PITTSBURGH | It happened so fast the answers were lacking. One goal, then another, then another. Five total in 12 minutes and 39 seconds and the Washington Capitals were blown out of Consol Energy Center by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Second period,” a disgusted Alex Ovechkin said after the humiliating 5-2 loss on Thursday night. “No play. Didn’t play.”
The implosion had Caps players running down a laundry list of what went so horribly wrong. Goaltenders Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby combined to allow five goals on 28 shots, with Neuvirth drawing a quick hook after his two. Then were the three costly penalties in short succession.
Maybe it began before that.
“We weren’t ready to play,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “We got hemmed in our zone for the first two shifts, just weren’t ready to play, minds weren’t in it. That’s been our biggest problem. We have mental lapses, and this one happened before the game even started.”
Coach Adam Oates argued that the start wasn’t the problem. He pointed to grabbing a lead on the road before the first intermission and limiting the Penguins’ shots as reasons that it wasn’t mental preparation.
Even if it didn’t manifest itself until the second period collapse, teammates agreed with Brouwer’s assessment that they weren’t prepared to play.
“Mentally I don’t think we were, to be honest,” defenseman Mike Green said. “I think that the way things have gone here over the last six, seven games, maybe we need to prepare differently because it’s not working.”
When the Caps came unglued Thursday night, they unraveled rapidly. Defenseman Karl Alzner blamed himself for the interference penalty that led to Pittsburgh’s first goal, even though he almost had to do it to prevent an odd-man rush.
“That kind of changed the entire complexion of the game in my opinion,” Alzner said. “We were playing pretty good and then they got momentum right away off that that power play and it’s a real shame to happen like that. That’s kind of what we’ve been struggling with, we kind of crumble for five, 10 minutes and lose the game in that 10 minutes.”
When the Caps crumbled, that including Neuvirth, who let a soft one by him on Pascal Dupuis’ goal. Before the Penguins even finished celebrating, Oates yanked his starter in favor of Holtby.
“I thought we were playing really good hockey and I just thought they were goals that kind of deflated us, and in looking at them on the tape I’m sure definitely one of the goals I’m sure Michal would want back,” Oates said. “It kind of hurt us and we’ve been struggling and looking for just a change of momentum.”
It backfired. Holtby allowed two goals on the first seven shots he faced and all of a sudden the Caps were down by three and out of it.
“As a goalie you have to be ready to do that, and it seemed like that was the turning point, though,” Holtby said. “It got even worse after I went in.”
Within 6:49, Holtby allowed three goals on 11 shots, including one by Matt Cooke on the faceoff that Oates pinned on center Mike Ribeiro for losing the draw to Brandon Sutter. But Holtby also should’ve had it.
At that point, Oates said, the only things he can do are change the goalie back or use a timeout. He didn’t do either.
Neuvirth watched stone-faced as the Penguins lit up Holtby and celebrated goal after goal. He was relegated to opening the bench door over and over. By the end of the miserable second period, the Penguins led 5-1.
“It’s tough. Obviously I was mad at myself but I got pulled,” Neuvirth said. “And I felt bad for Holtsy. He gave up the three goals.”
The collapse gave way to plenty of questions about how the Caps get out of this tailspin that has them at 2-8-1 and still dead last in the NHL.
“You’ve got to be a strong team, you’ve got to do as many little things as you can, which includes the goalie,” Oates said. “As much as possible, you got to just keep playing the way we were playing in the first period. Our power play’s fine, penalty killing’s got to get better, no question, and that includes the goalie as well there.”
How that has to happen, players said, starts well before games.
“Better work in practice, better focus on practice. Better focus before games, get ready mentally to play games because physically I don’t think it’s a problem for anyone,” Ribeiro said. “It’s mental. And the little details that, last game I didn’t want to come in because I feel like it’s the same thing every game and we need to change that quick.”
It’s becoming the same old story for the Caps: a pattern of losing. But this one was embarrassing and lacked the platitudes of playing well and not getting results.
Instead, there was the lingering bewilderment of how to cut down on so many fatal mental lapses.
“I wish I had an answer for you, but you can only control what you can control and that’s the way you prepare and your own mindset,” Green said. “You can’t control everybody.”
Ovechkin, who scored his third power-play goal of the season once the outcome was decided, tried hard to control his anger. The maddest he’s been about a loss all season and possibly in his NHL career, the captain stood wrapped in a towel, seething.
Alzner called the Caps “not an emotional enough team right now,” and Ovechkin couldn’t argue.
“Yeah, no emotions, nothing,” he said. “Like you can see how we play third period.”
That’s when Washington finally started skating, when it was too late. Asked how angry he was that the Caps didn’t start that way, Ovechkin let two more words through.
“Angry enough,” he said.