This past year has been kind to the Washington Capitals, who celebrated the franchise’s first Stanley Cup and then proclaimed their intention to do it all over again in 2019. And while New Year’s Eve is typically a time for reflection, the Capitals’ matinee against the Nashville Predators forced them to focus on the present and the challenge ahead of them if they hope to repeat as champions at the end of this season.
In a matchup of two teams expected to be contenders once again, the Predators beat the Capitals, 6-3, after Washington squandered a two-goal lead in the second period. The loss snapped a four-game winning streak for the Capitals, but with a cushion atop the Metropolitan Division, the Capitals are assured to remain in first place to start the new year. However, the defeat was a reminder that other teams are gunning for the defending champions, and there’s not much separation.
“I don’t think we played our game at all today,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said.
The Capitals took a two-goal lead on Chandler Stephenson’s goal 8:22 into the second period, but then sloppy play started to catch up to them. For a second time in the game, the Predators were able to snatch back momentum with a quick response, Miikka Salomaki scoring just 1:35 after Stephenson to cut Washington’s lead to 3-2. Salomaki and Nick Bonino posted up in front of the Capitals’ net, and Salomaki was able to punch in a rebound to end a personal 26-game goal drought.
The next two goals were scored in similar fashion, with Nashville able to get to the high-danger areas and then capitalize on chances there. Off a won draw, Predators defenseman Roman Josi got a point shot on net, and while goaltender Braden Holtby stopped that, Ryan Johansen scored on the rebound. Then 14:30 into the frame, another rebound into the slot led to a goal-against, with Frederick Gaudreau lifting Nashville to a 4-3 lead and capping a stretch of three unanswered goals in less than five minutes.
“We just kind of got outbattled in front on those three,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “For most of the day, Holts was stopping the first one, so the other extra stuff is on us.”
Defenseman Ryan Ellis made it four straight goals for the Predators when he beat Holtby from the left faceoff circle 10:35 into the third period. Penalties to both Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ovechkin in the last four minutes gave Nashville a two-man advantage, and Viktor Arvidsson scored to send red-clad fans to the exits.
“We’ve obviously won a lot of games in the last 20 here so there’s a few outliers with some games, and I think for the most part for me it was the urgency level of their team and we knew that coming in,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “I really liked our first [period] and we just weren’t able to sustain it for 60 minutes. I think that’s the key for me, to keep that urgency and desperation level for 60 full minutes and we didn’t do that tonight.”
The Predators entered this season considered to be one of the league’s top teams, but a spate of injuries had led to a six-game slide entering Monday’s matinee, so the Capitals expected a hungry opponent. Washington got off to a strong start with the first two goals of the game, but after the second one, Nashville responded just 23 seconds later when Zac Rinaldo’s shot from the goal line was tipped by Rocco Grimaldi.
“The first one, I got caught out of position,” Orpik said.
Monday was Orpik’s first game back after he had missed the past 27 with a right knee injury that required an arthroscopic procedure. With Matt Niskanen still out of the lineup with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury, Orpik was on a third pairing with right-shot Madison Bowey, and he finished with 17:16 of ice time. After two months without game action, Orpik understandably felt rusty at times against the Predators.
“It was just kind of the timing stuff and kind of a couple silly mistakes I wish I didn’t make, but hopefully that’s gone,” he said. “But overall not bad. … As hard as you try to go in practice, it’s tough to simulate that. The speed of the game is always a little bit higher. Obviously, the physicality is a lot higher than practice with your teammates. But eventually you’ve just got to get back into it. My leg felt fine.”
The afternoon concluded with Ovechkin standing at the front of the team’s dressing room, already in a suit ahead of New Year’s Eve plans. This past year was “great,” he said, but a new one is upon him and his teammates.
“We’re going to try to do it again in ’19,” he said.
Read more from The Post: