It was another multi-goal loss for the Capitals Sunday night as they dropped their fifth in a row against division rival New York Rangers. The win put the Rangers five points ahead of the Capitals, while they still hold two games in hand.
It was much of the same at Madison Square Gardens as mistakes and penalties piled up to ultimately cost Washington another two points in the final regular season contest between the two teams.
The first goal of the game came a little over a minute in with a bad play from Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov costing the away team. His bad pass allowed for Rick Nash to steal the puck from a defenseless Nicklas Backstrom along the boards and carry it into the zone to net his 13th of the year unassisted. It was the Canadian Olympian’s sixth goal in his last eight games.
“Bad turnover for the first goal. First shot on net is in the net; you’re fighting an uphill battle right from the beginning,” said Coach Adam Oates postgame.
After Nash’s goal, the Capitals controlled play for the next handful of shifts, getting good chances on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and showing some life. The Caps push included a stellar chance on a Mike Green quick release shot that hit off the goal post.
While the Capitals received the first power play of the game, it would be the Rangers who struck on their chance five minutes later when Martin Erat took his first of three minor penalties of the night, hooking John Moore. It got worse for the Caps just over 20 seconds later when Karl Alzner similarly earned a hooking call, giving the Rangers a five-on-three opportunity that they would not waste. Nash tallied another as he snuck a shot short side on Capitals goalie Philipp Grubauer, spotting an opening five hole and taking advantage with his quick release.
Just as Alzner was exiting the penalty box, Derek Stepan stashed a snap shot past a disoriented Grubauer, who could not find the puck through the multi-player screen. The turnovers and penalties all but killed the Capitals momentum and put them in a three-goal hole early in the game.
“Play a little simpler, get out of the box, more shots,” Backstrom said when asked what needed to be improved upon. “We’re struggling a little bit on the PK, obviously it doesn’t help that we take lots of penalties.”
For the second game in a row, Oates elected to pull starter Grubauer in favor of relief Braden Holtby after the starter let in three of eight shots.
“It’s part of the game,” Grubauer said of being pulled. “It’s my job to stop the puck and I didn’t stop it today. I’ve got to work on that and move on.”
It seemed like a comeback might be mounting in the second period when Rangers penalty to Chris Kreider late in the first coincided with a Carl Hagelin slashing call on Ovechkin to give the Capitals a valuable five-on-three power play. It was only a matter of time before the most lethal scorer in the league would strengthen his grip on his scoring lead with his 35th of the year on a beautiful one-timer from Green.
While it was the Capitals who retained the one-man advantage after Ovechkin’s goal, it would be the Rangers who cashed in; scoring the sixth shorthanded goal the Capitals have allowed this season. When Dominic Moore put a shot on goal, Holtby gave up a juicy rebound right in the slot towards the striding Ryan Callahan, who put away the puck, stopping the Capitals momentum in its tracks.
A scrum midway through the second period resulted in roughing calls for Tom Wilson and Daniel Carcillo, creating four-on-four play for two minutes. It appeared as though the Capitals might claw back into the game when Ovechkin sent a pass Green’s way. The defenseman pulled a nifty curl-and-drag move around Brad Richards and put the puck top shelf behind Lundqvist, seemingly cutting the deficit to one. Unfortunately, Erat shoved Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in front of the net, negating the goal and earning another two minutes in the box for interference.
The Caps would kill off the remaining four-on-three and five-on-four play to regain even strength without surrendering a goal, but it would prove to be a moot point, as the Capitals fell to the Rangers at a final score of 4 to 1 after an action-less third period.
“Hopefully, the guys control themselves and learn. Veteran guys have played this long in the league for a reason,” Oates said when asked about penalty troubles. “Lately, it just seems to be happening at the wrong time for us.”
Backstrom did not sugarcoat anything postgame.
“We’re in a slump right now, that’s for sure,” he said. “It’s tough, but we’ve got to find a way to get through it. We’ve got to play way better than we’re doing right now.”
As the season barrels on, every game carries more weight and every loss is more crushing.
“This time of year the mistakes become more under the magnifying glass. We’re going to work on a lot of things…everything comes from hard work,” Holtby said in the locker-room.
The Capitals have now gone 4-7-5 in the past 16 games, as they return home briefly on Tuesday to host Ottawa before heading out on the road for their next five.