Alex Ovechkin didn’t skip onto the ice for warmups. He wasn’t in the left faceoff circle on the power play. He wasn’t crunching opponents into the boards.
Ovechkin wasn’t in the lineup Tuesday night, suspended by the NHL for skipping the All-Star Game. The Washington Capitals weren’t the same team without him, and they fell to the Florida Panthers, 5-2, at Verizon Center.
In a matchup pitting the Atlantic Division’s top team against the Metropolitan Division leader, the Capitals were just too depleted. Their typically potent power play couldn’t score, going 0 for 8. They generated plenty of chances — 27 shots on goal through 40 minutes and 38 shots on goal overall — but they couldn’t finish them. On the other end, Washington’s defense struggled, giving up the first four goals of the game on Florida’s first 13 shots.
“The life’s out of the building and you’re getting the Bronx cheers and all those things, that’s something we’ve got to fight through,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s not always going to be easy for us, or it’s not always going to go our way.”
Down 4-0, the Capitals rallied to start the third period with two goals in the first two minutes by Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky. But the hole was ultimately too much to overcome.
With a stellar record of 35-9-4, Washington will survive a loss like this, comfortably ahead of the field in the Eastern Conference. But as the Capitals have weathered seemingly devastating injuries — to its top two defensemen, its top center and its third-line center twice — Tuesday night underscored who the Capitals can’t win without.
Ovechkin has missed just 28 games in his career, and this was the second one this season. He overslept for a morning skate before the second game of the season, and Trotz scratched him as a disciplinary measure. Washington lost to the San Jose Sharks that night, 5-0, still their worst loss of the campaign.
“It does take away the other team’s top defensive pair having to focus on him,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It changes the way teams can kill penalties against us because they have to respect the shot. . . . He’s the engine pretty much for this team. When he’s not there, we have to tweak the game a little bit. We haven’t had to play too many games without him, so we haven’t dialed that in yet.”
Not that the Capitals needed reminding, but that night against San Jose showed how paramount Ovechkin is to the team’s success. They knew they’d have to play without him against the Panthers because of the league’s one-game suspension after he withdrew from the All-Star Game to rest a nagging lower-body injury. Entering Tuesday’s game, the Capitals were 13-12-2 in games without Ovechkin in his career. He is expected to play on Thursday against the New York Islanders.
Center Marcus Johansson also missed the game against Florida because of an upper-body injury. Top goaltender Braden Holtby was given the night off after he appeared in the All-Star Game, and backup Philipp Grubauer got the start. Grubauer’s performance was far from his best, but with a congested schedule remaining, Trotz said Grubauer wouldn’t have gotten yanked no matter what happened.
Ovechkin’s absence might have been the most noticeable, especially on the power play. Without Ovechkin’s thunderous one-timer to worry about, Florida’s penalty kill had an easier time disrupting everyone else. The Capitals had two five-on-three opportunities in the first period that didn’t lead to any goals.
The low point was arguably in the second period, when Derek MacKenzie was given a double minor for hooking and unsportsmanlike conduct. Despite the bevy of man-advantage time, Washington couldn’t score. Fans booed as the second period ended.
Alzner said when Ovechkin isn’t on the power play, the penalty killer in the middle can be more aggressive on the Capitals player in the slot. Defenses are also tighter on the player carrying the puck along the wall, typically Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov.
In eight power-play chances, Washington had eight shots on goal. Its struggles were magnified by the success of Florida’s power play, which scored two goals, one by Aleksander Barkov on a five-on-three and the other by Jonathan Huberdeau, his second goal of the night, to make it a 4-0 game with 4 minutes 50 seconds left in the second period.
“Everything just kind of went in the wrong direction for us tonight,” Justin Williams said. “We didn’t score on the five-on-threes, then they came and scored on their . . . power play. That’s the ups and downs of a hockey game.”