VANCOUVER — For a fifth time in less than 40 minutes, goaltender Braden Holtby pushed his mask up and off his face and looked up at the videoboard to see what had just happened as the Canucks' goal song blared. Meanwhile, Philipp Grubauer got off his seat on the Capitals' bench, fastened on his own mask and skated over to Washington's net on a relief mission.
The Rogers Arena crowd roared as Holtby did the skate of shame back to the bench, and Holtby’s teammates tapped their sticks along his pads as he went past, perhaps their way of saying this was on them and not him.
The depleted Capitals lost ugly Thursday night, falling to Vancouver, 6-2, for a second straight defeat. They were in a three-goal hole before the end of first period, and Holtby was pulled after the Canucks made it 5-0, at which point it was clear this Capitals team isn't the same as the ones that won The Presidents' Trophy the past two seasons.
“Enough talking about how good we were last year. It’s over,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Let’s talk about this year. We have different guys, a different team. Forget about last year.”
So, is there some concern in this team’s locker room about how this season is off to a 4-5-1 start?
“It’s tough to lose the games,” Ovechkin said. “But we understand what we did wrong, what we did right. You can see if we manage the puck well and go into their zone, we have chances and we play well. If we make mistakes, we didn’t execute the play, take lots of penalties, we’re not going to win any game. It doesn’t matter if we have the best goalie in the league or whatever.”
Three players — Andre Burakovsky (thumb), Matt Niskanen (hand) and Tyler Graovac (upper body) — stayed behind in Washington because of injuries, and the Capitals' lineup looked even more bleak when top-line center Nicklas Backstrom was ruled out with an illness before the game. Less than four minutes into the second period, forward Brett Connolly was checked into the glass by Canucks defenseman Erik Gudbranson, and he went through the concussion protocol in the locker room, held out for the rest of the game. Connolly will be reevaluated Friday.
But more concerning was that this loss — Washington’s fourth in five games — highlighted some issues that go beyond who wasn’t on the ice. The Capitals managed just four shots in the first period and 12 through 40 minutes as the Canucks tallied twice as many. Their penalty kill struggled — the Canucks scored three times on the power play — as the Capitals again took too many costly penalties, and in a lineup that includes four rookies, it was two veteran defensemen with the turnover that led to Vancouver’s third goal.
Offseason roster turnover because of salary-cap constraints meant this Capitals team would be less experienced and less talented, and that’s especially true now that injuries have taken their toll. Ten games in, Washington still hasn’t found an identity, and coaches and players say the team is clinging to the style it played last season despite having vastly different personnel. The Capitals have continued to be plagued by sloppy play, and unlike the past versions of this team, Washington no longer has the talent make up for those errors when the Capitals fall into early deficits.
Washington has scored first in just three of its first nine games, and this marked the fifth straight game where it trailed to start the game after Thomas Vanek scored on a wild rebound.
“If we’re not going to score as much, then we’ve got to be really detailed,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “We’ve got to make sure that we can’t take six penalties a night. We just can’t. We’ve got to change our outlook, too. Maybe we’ve got to grind it out, if you will, instead of wanting to play the wide-open game. Maybe we can’t do that. In the past, we didn’t mind that because we could come at you with four pretty good [lines]. Now, we don’t quite have that, so you may have to play a little differently.”
Less than a minute after Vanek’s goal, center Evgeny Kuznetsov was called for tripping, Washington’s second minor penalty of the game, and the Canucks took a 2-0 lead on a Bo Horvat power-play goal. The Capitals would go on to allow two more power play goals, and the team’s shorthanded unit has now allowed at least one power-play goal in seven of its past eight games. Entering the game, the Canucks had the third-worst power play in the league, scoring on just 10 percent of their opportunities.
“Can’t kill anything,” Trotz said.
With less than two minutes left in the first period, Dmitry Orlov attempted to rim a puck along the bottom of the boards to defense partner John Carlson. But the pass was weak, stopping short of Carlson and intercepted by Derek Dorsett, who then set up Markus Granlund. That gave Vancouver a 3-0 lead going into the first intermission.
The television feed caught Trotz giving a slight shake of his head on the bench in apparent frustration. Rogers Arena started to mockingly serenade Holtby. It was only the beginning of a long night. The Capitals now hope this isn’t just the beginning of a long season.