July 28, 2014

Washington Capitals Game 1 Recap: Caps Disappoint in Uneven 6-3 Season-Opening Loss to Tampa Bay

After an extra four months of waiting thanks to the NHL lockout, the Washington Capitals took the ice for their 2012-13 season opener Saturday night in Tampa against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Any high expectations for the Caps this campaign were blunted after a tepid 6-3 loss that revealed a team not quite ready for games that count in the standings.

Rookie netminder Braden Holtby allowed six goals on 34 shots, including two goals on the first two shots he faced.

Joel Ward potted Washington’s first two goals of the season, and newcomers Wojtek Wolski and Mike Ribeiro added a goal and an assist and an assist, respectively. Unfortunately for the Caps, those three players were the extent of the list  of Washington players who can feel good about Saturday’s performance.

Tom Poti, Jason Chimera, John Carlson, and Roman Hamrlik all also finished with one assist a piece.

Particularly disappointing was Holtby, who was lights out during last season’s playoff run. One line of thinking was that Holtby, one of two NHL starting netminders who played in the American Hockey League during the lockout, would benefit from facing significant North American competition before the season started. That notion fizzled out at some point during the third period, in which the Lightning turned a 3-3 tie into a 6-3 lead on the strength of goals by Martin St. Louis, Cory Conacher, and Eric Brewer.

Brewer, a stay-at-home defenseman who tallied all of two goals over the course of the past two season, sent two pucks past Holtby in the season opener. His first goal, along with several others by the Lightning, was the beneficiary of poor defensive zone play by the Caps. In fact, the first five of Tampa Bay’s six goals came as a result of a Washington positional breakdown.

For the first two periods of the game both teams traded goals to get to 3-3. Brewer’s shot from the right point that slipped past Holtby sliding to the weak side was answered by Ward’s first goal, a tip-in from the slot. That strike was set up by a shot from Tom Poti, the long-time Caps defender who hasn’t played in an NHL game since January 2011.

Ward’s first goal was a power play strike, and his second goal came on a delayed penalty call early in the second period. That one was a result of a great deal of luck, as Ward’s shot from the top of the crease bounced off Lightning goalie Anders Lindback’s pads, hit the toe of Ward’s left skate, and slid back between Lindback’s legs into the net.

By the time Ward potted his second goal the Lightning had already struck twice, with captain Vincent Lecavalier knocking a puck into a vacated net after a defensive-zone scramble by the Caps left Holtby flat on his back at the bottom of the right faceoff dot and defenseman Jack Hillen sprawled in the crease attempting to block the shot. Lecavalier and Hillen would meet again later in the game, when a strong check by Lecavalier along the goal line caught Hillen off guard and sent the defender sprawling into the boards awkwardly. Hillen left the game with an apparent shoulder injury and did not return.

The play that sent Hillen out of the game was not penalized, but Saturday night’s tilt was a penalty-filled evening, with 13 minor penalties spread between the two teams. Washington opened the game with three power plays in the first seven minutes of the first period, but while the Caps only recorded Ward’s lone power play goal on four attempts, plus the goal on a delayed call, the Lightning feasted on the man advantage with three goals on seven power plays.

At one point both teams had a man in the box as Lightning defenseman Sami Salo was called for holding on the same play Alex Ovechkin was nailed for embellishment. Taking advantage of the open ice during the four-on-four session, Wolski scored his first goal in a Capitals uniform thanks to Ribeiro’s first point as a Cap. The play was started by Hamrlik, who spotted a sloppy Lightning breakout attempt from the defensive zone and deflected the attempted clearing pass. Ribeiro swooped on the loose puck, stickhandled between two Tampa Bay defenders, and whipped a high shot that caught Lindback off guard and left a juicy rebound for Wolski to pounce on in the slot with less than two minutes to play in the second period.

In battling for the loose puck Wolski outmuscled diminutive Lightning forward Martin St. Louis, but the veteran would have his revenge early in the third fame when he one-timed a bump pass from Steven Stamkos over Holtby’s shoulder on a five-on-three advantage. St. Louis was one of six Lightning players, along with Brewer, Lecavalier, Stamkos, Teddy Purcell, and rookie Cory Conacher, to record a multi-point game.

Conacher, a former AHL MVP, put the stops to any Washington hopes for a comeback when his first career NHL goal made the score 5-3 with seven minutes to play in the game. Poti was caught pinching in the neutral zone in an attempt to generate offense and Conacher finished a slick pass from Purcell on the ensuing 3-on-1 with Alzner as the lone defender back.

With the disappointing loss at the forefront of their minds, the Capitals will now have to wait until Tuesday evening and their home opener against the Winnipeg Jets to purge Saturday night from their memories. The shortened 48-game seasons means every game and every point is at a premium, and if the Caps want to sniff the postseason they will have to put forth a much stronger effort on a regular basis.

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