Before their back-to-back games this weekend, the Washington Capitals appeared to have turned a corner. Their outings were disciplined, they functioned as cohesive five-man units on the ice and their goaltending made key saves.
For the second time in as many days, though, the Capitals didn’t play like a team reformed. Washington’s 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers at Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon featured nearly every negative trait from its league-worst 2-8-1 start to the season.
Untimely penalties? Check. Missed assignments and frequent turnovers? Check. Soft goals? Check.
“We didn’t come out and play a smart game tonight,” winger Matt Hendricks said. “I think we needed to realize that we played last night, and we made a lot of the same mistakes, I think, as last night: We didn’t put pucks in areas where we could wear their team down. We had turnovers, again, in the neutral zone and such. For us to be successful, we can’t continue to make those mistakes.”
The most costly misstep came when the game was tied at 1 near the midway point of the second period. A pair of delayed penalties was called on Alex Ovechkin as he scrambled about the defensive zone — one for tripping Ryan Callahan and a second for holding Ryan McDonagh.
Rangers goaltender Martin Biron (28 saves) was making his way to the bench for an extra attacker when Brian Boyle fired from the top of the left circle past Braden Holtby to make it 2-1. But because there were two delayed calls, only one was wiped out by the Boyle goal.
With Ovechkin in the penalty box to serve the holding minor, Rick Nash fired a devilish snap shot that deflected off Callahan in front to make it 3-1 with 11 minutes 34 seconds gone in the second.
It took 41 seconds for New York to claim its two-goal lead.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know,” Ovechkin said of the pair of minor penalties. “I know I trip him first one because I lost the position, so I play it like it’s going to be pass to him. I don’t know where [the referee] find the second one, it cost us the game.”
The two quick goals brought the removal of Holtby, who allowed three goals on 19 shots in what was his 12th start in the past 13 games.
Holtby was visibly upset as he went off the ice and smashed his stick against the wall as he went to the dressing room.
Coach Adam Oates said he decided to pull Holtby in an effort to stop New York’s momentum, but he also faulted the 23-year-old for the second goal and called the first, which deflected off Holtby’s skate, “a bit of bad luck”.
“I didn’t bring to the table what I should’ve in order to at least get a split on the weekend,” Holtby said. “The second [goal] I just didn’t see. I lost it for some reason; I don’t know if I was screened or not. . . . The second goal’s a big one that I have to be better.”
Holtby’s removal brought in Michal Neuvirth for his first appearance since Feb. 7, when he was yanked from a start in Pittsburgh.
Neuvirth stopped 10 of 11 shots and gave up a goal to Brad Richards on a rebound in the final two minutes, long after the contest was decided.
Even before Ovechkin’s penalties resulted in the quick goals, the Capitals weren’t at their best.
Defenseman Steve Oleksy recorded his first career NHL goal for a 1-0 lead 2:16 into the game but Washington didn’t play like a team ready to build off the momentum of an initial lead.
“We’ve got to continue to have the pressure, continue to put it on,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “We can’t think one goal is going to win in this league now.”
The Capitals buzzed with chances on a power play but at even strength they started to cough up the puck, giving an eager New York squad far too many chances to pounce on.
One particularly odd play came when Ovechkin appeared ready to check Derek Stepan in the neutral zone. Just as Stepan passed the puck, Ovechkin whiffed on the hit.
“I try to make a hit on him,” Ovechkin said, “But he saw me at the last second and he moved.”
More critically, Ovechkin didn’t back-check on the play after missing the check. He glided into the defensive zone as the Rangers went on a three-on-two; seconds later, Stepan banked the puck off Holtby’s skate to tie the game at 1. It was far from the correct play, Oates said.
“We have tracking rules and I think he was gonna hit him and he let him go,” Oates said. “Because of that we got a little out of position.”
Once again all the mistakes and bad habits piled up to equal a loss and a missed opportunity at points.
With 21 points, Washington (10-13-1) sits eight points out of the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot and eight points behind Southeast Division leader Carolina.
“It wasn’t what we wanted, obviously. We didn’t play the way we wanted,” Holtby said. “But we’ll go over it; we’ll learn from it. It’s frustrating, but we can’t dwell on the past now. We’ve got to keep pushing forward and we’ll get back to work.”