For the first five minutes or so Friday night, the Washington Capitals came out skating hard, throwing their bodies around and making good effort against the New Jersey Devils, losers of four straight and weary from playing the night before. But in the span of two minutes, Jason Chimera had a shot blocked on a two-on-one, Troy Brouwer was robbed by Devils’ back-up goalie Johan Hedberg on another odd-man rush, then Matt Hendricks took a penalty when he got his stick up on a check.
The Devils scored on the ensuing power play, opening the floodgates for a 5-0 white-washing of the homestanding Caps. And according to some players in the locker room, the team didn’t put up much of a fight, if any.
“I don’t think we worked very hard in the third period,” Troy Brouwer said from a somber home locker. “I thought we packed it in. We looked like a real timid, beaten down hockey team. We have to address that and make sure there is no quit in us, ever.”
“This was an embarrassing game,” former captain Jeff Halpern said. “We were terrible. [New Jersey] seemed to turn it up and we had absolutely no response.”
Once the Capitals found themselves trailing, they reverted to many of the bad habits that we’ve seen out of this team all season long. The turnovers in the neutral zone and on the rush were plentiful. The defensive breakdowns were obvious. Individual play and 1-on-3 rushes became the norm. Lack of puck possession and difficulty getting out of their own end? Check.
“We went back to our old habits,” Brouwer said, “which is trying to do too much with the lines, trying to get a little too individual — everyone wants to be the hero. We have to make sure we’re doing the right things and playing the right way. That’s what won us the game the other night against the Islanders.”
“Obviously, you don’t want to lose a game like that,” Dennis Wideman said, referring to the 5-0 score. “We played right into their hands. The one thing you can’t do when you’re playing the Devils is turn the puck over. You can’t put anything in the middle [of the ice]. Pretty much all of their goals, except their power-play goal, we turned the puck over.”
Add leaky goaltending by Michal Neuvirth, making his third consecutive start, and you’ve got the recipe for a lopsided snoozer, which is exactly what we had for much of the second half of the game as the Devils fell back into their trap, perfectly willing to let the Caps try to skate into it.
The Devils scored on two of their first four shots and netted their three first period goals on a total of seven shots on goal. New Jersey added two more in the second period on another seven shots. Yet, Caps coach Dale Hunter never made a goalie change, allowing Neuvirth to continue to get pounded, much like a baseball manager would let a starting pitcher take damage if his bullpen was not rested.
“I wanted Neuvy to battle through it,” Hunter said in his post-game remarks. “He didn’t have a great start, so I wanted him to battle through it.” Asked what the difference between last night with Neuvirth, and the occasions lately where Hunter didn’t have the same patience with Tomas Vokoun, Hunter replied, “It’s one of those thing with coaches, it’s what we think at the time. Every game switches. It’s not always ‘Watch two goals, you gotta switch a goalie’. You know, it’s always what you feel right at that moment.”
The special teams were, in a word, atrocious. The Capitals surrendered a power play goal (1-for-2 on the kill), surrendered a short-handed goal (their fourth shorty allowed in their last 10 games), and failed to score on two power plays, registering just two shots on goal in four minutes with the extra skater. They have scored five power play goals in their last 46 extra-man opportunities since Feb. 1
“Our power play is killing us,” Wideman said. “Absolutely killing us. We’re making wrong reads, we’re not backing each other up when there’s a bouncing puck. We’re giving up breakaways and goals every game. And we’re not scoring — or even generating a chance. Out power play is absolutely killing us.”
Things were so bad, folks started leaving in the middle of the second period, and the Caps were serenaded by boos all night long.
With time running out on their season, and every game so critical to their playoff chances, it’s remarkable how deflated the team looked after allowing that first goal. Instead of showing resiliency and fight, the team admittedly descended into bad habits once again. With Florida and Winnipeg both off Friday night, the standings didn’t change. But the Caps did lose one of their three games in-hand over the Jets. Those games are only good if you win them.
Brooks Laich summed things up pretty well. “It’s tough. You don’t want to wake up in the morning and see that you’re not in the playoffs. There’s a lot of hockey left. Sometimes you’re gonna lose hockey games. That’s the way it goes. We’ve got to rebound.”
The other choice is just too depressing for Caps fans to think about.
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.