“The back door play was a mistake. The breakaway was a mistake. Two-on-one at the end was a mistake.” — Dale Hunter
The Washington Capitals played about as well as one could expect them to for the first 24:11 of the game, building a 2-0 lead over a last-place Carolina Hurricanes team.
The good feelings lasted only 40 seconds longer, as a defensive breakdown led to the first of three consecutive Hurricanes goals. And though the Caps rallied to tie it up with less than three minutes to go, they fell victim again to an odd-man rush, courtesy of a defenseman jumping up in the play at the wrong time.
What should have been a game the Capitals won handily turned into a 4-3 overtime loss, further clouding an already murky playoff picture for a team that many expected to challenge for a title in the pre-season.
Turnovers and sloppy defensive play contributed to every goal Carolina scored, including the game-winner when Marcus Johansson lost the puck along the boards after Dennis Wideman had cut to the crease, leaving Mike Green as the only one back to defend the two-on one. As has been the case all too often lately, Carolina made the Caps pay for their transgression.
For a team that has been preaching transition defense and good decision-making with the puck, they just continue to make the same mistakes just about every game.
“Every game it’s up on our board,” Troy Brouwer explained. “Work on our turnovers, limit our turnovers. And they seem to be the death of us every night.”
Forward Brooks Laich, whose goal tied the game at three to force overtime with just less than three minutes remaining in the game, did not mince words after the crushing loss.
“Turnovers. Missed assignments. Just not playing the situation. Goals tonight [were] a breakaway goal, a two-on-one… Those are easy goals. If you’re going to give up goals, you want to make them work for it. [Make opponents] drive through guys and have to scramble to score goals. We can’t just let them shoot pucks at open nets. We hanged Michal [Neuvirth] out to dry. He’s got no chance.”
Jay Beagle, who scored his first goal of the season and had a second waved off when video replay showed he did not get his shot off before the horn ending the second period, echoed the elder statesman. “It seems like whenever they score, it’s too easy. We’re giving them easy goals from either turnovers or missed coverage. I was guilty of a couple of turnovers tonight, too. We just can’t make it easy for them, especially with a team that works that hard.”
The Capitals built that two goal lead on goals by Troy Brouwer (18) and Beagle. But a defensive breakdown — which would once again be a recurring theme — led to Jiri Tlusty answering for Carolina while public address announcer Wes Johnson was still reading Beagle’s goal.
Brouwer got caught watching the puck instead of tracking his man, and Tlusty skated unchecked toward the Caps net. Jerome Samson hit Tlusty perfectly in stride, and whatever momentum and confidence the Caps had gained was immediately flushed down the drain.
The veteran took responsibility for the defensive breakdown. “That first one, just a neutral zone transition that, me personally, I forgot to pick up my guy late.”
Three minutes and thirty-nine seconds later, the game was tied.
The third Hurricanes goal was the back-breaker. The Caps had good offensive pressure, and looked like they might score themselves. Defenseman Mike Green jumped up in to the play, but a pass intended for him was broken up and cleared –bouncing — to the blue line. Dennis Wideman tried to bat the puck baseball-style back into the offensive zone, but missed. Badly. That sent Brandon Sutter in alone on Neuvirth, who had no chance on the breakaway.
“It was just a bad read,” Wideman said of his poor decision. “Those are the plays that cost you playoff series, don’t let you get into the playoffs. It was just a bad play. I should have just backed up and took the two-on-one.”
He continued, “In a tied hockey game that’s just a 50 percent play. It’s just stupid.”
“You can’t take chances like that,” coach Dale Hunter said of the play. “It’s a bouncing puck and you have to back out.”
Hunter acknowledged that despite all the preaching he and his coaching staff do about turnovers and transitional defense, the team just isn’t grasping the concepts.
“We played hard enough again but we made mistakes on our back-end tonight and it cost us. The breakaway goals, the winning goal — was our back-end making mistakes and pinching and jumping up [into the play] at the wrong time and it cost us the game.”
“The back door play was a mistake. The breakaway was a mistake. Two-on-one at the end was a mistake.”
As much as it’s talked about — at practice, in team meetings, after demoralizing losses — you’d think at some point it would sink in. Yet, here we are with just 16 games remaining in the season talking about the same things that plagued this team in October and November.
And unless something miraculous happens in those final 16 games, we’ll have an even longer off-season than usual to still be talking about those problems — and how to fix them.
GAME NOTES: Courtesy of the loser point, the Caps are five points behind Florida for first in the division, though the Panthers have a game in-hand on the Caps. Washington is two points behind Winnipeg with one game in-hand for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. However, only six points separate the Caps from Carolina, last in the division and 14th in the Conference.
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.