RALEIGH, N.C. — Alex Ovechkin gave Carolina’s Jordan Staal a whack on the back of the leg, a move seemingly made out of frustration. He took a seat in the penalty box and then watched as Staal capitalized on the infraction, scoring on the ensuing power play.
It was that kind of night for the Washington Capitals; they had an uncharacteristic and undisciplined performance against the Hurricanes, who had the Eastern Conference’s worst record entering Saturday night. Carolina took advantage, beating a fatigued Capitals team, 5-1.
Washington was outshot 31-16 through the first two periods, the rare game the Capitals spent the majority of the night in their own end. With the team arriving in Raleigh late after playing in Chicago the night before, backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer got little help in front of him, and he allowed four goals on 37 shots. The Capitals entered the game averaging 27.2 shots against per game, fourth fewest in the league.
“We weren’t very sharp,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “They were much more engaged than we were, much more invested in the game. It seemed like every little play mattered a little bit more to them than it did to us. It’s unfortunate for Grubi because he’s been good for us. We kind of gave him a stinker tonight. I feel bad for Grubs, and we know that we’ve got to be a lot better than that.”
Grubauer got stuck with the “junk assignments,” as Coach Barry Trotz called them, for most of last season, in net for the second game of a back-to-back. While Grubauer might have felt fresh in those situations, the team was typically anything but. Washington’s game against the Blackhawks went to overtime on Friday night, and the Capitals didn’t get to their hotel in Raleigh until the wee hours of Saturday morning, losing an hour with the time change.
“Getting to the hotel at 3 [a.m.] and tough turnaround from an emotional game last night, it happens,” Niskanen said. “But we shouldn’t be making any excuses because everyone’s got to go through it.”
It wasn’t surprising then that the team looked like it was sleepwalking at times. In the first period Carolina outshot Washington 16-6, and half of the Hurricanes’ shots came from within 20 feet of Grubauer. The Capitals got on the board first after defenseman Dmitry Orlov led the rush and then set up Evgeny Kuznetsov for his second goal of the season 12:02 into the game.
But just as they had in Chicago on Friday night, the Capitals allowed the Hurricanes to quickly respond. Grubauer made a save on a Staal snap shot, but Sebastian Aho punched in the rebound to tie the game 35 seconds after Kuznetsov’s goal. Less than five minutes later, Aho assisted on a Teuvo Teravainen snap-shot goal from the right faceoff circle.
“When you play back-to-backs, and it’s no excuse or anything, mentally sharp and mentally tough, you just have to manage the game real, real good,” Trotz said. “You might not have the energy you had last night, so you’ve got to play smarter. We didn’t do that.”
With the Capitals down a goal, Ovechkin was called for slashing Staal 4:36 into the second period, and Staal slammed in the rebound from an Elias Lindholm tip in front of the net, lifting the Hurricanes to a 3-1 lead. Carolina continued to pour it on with a goal from Viktor Rask 10:37 into the period, giving the Hurricanes a three-goal cushion entering the third period.
The Capitals couldn’t help themselves out of that deficit. They had two stretches of roughly eight minutes where they failed to record a shot on goal. When Washington needed to make a push and mount a comeback, a surprisingly busy night in the penalty box prevented the team from doing so.
Entering Saturday’s matchup, the Capitals had the second-fewest penalty minutes per game in the league, but they were called for seven minor penalties against the Hurricanes, four of which came in the third period, as frustration in their own play continued to mount.
“You can’t win the game from the penalty box,” Grubauer said. “So it’s another sign we’ve got to move our feet and maybe another sign that we maybe didn’t play as smart as we could’ve, a little bit lazy here and there.”