DALLAS — Coach Adam Oates has long been leery of the Washington Capitals becoming too dependent upon their potent power play for offense. Don’t misunderstand, he wants the unit to perform well, but his focus is on playing a precise game regardless of the on-ice situation.
Washington recorded another power-play goal, its league-high sixth of the young season, here at American Airlines Center. Once again, though, the Capitals were unable to tap into another consistent source of goals and fell, 2-1, to the Dallas Stars on Saturday night in their first visit to the Lone Star state since Dec. 2, 2010.
Washington sits 1-2-0 on the season, having been outscored 10-3 at even strength so far.
The Caps weren’t without chances, but a disallowed goal and four shots that rang off goal posts are consolation prizes when self-inflicted turnovers often kept the Capitals trapped in their zone and prevented them from creating sustained pressure against the Stars and goaltender Kari Lehtonen (25 saves).
“We didn’t do a good enough job exiting our zone, making that next pass and getting it behind them,” Oates said. “We turned it over in the neutral zone with almost-plays, guys knock it down or [it was] a bad pass. One of the things we talk about every day is support and getting it to the next spot. We didn’t do a good enough job of that.”
The Capitals took a 1-0 lead with 4 minutes 26 seconds gone in the first period when Alex Ovechkin converted on a power play with his patented one-timer from the left circle. It marked Ovechkin’s fourth goal of the year and third on the power play in as many games. Oates’s concern about leaning too heavily on the power play is certainly justified, but through three games so is the Capitals’ confidence in the unit. Their power play is an intimidating 6 for 12 on the season.
But Dallas, coming off a 4-2 loss to the Florida Panthers in its season opener, wanted to find more of the composed game that new Coach Lindy Ruff is seeking and wasn’t about to let the Capitals’ talent run wild. Asked Saturday morning how the Stars intended to combat Washington’s daunting man-advantage, Ruff answered plainly that he wanted his squad to stay out of the penalty box as much as possible. They obliged and took only two more minor penalties the rest of the game.
The Stars evened the score less than four minutes after Ovechkin’s goal when Erik Cole was left completely unguarded in the slot for a one-timer off a feed from Tyler Seguin.
Even at that early stage, Washington’s trouble at even strength was apparent. The Capitals gave up the puck on routine plays, sent passes that were just off the mark and seemed generally out of sync. Braden Holtby came through with a steadying effort, though, to neutralize his teammates’ inconsistencies.
Holtby, making his third consecutive start, stopped Ryan Garbutt on a partial breakaway and later made another stellar save on Ray Whitney from point-blank range. He finished with 19 saves and had the type of bounce-back performance he sought after being pulled in the first period against Calgary on Thursday.
“I felt a lot better, obviously, it was a cleaner game,” Holtby said. “Still some little things to work on, but I think overall that your goal is to let in two or less. If you do that consistently we’ll win a lot of games.”
In the second period, Washington nearly pulled ahead on a would-be goal by Nicklas Backstrom. But Backstrom bunted the puck from the crease, and the Capitals’ top centerman knocked his stick into the mask of Lehtonen. The goal was waved off because of incidental contact, not a reviewable play but a judgment call made by the officials on the ice.
“What I saw was the puck and I touched the puck before I touched the mask,” Backstrom said. “But I don’t know, it’s typical.”
That would have been an even-strength goal and would have changed the context of the game. Oates didn’t want to spend much time wallowing in what could have been, though.
“They do their best. The [referee] thought he was interfered with. You’ve got to be able to survive that stuff,” Oates said. “Tough time, you want the goal, but it happens.”
The Stars created a three-on-two rush just past the 12-minute mark. and while Holtby stopped the initial shot by former Washington prospect Cody Eakin, no one picked up Alex Chiasson. The rookie beat Holtby’s attempt to slide back across the goal mouth, giving the Stars a 2-1 advantage. The goal was the eighth of Chiasson’s career in just his ninth NHL game.
Although the Capitals trailed by a goal, they mustered only one shot through the first 14 minutes of the third. It wasn’t until 5:33 left when Troy Brouwer fired a long-range wrister that Washington was credited with its second shot on goal in the period. The dry spell was in part due to Dallas sitting back and focusing on insulating Lehtonen, but it was also the Capitals undoing their own efforts.
“They get the lead and they play back. Of course it’s tough when you want to go there but you can’t,” Ovechkin said. “You can see if we stick in the zone and stick our plan it works, but when we make lots of turnovers and play in neutral zone and our zone it’s kind of tough to go there and play.”
Note: Defenseman Jack Hillen underwent successful surgery to repair a fractured tibial plateau, part of the lower leg that is covered by the knee, after being hit by Calgary’s Lance Bouma on Thursday. Hillen did not suffer any ligament damage but is expected to miss four to six months.