CALGARY — Coach Adam Oates admitted the Calgary Flames caught the Capitals off guard with their speed, hustle and ability to score goals in a hurry when the two teams met in the first week of the season. Yet that didn’t prevent the Capitals from allowing the same thing to happen again Saturday night.
Washington dug itself a large deficit early on and saw its starting goaltender chased before the first period expired in eerily similar fashion to what played out Oct. 3. Unlike that previous contest, though, there would be no successful rally to help gloss over the deficiencies.
Mike Cammalleri scored two goals, including the game-winner, as the Flames handed the Capitals a 5-2 loss at the Saddledome. The defeat snapped Washington’s winning streak at three games as it was unable to overcome a general lack of execution this time.
“Bad start. We was not ready for it. They jump in right away, score on first shift they have momentum and we just make mistakes in our zone,” said Alex Ovechkin, who was held without a point against Calgary for the first time in eight appearances against the Flames. “If you compare to last game [in Edmonton] and this game it was two different teams. We don’t make the right decision with the puck, maybe was tired. We can’t play like that.”
The Capitals originally planned to start Michal Neuvirth in Calgary but decided instead for Braden Holtby, who had been solid in five consecutive starts heading into Saturday’s tilt while helping the team go 4-1 in that span. But not even a strong goaltender can make up for the absence of defense in front of him.
Holtby was pulled just 12 minutes 48 seconds into the first period after Calgary recorded three goals on 14 shots. The blame for those tallies didn’t rest with him but rather the Capitals’ malaise in their own end.
“That’s Adam’s call. That’s what I respect. I’d love to finish every game that I play but at the same time I think we haven’t been addressing our starts as a group because we’ve been masking them with winning a few games and tonight cost us,” Holtby said. “We’re going to have to realize it as a group to do something before the game and make sure we’re prepared because the majority of the games we’re losing is because of the first period.”
A failed clearing attempt led to a cross-ice pass that hopped past John Carlson’s stick and sett up a point shot by Flames defenseman Kris Russell. He fired just as Joe Colborne screened Holtby, and the puck found its way through for a 1-0 Calgary lead just 64 seconds in.
The immediate deficit didn’t spark Washington, which gave up quality chances in front on the next several shifts to Sven Baertschi and David Jones. Holtby weathered those plays but faced long odds given the frequency at which they occurred.
Jiri Hudler found such an opportunity when he cut behind Capitals defensemen Mike Green and Nate Schmidt and drove into the crease in what was the start of a rough night for that pairing, which was on the ice for three Calgary goals. Rookie Sean Monahan bounced the puck through the slot, and when it finally landed, Hudler already was in position to swat it home. With only 7:24 gone in the first, Calgary held a 2-0 lead and an 11-2 advantage in shots.
For a moment, it appeared as if the Capitals might have found a way to end their latest sluggish start in relatively quick fashion when Mikhail Grabovski fed Jason Chimera in front and the veteran winger made it 2-1 with a nifty backhander past Karri Ramo (27 saves) at 12:02. But it was merely a mirage.
Forty-eight seconds after Chimera’s goal, the Flames worked the puck around the offensive zone, and Cammalleri redirected a shot by Dennis Wideman to make it 3-1.
That goal marked the end of the night for Holtby, who barked his displeasure at the Capitals’ bench as he stepped off the ice. It is the second time this season Holtby has been yanked from a start — and the second time against the Flames; he was pulled Oct. 3 after allowing three goals on 11 shots.
“We started lousy, we got one to make it 2-1 and then the third one and just looking for something,” Oates said. “It started from the very first whistle tonight, Holts gets the puck and makes an uncharacteristic play by him and they hem us in right off the hop.”
The switch gave Neuvirth (17 saves) his third appearance of the year and first since Oct. 12 against Colorado. It also served as an alarm clock for the Capitals. Gradually, Washington began making the defensive plays — picking off passes, marking on-coming skaters and clearing the zone — that were absent at the outset.
Washington took a step forward on the scoreboard in the second period. In the midst of a change, Aaron Volpatti was on the ice with Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer. Green picked off a clearing attempt to keep the play alive in the offensive zone and then sent a pass over to Schmidt, who sent a shot on net with bodies in front. The rebound popped straight to the slot, where Volpatti put it back through Ramo’s legs to make it 3-2 with 7:45 elapsed in the second. It was Volpatti’s first goal since Jan. 25, when he was a member of the Vancouver Canucks.
But the Capitals never truly threatened a comeback. Calgary added two more goals, Cammalleri’s second and another by Curtis Glencross, in the third period to ensure there wouldn’t be one this time around.
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