NASHVILLE — They launched pucks at the net, they put their sticks in the path of those shots, and, thus, they scored goals.
The Nashville Predators repeated that formula over and over in their 6-3 drubbing of the Capitals, perhaps providing a blueprint Washington should consider in its season-long struggle to generate quality scoring chances. As Washington went a whopping 17:43 before recording its first shot, Nashville crowded goaltender Braden Holtby’s crease, tips and deflections in front accounting for three of the Predators’ six goals through 40 minutes. On two other goals, the shot went in cleanly but there was still traffic in front of Holtby.
When the third period started, Holtby was on the bench and backup Philipp Grubauer was in net. After Holtby had allowed six goals on 123 shots over his previous four starts, he allowed six on 25 shots through 40 minutes Tuesday night.
“The toughest type of shots are usually the ones that are unpredictable,” Holtby said.
“Their goals were pretty simple,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It was just winning races back to the front of the net and shots from the perimeter that turn into tipped goals and traffic-type stuff. We have to do a better job of boxing them out and defending them, and then we can take a page out of their book. We should add that to our game.”
Washington was riding a wave of good defensive play entering this matchup, allowing just 16 goals over the previous eight games. That was expected to only improve with Niskanen back in the lineup for the first time in a month after injuring his left thumb in the fifth game of the season.
But the Capitals went into the second period down 2-0. After Calle Jarnkrok was called for hooking 3:44 into the frame, Washington halved the deficit when T.J. Oshie tipped a John Carlson point shot on the power play. On the very next shift, the Capitals’ third line started an extended shift in the offensive zone, holding on to the puck long enough for a full change to the fourth line. With the Predators exhausted, Alex Chiasson tied the game with a slap shot from the slot.
But that was just the beginning of a wacky second period. On the shift right after Chiasson’s goal, Predators forward Filip Forsberg, a Capitals first-round draft pick in 2012, restored a Nashville lead with his 100th career goal.
“We’ve got all of the momentum and we’re all over them after having such a bad first [period], and we then we give up a quick goal,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “That one hurt.”
Less than three minutes later, Kevin Fiala tipped a shot by Mattias Ekholm to put the Predators up by two goals, and though Oshie answered 17 seconds later, Washington wasn’t able to catch Nashville after that fourth goal. The fifth seemed to be especially deflating, a shot from Miikka Salomaki on a rush that Holtby just seemed to miss with his glove. It’s possible the puck ramped up off defenseman Madison Bowey’s stick.
“That fifth goal can’t go in when we’re still in the game,” Holtby said. “I have to look at it because I don’t know how I missed it.”
Said Trotz: “Looking back, after the fifth one, I should’ve yanked him. He’s been so good for us for so long, I kept with the long hook, if you will, and let him get through the period.”
Tuesday night’s game went poorly for the Capitals (10-8-1) from the opening shift, when the Predators immediately had Holtby under siege, forcing Brooks Orpik to take a hooking penalty just 19 seconds into the game as they swarmed the net. From there, Washington seemed to be in a race against the clock, going nearly an entire period without a shot on goal. Nashville reeled off the first 16 shots of the game, drew four penalties and scored two goals before Washington finally recorded its first, a Devante Smith-Pelly wrist shot 36 feet from the net with 2:17 left until first intermission.
“I think guys notice it,” Niskanen said. “You probably don’t have to worry about it after four or five minutes, but you start getting halfway through the period, then you notice it.”
Going back to Sunday’s game against Edmonton, the Capitals had gone 36:25 without a shot on goal, and more concerning is that the shooting woes have been a recurring theme this season. Though the Capitals entered Tuesday night’s game having won six of their previous eight, the team was also averaging the second-fewest shots in the NHL with 28.5. Through 19 games, they have been outshot all but six times.
“We can make plays on the rush and we can cycle and wear a team down, like we did on our second goal tonight, but we need to add a little bit more net jam if we want to consistently score,” Niskanen said, “and make it harder on teams.”