For the first time in more than two months, the Washington Capitals have limited the opposition to two or fewer goals in three straight games. Unfortunately for the Caps, their spell of defensive stinginess has coincided with some offensive coldness at the other end of the ice.
The Caps dropped a 2-1 shootout decision to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night at Verizon Center, the second game in succession they’ve dropped by that same score in that same fashion. Washington absorbed a 2-1 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday afternoon in the District.
“We’ve got to play the same way,” asserts Caps coach Adam Oates. “You’ve got to understand that there’s nights where you’ve got a good goalie and a good hockey team. Really our goal was kind of a fluky goal.
“[Eric Fehr] had a great chance, [Alex Ovechkin] had a good chance in overtime. There are chances in the game to generate. We only gave up one. There are going nights where you’re going to get more. In hockey, the scoring is down. On a night-to-night basis, it’s a grind. It’s a grind game. There’s no room.”
The Caps have scored more than three goals only once in their last 10 games, and they’ve managed just a single tally four times during that stretch.
“We’re doing well defensively and offensively to generate chances,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. “But I can’t say it enough. We need to score.”
Washington got exactly the type of start it would want against the Sharks, by far the league’s best team in the first period this season. The Caps spent most of the game’s first 10 minutes zipping through neutral ice and into the San Jose zone, and they were able to get several strong scoring chances and looks at the net in doing so. But the Washington bullets were directed mainly in the area of the glove hand of Sharks’ goaltender Antti Niemi, and he was able to snap everything up without even a hint of a second chance.
Just past the midpoint of the first frame, the Caps had 16 shot attempts to just four for the Sharks and Washington was outshooting San Jose 7-1.
That’s when the Sharks tilted the tides of territory. San Jose reeled off eight unanswered shot attempts, and 12 of the next 13. The 12th of those 13 shot tries went past Caps goaltender Philipp Grubauer to give Washington a 1-0 lead.
The Caps missed a couple of chances to clear the zone, and then a couple of backhand pass bids by Mike Green and then Dmitry Orlov did not reach their intended targets cleanly. The puck came to Sharks defenseman Jason Demers at the right point, and he wound up and fired a slap pass to the slot, where Sharks forward Tyler Kennedy neatly redirected the puck past Grubauer to stake the visitors to a 1-0 lead.
“Greenie was changing sides with it to Orly,” says Oates. “He probably should have let it go, but he tried to tip it and I think it just ricocheted really weird off his stick, back against the grain. It fell into their lap and turnover.
“Hey, it was a mistake for sure. But every guy makes 20 of them in the game. They played a good hockey game.”
When it was all said and done, those first 20 minutes were fairly even. The Sharks led 11-10 in shots on net and the Caps owned a 21-19 advantage in shot attempts. There were no penalties on either side.
Coming into Tuesday’s game, San Jose’s total of 51 first-period goals was tops in the NHL and its total of just 22 first-period goals against was the fewest.
Washington had another strong effort in terms of territory and possession in the front half of the second period, but again Niemi had the answer for everything sent in his direction.
The Caps finally broke through after the midpoint of the period. Mikhail Grabovski was able to thread a pass from below the San Jose goal line out to Karl Alzner at the left point. Alzner immediately pushed it back down low, toward the bottom of the near (left) circle. Ovechkin was already cocked and loaded and he fired a one-timer that beat Niemi high on the short side to even the contest at 1-1.
“I don’t think we changed anything,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich of Washington’s second period. “They’re a good hockey team and we pushed pretty hard at the start of the game. They pushed back at the end of the first and the start of the second. But then we settled in a little bit more.
“It was two pretty good hockey teams. We had a game plan and we stuck to it. We wanted to get out of our zone on the first chance, and also that’s maybe the best team that we’ve seen as far as clogging up the neutral zone so getting pucks deep was a big key for us. When we were able to do that we got a cycle going, got some chances, got some zone time, but certainly they’re a good hockey team and they pushed back.”
In the third, the Sharks got the game’s first power play at the 43-second mark when Nicklas Backstrom was whistled for an offensive zone tripping call on San Jose’s Tommy Wingels. Washington was able to snuff out that San Jose extra-man opportunity with aplomb.
Washington finally got its first power play chance with 1:15 left in a 1-1 game. Grabovski drew a hooking call on San Jose forward Patrick Marleau, but the Caps weren’t able to muster much in the way of good looks or strong chances before the end of regulation, and they frittered away the 45 seconds worth of 4-on-3 hockey they had at the start of the extra session.
The Caps had several strong chances to win the game in overtime, the best of which came when Fehr’s shot glanced off the crossbar.
San Jose prevailed in the shootout, forcing the Capitals to settle yet again for a single point. Despite playing a strong game against a strong opponent, the Caps lost the game but gained a point. That’s been a familiar scenario of late.
“Sometimes it’s tough,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. “Obviously we know we’re not going to score every shift out there. But we’re at least doing the right things and hopefully the bounces will go with us next game. It will come. If we just keep working, it will come.”
Grubauer started for the 12th time in Washington’s last 17 games. He played well again, and certainly deserved a better fate.
“Every game it gets better,” says Grubauer. “I mean, five-on-five against probably one of the best teams and we were cycling the puck down low. We were playing basically in their zone and giving up nothing.”
Grubauer is now 6-2-5 with a 2.06 GAA and a .936 save pct. on the season.
“I think when we have our energy,” says Oates, who thought his team lacked that energy in Sunday’s loss to the Sabres, “that’s the way you’ve got to play. And when we do and we’re in the right spots, every man, you don’t give up as much and you’re in better positions. It’s kind of a track meet; it’s back and forth. I know it’s one-all and sometimes you want more goals, but I appreciated that game. That was a good game – for me – to watch.”
THIRTY-THREE – Ovechkin’s goal was his 33rd of the season, one more than he had last season. Ovechkin scored 32 goals in 48 games last season; he has 33 goals in 44 games thus far in 2013-14. He missed the first two games of November because of injury.
With 47 points (33 goals, 14 assists) on the season, Ovechkin is tied for 10th in the NHL in scoring. He is one point behind Backstrom for the Caps’ team scoring lead.
SHUFFLING THE DECK – At the start of the second period, Oates made a tweak to his two top forward lines, moving Fehr to the left side of a line with Backstrom and Troy Brouwer and placing Laich on the left side of a line with Grabovski and Ovechkin.
“They’ve been together a long time, that team,” says Oates of the Sharks. “[San Jose coach Todd McLellan] really changes up Marleau, [Joe] Thornton, [Brent] Burns and [Joe] Pavelski a lot, with different combinations.
“I thought Brooksie on the left side with Grabo and Ovi would give us a little more speed on that line, to try to match them a little bit differently. I actually thought it balanced out a little bit better in the second half of the game.”
The Fehr-Backstrom-Brouwer trio generated six shots on net and 10 shot attempts over the remainder of the game while the Laich-Grabovski-Ovechkin unit managed seven shots and 14 shot attempts in the game’s final 45 minutes.
Washington outshot the Sharks 36-29 on the night, only the 14th time in 46 games that the Capitals have managed more shots on net than their opponent. The Caps are 7-3-4 when they outshoot the opposition in 2013-14.
QUITE A TILT – Washington winger Aaron Volpatti and San Jose winger Mike Brown dropped the mitts in an epic scrap at 11:39 of the first period, accounting for the only penalty minutes in the first 40 minutes of the game.
Volpatti and Brown both threw and accepted multiple blows and there was some blood on the ice after the scrap.
With 26 fighting majors on the season, the Capitals rank sixth in the NHL in that category.
HOME TOO LONG – The Caps went 1-0-2 on their three-game homestand. The Capitals have played much better in short homestands (one or two games) this season, going 6-2-1 at Verizon Center in such games. In all games that make up larger homestands of three or more games, the Caps have lost more games than they’ve won (8-6-3).
Washington will back home again for a one-game stop next Tuesday to take on the Ottawa Senators, and then it will have a four-game homestand in the first week of February, its final games before the NHL’s Olympic break.
CLOSE SHAVES – Washington is now 13-5-8 in one-goal games this season. More than half (26 of 46) of all the Capitals’ games this season have been decided by the slimmest of margins.
Only New Jersey (30) and Calgary (27) have played more one-goal games than the Capitals this season.
TOUGH FOE – With Tuesday’s shootout loss, the Capitals are now 1-15-2 in their last 18 meetings with the Sharks, dating back to the 1999-00 season.
“They’re a very good hockey team,” says Oates of the Sharks. “They have been for a long time. They’re a team on autopilot; that’s what I told the guys. They’ve been together a long time, they’ve had the same coach for a long time, the same system. They know what they’re doing; they show up. They’re not intimidated on the road. They’ve got the best first period numbers in the league, they’ve got the [most] power plays by 50, which is a ridiculous number. But you see why. They’re a very disciplined, good hockey team. Every night, you’ve got to be ready.”
BY THE NUMBERS – Mike Green led Washington in ice time for the second game in a row at 25:11. The last time Green led the Caps in ice time in consecutive contests was a three-game run from Nov. 7-10 … Each of Washington’s top four defensemen (Green, Orlov, Alzner and John Carlson) skated at least 22:38 in the game … Alzner and Jay Beagle were the only Washington skaters who did not record a shot on goal in the game … Jason Chimera’s five shots on net paced the Capitals … Ovechkin led the Caps with 11 shot attempts … Orlov’s four hits were tops among all Caps … Carlson led the way with five blocked shots … The two teams split the game’s 66 face-offs evenly, with Beagle winning seven of 10 (70%) for the Capitals … Justin Braun’s 24:10 led all Sharks in ice time and his five hits led San Jose … Kennedy led all skaters on both sides with six shots on goal.