The Washington Capitals are in the unfamiliar position of possibly being out of the playoff race for the first time in many seasons. Last night, they travelled to RBC Center in Raleigh, NC to face a Carolina Hurricanes team sitting in last place in the East. Unfortunately, Carolina played like their playoff lives depended on it instead of the Caps, as the Hurricanes cruised unchallenged to a 5-0 blanking of the reeling Capitals.
The Caps remain two points behind Florida for first in the Southeast Division and one point behind Toronto and Winnipeg for the eighth seed in the conference.
The Canes were without the services of their marquee goaltender, Cam Ward and agitating defenseman Tuomo Ruutu. For Washington, an ailing Dmitry Orlov was scratched due to undisclosed illness.
Things went awry for the Caps in the very early minutes of the opening period. Roman Hamrlik was whistled for elbowing and the Canes capitalized (no pun intended) with a goal from Justin Faulk at 3:41. A poor performance by the Caps’ defense (specifically Jeff Schultz), allowed a second Canes’ goal less than a minute after Faulk’s. Anthony Stewart took advantage of the Capitals’ miscue to give Carolina a two-goal lead and Tomas Vokoun an early seat on the bench. Michal Neuvirth came in to relieve Vokoun immediately after Stewart’s tally.
Jason Chimera came within millimeters of getting the Caps on the board with less than three minutes left in the period. While the puck passed through the paint, Chimera redirected it at the last second but lost sight of it. Minutes later, a turnover by Troy Brouwer led to a goal by Andreas Nodl giving the Canes a 3-0 lead. As the final seconds ticked off the clock marking the end of a dreadful first period performance, the Caps went into the dressing room being both out hit (14-7) and out shot (15-6).
The Caps didn’t open up the second period with much energy and things went from bad to worse pretty quickly. Carolina’s Derek Joslin was whistled for a nasty elbow to the head of Jeff Halpern at the 5:13 mark. But in a game that played like a comedy of errors, a loose puck ended up on the stick of Eric Staal whose breakaway goal gave the Canes a four-goal lead. The boys’ frustration was evident and Matt Hendricks tried to light a fire under his team by dropping the gloves with Joslin (not once, but twice). Minutes later, it was Troy Brouwer going a bout with Justin Faulk.
The third period was the icing on the Canes’ cake. A lifeless Capitals’ defense remained hemmed in their zone for much of the third period. As a result, Eric Staal struck again for his second goal with an assist from Jaro Spacek at 14:09. And with around ten minutes on the clock, it was Jeff Skinner’s shot for a breakaway but Neuvy came through with the save.
The discombobulated showing by the Capitals gave third-string goalie Justin Peters his first career shutout EVER. The fact that he only had to face 17 shots to Carolina’s 40 was only one of the night’s disturbing story lines. Alex Ovechkin’s demeanor reflected the frustration with the lopsided loss as he hung his head on the bench in the final minutes of the game.
Time is running out for this team to get it together for a chance to play in the post-season and emotions are running high on the part of Caps’ faithful, who are baffled by the inconsistency that has plagued this team all year. Whatever the explanation, losses fueled by mistakes and lack of effort are trying the patience of even the most stalwart Caps fan and raising questions about a team that earlier held high hopes of a making deep playoff run.