WINNIPEG — Washington Capitals goaltender Pheonix Copley had his glove up to stop Ben Chiarot’s shot from the high slot, but the puck knuckled and dived, catching Copley off guard. Rather than landing in his mitt, it hit the back of the net, a frustrating goal that was ultimately the difference on a night when Copley wasn’t even supposed to be in net. He was tabbed late for the start for injured Braden Holtby.
“It was deflected and kind of dipped,” Copley said. “That’s obviously one I’d like to have, but unfortunate break.”
Wednesday was full of bad breaks for the Capitals, who lost to the Winnipeg Jets, 3-1. In addition to Holtby getting injured on Wednesday morning, top center Evgeny Kuznetsov left the game in the first period and top-four defenseman Michal Kempny was out with illness. Making his second start in as many nights, Copley made 21 saves, keeping the Jets to just one goal until late in the final period.
The absence of three key players makes this defeat easy to explain away, but it nevertheless kept Washington winless when it has played the previous night this season. The Capitals were disappointed but left Winnipeg pleased with their effort in the face of adversity.
“Certainly we have not liked our back-to-backs earlier in the season, but a lot of good things can be taken from this,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “You want to leave with a win, but I was proud of the character of our guys.”
Less than three minutes after Chiarot’s goal, Winnipeg’s Andrew Copp tripped Dmitry Orlov behind Washington’s net, giving the Capitals’ vaunted power play an opportunity to tie with 4:42 remaining. But for the third straight game the unit was unable to score. An empty-net goal in the final minute sealed the result.
“There’s a consolation prize that we played a little better given the travel and the circumstance,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We played smarter and gave ourselves a chance. . . . We easily could’ve won that one.”
Coming off one of their best games of the season on Tuesday night in Minnesota, the Capitals were forced into some significant lineup changes before playing the Jets. Holtby was scheduled to start, but he suffered an undisclosed “upper-body” injury on Wednesday morning when he went on the ice with goaltending coach Scott Murray. Copley made 26 saves in the 5-2 win against the Wild on Tuesday night, and he was told at noon that he might have to play again. When he woke up from his pregame nap, there was a text on his phone confirming that.
Copley has just eight games of NHL experience, but his play of late has been markedly improved; he entered Wednesday on a four-game point streak. Because Holtby was ruled out, Washington also dressed an emergency backup goaltender in Gavin McHale, who played in the Western Hockey League as a teenager and then in college. He’s the goaltending coach for the University of Manitoba women’s team.
And as if the Capitals weren’t banged-up enough, they lost Kuznetsov in the first period after he was elbowed in the head by Brandon Tanev 8:52 into the game. Kuznetsov played 54 seconds on the ensuing power play, but then he went to the locker room to be evaluated for the head injury, and he didn’t return to the game, leaving Washington with just 11 forwards. With six goals and 15 assists, Kuznetsov is the team’s leading scorer.
“He was more precautionary,” Reirden said of Kuznetsov’s status. “We have to continue to evaluate him tomorrow, but we needed to make sure he didn’t return to the game tonight.”
Washington was able to collectively compensate for the losses by not allowing Winnipeg much opportunity in a first period that Reirden considered one of the team’s best this season. The Jets’ first shot came nearly 13 minutes in, and the Bell MTS Place crowd sarcastically cheered Adam Lowry’s wrister from beyond the red line. Fourteen seconds later, forward Jakub Vrana beat Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck with a perfectly placed strike into the top corner of the net, lifting the Capitals to a 1-0 lead. The Jets managed just one more shot in the frame.
While Washington made Copley’s job easy in the period, it got harder as the game went on. Captain Alex Ovechkin was called for interference in the offensive zone 4:58 into the second period, and Jets center Mark Scheifele scored just seven seconds later. Less than a minute after Ovechkin’s infraction, defenseman Madison Bowey was whistled for roughing in the offensive zone, putting one of the league’s leakiest penalty kills back on the ice. Copley made four saves to keep the game tied during that man-advantage, and after seeing just two shots in the first period, he was peppered with 14 in the second.
While both he and Washington ultimately fell short, it was as much of a moral victory as there can be in the NHL.
“It’s being able to react to potential adversity that you have,” Reirden said. “I was happy with the effort level from our guys.”
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