Stunning Setback – Coming into Friday night’s game with the Winnipeg Jets at Verizon Center, the Capitals were a perfect 22-0-0 in games in which they led after 40 minutes. They had also not coughed up a lead of three goals in any of their 74 previous games in 2011-12. Winnipeg was 0-22-3 in games in which they had trailed after 40 minutes.
Not anymore, on all three counts.
After forging a 3-0 second-period lead over the Jets in a key game for Eastern Conference playoff positioning, Washington gave back two of those goals in a span of just 71 seconds in the second period, then spent virtually the entire third stanza dodging bullets in their own end. The result was a stinging and stunning 4-3 overtime loss to the plucky Jets.
“I don’t know if it was the sense of urgency to finish off the team or not,” says Caps forward Matt Hendricks, “but you could tell that was a desperate hockey team we were playing. They were getting pucks in, and their legs were moving and they were throwing everything at the net.
“This is a tough pill to swallow right now, having a three-goal lead, having all the momentum going our way and the next thing you know, we’re losing in overtime. It’s tough. I don’t have much to say about it.”
With nothing to lose, the desperate Jets took control of the puck and the game in the final frame, wearing the weary Caps down in their own end until Ben Maxwell corralled a loose puck off an offensive zone draw and fed rookie Spencer Mahacek in front to draw the Jets even at 3-3 with just 3:45 remaining.
The goal was the first of Mahacek’s NHL career, coming in his 17th game in the league.
“It was stupid play by us,” laments Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “We just totally stopped playing after they scored the first goal. We played so different, a defensive style of hockey in the third period. So they just put pucks deep, got pressure and they scored another one.”
Down a goal late in the third period and with their season on the line, Jets coach Claude Noel showed faith in his fourth liners, who also netted Winnipeg’s first goal of the game at 7:01 of the second when Maxwell scored on a feed from Tim Stapleton to make it 3-1. Mahacek tied it, and fellow fourth-liner Stapleton’s overtime goal completed the Jets’ improbable comeback as Washington managed to squander a three-goal lead on home ice to the worst road team in the Eastern Conference.
At that stage of the final frame in what some Caps players termed “the most important game of the season,” Washington was still seeking its first shot on goal of the period.
“The game went 3-0 and [Caps goalie] Michal [Neuvirth] I thought was having a pretty routine night,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble. “And then all of a sudden we were up 3-0 and it’s like we stopped playing.
“All three of their fourth line guys scored tonight. It was pretty amazing where they got their goals tonight. You have to give them a ton of credit. They went down 3-0 in what I think is a tough building to play in and responded.”
Winnipeg outshot the Capitals 19-2 after the start of the third period. Furthermore, the Jets attempted 33 shots on net in the final 22:37 of play while Washington mustered only nine shot attempts of its own.
“They were bringing it,” says caps coach Dale Hunter of the Jets. “We were backing in too much. The [defense] were backing in and they were giving [the Jets] an opportunity to carry it in more.”
While Washington was able to silence Winnipeg’s big guns – Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane – they weren’t able to stop the Jets’ fourth liners, who saw limited duty on the night.
“We did a good job against their top line,” says Hunter, “which you definitely worry about. But it was their fourth line that changed the game. They scored the goals. It was the fourth line. They did the job for them. They came through with a couple big goals and it changed the game.”
“That line was really good,” says Noel of his fourth line. “They didn’t play a whole ton but every time they played they were a real factor. That’s why I kept putting them out there.
“I trusted the way they played, they had good energy, they were good on the forecheck, they spent a lot of time in the offensive zone so it was hard to keep them on the bench. It speaks volumes for them. Mahacek gets the tying goal and Stapleton gets the winner. It was a fitting end, really. I thought they really deserved it.”
Hunter benched his own fourth-liners for much of the game.
“Our fourth line didn’t do the job so a couple of them sat down,” says the Caps coach.
Watching the Capitals in third period of Friday’s game was like watching a guy clinging to a ledge on the face of a mountain with his fingertips. You know he’s going to lose his grip and fall eventually.
There is one notable difference between the mountain analogy and a hockey game. In hockey, there is a clock. If you can hang on long enough, you can win the game. The Caps couldn’t hang on.
“You’re trying to protect the lead,” says Hunter. “Most teams do it. You’ll see other teams do the same thing.”
“You hope you can defend it and you want that clock to get down, to keep ticking down,” says Knuble. “And you need some guys – a line – to grasp it and go have a shift down in their end.
“We kept talking about it [and saying], ‘Let’s have a shift in their end, play down there, just cycling it around and killing off the clock and getting the momentum down there so the next line can come on and join them.’ That just never materialized in the first 10 minutes of the third. We were just defending, defending and defending. It was kind of an omen of what was to follow.”
Noel called his timeout when his team was down 2-0 and under siege in its own end, just after Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec stopped Washington’s Alexander Semin on a prime scoring chance.
“Where the game shifted was early in the second,” notes Noel. “They had a really good start and they looked like they smelled blood. They really looked like they were coming on. They had a couple of back-to-back shifts were the momentum had really tilted.
“That’s the reason I called the timeout was just to get the momentum shifted, because it was clear they were really going and generating some excitement on their own bench and we had to get it changed around in some fashion. We battled and got back into the game.”
The loss leaves Washington with 82 points, tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings with the surging Buffalo Sabres. buffalo visits Verizon Center on Tuesday.
Sitting Back? – After the game, some Caps believed Washington sat back too much, while others didn’t.
“We didn’t run out of gas,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera. “We were just sitting back. It was mental mistakes more than anything. We didn’t run out of gas.”
“You want to push back,” he says, “but there are times to do it and there are times to defend. [The Jets] had a lot of cycling and a lot of possession in our zone. They had a few shots, but most of them were from the outside and Michal is going to make those saves.
“You play the clock a little bit. We were confident in our defensive game. We did a good job for 16, 17 minutes and it was just a missed assignment on a face-off. That’s the way the game goes. We’ve done that to teams, too. It’s the way hockey goes sometimes.”
Noel was asked the same question. He refused to answer directly, noting that he was more concerned with getting excitement going on his own bench.
“I know [the Caps] were matching [lines] and they were hard matching,” he says, “so I was able to control a little bit of what was going on on their team with what I was putting out.”
For the most part, Noel kept putting out his big guns, knowing Hunter would counter with the Caps’ checking line of Hendricks, Jay Beagle and Troy Brouwer. That left less ice time for Ovechkin, who now has eight goals in his last six games.
Ovechkin skated 8:29 of the game’s first 25:47 – the point at which Washington went up 3-0 – and just 10:22 of the final 36:50 for a total of 18:51. He was fourth among the team’s forwards in ice time, a night after leading the team’s forwards with 22:18 in Thursday’s 2-1 shootout loss at Philadelphia.
In other words, Ovechkin played about 33 percent of the game while the Caps were up 3-0, and only about 28 percent thereafter.
By my count, Ovechkin had five offensive zone starts all night, including two in the game’s final two minutes of regulation.
Chimera and Semin were two of the Caps' most effective offensive players on Friday, and they also saw less ice time on a precentage basis after the score was 3-0 in Washington's favor.
“You don’t want to sit back,” says Chimera. “You don’t want to let them come at you, that’s for sure. We knew they were going to come at us because their season was on the line. But you can’t sit back like that.
“You need one good shift to get out of that and we didn’t get that.
“It’s all on us. It’s nothing they did. It’s how we played. We had it where we wanted it, and we just didn’t finish it off.”
On The Dots – The Caps won 61 percent of the game’s face-offs, but two of Winnipeg’s four goals came less than six seconds after an offensive zone draw.
The Jets’ Bryan Little put back a Tobias Enstrom point shot that hit the post six seconds after beating Washington’s Marcus Johansson on a draw to make it 3-2 at 8:12 of the second.
Halpern won three of the four face-offs he took on the night, and he actually won the draw he took in his own end late in the third, but the Caps couldn’t gain possession. Instead, Maxwell got to the puck first and he fed Mahacek in front for the game-tying tally.
Bright Spot – Ovechkin continued his torrid stretch with two more goals in the game. He has 35 on the season and is now tied for fourth in the NHL in that department.
Career Year – Chimera’s goal was his 18th of the season, a career best. He also added an assist to match his career high in points with 36.
Neuvirth In Net – After Braden Holtby got the start in goal for Washington in each of the team’s two previous games, the Caps went back to Neuvirth in net for the second of back-to-back games on Friday. Although he allowed four or more goals for the fifth time in seven March starts, Neuvirth played well enough to win if he’d had some help in front of him.
His brilliant back door save on Wheeler helped the Caps to get the single point they did get.
“Neuvy was solid,” says Hunter. “They fired a lot of long shots on him. He didn’t have [any] work early. We should have been up more goals. We were right down the gut four or five times. We should have been up more and we wouldn’t have had this problem. It’s one of those things where [Winnipeg’s] goalie stood on his head early and kept them in the game, kept them to three goals. It could have been more.”
Neuvirth faced 19 of the 42 shots he saw on the night in the last 22:37, stopping 17 of them.
“We have to have a couple quality shifts down in their end,” declares Knuble. “You don’t have to generate scoring chances, but just occupy time and occupy space down there. Take the load off and let your goalie have a breather. He’s going 10 minutes of work non-stop, flailing around. You’ve got to give him a break, give him a chance.”
After two periods, Winnipeg had attempted 43 shots to Washington’s 42. By game’s end, that margin was 76-51 in favor of the Jets.
Down On The Farm – The ECHL South Carolina Stingrays surrendered five goals in the second period en route to a 5-2 road loss to the Florida Everblades on Friday night.
Andrew Chemiwchan scored both South Carolina goals and Billy Sauer made 31 saves in a losing effort.
The Stingrays fell into the basement of the ECHL’s South Division with the loss. South Carolina is two points behind third-place Florida. The two teams meet again in Florida on Saturday.
By The Numbers – Dennis Wideman led the Caps with 28:39 in ice time … Ovechkin paced the Caps with six shots on net … Hendricks led the Caps with six hits … Laich led the way with five blocked shots … Mathieu Perreault won seven of nine face-offs (78%) and Beagle won 11 of 15 draws (73%).