalty killer on the ice, Chimera went behind the goal line over to the far side post and waited. Backstrom sent a perfect pass through the legs of Niklas Kronwall to the veteran winger, who only had to chip the puck into the open net.
“I just kind of snuck around and it was a world class pass, right on my tape,” Chimera said. “You can’t ask for a better pass. It is one of those plays that you can talk about but sometimes it doesn’t work. This one worked.”
As the power play runs into road blocks, something that is bound to happen no matter how efficient the unit can be, it’s alterations like that one that will be necessary. It didn’t change the set up of the power play but with a personnel tweak the Capitals had another big body in front and even before the goal that helped in to creating more havoc around the crease. Now the interesting thing will be whether they opt to keep Chimera on that power play unit Sunday when the Red Wings visit.
2. Injuries. The Capitals have been a fairly healthy team this season, but over the past eight days that has taken a turn. First Mikhail Grabovski injures his left ankle in New Jersey on Jan. 24 – the veteran center skated this week while the team was on the road but it’s uncertain when he might be able to return. Then in Columbus Thursday, Mike Green was knocked out of the contest by a hit from Boone Jenner and it is unknown when he may be back in the lineup given that he is undergoing concussion protocol testing. In Detroit, Brooks Laich skated only two shifts for a total of 57 seconds as the coaching staff decided to shut him down when he began experiencing tightness.
These injuries cause a blow to the Capitals at two areas where they aren’t exactly teeming with depth. Green is one of the team’s top three defensemen, without him in the mix Washington will lean more on John Carlson and Karl Alzner while upping the responsibility of younger, less experienced blueliners like Dmitry Orlov and Connor Carrick who skated 20:41 and 19:08, respectively, in Detroit.
Without Grabovski and Laich, the options at center become increasingly limited especially when considering Washington’s salary cap restraints. If Laich misses much time, the Capitals could try to make do perhaps shuffling Marcus Johansson to center or putting Eric Fehr or Martin Erat back in the middle or they would likely need to recall a forward from Hershey. Any addition at this point would require they make more room under the salary cap whether by placing someone on long-term injured reserve or another roster move.
3. Penalties. In the past two games the Capitals managed to thwart a combined 12 power plays for the Blue Jackets and Red Wings. That’s a significant and taxing workload for those who play big minutes on the kill – Carlson played 6:24 shorthanded in Detroit, John Erskine 5:16 and Troy Brouwer 5:06 — and a trend that prevented Washington from establishing itself at even strength in those games.
“We played better obviously but again we shot ourselves in the foot with penalties,” Chimera said. “We came out in the first period, first five minutes we were kind of all over them played one of the best starts we had in a long time. Getting the penalties kind of ruins the momentum.”
4. Wellman. Playing in just his fifth NHL game this season, his fourth consecutive after being called up after Grabovski was injured, Casey Wellman came up big for the Capitals in the third period at Joe Louis Arena. The 26-year-old California native scored the kind of hard-work, hustle goal that the Capitals haven’t received enough of this season by driving the net for a shot on Jimmy Howard and then following up in pursuit of that rebound in front. As the Red Wings stalled in their own zone, he was able to get two more chances in front. On the last one he finally beat Howard to pull the Capitals even at 2-2 with 8:09 gone in the third.
Granted, Gustav Nyquist gave the Red Wings the lead back just 2:04 later because such is the way of the Capitals this season. But good to see Wellman be rewarded for going to the net and for stepping up when Washington needed him to. Wellman, who is a top six forward in Hershey with 12 goals and 23 points in 37 AHL games this season, has now matched the most NHL goals he’s ever scored in a season with two. He posted two goals and five assists back in the 2011-12 campaign over 14 games with the Wild.
5. Shootouts. After winning eight of the first 11 games that went to a shootout this season, the Capitals’ have now lost in each of their last four trips to the tiebreak. They also haven’t recorded a single shootout goal since Dec. 15 at Philadelphia (s/t Larry Duvall), which is also the last time the Caps won in a shootout. While the Capitals certainly need points any way they can get them – shootout or not – perhaps this lack of success in the tiebreak is all the more reason for them to find ways to win games in regulation or overtime.