The night NHL hockey returned to downtown Washington should have transformed Verizon Center into a cauldron of emotion fueled by fans eager to watch their team for the first time in more than eight months.
But the arena on the corner of 7th and F streets NW was numb Tuesday night.
The crowd arrived late and irritated after waiting in long, frigid lines to enter the building because of problems with a new digital ticketing system. And on the ice the Washington Capitals gave them little to be even remotely enthused about.
The Capitals fell, 4-2, to the Winnipeg Jets, who scored as many goals (two) in the first period as they had in their previous two games combined. The defeat marked Washington’s first 0-2 start to a season since 1996-97 and its first loss in a home opener since 2000.
The Capitals are fighting themselves more than any specific opponent. They had six days with a new coach and new system before playing meaningful games in this lockout-abbreviated season, but they don’t have time for excuses.
“It is a new system, it’s going to be hard and we’ve got to fight through that,” Coach Adam Oates said. “Still, I thought we could have had better execution. I thought we didn’t give ourselves the opportunity to play the team game.”
Washington started off well enough, dominating the pace of the contest and spending quality time in the offensive zone. Reward for the hustle came 10 minutes 2 seconds into the first when Matt Hendricks finished off a pretty passing display from Alex Ovechkin to Nicklas Backstrom to the crease with a deflection past Winnipeg netminder Ondrej Pavelec (32 saves) to make it 1-0.
Then the penalties began to creep into the Capitals’ game. With Joel Ward off for tripping, Evander Kane was unchallenged by John Carlson along the goal line and fired a bad-angle shot toward the goal. The puck deflected off Carlson’s skate to make it 1-1 less than three minutes after Washington’s initial tally.
“I think when we started to get a little too fancy that’s when you see the turnovers going back against us,” said Hendricks, who in addition to being the only Capitals player with a plus-rating, was arguably its most consistent player on the ice. “And that’s when you start to see the penalties, the hooking, the holdings, trippings, things like that and bang-bang, they’re up 2-1 with two power-play goals.”
Two minutes after Kane’s goal, Carlson fired the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty. With just eight seconds remaining in the man advantage, Jets captain Andrew Ladd scored from the high slot to make it 2-1 with less than four minutes left in the period.
Ladd’s goal was one that Braden Holtby, who stopped 35 shots against the Jets and has given up 10 goals in the first two games of the season, admitted he wanted to have back.
“Whenever you let in 10 goals in two games, obviously it’s not good, but at the same time, I feel fine,” Holtby said. “When you break down the goals, they’re not trends or overly bad goals, other than the second one tonight, I felt. . . . I’m trying to get adapted to everything, and I want to keep improving and getting better and learning from these two games.”
It’s tough to fault the goaltender on the multitude of breakdowns that continue to happen in Washington’s own end, though. In the second period, the Capitals continued to cough the puck up in the neutral zone, lack communication and could hardly escape their zone as Winnipeg fired 20 shots on net and added goals from Blake Wheeler and Jim Slater.
The Capitals emerged for the third with more urgency, but with a three-goal lead Winnipeg was comfortable taking a defensive stance. In the final two minutes, Mike Ribeiro sent Troy Brouwer a pass from behind the goal line for the winger to fire a one-timer from the slot past Pavelec to make it 4-2. There was little to celebrate, not just because the game was already lost but because there continues to be plenty to correct.
“We need to start making sure that we’re playing some defense. We’re giving up too many looks, taking too many penalties,” Brouwer said. “For us right now, there are a lot of intangibles that we have to work through as far as new coach, new system things like that but like I said, the grace period is over. We have to be playing good hockey now, and whether it’s our effort needs to be better, or our details need to be better we need to pick it up.”