With the NHL trade deadline looming in two weeks and the Washington Capitals on the outside of the playoffs looking in, the Caps need to take advantage of every opportunity to square away two points. Last night they had a chance to do just that against a west coast team playing the second of a nine-game road trip on back-to-back nights.
Unfortunately, many of the problems that have faced the Caps this season reared their ugly head again, as the San Jose Sharks opened up a 5-1 lead mid-way through the third period and cruised to a 5-3 win before a disgruntled crowd at Verizon Center.
The Caps have lost two straight and five of their last seven games. They now head out on a four-game road trip that will have stops against Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Ottawa that may very well define their playoff fate.
The loss keeps the Caps in ninth place in the conference, one point behind Toronto and four points behind Florida for first place in the Southeast Division and the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
It was kind of a crazy night at Verizon, as fans and media all found out about the same time that the Caps recalled goalie Braden Holtby from AHL Hershey to start in place of Tomas Vokoun, who also missed Sunday’s loss with an illness, despite Michal Neuvirth announcing to the media after the morning skate he would start the game.
According to Holtby after the game, he knew at 9:30 am Monday he was recalled, but did not know he would start until he arrived at Verizon Center early in the afternoon.
“[Holtby's] been playing well down there [for Hershey],” Hunter said of the decision to by-pass Neuvirth. “Neuvy played the night before so we figured he hasn’t played much back-to-back so Holtby was ready to go so we tried him.” Apparently, Hunter didn’t have that same concern about Holtby, who played Sunday at 5:00 pm with Hershey in a 5-1 win over Wilkes Barre/Scranton.
In addition to Holtby, the Caps also recalled forward Joel Rechlicz and placed him on the active roster, forcing Keith Aucoin to join Mike Knuble as healthy scratches up front. It was Knuble’s third straight game he was a health scratch.
As for the game itself, the Caps played pretty well in the first period, outshooting and outchancing San Jose. But the Sharks had the only marker, and a fluky one at that. Dan Boyle wound up from the outside of the center circle for a dump-in which Joe Pavelski tipped along the way. The puck took a funny skipped and Holtby couldn’t get enough glove on it to keep it from trickling in. It’s the third time in two weeks the Caps have allowed a goal from beyond the center line.
The Sharks then opened up a 3-0 lead in the second period on two power play goals. Pavelski, alone on the far doorstep, banged home a rebound of a Logan Couture shot less than four minutes in, while Patrick Marleau’s blast from the point hit Holtby’s right shoulder and caromed into the net.
Dmitry Orlov got the Caps on the board with less than a second left in the frame with a huge shot from the high slot, and most in attendance hoped that would be the momentum shift the Caps needed to make a game of it in the third.
That was not to be the case.
San Jose scored the first two goals in the third period, a Brent Burns shot from the point though a screen and Marleau’s second of the night, as he stuffed a rebound under a befuddled Holtby.
At that point, folks started to make their way out of the upper deck to go home.
They missed two late goals by the Caps, though. Roman Hamrlik lifted a nifty back-hander past Tomas Greiss (39 saves) through a screen by Jay Beagle, and Jeff Schultz snuck one in short side from the point though another screen with 5:51 remaining. But that’s as close as the Caps could get.
Folks will bemoan the bad bounces again, but the Caps specialty teams were decidedly unspecial last night. The penalty kill looked ragged, twice allowing an unguarded backdoor man to score, going just three-for-six for the night. And the power play, which used to be near the top of the league at home, went a dismal 0-for-4, registering just seven shots on goal with the extra man.
Team captain Alex Ovechkin reinforced the idea that their special teams did them in. “Our team played well today. All four lines played very well five-on-five, but not special teams. We had opportunities to score goals. We didn’t score. They used their opportunities. Special teams won the game today.”
Another disturbing factor: the defensive combo of Karl Alzner and John Carlson were on the ice for all five goals against and none for. Carlson in particular was out of place several times, and on the Burns goal he failed to tie up Joe Thornton along the wall, allowing the Sharks to continue play in the offensive zone, leading to the back-breaking fourth goal.
This game was the first of seven before the Feb. 27 trade deadline, when General Manager George McPhee needs to decide whether the Capitals will be buyers or sellers. How many points do the Caps need out of the possible 14 to inspire any confidence that they can make a serious stretch run?
After this game, it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking this team should be a buyer.
GAME NOTES: Alex Ovechkin had six shots, five blocked and one miss. He led the Caps with four hits.
Rechlicz skated two shifts, none after the first period, and took a ten minute misconduct in the second period from the Caps bench. He declined to talk to reporters after the game. Hunter said of Rechlicz’ recall, “[San Jose forward Brad Winchester] ran over Semin, Ovie had to jump in there last game [in San Jose]. So, Winchester wasn’t a factor out there tonight.”
The Capitals out-shot San Jose 42-35, out-hit them 17-12 and won the face-off battle 35-33.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.