NEWARK — If there was doubt that the Capitals would be fully functioning after five days away from the ice, a third-period rally Thursday night against New Jersey temporarily buried it.
Washington trailed by two before forcing overtime, but the comeback fell short just 34 seconds into the extra period when Devils forward Taylor Hall shook loose and beat Braden Holtby to hand the Capitals a 4-3 loss at Prudential Center. The Capitals' 19 shots on goal tied their third-lowest total of the season, they did not score on five power plays, and the Devils' three breakaway goals proved too much to overcome.
The Capitals got two goals from Brett Connolly, including the game-tying score late in the third, but had to settle for the one point overtime provided. The loss slims the Capitals' Metropolitan Division lead over the second-place Devils to four points.
"It wasn't an ideal situation," said Holtby, pointing to the time off that led into the game. "We got a point. We scored some goals, scored three. I think at the end of the game, I need to find a way to make a couple saves."
Holtby, while taking a share of the blame, added that it's tough for a goalie to find a rhythm after almost a week away from the ice. But the rust was widespread from puck drop to final horn.
The Capitals' break, a lifetime for guys who practically live on ice from September to the spring, included the NHL-mandated bye week plus a missed day of practice after weather delayed their Wednesday travel. Such layoffs have not been kind to the Capitals the past two seasons: Last year they dropped back-to-back games after their bye week, and this year they have been generally lethargic with three or more days of rest.
With that in mind, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz turned Thursday's morning skate into a practice of sorts. The players skated extra to wake their legs and lungs and even scrimmaged for a few minutes before returning to the team hotel. Yet in a lot of ways, the trend seeped into another game.
In the first, a flubbed pass by Dmitry Orlov led to a breakaway goal for Drew Stafford. The score came eight minutes in, and the Capitals put just five shots on goal in the period. But one of them found the net as Connolly buried a deflection from T.J. Oshie on the weak side.
That continued a searing stretch for the Capitals' third line of Connolly, center Lars Eller and Oshie. Since they were united four games ago, they have scored five goals and given up none at even strength. That was largely because of a four-game goal streak for Eller, which ended Thursday, but the line's recent success could help solidify the team's bottom-six forwards in the coming weeks.
With Andre Burakovsky a healthy scratch against the Devils, Trotz said there is a lot of competition for time on the third and fourth lines. Trotz added that he expects Burakovsky to rejoin the lineup against the visiting Montreal Canadiens on Friday. Connolly and fourth-line winger Alex Chiasson have cycled in and out of the lineup, but Connolly gave Trotz another reason to avoid breaking his current line up for the time being.
"The thing with [Connolly] is that he has so much more detail in his game now than he did a couple years ago," Trotz said. "You want to see the evolution of a player, keep growing and evolving. He's doing that. He's earning ice time."
Yet the Capitals still struggled to generate scoring chances as the game moved into the second. Twice in that period, the Capitals went a full power play without registering a shot on goal. That allowed defenseman Andy Greene and forward Miles Wood, on a breakaway, to give the Devils a two-goal lead. But it lasted just 14 seconds before the Capitals' first even-strength chance of the period rocketed off Orlov's stick and into the net. Orlov's slap-shot goal was his sixth of the season and balanced the Capitals after a slow start to the second.
That balance escaped the Capitals until Connolly knotted the score with 3:48 left in the third period. That goal, Connolly's 12th of the season, came off a pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov and was not with Connolly's third-line mates. It resurrected the Capitals, nonetheless, until Hall found himself on the Devils' third breakaway of the night at the start of three-on-three overtime.
This one, like the others, ended with a goal. Unlike the others, the Capitals had no chance to answer it.
"We came out with a point from here," Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. "We'll take that, and then we'll move on tomorrow. New game tomorrow. Just have to move on."
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