The Washington Capitals had their opportunity with seven minutes remaining. All three goals had been scored on the power play, and with Washington down a goal and about to have a man-advantage, the crowd cheered in recognition of the moment. But Alex Ovechkin’s shot missed, Matt Niskanen’s was saved, and then T.J. Oshie’s went wide, too. Another Capitals power play in the last minute went just as poorly.
On a night when special teams and goaltending owned the spotlight, the Capitals’ top-ranked power play was upstaged by the Columbus Blue Jackets’ unit in a 2-1 loss at Capital One Arena. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was the best player on the ice with 33 saves, and Washington’s leaky penalty kill allowed two goals on three Columbus power plays.
“Right now, we just can’t seem to kill a penalty,” Niskanen said. “In a tight game, that hurts.”
What had been an even match in all facets of the game tipped in Columbus’s favor when defenseman Dmitry Orlov was called for roughing 4:04 into the third period with the game tied. Niskanen’s stick broke, and a puck played off the end boards landed on the stick of Anthony Duclair beside the net. With Niskanen unable to obstruct him, Duclair scored from a tight angle, and his goal held up for the balance of the game.
Columbus entered the game with the league’s worst power play, scoring just 11.9 percent of the time. Washington has allowed four power-play goals in the past three games.
“It seems like we’re giving up a goal or two almost every game,” center Lars Eller said.
“We have taken a little bit more of an aggressive approach,” Niskanen said. “We’ve disrupted a lot of plays up ice. On entries, I think we’re doing a good job there. We’re not spending a ton of time in-zone. It’s the broken plays that are turning into a really good chance and then just burying us. When it’s kind of a 50-50 puck, a battle in the corner, you’re down a man, so somebody’s open, but we’ve just got to bear down and be harder on it. If you can’t get it all the way down the ice, then maybe you’ve just got to eat a few more and continue to battle and wait for help. But it seems like the broken plays are getting us right now, not the tic-tac-toe.”
Coach Todd Reirden opted to make few changes to the team’s structure, but he overhauled the Capitals’ shorthanded play. Washington introduced new personnel there, and it also has had to play the first 15 games without forward Tom Wilson, who is serving a 20-game suspension for an illegal check to the head and typically logs a lot of shorthanded minutes.
The Capitals’ penalty kill also was missing two regulars with the team down two defensemen. Top blue-liner John Carlson is considered day-to-day with an undisclosed lower-body injury; he played more than 28 minutes in Washington’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday, and Reirden said he’s hopeful Carlson will play Sunday against the Arizona Coyotes. Carlson had been averaging a team-high 26 minutes to start the season, and with five goals and 13 assists, he was tied with Alex Ovechkin for the second-most points on the team.
Veteran Brooks Orpik missed his fifth straight game with an undisclosed lower-body injury, and he will miss at least five more after Washington placed him on long-term injured reserve. The team recalled Aaron Ness and Jonas Siegenthaler from its American Hockey League affiliate Friday morning, and the latter made his NHL debut against the Blue Jackets after an impressive training camp.
The injuries had Washington dressing an inexperienced blue line. Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey and Siegenthaler all have fewer than 100 games of NHL experience, but in not allowing a single even-strength goal, a bright spot in the loss was that they acquitted themselves well.
“I liked obviously Siegenthaler’s first game,” Reirden said. “I thought he did some good things. Elevated minutes for Djoos and Bowey. I thought [forward Jakub] Vrana was effective tonight, too, as a young player. That’s what it’s about at this time of the year is getting them in situations where they can play and see where they’re at so we can gauge their development.”
Washington compensated for its banged-up defense by spending most of the first period in Columbus’s end. The Capitals tested Bobrovsky with 15 shots in the first period, but an interference penalty by Evgeny Kuznetsov at the 15:28 mark tipped the frame in the Blue Jackets’ favor. Oliver Bjorkstrand beat Washington’s Braden Holtby glove side to take a 1-0 lead into first intermission, deflating considering how well the Capitals had played all period.
It wasn’t the last time the penalty kill would burn them in the game.
“It’s one of the areas we’ve had some big changes,” Holtby said. “But tonight we kind of got beat on a couple plays we pre-scouted and kind of knew about. It’s those things we know we can clean up a bit.”