The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Capitals can’t overcome another slow start, fall at home to Blues

Capitals center Aliaksei Protas collides with St. Louis defenseman Nick Leddy, center, as Blues center Robert Thomas (18) works for the puck. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Alex Ovechkin eyed an opportunity to give the Washington Capitals an early lead against the St. Louis Blues when a pass drifted into his wheelhouse. Ovechkin raised his stick and teed off. Except he whiffed — the puck skidding off the nose of his stick blade. The Blues quickly countered with a rush and scored on their first shot, less than two minutes into the contest.

It was the third consecutive game that the Capitals had given up a goal on the first shot they faced, but none of those previous performances turned as ugly as Friday’s 5-2 loss at Capital One Arena. With the Capitals’ margin for error already razor thin, the Blues didn’t just cash in on their opponents’ bad bounces — they also capitalized on careless mistakes as Washington missed a crucial opportunity to climb back into the Eastern Conference wild-card race. The Capitals remained five points off the second wild-card spot, and inside a somber locker room afterward, some veterans didn’t mince words on the state of the team’s playoff hopes with 12 games remaining.

“We have no wiggle room,” winger Conor Sheary said.

“It’s do or die,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.

“It’s a little bit frustrating,” defenseman Martin Fehervary said, and that frustration Friday night included an inability to establish control of the neutral zone, allowing St. Louis to burn the Capitals on the flanks with long, precise passing, and a difficulty dealing with the Blues’ heavy defensive corps. That limited Washington on the offensive end, especially costly on a night when the Capitals had 17 giveaways, including 14 in the first 40 minutes.

“There were a couple of bad ones tonight,” Washington Coach Peter Laviolette said. “The game is about details. You have to be sharp with your details, and we just weren’t.”

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After Blues forward Sammy Blais scored following Ovechkin’s whiff early in the first period, the floodgates opened in the second. Jordan Kyrou scored on a breakaway to make it 2-0 after receiving a long feed in the neutral zone from former Capitals winger Jakub Vrana. Kasperi Kapanen extended the lead after taking a stretch pass from Pavel Buchnevich and beating Capitals goaltender Darcy Kuemper with a wrister. And by the time Blais scored again at 14:36 — his shot briefly confused many in the arena after the puck got caught behind Kuemper’s water bottle in the net — St. Louis owned a 4-0 lead.

“We made really big mental mistakes on the goals,” Laviolette said. “The ones that we gave up, they’re breakaways or partial breakaways, odd-man rushes, things that can’t happen. There’s things we’re supposed to do, and we didn’t. It led to events that … made a lot of noise.”

That noise drowned out the optimism the Capitals had following Wednesday’s comeback shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres. The Capitals’ first goal of the night was created by two of their defensemen — Alexander Alexeyev found Fehervary on a backdoor cut at 5:47 of the third period. Backstrom added another on a power play in the final three minutes, beating Blues goaltender Joel Hofer (32 saves).

“It’s too hard in this league to just chase every game. That’s not doable,” said Backstrom, who noted that Friday night followed a similar script as other recent performances: after being outplayed in the first 40 minutes, the Capitals again turned it on too late and were forced to eat another disappointing result in a season full of them.

Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ loss:

Jensen out with injury

Defenseman Nick Jensen was a scratch with an undisclosed injury suffered in Wednesday’s win over Buffalo. Jensen, who had already missed three games this month because of an upper-body injury, took part in the morning skate Friday but was considered a game-time decision. He was replaced in the lineup by 26-year-old Gabriel Carlsson, who was called up from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., this month.

Mantha scratched

Forward Anthony Mantha was a healthy scratch after Laviolette opted to sit him for the second half of the third period in the win over Buffalo. Mantha, who went 19 games without a goal before scoring in a win over the New York Islanders last week, was replaced in the lineup by 22-year-old Aliaksei Protas, who has now appeared in three consecutive games.

Vrana returns

Vrana returned to Washington for the second time in a month Friday night. In February, the Capitals welcomed him back as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, who dealt him to St. Louis before the trade deadline. Vrana wore a protective mask after taking a skate blade to the face and receiving stitches during a practice Wednesday.