Bad Beat – The Caps have suffered more than a few excruciating losses during this shortened season, and on Tuesday night they added another one to the list.
Playing one of just two home games on their schedule in a span of 22 days and facing the team with which they were tied for 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings at puck drop, Washington dropped a 3-2 decision to the New York Islanders at Verizon Center on Thursday night.
After digging themselves an 0-2 hole on a couple of early defensive-zone lapses, Washington gamely battled back in the second period. Goals from Mike Ribeiro and John Carlson evened the score and sent the two teams into the third period knotted at 2-2.
In the third, Washington methodically worked the Islanders down low in the attack zone. The Caps cycled the puck, they maintained a consistent offensive zone presence and created scoring chances. Washington wore down the New York defense, slowly shifted the momentum back in its favor, and appeared to be poised to scrape at least a point from the night’s proceedings.
“We battled hard to get back into it and gave ourselves a chance,” says Carlson.
One mistake in the fifteenth minute of the frame undid them.
Caps forward Brooks Laich was skating back into the Washington end along the left wing wall to chase down a loose puck. He had teammate Mike Green heading back to support on the opposite side, and Laich also had Isles forward Matt Moulson gaining on him and taking away a cross-ice pass option, a risky move in that area of the ice anyway.
Laich pushed the puck back behind his own net, hoping to get it to Green indirectly. Green went to retrieve it along the goal line to the right of the Washington net, but could not get it on his stick cleanly. It looked as though he tried to tuck it back behind the net between his skates, but the puck hit his right skate and deadened between his feet, just to the side of the net.
Green looked down to try to locate the puck, but it was too late. Moulson calmly collected it and perfectly fed Islanders center John Tavares, who had snuck into the zone and was lurking unnoticed in front of the net. Tavares one-timed it past Caps’ goaltender Braden Holtby to give the Isles their 3-2 margin of victory with 5:18 left in regulation.
“It was just a strange play,” says Holtby. “Brooks tried to go off the wall to Green, and I think it hit a little funny along the boards. It was just one of those plays where it kind of handcuffed Greener.
“I was too busy trying to see the play develop behind the net to notice where Tavares was. I have to look at it again; I’m not real sure what my position was. I was kind of surprised he had any room on that short side. That’s basically what I saw.”
“It was my mistake,” laments Laich. “I got caught out [on the ice] a little fatigued. I went back and I wanted to send it back behind the net. I didn’t think I could get Mike direct. I didn’t one to turn one over in the middle in front of our net, so I sent it behind the net. Bad angle, bad decision by myself. I put Mike in trouble and it resulted in the winning goal.”
The fatigue Laich spoke of might have been more cumulative than related to that specific shift. Laich’s shift was at 50 seconds when Tavares put the puck in the net. Eight of his previous nine shifts were longer, and the one that wasn’t was also 50 seconds in duration.
“Those are plays those guys don’t usually make,” says Caps coach Adam Oates of the sequence that resulted in the game-winning goal. “And obviously Brooksie, coming back from injury, maybe I played him a little too much. He was a little tired.”
Playing in just his fifth game of the season, Laich skated 19:41 on the night. That’s almost three minutes more than he logged on Sunday against New York (16:54), his previous single-game high.
The return of Laich and Green to the lineup during the Capitals’ recently completed road trip helped spur the team to a successful 3-1 journey, so it’s somewhat ironic that the Isles’ game-winner came on a mistake made by those two players.
“Not a good interchange between Brooksie and Greenie,” says Oates. “Brooksie was tired, so he just wanted to bank it to him. It was obviously bouncing, and a play that I’m sure those two guys would like back. Tough play for Greenie; it was bouncing right in his feet and he is just trying to make a play. He probably should have batted it into the corner.
“It’s on both guys, in a sense. Brooksie had more time than he thought. He was just tired. It was a tired play.
“We didn’t have a great first period. We came back, and they had nothing going in the third. And we just gave them a freebie.”
Tuesday’s game marks the seventh time this season in which Washington came away with no points in a game in which it either held a lead or was tied past the midpoint of the second period.
Letdown Or No Letdown? – Even when you’re made keenly aware of the possibility of a letdown, it doesn’t necessarily prevent it from happening.
The tendency of teams returning from long road trips to experience a letdown in their first game back on home ice was mentioned during Oates’ Monday morning press scrum and it was talked about it in the locker room with several players after Tuesday’s morning skate.
The situation was ripe for such a letdown in Tuesday night’s game against the Islanders. It wasn’t just the Caps first game back from their longest road trip of the 2012-13 season, it is their only game “back.” Tuesday’s game against New York was also Washington’s 13th in a span of just 22 days, and a three-day stretch with no games at all – matching the team’s longest of the season – loomed just ahead.
It wasn’t terribly surprising when the Caps fell into an early 0-2 hole in Tuesday’s game.
The opportunistic Isles hit the ice with some jump, and the Caps were just a shade flat. New York’s Michael Grabner scored at 5:24 of the first to stake his team to a 1-0 lead and Josh Bailey made it 2-0 less than three minutes later.
Some Washington players believed the Caps had fallen victim to the dreaded post-trip letdown; Laich disagreed.
“No,” says Laich. “That’s something that maybe you guys discuss but we don’t discuss that. We approach every game the same way with the same intensity and the starts have been key for us. We’ve been playing really well. I think people make too much of a deal about nothing in that situation.
“Even when they did get their two goals, we still felt we controlled the territory of the game, that we had been in their end [of the ice]. And certainly in the second period we established that and even in the third we kept it going. It’s just a tough mistake on my part at the end to maybe cost us the game.”
Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks both saw it somewhat differently.
“It’s just normal,” says Ribeiro. “You play the game, you go on a long road trip. It’s just normal the first 10, 15 minutes [of the first game after the trip] your legs are not going the way you want [them] to. It showed in the first [period]. We made some small mistakes, mental mistakes and it cost us. But we battled through and we were right there to the end.”
“I don’t know,” says Hendricks. “I just don’t think we came out with the fire that we needed, with the intensity that we needed. We talked a lot about intensity. You guys have talked a lot about our intensity. I think it’s been good as of late. Tonight we just didn’t play the system the way we had to [in order] to make it a simple hockey game. We made it difficult on ourselves.”
Powerless – For the first time in six games, the Caps were unable to score a power play goal on Tuesday. Washington had three power play opportunities totaling six minutes, but it managed to get just one shot on goal during that span.
“They force well,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward of the Islanders’ penalty killers. “They played well. They’ve played against us well every time we’ve played against them in the past. We just didn’t have an answer. We didn’t execute as well as we were hoping, on special teams especially. It was big for us on the road [trip] and we didn’t capitalize on it at the end.”
The Caps’ final power play chance of the night ended quietly just 64 seconds before Tavares’ game-winning goal.
Left It On The Road – There were three hallmarks of Washington’s play during its recent road trip, and the Caps weren’t able to maintain any of those on Tuesday in front of the home folks in the District.
Washington scored the game’s first goal in each game on the four-game road trip, but the Isles scored the first two tallies tonight.
The Caps trailed on the scoreboard for just over eight minutes of the 245 minutes of hockey they played on the road last week, but they never led in Tuesday night’s game against New York and have not led at any point in 120 minutes worth of hockey against the Islanders this season.
Finally, the Caps limited the opposition to two or fewer goals in each of the four games on the trip. That is Washington’s longest streak of that nature this season. Tavares’ third-period goal stopped that streak of two or fewer goals allowed at four games.
Can't Quite Get To The Mountain Top – In starting the season with a 2-8-1 mark over their first 11 games, the Capitals dug themselves a deep hole in the Eastern Conference standings, one they knew it would be extremely difficult to emerge from. They knew they’d need to climb the mountain to the .500 mark first, and then proceed from there.
To their credit, the Caps have worked diligently to get themselves to the outskirts of the playoff chase. But Tuesday night’s backwards step was a harsh blow.
A win would have put Washington ahead of New York and into ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings, two points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers. Instead, the Caps dropped back to 11th and could be as low as 13th when they next take to the ice against the Sabres in Buffalo on Saturday night. Washington could also be as many as six points behind the Rangers by Saturday.
A victory over the Islanders on Tuesday would have also enabled the Caps to keep pace with front-running Winnipeg in the Southeast Division standings. The Jets beat Carolina on Tuesday to extend their lead over Washington to seven points.
Tall Tasks – For the second time in as many games against the Islanders, the Caps had a chance to extend a winning streak from three to a season-high four games, and they also had a chance to reach the break-even level in the standings for the first time this season.
Washington was unable to achieve those feats on Tuesday, and it must now attempt to start a new winning streak on Saturday in Buffalo and it is now two games below the .500 mark.
“It’s a game we wanted to have,” notes Laich. “We really thought this one would catapult us. Four in a row, put [the Islanders] behind us, and then hit the road for three more big games. But we didn’t get it. But we’re still in the fight. We’ll get some much needed rest [Wednesday] and then practice Thursday, practice Friday and we’ll hit the road with the same mentality we did last week.”
Thirds – The Caps have outscored their opponents by a combined total of 35-27 in the third period this season while the Islanders have been outscored by a combined 47-33 in the final frame of their games this season.
But in the two head-to-head meetings between the Caps and the Islanders, New York has outscored Washington by a combined 4-1 in the third period this season.
Road Warriors – New York has now won five of its last six road games. The Islanders’ 9-4-1 road record is the 10th best mark in the league.
“I think they play hard,” says Hendricks of the Islanders. “I give them a lot of credit. They’ve got a competitive group. They’ve got some real skill up front. They’ve got a great power play, their road record has been good this season, their road power play has got to be up around the top of the league if not No. 1.
“They’re a tough team. They play well, they’ve got good goaltending, they play with confidence. I thought we should have won the game tonight. We didn’t. But give them credit for playing hard.”
Four seasons ago, the Islanders won a total of nine road games all season (9-29-3) over the course of a full 82-game NHL campaign.
Caps Killer – Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov ran his career record to 12-1-2 lifetime against Washington with the victory on Tuesday.
By The Numbers – Washington went 7-6-0 during its grueling stretch of 13 games in 22 nights … Green led the Caps with 25:14 in ice time on the night … The Islanders blocked more shots (26) than the Caps got on net (22) … Washington had 66 shot attempts to 51 for the Islanders … Ovechkin led the Caps with four shots on goal; he and Hendricks led Washington with three hits each … Moulson led the Isles with six shots on net … Matt Carkner led New York with five hits … Andrew MacDonald’s five blocked shots paced the Islanders.