Less than a minute after the Washington Capitals took their second one-goal lead Thursday night, they started to unravel. First, Joel Ward made a trip to the penalty box for delay of game. Then, with only 26 seconds remaining on Ward’s minor, John Erskine went off for interference giving the Carolina Hurricanes a critical five-on-three.
The blast from former Capital Alexander Semin that ensued on the two-man advantage only tied the contest, but it offered a sign of how the opportunistic Hurricanes would leave Verizon Center with a 3-2 win.
The Capitals sabotaged their own momentum with three penalties in the final six minutes and never seemed to fully recover. A defensive gaffe with 6 minutes 59 seconds gone in the third led to the game-winner from Nathan Gerbe. The loss dropped Washington to 1-3-0 .
“The penalties hurt us. It was pretty evident we came out strong we played a good first period, did exactly what we wanted to do and then we kind of fell short when we started taking the penalties,” Mike Green said. “Seemed like we lost the wind in our sail and it was tough battling back.”
Washington had the type of start it wanted, rolling through four lines that could sustain possession with players driving the opposing net to consistently create offensive opportunities.
An aggressive forecheck by Jason Chimera put the Capitals ahead 1-0 at the 5:33 mark of the first. The resident speedster chased down the long rebound created from a shot by Eric Fehr, beating rookie Hurricanes defenseman Ryan Murphy to the puck, turned and threw a shot back on net. The puck slipped through the legs of Carolina goaltender Anton Khudobin, who finished with 30 saves.
Though the Capitals carried a lead out of the opening frame for the first time this season, they couldn’t build on the advantage. Washington was able to gain the offensive blue line at will and create the time in the zone time the team lacked in its first three outings, but the Capitals weren’t putting any pucks on net. The Capitals recorded only two shots on goal in the first 13 minutes of the middle frame when they needed more to show for their efforts.
“It’s kind of a waste of energy. You go in there and it seems like you spend a whole shift in there and you don’t get nothing out of it,” Chimera said. “You’ve got to create some energy, create some good chances and stuff. You’ve got to get something out of it, that’s for sure. You can’t spend that much time in the zone and not get nothing out of it.”
Before they mustered another, rookie Elias Lindholm evened the score at 1 with his first career NHL goal. Lindholm, 18, fired a shot that deflected off of John Carlson and past the glove of Braden Holtby (33 saves) at the 12:58 mark.
Fifty-four seconds after Lindholm’s tally, the Capitals took the lead back when Alex Ovechkin posted his fifth goal of the season. It was something of an atypical tally for Ovechkin as he tipped a point shot by Steve Oleksy while in heavy traffic in the slot to send a bouncing puck past Khudobin. But then the penalties began, providing the setting for Semin’s one-timer from the top of the left circle that Holtby didn’t even see to make it 2-2 at 16:14.
The score itself might not have been terribly concerning. But spending 4:26 of the final six minutes of the second period on the penalty kill taxed the Capitals’ defensemen and kept offensive personnel— like Ovechkin — out of the equation. Defenseman Karl Alzner also suggested the Capitals didn’t have an ideal reaction to Semin’s goal.
“We need to get better at building. We’ve went through this before where a goal against would get us down pretty good and we didn’t seem to rally too good around goals for, so hopefully it changes pretty quick. You don’t like to see 1-3, that’s not good for us.”
In the third period, what should have been a routine play for Carlson turned into an adventure. The puck bounced when he went to retrieve it in the left corner of the Capitals’ zone, allowing veteran Carolina winger Radek Dvorak to gain possession and allow his teammates to set up. Justin Faulk received the puck in the high slot and fired a shot that created a rebound out in front. As Carlson, Erskine and Tom Wilson converged on the puck, Jordan Staal snuck into the group and swiped to put the puck back on net creating a scramble in front.
Amid the chaos, no one picked up Gerbe. When the puck made its way over toward the right post the diminutive forward managed to push the puck past Holtby’s right leg for a 3-2 Hurricanes lead and what proved to be the decisive tally.
With the Capitals searching for more to build off of, Coach Adam Oates remains optimistic in spite of their sputtering start.
“I don’t think it’s time to push the panic button yet,” Oates said. “I think we could be 4-0 and we could be 0-4. Calgary’s probably our worst game out of the four but we figured out a way to win it. You want to just keep playing correct and sooner or later it will start turning and it will go your way.”