Faithful home fans waited and waited for something to happen, and when it did, it was a game-clinching goal from Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho, sending some to the exits early. The greater exodus came less than four minutes later, when Carolina’s Brock McGinn added an empty-net tally.
The Capitals had acknowledged that there had been flaws in their play during their five-game winning streak, which came to an end with a 4-1 Hurricanes win on Friday night, a contest in which Washington was simply outplayed from start to finish.
“We had another gear or two that we didn’t show today,” center Lars Eller said.
“We still didn’t play a horrible hockey game tonight,” said goaltender Braden Holtby, who finished with 26 saves. “It’s just the way things go sometimes. Things have been going our way lately — we’ve been playing better and better, and I don’t think this is a step back at all. I think we just move forward.”
The good news for the Capitals is that they can afford a hiccup such as Friday’s and perhaps learn from it with the playoffs less than two weeks away. Though Washington didn’t play Thursday night, it clinched a postseason berth thanks to a Pittsburgh Penguins win as well as a Florida Panthers loss. With just four games left, the Capitals still want to win the Metropolitan Division for a third straight year, something the team is poised to do with a five-point lead over Pittsburgh even after Friday’s loss.
“I’m not happy right now, but in the big picture, I’m not too worried,” Eller said.
Washington is using these final games for some last-minute experimentation before the playoffs. The Capitals are carrying two extra forwards, and Coach Barry Trotz has said he plans to recall Travis Boyd next week, once the team has slightly more salary-cap room. With the top two lines seemingly set, Washington has six forwards, not including Boyd, competing for four spots on the wing. Trotz was impressed with rookie Shane Gersich, signed just a week ago, when he made his NHL debut Wednesday night, but Trotz made him a healthy scratch against the Hurricanes in the interest of continuing to rotate his third- and fourth-line wingers to see what mix works best.
“I want to make really informed decisions based on guys who are going now and what might be a good combination,” Trotz said before the game. “In some ways, guys are fighting for those spots to make sure that they’re in the starting lineup [for the playoffs]. A guy like [Alex] Chiasson is out today. I mean, he came in [last game] and made a statement. Even the young guy, Gersich, came in and made a statement. So I want to see what the response is from some other guys as well.”
Forward combinations aren’t the only thing to be decided in this final stretch. Trotz denied he has a “goalie controversy,” but ever since Holtby had a poor February, the Capitals have adopted a goaltending rotation between him and Philipp Grubauer. Grubauer was scratched Wednesday after he “tweaked something” in Monday’s game, but he was back on the bench against Carolina as Holtby’s backup. This was Holtby’s second straight start; he had a 35-save outing in a 3-2 overtime win against the Rangers two nights earlier.
Holtby got some support when defenseman Michal Kempny scored his first goal in a Washington uniform 2:35 into the second period. Kempny’s shot from the point got through and beat Carolina’s Scott Darling clean, a tally Darling should have saved. Since Kempny was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks before the trade deadline a month ago, he has played in 18 straight games, averaging 16:27 per game while playing in the Capitals’ second pairing with John Carlson. With Kempny in the lineup, Washington has averaged fewer than 30 shots-against per game, a significant improvement from the start of the season.
But the Hurricanes peppered Holtby with 25 shots through just two periods. Just 40 seconds after Kempny’s goal, center Derek Ryan punched in a rebound to tie the game. Then 11:43 into the period, after the Capitals repeatedly failed to get the puck out of their own end, defenseman Justin Faulk maneuvered around Washington’s Chandler Stephenson at the blue line, skated up to Holtby and beat him with a wrist shot for a 2-1 Hurricanes lead at second intermission.
“We still have a goal in mind, and tonight shouldn’t affect it in a negative way at all,” Holtby said. “If anything, it’s positive that there are some areas we can still learn from and go forward.”