NEWARK — A day after Coach Adam Oates described his team as “fragile,” the Washington Capitals finally found the ability to fight back. Instead of waiting for things to go their way, they forced circumstances to bend in their favor, but ultimately the result was the same.
Mike Ribeiro and Mike Green scored in the final 7 minutes 15 seconds of regulation to tie the game and force overtime against the New Jersey Devils on Friday night, but the Capitals couldn’t complete the rally. Ilya Kovalchuk scored with 20.5 seconds remaining in the extra session to hand Washington a 3-2 loss, dropping the visitors to 0-3-1.
As long as they remain in search of their first victory it’s hard for the Capitals to take solace in anything short of a two-point win, but to turn around on the second night of back-to-back games and erase questions about work ethic and motivation is at least something.
“We hung in there,” said Oates, who returned to the city where he worked for the previous two years as a Devils assistant coach. “We we did our job; everybody worked for 60 minutes and we played a much, much better hockey game.
“I thought the guys did a better job of protecting the puck and getting it out, making the next decision even as we put the puck in their end. . . . [The team] stayed together and throughout the whole game. We got behind and we didn’t crumble today.”
The Capitals likely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to mount any sort of comeback if it weren’t for goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who finished with 32 saves in his second game in as many nights.
New Jersey took a 1-0 lead at 13:55 of the first period when Jacob Josefson caught the Capitals flat-footed late on a power play. Josefson raced up ice with Tomas Kundratek, who was playing in his eighth career NHL game and was the lone defenseman back as forward Troy Brouwer caught up to the play. The Devils center dished the puck to Stephen Gionta for an easy one-timer that went between Neuvirth’s legs as he went across the crease.
From that point on, Neuvirth bailed his teammates out. Over six minutes in the second period he stopped Josefson on a breakaway with a blocker save and robbed Marek Zidlicky on the power play with the flash of his glove. Then, when David Clarkson bullied his way past John Erskine, the 24-year-old Czech put his paddle down to prevent the stuff attempt.
“It wasn’t easy game, you know. I didn’t have a lot of work in the first period,” Neuvirth said. “The only good scoring chance they had they scored, but I battled hard and after I made a couple of big saves I settled down and played my game.”
There was nothing Neuvirth could do when Patrik Elias scored on a two-man advantage – Nicklas Backstrom and Jay Beagle were both in the box for tripping — in the second to give the Devils a bit of a cushion at 2-0 with one minute remaining in the second.
The compounding penalties against New Jersey marked the third time in four games that the Capitals faced a five-on-three situation. They’ve allowed a goal each time and it’s a bad habit Washington can’t afford to keep indulging. But even after falling behind two goals, Washington’s message during the second intermission was simple: Stay the course.
“Staying with the game plan and not panicking even though we were down,” forward Joel Ward said. “Eventually you’ve got to wear and tear teams down. I thought we got some pucks in, did a little bit of cycling — and as we got some chances we started to see some light a little bit.”
Offensive persistence paid off 12:45 into the third period when Ribeiro recorded his first goal in a Capitals sweater on a pretty passing play during a five-on-three power play. Green started the relay from his spot along the blue line when he sent the puck to Ward on the right side of the crease, who teed up Ribeiro for the one-timer.
Washington continued to press and with just less than three minutes remaining in regulation, Green blasted a shot through traffic that beat Martin Brodeur (26 saves) to tie the game at 2. While it didn’t end with a victory, the Capitals became the final team in the NHL to obtain any standings points and gave themselves something to build off of.
“We’ve been a pretty weak minded team the last few games,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Tonight was the first night we showed a little bit of resilience and actually battled. . . . Everyone was just so mad at the way we were playing and the results that we’re not getting. No one’s happy about that, so guys were battling as hard as they possibly could.”