Once again, goaltender Braden Holtby had become the Washington Capitals’ eraser of mistakes, the last line of defense when coverage crumpled. But now, at the decisive moment of a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild, he stood frozen in the crease, wondering how Thursday night had suddenly slipped away. He looked down and checked his glove. He stared up at the video screen. He looked anywhere but inside the net, where forward Jason Pominville’s blast had gone after slipping under the sleeve of his sweater.
“Where he shot it, I didn’t think it was going in,” Holtby said, still mystified by the result. “Caught my sleeve. I don’t know if that pulled it back or whatnot. I haven’t seen the replay yet. He put it in a pretty good spot, but I’ve got to find a way to save that.”
The Capitals had opened a five-game homestand at Verizon Center armed with the NHL’s best record when scoring first, a mark that included only one defeat in regulation. But two third-period goals from forward Pominville — one accidentally jammed through Holtby’s legs by Capitals forward Joel Ward, and the game-winner with 5 minutes 32 seconds left off a costly turnover from defenseman Mike Green — left Holtby bewildered at his post and Washington slipping into rare territory.
When the Capitals stormed onto the ice for pregame warmups, they fielded the minimum number of forwards and sweaters, suddenly nicked by injury after Tuesday’s physical victory in Columbus. Forward Michael Latta had already been ruled out with an upper-body injury, but the slim numbers settled another mystery, one far more meaningful for Washington.
For the first time during his MVP-caliber season, forward Alex Ovechkin missed a game, shelved with a lower-body injury, leaving the Capitals to soldier ahead without the NHL’s leading goal scorer, who had scored twice in each of the past two games.
“Anytime you’re missing one of the best players in the world, it’s going to have an impact on your team,” forward Curtis Glencross said. “Anytime you’re missing a guy like that from the lineup, it’s tough.”
In his absence, Glencross, the team’s newest acquisition, endeared himself to the snow-thinned crowd and gave the Capitals, for their third straight outing and 36th time this season, the first lead. With forward Thomas Vanek shelved for high-sticking forward Tom Wilson, Glencross pushed the puck ahead into the offensive zone on the power play and crushed it into the upper-right corner.
In scoring his first goal for Washington, Glencross also joined the elite company of skaters to have cracked Minnesota goaltender Devan Dubnyk this calendar year, especially on the power play. The league’s hottest goaltender since Arizona traded him to Minnesota in mid-January, Dubnyk had started every game for the Wild since, posted a 16-3-1 record and snuffed 47 of 48 opposing man advantages.
“Yeah, it always feels good to get the first one with the new team, but at the end of the day probably disappointed with the loss,” Glencross said.
Inside the opposite net, Holtby withstood 11 first-period shots. He swallowed blasts into his belly. He operated his stick like a jouster’s spear, jabbing away pucks that trickled into the crease. He escaped when, early into the second period, Ryan Suter’s slapper popped high into the air, tumbled into the crease and, before a Wild skater could reach the loose puck, defenseman Tim Gleason sprawled onto his stomach to whack it away.
He could not, however, escape from a goalmouth scramble that sparked a raucous Wild celebration after the game was tied. After forward Marcus Johansson, one member of the Capitals’ all-Swedish line formed in Ovechkin’s absence, twice buzzed pucks off the goal’s iron bars, Washington forward Jason Chimera and Minnesota defenseman Matt Dumba careened together into the boards and crunched referee Ian Walsh onto the ice. Walsh stayed on his knees for several seconds, slow to rise while play continued into the Capitals’ zone.
There, Holtby made the initial save on Pominville by sprawling onto his stomach and knocking Pominville’s stick away. All seemed safe, until Zach Parise backhanded the puck toward Holtby. Pominville regained control of his stick but, hacking away on his knees, initially whiffed at the puck. After he did, though, Ward inadvertently batted it through Holtby’s legs.
Five minutes later, Green twice failed to break out the puck, allowing Pominville to step ahead and hammer the puck underneath Holtby’s armpit.
Trotz yanked Holtby with 2:10 remaining following a timeout, but Troy Brouwer’s goaltender interference squelched any last-minute comeback effort. For only the second time, the Capitals had lost in regulation when leading after the second period, another victim left in Dubnyk’s wake, history be damned.
“They’re hot,” Trotz said. “They’re playing really well. I thought we played them really well without arguably the best player in the National Hockey League right now. I thought we stood really tall.”
Summary: Wild 2, Capitals 1