It had been a night of applause and reminiscing. Capital One Arena boomed for one touching tribute video and then another as the organization honored veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik and then former coach Barry Trotz, now with the New York Islanders. But all the images of both men celebrating a Stanley Cup championship just last year couldn’t make up for another disappointing loss. The night ended with only the Islanders fans in attendance cheering.
The Capitals were shut out for just the second time this season, 2-0. Their losing streak was extended to four, their longest in nearly two years, and the result allowed Trotz’s Islanders to leapfrog the Capitals into first place in the Metropolitan Division. And while Washington players understand what has been going wrong during these losses, the why is harder to pinpoint.
“We need to be better,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s right from top of our list to the bottom of our list. We need more. We need more from our players.”
The Islanders entered undefeated in the second game of back-to-back sets, and after they beat the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night, they lulled the Capitals into a defensive slog through two periods. New York forward Josh Bailey broke a scoreless tie 5:08 into the third period, redirecting a shot in front. And then at the 7:34 mark, Islanders winger Cal Clutterbuck beat defenseman Michal Kempny up ice for a two-on-none rush.
Washington had just 16 shots at that juncture, and the team finished with 19 for the game. The Capitals have scored just one five-on-five goal in the past four games.
“Nineteen shots for a team of our caliber is not where it needs to be,” Reirden said.
“We’re not feeling it right now,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “When we’re playing our best offensively, we’re skating, we play fast, we move the puck, we zip it around, we get lots of chances and we’ve got guys that can finish. But right now, it’s not going well. We’re not feeling it, so I think we need to simplify a little bit. We need a little bit more meat and potatoes around their net; we need a better forecheck. Overall, we need a little bit more workmanlike attitude because right now we’re not feeling it.”
Friday night’s game promised to be emotional for both benches. There was the pregame ceremony for Orpik, who skated in his 1,000th game this week. And then at the first stoppage in play, the Capitals showed a tribute video for Trotz, in his first game back at Capital One Arena since he guided the team to its first Stanley Cup. He smiled as he looked up at the video board, the crowd giving him a standing ovation all the while. He admitted before the game that he might get teary, and as soon as the video ended, he saluted the Capitals’ bench and the scores of fans applauding him.
The rest of the frame on the ice was even, not surprising considering the teams play nearly identical systems. The Capitals didn’t change much from last season, and Trotz brought that same structure to the Islanders, sparking a remarkable turnaround in just half a season. New York had a sub-.500 record last year, finishing out of the playoffs, but the Islanders entered this matchup just one point in back of the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division, arguably the biggest surprise of the season after superstar center John Tavares left the team in free agency. They’re averaging 2.52 goals against per game, ranked first in the NHL, compared with a league-worst 3.57 last season.
While New York has been on a roll, winning 14 of its past 17, Washington is in a midseason funk. Along with losing seven of their past 10, the Capitals just look a little off, from their forecheck to their breakouts to their passes, perhaps the long playoff run catching up to them, an excuse players refuse to acknowledge.
“We’re making it tough on ourselves,” Orpik said. “We’re playing against teams that are trapping, and we’re just trying to force pucks through the middle the whole time. You look at how they’re playing against us: They’re getting it behind us, and a lot of offense is coming from point shots and just outbattling us in front. But we’re not even getting opportunities to do that because we’re trying to go through too many guys in the neutral zone.
“It should’ve been easy for us tonight; we know how Barry coaches, and that’s kind of his calling card, clogging up the neutral zone and clogging up the middle. For whatever reason, we didn’t want to accept that.”
That the game was scoreless entering the third period was an encouraging sign for goaltender Braden Holtby, who had been dealing with an eye injury for the past week. The last time he was in net, Columbus Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson inadvertently wedged the blade of his stick through Holtby’s mask, clipping him in the left eye. Holtby left the ice in apparent distress, and while he dressed for the next two games and served in a backup role, his vision hadn’t recovered enough for him to play.
On Friday morning, he said it was “back to normal,” and while Washington’s defense kept New York from challenging him too much, Holtby nonetheless looked sharp through 40 minutes. Islanders forward Brock Nelson had a breakaway with 10 seconds left in the second period, and Holtby smoothly dropped into a butterfly to stop the shot with his pads. That was his 20th save of the night, and fans chanted his name after it, the final moment in the game the home fans had something to cheer about.
“Obviously we’re not where we want to be right now, but it’s not far off,” Holtby said. “We know what we have to do to be successful. I think tonight will help us because we played a team that is playing the right style of hockey and the way we want to play and the way we have played in the past to have a lot of success. Mix that style with the amount of skill we have, and that’s the reason why we’re so good when we can be.”