EDMONTON — Frequent penalties are the enemy of a team that relies heavily on puck possession and flow of a game to create and sustain momentum. Thursday night, the Washington Capitals watched their hold on a game against the Edmonton Oilers unravel with each infraction.
Although the Capitals pushed back for a strong third period after being called for nine minor penalties through the opening 40 minutes, they couldn’t crack goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and mount a comeback at Rexall Place. Edmonton captured a 2-1 victory behind power-play goals from Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle to hand Washington its first loss, snapping its franchise-best winning streak to start a season at seven games.
“It feels like we gave the game away. It was just the penalties that killed us,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “Five on five we did a good game, I think. When you get a lot of penalties you don’t get that rhythm like you wanted.”
Washington’s defeat wasn’t for a lack of offensive chances. The Capitals outshot the Oilers 35-19, including a 19-shot barrage in the third as it tried to erase the one-goal deficit. But in that final frame, as the Capitals came at Khabibulin they weren’t getting the bounces they had during their unbeaten streak.
Instead, the Oilers withstood Washington’s push. Khabibulin, who is undefeated in regulation through six appearances this year, made a stellar pad save on Dennis Wideman on a power play just 1 minute and 37 seconds into the frame. Wideman had another shot ring off the right goal post on the next man-advantage opportunity. Even later in the third, Alex Ovechkin blazed down the wing to have his shot glance off the crossbar.
“I thought we played pretty good in the third period. We came at them,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “They were feeling it pretty good but once that first five minutes [passed] and we didn’t get one with the pressure we had on it, and the first power play he made that stop on Wideman, I said, ‘It’s going to be tough to score on this guy tonight.’ ”
Washington may not have faced a fate determined by crossbars and a strong effort by Khabibulin, however, had it not relinquished control of the game in the first place through penalties that began piling up in the first period.
The Capitals initially took control of their first game in Edmonton since Dec. 19, 2009, hemming the Oilers in their own zone and taking a 1-0 lead before six minutes elapsed. Karl Alzner scored the opening tally, his first goal since Dec. 18 against Boston, with a laser slap shot from inside the left point.
Things were humming along nicely, with Washington limiting the Oilers’ top line of rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and second-year players Eberle and Hall, until about the halfway point of the first, when the first penalties were called.
Seven misdemeanors in less than eight minutes — four on the Capitals, three on Edmonton — jumbled Washington’s rhythm and provided the spunky Oilers with numerous opportunities to get back in the contest, including a pair of four-on-three power plays.
With John Carlson and Roman Hamrlik in the box for delay of game and hooking, respectively, Eberle sent a pass left to right across the crease that Hall buried into an open net. Hall’s tally, his third of the year, tied the game at 1 with 1:45 remaining in the first period.
The second continued as the first had ended. Washington was called for seven consecutive penalties beginning with Carlson’s infraction with 16:37 gone in opening frame and concluding with a holding the stick infraction by Alzner at 18:14 of the second.
In the midst of more than 11 minutes of power-play time, Eberle found himself on the finishing end of Edmonton’s man advantage. A rebound popped out to him in the left faceoff circle with an empty net yawning while Shawn Horcoff was wreaking havoc in front of Tomas Vokoun (17 saves). Eberle’s goal made it 2-1 Oilers 12:44 into the middle stanza while Troy Brouwer occupied the penalty box for a hooking call.
The penalties in so close succession kept players like Ovechkin, Backstrom and Alexander Semin on the bench for most of the second period. They also furthered stretched the defense, which was already missing Mike Green because of an ankle injury.
Afterward the Capitals didn’t use the plethora of calls against them as an excuse for their first defeat of the year, but admitted they might have let the officiating get the best of them at times.
“I think we got a little bit too worked up there, yelling and screaming about the calls when there’s nothing you can do about them once they’re called,” Alzner said. “We came into the room and recouped and the guys had a ton of energy going into that third. We threw it all at them. A couple posts and there’s not a whole lot else you can do.”