The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Irate after blind-side hit fells Evgeny Kuznetsov, Caps falter vs. Wild

Wild 5, Capitals 3

Wild forward Ryan Hartman drives to the net against Capitals goaltender Charlie Lindgren in the first period Sunday. (Stacy Bengs/AP)
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The lasting image of the Washington Capitals’ 5-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild arrived early in the third period Sunday, when center Evgeny Kuznetsov remained facedown after a blind-side hit. As a trainer skidded out toward him, he had to avoid all the sticks and gloves splayed across the ice. A melee had broken out, with Capitals forward T.J. Oshie in the middle of it, throwing his fists into the body of Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, who had delivered the check on Kuznetsov.

At the benches, Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette screamed at an official, demanding an explanation for why no penalty was called for the hit — and why, as Kuznetsov limped to the dressing room, it was the Wild that would be going on a power play after Oshie was penalized for instigating. Then came another cruel twist: Minnesota scored just seconds after its man advantage ended to grab a three-goal lead and punt Washington’s slim playoffs hopes further into the ether.

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“A player is vulnerable like that and takes a pop at his head — I don’t like the hit,” Laviolette said in his postgame remarks, which lasted all of 55 seconds. There was not much else to say. For the fifth straight game, his team surrendered a goal in the first six minutes — two, in fact, as forward Matt Boldy got an early start on his way to a hat trick — and two power-play goals by captain Alex Ovechkin were not enough for the Capitals to climb out of yet another hole.

“It’s frustrating,” center Dylan Strome said. “Obviously our starts aren’t great. I’m not sure the exact reason.”

For the first time in four games, the Capitals did not allow the first shot on goal to enter the net. Nor did they allow the second shot to go in. But when the puck again bounced off goaltender Charlie Lindgren’s pad, nobody in front of him cleared it, and Boldy cleaned it up for a goal just 50 seconds in.

For weeks, the Capitals’ players and coaches had answered questions about their penchant for ugly starts, about how their game might be liberated a bit if they could just get past the first few minutes without a deficit. But here they were again, surrendering their quickest goal of the season to Boldy, then watching him add another less than four minutes later.

There were issues that Washington could point to: As they wait for top defenseman John Carlson to return from a frightening head injury, the Capitals were again without blue-liner Nick Jensen because of an upper-body injury, leaving the back end with just one right-handed defenseman and forcing Laviolette to move Gabriel Carlsson from the left side to the right. To make matters worse, the Capitals also played without top goalie Darcy Kuemper, who suffered an upper-body injury early in practice Saturday.

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Minnesota still looked more ready once the puck dropped. Laviolette described the start of the game in three words: “It wasn’t good.”

Ovechkin, who was not cleared to play until a few hours before the game because of a lingering lower-body injury, woke up his team in the second period. He delivered a series of hits and unleashed a barrage of shots, including a one-timer that beat Wild goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to make it 2-1 at 5:34. But the Capitals again had to play from two goals behind after Ryan Reaves redirected a Ryan Hartman shot through Lindgren at 10:14.

“We tried to battle back,” Ovechkin said.

The Capitals’ breaking point came in the third period after Kuznetsov went down and Minnesota’s Brandon Duhaime made it 4-1 at 3:46. The period dragged with scrums after whistles. The enforcers — Washington’s Tom Wilson and Minnesota’s Reaves — jawed back and forth and appeared on the cusp of dropping the gloves.

Ovechkin again pulled his team within two goals with another power-play snipe at 12:33, but a little more than a minute later, Boldy completed his hat trick on a breakaway. Washington never stopped grinding until the final horn, getting a goal from Strome, and it was only fitting that the game ended with the Capitals’ veterans venting their frustration following a late whistle. In the final seconds, Nicklas Backstrom and Dumba grappled, Wilson locked horns with a couple of Wild players, and Ovechkin skated over to defend his teammates.

They eventually returned to a quiet dressing room. Everyone looked exhausted. Laviolette was still fuming. Kuznetsov wore a wrap around his right shoulder. Strome packed his gear and took stock of another slow start — and the few chances the Capitals have left with 11 games remaining this season.

“We got to have a better start next game,” he said. “Time is quickly running out.”

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

Nos. 818 and 819

With his two goals pushing his career total to 819, Ovechkin inched closer to Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894. Ovechkin, who added an assist, has a point in all 12 games he has played at the Wild’s Xcel Energy Center. He also pushed his goal total against Fleury to 27, the most against any goalie Ovechkin has faced.

Kuemper, Jensen sit

Kuemper, who had started nine of the previous 10 games, left practice early Saturday with an upper-body injury and was unavailable against the Wild. Washington called up Zach Fucale from Hershey of the American Hockey League to serve as Lindgren’s backup.

Jensen missed his second consecutive game with an upper-body injury.