The Capitals returned home from a four game road trip riding a three game winning streak and confident in their ability to beat a mediocre New York Islanders team and inch two points closer to an improbable playoff spot. Instead, a series of mental lapses in their own zone led to three goals for the away team resulting in a frustrating 3-2 loss that put a screeching halt to their momentum.
The Caps let one get away that they could have won. They controlled the puck for most of the game, missed several scoring chances by only inches, and showed an energy that was missing earlier in the season. And after battling back from an early 2-0 deficit to tie the game in the second period they headed into the final stanza with the game-winning goal seemingly inevitable. But somehow the goal never came. Instead, with less than six minutes remaining the home fans watched with horror as Caps defenseman Mike Green tripped over himself while failing to clear a bouncing puck only inches from the Caps goal, allowing Isles winger Matt Moulson to snatch the biscuit away and feed it to center John Tavares who fired home his twentieth goal on the season, and more importantly the winning tally on this night.
Brooks Laich, who passed the puck to Green behind the goal, tried to take the blame saying that he shouldn’t have put Green in such a difficult position.
Caps coach Adam Oates added that it was “not a good interchange” between Laich and Green. “Brooks was tired so he just wanted to bank it to him . . . Brooks had more time than he thought. He was just tired. It was a tired play.” Oates recognized that the Caps had the momentum in the third period and that this was their game for the taking: “They had nothing going in the third” said the coach “and we gave them a freebee.”
But mental mistakes were the name of this game for the Caps defense unfortunately. The Islanders got on the board 5:24 into the first period when Michael Grabner was left alone in front of the net to take a feed from center Keith Aucoin and blast the puck past a helpless Braden Holtby. Caps center Marcus Johansson seemed to misread the play as he left the crease and headed up ice only moments before Grabner received the pass. Johansson scrambled to get back on defense but it was too late and the damage was done. Less than three minutes later the Islanders doubled their lead when all five Capitals found themselves chasing the play to one side of the ice leaving Islander center Josh Bailey wide open in the crease to bang home the puck on an eerily similar play as the first goal. Take your pick as to which Capital was out of position on the play but even a casual observer could tell something was not right.
Said Holtby about the goals: “We made a couple of mistakes and it cost us and they were prepared to capitalize on it. We made an adjustment after that but it was a little too late.”
Oates acknowledged the mental aspect of the lapses: “We broke down defensively, probably a little mental on both of them.”
But even after the two giveaways the Caps did not concede the night. As the Islanders played more defensively to protect their two goal advantage, the Caps forechecked hard in the second period resulting in goals by center Mike Ribeiro and defenseman John Carlson to tie the game. Ribeiro continues to show superior puckhandling skills and scoring ability as he tallied his eleventh of the season midway through the period. Carlson added to the ledger three minutes later with a blazing slapshot from the point that handcuffed goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
The Verizon Center fans cheered their squad as the teams headed into the second intermission and the momentum was clearly on their side. It seemed like a matter of time before the Caps iced this one away and for some the only suspense was whether star winger Alex Ovechkin would score a goal for the sixth straight game. But despite getting their chances in the final frame, the Capitals wouldn’t dent the scoreboard again and when the third mental mistake of the game reared its ugly for the home team, the Caps were forced to skate back to the locker room knowing that they let one slip away.
At this point in the season with the Caps scrambling to make up ground in the standings this was two points they could have badly used. Perhaps it was the long roadtrip they caused the mental fatigue or the compressed schedule. Either way, the Caps now have three days off to rest and scrape off the mental rust.