CHICAGO — For the first time this season, the doors to the Washington Capitals’ dressing room stayed shut for just a little longer after the game, the players inside asking for more time to talk through their issues following their fifth straight loss. A team meeting such as this one probably would have happened earlier any other year, but with the Capitals still basking in their franchise-first Stanley Cup win last season, maybe the depths of this losing streak didn’t feel so low until Sunday afternoon.
“We’ve been leaning back on the fact that, you know, what we went through last year or whatever,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “It’s time to really move on. We realize if we want to do this again, it’s going to take more hard work than last year.”
With Sunday’s 8-5 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, who entered the game with the worst record in the NHL, Washington is on its first five-game skid in nearly five years. Coach Todd Reirden has shuffled his lineup every which way after each of these defeats, to no avail; the Capitals' play has remained sloppy. Players took responsibility once the dressing room opened, and while Holtby rejected the notion that the team might be fatigued from last year’s long playoff run, he said it’s time to move on mentally.
“Our biggest battle is going to be making sure we’re not complacent,” Holtby said. “It’s one of those things that’s going to be hard, getting over the fact that last year is last year. You move on. We have to figure out a way to be the best we can be this year, because every year the game gets harder. We’re going to need more than last year to have the success we want. Obviously, things aren’t going well right now, but if we use it to our advantage, then maybe it’s a good wake-up call to make sure we’re pushing in the right direction to improve our team, to make us better in the long run.”
Holtby took ownership of the Blackhawks’ first goal, when Brandon Saad easily maneuvered around defenseman Madison Bowey for a shot from the slot at point-blank range 6:36 into the first period. Holtby was screened on Chicago’s next goal, from Patrick Kane 80 seconds later. Fitting for an 11:30 a.m. puck drop, the Capitals had come out sleepy, lacking the urgency they should have felt after losing their previous four games.
“I think we’re expecting things to come a little easier for us, and they’re not,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “Things are coming pretty hard right now.”
Perhaps no moment better illustrated the Capitals’ funk than what happened next. Washington entered Sunday with just one five-on-five goal in its previous four games, and some much-needed even-strength offense finally came from a surprising source. Defenseman Brooks Orpik, who entered the game with 17 goals in his 16-season career, beat Blackhawks goaltender Collin Delia with a clean shot from the left faceoff circle at 14:25.
It seemed like the sort of development that could energize the Capitals, but any momentum disappeared after a devastating bounce. Twenty-eight seconds after Orpik’s goal, Washington defenseman Dmitry Orlov was standing in front of Holtby, and in an effort to bat down the puck after it had bounced up in the air, he swatted it into the net, restoring Chicago’s lead to two. Jonathan Toews was credited with the goal, and the Blackhawks took a 3-1 edge into the first intermission. Alex DeBrincat scored 2:30 into the second period, a tally that prompted Reirden to pull Holtby for backup Pheonix Copley.
“We’re making mistakes that are leading to greater scoring chances,” Oshie said. “A lot of times before, we’d make mistakes and then guys would respond and cover for guys and, if anything, it could maybe be a shot on net. But now we’re making mistakes and that’s multiplied by another mistake, and all of a sudden guys are getting breakaways and that’s just not the way we play.”
From there, the Capitals twice managed to slice the Blackhawks’ lead to one, but each time they allowed Chicago to restore its cushion shortly after. Orlov scored late in the second period. In the third, a John Carlson one-timer at 3:09 had Washington within 4-3, but then center Nicklas Backstrom was called for hooking 23 seconds later. Kane scored his second goal of the game just 13 seconds into the power play, putting the Blackhawks up 5-3.
After another Toews tally, goals from Carlson (at 10:38) and Matt Niskanen (at 13:55) brought the Capitals back within one — and meant that all five of their goals had been scored by defensemen. But it took the Blackhawks just 62 seconds to halt that comeback bid. Toews stickhandled around Orlov to lift Chicago to a 7-5 lead with his third goal, prompting hats to hit the ice in celebration. Dylan Strome’s empty-netter gave the Blackhawks eight goals, the most Washington has allowed this season.
“The execution just isn’t there,” Carlson said. “It’s not like we changed everything up and don’t know what we’re doing or are adapting. It’s all on us really. However you want to look at it — what phase of our game is not clicking the most right now is subjective — but there’s enough areas that some nights we clean up one thing and then we get worse at a couple others. We can’t seem to find that consistent balance.”
The Capitals started talking about repeating just days after they won the Stanley Cup in June, and all the while, they’ve acknowledged how difficult that would be. Sunday was another reminder — and perhaps the first time the Capitals could feel their bid starting to slip.
“It’s a tough time right now,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We just have to get over it and get a win and move forward. It doesn’t matter how we play, where we play; we just need to get a win. It’s just mental for us.”
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