WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The Washington Capitals had not played in this city since December 1995 but the sellout crowd at MTS Centre on Thursday night was plenty familiar with them. So much so that by the time the Winnipeg Jets had taken a commanding three-goal lead the home fans were jeering the Capitals, chanting the names of the head coach, captain and goaltender in sing-song mockery.
The Capitals were handed a demoralizing 4-1 loss in the first of six regular season meetings against their new Southeast Division foes, who were led by two goals from Evander Kane and 31 saves by goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.
The Capitals (10-6-1) exhibited flaws that have become far too familiar in going 1-4-1 in their last six games and 3-6-1 in their past 10, a stretch that dates from their first loss of the season, Oct. 27 in Edmonton.
“We felt like we were a little too soft, we weren’t winning the battles,” Karl Alzner said. “The pucks didn’t seem to want to sit down for us all that much. They buried every single chance that they got — at least most of the chances. It was just not a good effort by us. You can’t do that. We’re supposed to beat a team like this — one that’s below .500. We’re not doing that right now.”
Thursday night’s performance was far from the response the Capitals wanted two nights after letting a strong game slip away in Nashville. The Capitals looked sloppy in all three zones against Winnipeg (7-9-3), which entered the game tied for third to last in the NHL standings, ahead of only the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets.
Washington lacked discipline as it failed to chase down loose pucks, didn’t establish a forecheck in order to set up offensively, turned over the puck in its own end and committed careless, untimely penalties.
The contest started harmlessly enough as the Capitals played Winnipeg to a 1-1 tie through the opening 20 minutes with goals by Alexander Semin and the first of the night for Kane, who has seven goals and nine points in his past five games against Washington. Washington wasn’t sharp in its own end early, though, and it was goaltender Michal Neuvirth (27 saves) who helped keep things even in the opening frame.
“I think he was left out to dry,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said when asked to assess Neuvirth’s performance.
The Capitals looked increasingly lost in the second as the Jets pushed forward to take control of the contest, scoring three goals in the period.
“There’s discipline in that sense where we’re taking penalties and discipline where we’re getting away from our game plan and our system,” Jeff Halpern said. “I think when you go out there and a team is kind of making that push and out-chancing you, you’ve got to be able to fall back and stick to what you know. Make easy plays to get pucks in deep, to get pucks through the zone. We just didn’t execute. We weren’t in our spots and we brought that on ourselves the whole game.”
Kane made it 2-1 6 minutes 38 seconds into the second when he scored from the right faceoff circle after a turnover by Joel Ward in the corner. Less than two minutes later, the Jets benefited from an emotional turning point.
With John Erskine in the penalty box for interference, Brooks Laich and Jeff Halpern had a key two-on-none, short-handed chance. Laich’s shot missed the net entirely but the forward thought he scored and raised both his arms above his head, only to be caught behind the play as Winnipeg rushed up ice. Blake Wheeler beat Roman Hamrlik to the puck along the left-side boards deep in the Washington zone, cut toward the net and shot through traffic to make it 3-1 with a power-play goal 8:31 into the period.
“That’s a turning point of the game. I thought I made the shot. I thought I scored, my arms are in the air, and then they come down and they put the puck in the net,” Laich said. “Instead of being 2-2, it’s 3-1 and I’ll accept the blame for that. They still have to come 200 feet to score, but if I can put that in the net it’s a totally different game.”
Hamrlik was whistled for tripping just more than nine minutes into the middle stanza. Late in the penalty, a rebound popped out from a scramble in front to open space on the right side of the net. No one picked up the Jets’ Kyle Wellwood, who scored into a a wide-open goal at 10:54.
Washington wouldn’t be without opportunity to pull itself back in the game, including 61 seconds with a two-man advantage after penalties to Andrew Ladd and Johnny Oduya. The Capitals took three unsuccessful shots on goal during the five-on-three as the crowd sang “O-vi, O-vi,” at Washington captain Alex Ovechkin, increasing in volume each time the Winnipeg penalty-kill unit knocked the puck out of the zone.
“Obviously we got a bit of a reality check here,” Alzner said. “Three in a row and terrible in the last 10 games. We’ve got to figure it out — soon.”
Capitals notes: Mike Green missed a third consecutive game with a strained right groin muscle. The defenseman hasn’t skated since suffering the injury on Nov. 11 in New Jersey and it’s unlikely that he will join the team on the current road trip.