The rest of the Washington Capitals made their way to Columbus, Ohio, meeting up with their captain Alex Ovechkin to take on the Blue Jackets for their first game back from the All-Star break. Despite battling back for most of the game, the Caps failed to complete the comeback, falling to the Blue Jackets 4-3 and extending their losing streak to four games.
“Every game is a test,” said head coach Barry Trotz. “We have got to get ourselves out of this…it doesn’t matter who you play.”
Goalie Braden Holtby cited inconsistencies in their play as a problem plaguing the team as of late.
“The past four games I think we’ve done it to ourselves,” Holtby said. “All of us, there’s no one person or group of people you can put it on. We’ve all been guilty at some point or another.”
While the Caps scored less than a minute after a Columbus goal twice in the game, it was not enough to close the gap.
“It’s just not the way you can play if you’re going to win consistently,” Holtby said. “We want to groom ourselves into a great playoff team and that’s not anything close to playoff hockey, from many of us, me included. There are always ups and downs in seasons and it’s making sure the downs are shorter than they have been in the past.”
“We had good responses when we really needed it to get back closer in the game after goals and things like that,” Matt Niskanen said. “We got some goals to keep us in it but we couldn’t sustain enough good things, too many mistakes that are biting us right now.”
Those many mistakes added up for Washington and their penalty trouble crippled a potential comeback, with five penalties taken total and one in the final minutes of the game.
After cruising through December and early January, the Caps have hit a rough patch, gaining just one point in the last four games. As they get further and further away from what was a breezy end of the year, those in the locker room are left wondering what changed over the course of a couple of weeks.
Regardless of the culprit, Trotz said his team is “getting away from what wins us hockey games.”
“Four goals in this league, if you’re trying to beat everybody 5-4, you’re just not going to do it,” Trotz said. “Last four games we’ve given up at least four goals.”
“Those are systematic things that we should have figured out by now,” Troy Brouwer said. “The alarming thing is over the last few games we have kind of fallen away from those types of things…so those are things we have to address. We can’t keep giving up 4 or 5 goals and expect to win.”
“Too many guys are getting on the wrong side of pucks,” Trotz said. “Some lines are good with the puck and without it they aren’t good. There is too much cheat in their game…too many penalties, our fourth line can’t give up a goal and take penalties. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Niskanen said he thinks his team has drifted away from the discipline they displayed during their run of stellar play that made them the NHL’s hottest team just a few weeks ago. Have the Caps returned to their bad habits?
“Maybe some of that stuff started to creep in towards the end of our nice run, maybe Holts was bailing us out there,” he said. “Right now a few more going in and we’re behind the eight ball. You have got to catch up…you have got to take care of the puck.”
After a scoreless first period, Mark Letestu opened the scoring. Despite good coverage, Letestu found a lane in the middle of the ice in the slot. Just as Holtby moved in the opposite direction, Letestu sent the puck blocker side over Holtby.
Columbus added to their lead when they caught Washington on a long shift. The dangerous duo of Mark Folingo and Ryan Johansen put the pressure on with their quick puck movement. Folingo stormed up the left side and sent the puck to Johansen. Wasting no time, Johansen sent a quick shot top self on Holtby to put the home team up 2-0.
The Caps pushed back against the offensive onslaught from Columbus and got the outcome they were looking for. When Niskanen put a shot on net through traffic, the puck deflected off of Andre Burakovsky to cut the lead in half.
Less than three minutes later, the Jackets extended the lead yet again when the Caps failed to clear the puck. Both Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were caught outside the blue line when a slap shot from Fedor Tyutin gave the Jackets their two-goal lead back.
Yet again, the Caps pushed on. Just 36 seconds later, a wrister from Niskanen was deflected off of the stick heel of Troy Brouwer to keep the deficit at one going into the third.
The third began with a stellar opportunity for Washington when Brandon Dubinsky was sent to the box for tripping Eric Fehr in the neutral zone. Despite great chances for the Caps, including a perfectly timed pass from Backstrom to Marcus Johansson, who almost tied up the game, Columbus managed to bail Dubinsky out without giving up a goal.
Just as the Caps looked to turn the momentum their way, Cam Atkinson surprised everyone when he scored on a weird bounce that fell right at his feet in the front of the net. Holtby stormed out of the net in disbelief as the home team celebrated in a huddle.
On the ensuing faceoff, Jared Boll was called for hooking, giving the Caps a power play at a crucial time. After coming back in minutes from two Columbus goals, they looked to cut the lead in half yet again. Despite a plethora of quality chances for Ovechkin, the Caps came away empty handed from the man advantage.
After a shift of consistent pressure and scoring chances from Columbus, it was Washington who lit the lamp next. John Carlson carried the puck through the neutral zone with finesse. Johansson put a shot on goal and Curtis McElhinney left a juicy rebound. Evgeny Kuznetsov found the puck and scored on a sharp angle shot.
With less than three minutes left, Backstrom took a holding penalty and put his team on the penalty kill during the crucial closing moments of the game. After killing off the penalty and pulling Holtby for the extra attacker for the remaining 42 seconds, the Caps fell in Columbus with a thud.
“It’s hard to say really,” Holtby said. “I just don’t think we were sharp throughout the whole game. Just a game where there was too many little things that we’d like to do a little better. Control the game a bit more. It’s a tough one.”
Brouwer, a veteran in the league, understands the continual ebbing and flowing of a season and was quick to banish any talk of panic in the locker room.
“You’re going to have stretches when you’re right not quite doing the right things and we seem to be in one right now,” he said. “You just have to keep being simple because we have got to get back to our structure and back to our specifics and details.”
“The will to win is there. We just got to make sure that we’re cleaning our game up, doing the right things and making it so we put ourselves in the better positions to win hockey games rather than trying to win from behind in them.”