PHILADELPHIA — Hours after the Washington Capitals acquired veteran goaltender Jaroslav Halak in a trade Wednesday, they offered a 40-minute reminder of problems such as inconsistent defense and sloppy puck management that can’t be solved simply by swapping netminders.
In a game with weighty playoff implications, the Capitals were lifeless at the start. They recorded a season-low eight shots through the first two periods and spotted the Philadelphia Flyers a four-goal lead before falling, 6-4, at Wells Fargo Center.
“It’s not acceptable. It’s not the way we want to play. We were sleeping the first two periods. We were not even in this game,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “We’re so lucky that we had a chance to win it or at least tie it up. I don’t know what to say — it’s not good.”
That Washington rallied for a three-goal third period and challenged before dropping their second straight to the Flyers in as many games was little consolation. The team remains frozen in the standings, a point out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with 19 games left to play.
Five teams separated by four points are in pursuit of that last playoff spot — two of the other four have played fewer games than the Capitals and all have more combined regulation and overtime wins, the first tiebreaker in the standings.
Coach Adam Oates pulled starter Braden Holtby from the contest after he allowed four goals on the first 18 shots. But neither the players nor Oates faulted Holtby, who wasn’t made available to reporters after the game. As Philadelphia racked up that advantage over the first 31 minutes 52 seconds of play, the Capitals mustered only four shots against Steve Mason (21 saves).
“I can’t fault Braden. We had four shots and they had , so I can’t fault my goalie,” Oates said. “It was like everything we did was wrong for 10 minutes, and [the Flyers are] too good of a team to do that to. They’re into the game, and we’re not. We didn’t respond. We didn’t come out with enough to let them know we’re here.”
The Flyers’ goals, including one against Philipp Grubauer, who recorded 10 saves in his relief outing, were the result of lost battles in the defensive zone, shots through traffic, failures to challenge an opponent as he cut through the slot and other missteps.
Those errors have happened regardless of which goalie the Capitals have played, but that didn’t prevent them from altering the depth chart in net ahead of the NHL’s trade deadline.
Washington acquired Halak and a third-round pick in 2015 from the Buffalo Sabres for home-grown netminder Michal Neuvirth, whose agent had asked that the Capitals trade the 25-year-old back in December, and defenseman Rostislav Klesla, who was part of Tuesday’s trade to send the discontented Martin Erat to Phoenix.
The Capitals, who have had a goaltending carousel of Holtby, Grubauer and Neuvirth this season, were rumored to be in the market for a steady, experienced netminder. Halak entered the trade mill last week, when he was sent from St. Louis to Buffalo as part of the Blues’ deal to land Ryan Miller on Friday. McPhee was intrigued.
“Your instincts tell you that’s something that might work,” McPhee said in a phone interview. “You think about Michal Neuvirth not happy as a number two, and if you believe bringing in Halak upgrades the tandem and you start to pursue it. . . . It upgrades our tandem, and that’s what you’re trying to do at this time of year.”
While McPhee didn’t declare Halak, 28, the Capitals’ No. 1 goalie after the deal, there’s certainly opportunity for the more seasoned Halak, who is in his eighth NHL season and will become an unrestricted free agent July 1, to show he’s ready to be a team’s top option in net after spending the past three seasons working in tandem with Brian Elliott in St. Louis.
“I think everything is open. At the end of the day, goalies, like all players, need to perform,” Halak’s agent, Allan Walsh, said in a phone interview. “Jaro’s destiny is in his hands. He’s played so well in the past that he’s put some very good goalies on the bench like [Montreal’s] Carey Price, and I think that Jaro is looking to play the same way again.”
Halak, who will meet the team in Boston on Thursday, needs no introduction to Capitals fans or most of his new teammates.
His performance in the 2010 Eastern Conference quarterfinals was a large reason why the Montreal Canadiens were able to knock off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals in seven games. It was that elimination that spurned the Capitals’ transition from a free-wheeling offensive team to one trying to establish a more balanced identity — something they’ve yet to find consistently under their third coach since that switch.
“We have before two good goalies, and right now we have guy who have experience playing in playoffs and know how to win the game,” Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s good for us, and I hope its going to be good duo on the Caps.”
In 40 games with the Blues this season, Halak posted a 24-9-4 record with a .917 save percentage and 2.23 goals against average, which in line with his career numbers (.917, 2.38) over 260 regular season games. They’re better than Holtby’s 2.94 GAA and .911 save percentage, but one could look to the team Halak has played for in aiding those statistics.
During Halak’s four years in St. Louis, the Blues have been one of the stingiest defensive teams in the league. They have ranked first or second in fewest shots against each of those four seasons, never allowing more than 27.7 on average. This year the Capitals allow the fourth-most shots on goal per game in the league at 33.4, and they allowed a pair of long range deflection goals against the Flyers.
McPhee said he isn’t concerned about Halak making that transition.
“I talked to [Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong], and he actually thinks that Halak is better with more work,” McPhee said. “We play a system where teams get probably more shots the way we play, but most of them are from the outside. We’ll allow those. In some ways that might be better for this particular goaltender.”