With every point available so crucial to their playoff hopes, the Washington Capitals blew a three-goal lead at home to a team lower than them in the standings that should have been left for dead, eventually losing in overtime to the Winnipeg Jets 4-3.
For the first 26 minutes or so of this game, it was all Capitals as they raced out to that 3-0 lead behind a breakaway goal by Jason Chimera (his 18th, setting a personal season-high) and two by the surging Alex Ovechkin, his 34th and 35th of the season, to pull the Great Eight into a five-way tie for fourth in the NHL in goals.
“They looked like they were ready to — they smelled blood,” Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said of the Caps’ start. “They really looked like they were coming on. They had a couple of back-to-back shifts that were [full of] momentum, really tilted [the ice].”
But Winnipeg scored less than two minutes later and on the ensuing face-off, Brooks Laich picked a very poor time to exact a measure of revenge, goading Jim Slater to fight at center ice, giving the Jets even more momentum.
Noel wasn’t bashful when asked what he thought the turnaround was in the game. “The spark that really came on, for me, was the Slater fight. That’s really what got us going, I think. That really showed the rest of the players, the rest of the team that ‘we need to battle here, we need to keep pulling.’ I thought that was a real statement. If you look after that fight that he had, I think it was really clear that our team got energized from that, just from a team standpoint, that somebody stepped up. That was a turning point in the game.”
A turning point, to be sure.
After the game, Laich was circumspect. “Maybe the timing on my part wasn’t right. I don’t know. It’s tough to say.”
Winnipeg got their second goal a mere 1:05 after Laich and Slater entered the penalty box. For the rest of the game, the Caps sat on their heels, content to play in their own zone, defending what little advantage they still held. They stopped forechecking, They stopped shooting the puck. They had an extra man back at all times.
They took their foot off the gas.
The Capitals had not lost a game all season they led entering the third period, and they had not surrendered a three-goal lead either. They did both last night.
Noel was asked if he thought the Caps let up too much in the third period, a frame that saw the Caps take just two shots total, not registering a shot on goal until after things were tied up with less than four minutes remaining in the game.
“It’s hard to say. I can’t comment on what they could have done there,” Noel said diplomatically. “They play the way they play, I tried to control my bench. I know they were matching [lines], and they were hard matching, so I was able to control a little bit that was going on with their team with what I was putting out.”
Noel didn’t have to say it. It was obvious to everyone watching the Caps pulled back into a shell, practically daring the Jets to tie the game. With a 17-2 shot advantage in the third, it was inevitable.
Michael Neuvirth was stellar (38 saves), but if a goalie sees enough shots, eventually one is going to fall. And it did for Spencer Machacek with 3:45 to go, his first NHL goal.
Of course, after the tying goal the Caps couldn’t muster much, and did not register a shot on goal in overtime.
“It cost us huge two points. We get one, but we needed two,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s stupid play by us. We just totally stopped playing after they score first goal.”
“We never should’ve lost that [game],” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We just fell apart pretty much. It was an embarrassing, embarrassing loss.”
This Capitals team is running out of time to talk about stunning losses. After securing five points on a brutal five-game road trip, this was a game the Caps should have had. A win would have put Winnipeg eight points out of eighth place in the conference with eight games to play, effectively ending their season. Instead, they are a mere four points behind the Caps.
Indeed, with Buffalo’s improbable win over the New York Rangers Friday, the Sabres pulled even with the Caps for the final playoff spot, with a matchup next Tuesday at Verizon Center between the clubs.
The Caps need two points clear last night, and they blew it by withdrawing into a shell. Instead of continuing to charge forward — fairly dominating play — they fell back into a defensive posture and allowed the Jets to dictate the pace of the game for the entire second half of the game.
They took their foot off the gas on purpose, gave the trailing team some momentum with an ill-advised fight, and couldn’t turn it back on after their lead disappeared.
Better hope they don’t miss the playoffs by one point.
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.