DALLAS — The red spotlight glowed from the American Airlines Center rafters and shone onto Washington Capitals goaltender Justin Peters, flashing for the second time in 16 seconds Saturday night, one final mark of embarrassment in a 5-4 defeat. The crowd hollered. Peters hunched over and traced his stick around the crease. He slugged from his water bottle and tried to refocus.
Seven weeks had passed since Peters's last start, and his comeback was a far cry from what he had hoped. These did not resemble the Capitals that had become the NHL's hottest team and closed gaps within the Metropolitan Division. These Capitals stumbled through the first period with three penalties, including one for too many men on the ice. They meandered through their breakouts and gifted chances to the high-risk, high-reward Dallas Stars. They spoiled a furious comeback. They left their goaltender alone while the wolves circled to feast.
“I don’t have any problem with his game,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I have more problem with our overall game in segments.”
Later, inside the visiting locker room, Peters stared down at the carpet, deep in thought, while his teammates deflected blame. They had hamstrung him before with sluggish performances in the second games of back-to-backs, contributing to an .872 save percentage that ranked 70th among 76 NHL goalies entering Saturday, and this latest appearance did little to improve his standing.
The Stars put just 26 shots on goal onto Peters. Five struck the net. Three minutes 14 seconds into the final period, forward Antoine Roussel snapped a 3-3 tie by beating Peters with a rebound at the goal mouth. Then, after the ensuing draw, Jamie Benn threw the knockout punch that dealt the Capitals their first losing streak since early December.
In Peters’s past six outings, all coming in the tail sections of back-to-backs, all defined by disjointed play unfolding before him, the 28-year-old has allowed 24 total goals. He was not absolved of all responsibility, slow to react on Benn’s goal and allowing a close-range snipe from Jason Spezza to strike his sleeve as it zoomed into the net. But because he last started two days after Thanksgiving, his teammates felt Peters deserved more support.
“Those are the hardest ones to play, and when you haven’t started in quite a while, you face a team with a lot of fire power, that makes it difficult,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It’s got to be one of the tougher jobs in the league, to do what he’s doing, and I think he did a great job. We need to be better for him.”
For 15 minutes bridging the second intermission, they were. Buried into a 3-0 hole for the second time in 20 days after goals from Tyler Seguin, Erik Cole and Spezza, the Capitals again stormed back from the abyss. A rested Eric Fehr, who missed Friday’s game against the Nashville Predators with a lower-body injury, finally shook the Capitals from their slumber. Seventy-seven seconds after Spezza’s goal, forward Joel Ward threaded a slick lead pass ahead to Fehr inside the offensive zone, and Fehr whacked the puck through Kari Lehtonen’s five-hole.
Soon, the building went from cheering as forward Roussel released from the penalty box, sent there for roughing Alex Ovechkin, to muttering, because the Capitals chopped the lead to one goal. Three seconds after the power play ended, rookie Andre Burakovsky trailed an entry and creamed a near-invisible one-timer between three bodies and into the top shelf.
The Capitals emerged from the final intermission guns ablaze, bent on lifting Peters up. Twenty-one seconds in, Nicklas Backstrom blocked a point shot and Ovechkin tore after the loose puck. He juked left, then right, then whipped his third goal in two games over Lehtonen. The game was tied. Washington had life.
“Yeah, it’s mentally taxing on you,” Trotz said. “You work all the way [back]. It’s like you’re building something, you’re building something and then all of sudden, it gets knocked down right away.”
With usual starter Braden Holtby growing stronger with each passing game, Peters (21 saves) found himself relegated to watching for 21 straight outings. He had not started since Nov. 29 and hadn’t played a full game since Nov. 15. The Capitals even shipped him to their American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., hoping Peters could shake off the rust at a lower level.
Now, within 16 seconds, Peters was rendered helpless against the Stars. The red light blinked two more times, enough to withstand Backstrom’s late one-timer with less than four minutes left.
“That’s not an easy position for any backup goaltender, especially him,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “He’s been sitting a while, and coming in to face those opportunities, we should’ve locked it down a little better for him.”
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