PHILADELPHIA — Late in the third period here Wednesday night, Mathieu Perreault tried to dangle his way through the neutral zone despite the nearby presence of three bright orange jerseys. Flyers grinder Harry Zolnierczyk lowered his shoulder into Perreault, who had his head down focused on his stick-work, and sent the forward flying.
While other members of the Washington Capitals immediately confronted Philadelphia players about the hit, Coach Adam Oates absolved the opponent of any wrongdoing. It was simply the type of misguided play that the first-year bench boss saw far too much of in a listless outing by the Capitals, who fell, 4-1, in Philadelphia.
“I don’t think it was dirty at all. I think it’s a product of our whole game, quite honestly,” Oates said. “Thirty seconds left, the game is over and Matty thought he could stick-handle through the team. It’s not what we do — all of us tonight, you know, guys are sitting there waiting for you, and you get hit.”
From the outset, Washington was a step behind the Flyers. Whether beaten to loose pucks or chasing their opponents, they struggled even to find the oomph required to clear the puck out of the defensive zone consistently.
The Capitals looked every bit the part of an exhausted team playing the second of back-to-back nights, allowing two goals in the first 4 minutes 4 seconds and having little response to that sudden deficit. Starting goaltender Braden Holtby was chased from the net in the second period after allowing four goals on 18 shots. It was exactly the type of flat outing that Washington (7-11-1) can’t afford if it is to maintain hope of moving up from the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
“We didn’t play good at all. Just got outworked. It definitely seemed like we played the night before, mentally and physically just weren’t going,” said defenseman Karl Alzner, who was on the ice for three of the Flyers’ goals. “It looked like at least mentally, in my opinion, we weren’t executing on the plays that we have been in the past few games and that wasn’t a good effort by us.”
Oates originally wanted to start Michal Neuvirth against the Flyers to give Holtby, 23, a break after starting each of the previous seven contests. But when Neuvirth fell ill and the Capitals made an emergency recall summoning top prospect Philipp Grubauer to serve as backup, Oates turned to Holtby once more.
It was tough to blame the first three goals on Holtby, who was moving across the crease trying to block shots from unguarded Flyers or facing bouncing rebound chances. But when a long-range slap shot by Max Talbot blasted under his left arm 14 minutes and 55 seconds into the second period to make it 4-0 Flyers, Holtby was hooked.
“I think he did the right thing. Obviously, four goals down, you want a spark, and that’s a goal I can’t give up on the fourth one,” Holtby said. “You have to expect that to come. Obviously you never want to leave a game; I’d love to finish every game. But at that point, you’re looking for a spark.”
Grubauer, 21, finished with 14 saves in his NHL debut, a perfect relief outing, but by that point the damage was done. Regardless of the goaltender in their net, the Capitals never broke out of their slumber to even remotely threaten Philadelphia’s lead.
It took a grand total of 23 seconds for the Flyers to begin building their advantage, marking the first time in nine outings that Washington failed to score first.
Against the Capitals’ top defensive pairing of Mike Green and Alzner, Scott Hartnell chipped the puck out in front from behind the goal line. The puck bounced off Alzner’s skate and directly to the left side of the crease where Claude Giroux had an open net to shoot at.
Wayne Simmonds scored on a rebound chance on the power play less than four minutes later to make it 2-0 on Philadelphia’s fifth shot of the game.
“When you give up the first goal on the first shift, that’s disappointing. I don’t know,” said Joel Ward, who scored the Capitals only goal of the game with 17:51 gone in the third. “You just have to have the will to get in there and make things happen, and it’s just a disappointing start that we got off to.”
The Capitals couldn’t create anything to even attempt a rally. They continued to ice the puck and in the second period, with the long change because their bench is on the opposite side from the defensive zone, they were routinely hemmed in below the blue line. Clearing the zone suddenly resembled a herculean task as the Flyers batted down weak attempts and derailed disjointed breakout plays with ease.
Simon Gagne scored on the power play for a 3-0 Flyers advantage 3:54 into the second period. Talbot was only a few feet across the blue line when he teed up his booming slap shot that found its way past Holtby for the 4-0 advantage.
“You just have to stick to the plan,” said Alex Ovechkin, who finished with six shots on goal but was a minus-1. “But maybe tired. Maybe we just don’t have that kind of jump like we have couple games. It happen. We have to forget it and just move forward.”