Welcome back to the Morning After, your home for Washington Capitals game analysis in this shortened season.
GAME 32: ISLANDERS 3, CAPS 2 (15-17-1, 31 points, 7 points out of 1st in Southeast, 4 points out of final playoff spot in East)
Braden Holtby last week brought up the Caps’ lack of intensity for much of the season, before Brooks Laich made his debut. Tuesday night against the New York Islanders showed another example of that.
“I don’t think we came out with the fire that we needed, with the intensity that we needed,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “We’ve talked a lot about intensity. I think you guys had talked a lot about our intensity. I think it’s been good as of late.”
A couple of players tried to claim the Caps did not have a slow start, despite allowing two goals in the first eight minutes.
“I don’t think we have a bad start,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We just make couple turnovers in our zone and bad decisions in our zone and it cost us, they get the lead.”
And while the Caps did have a puck possession advantage, they couldn’t create a lot of scoring chances from that.
“Even when they did get their two goals, we still felt that we controlled the territory of the game, that we had been in their end,” Laich said.
Said Hendricks: “We had a slow start. When we got our legs underneath us we really outplayed them a lot of the time. In our zone I thought we put a lot of pressure on them, we had a lot of opportunities.”
But the Caps failed to score first for the first time in six games, dating to the March 16 loss at the Boston Bruins.
Coach Adam Oates was prepared for there to be some trouble in the first (and only) game back after a four-game road trip. He addressed that concern with players and said it was crucial not to take the Islanders lightly.
“I guess the first 20 minutes we should’ve maybe be more aware, obviously knowing that maybe the legs weren’t there and be probably more mentally ready for it,” center Mike Ribeiro said. “Mentally, obviously it’s just normal. You play the game and you go on a long road trip, it’s just normal, in the first 10, 15 minutes your legs are not going the way you want to and it showed a bit there in the first. We made some small mistakes, mental mistakes, and it cost us.”
That the Caps were able to tie the score at 2 ensured this wasn’t a loss built solely on a rough start, a blunder by Laich and Mike Green caused them to leave Verizon Center with zero points. Perhaps a better start would have rendered a play like that moot.
Asked if there was anything more he and his team could do to prevent a predictably bad start like what happened against the Islanders, Oates said he didn’t know.
“ I’m sure we’ll think about it, but it’s just one of those things,” Oates said. “We made two mistakes in the first, they went in the net and we got our legs going and we fought back.”
There’s just something about the Islanders that seems to cause the Caps fits. Tuesday night was Washington’s second regulation loss in as many meetings this season.
“We talked about the Islanders. They’re a better team than people think,” Oates said. “They’ve improved. They do a lot of things well. They’re well-coached. I don’t think we took them lightly. We made a couple mistakes, but after that we played good hockey. There’s no easy games, unfortunately.”
The Islanders entered the game tied with the Caps with 33 points apiece. Recent playoff drought aside, New York isn’t a pushover.
“I think they play hard. I give them a lot of credit. They’ve got a competitive group,” Hendricks said. “They’ve got some real skill up front, they’ve got a great power play, their road record’s been good this season. …
“They’re a tough team. They play well, they got good goaltending, they play with confidence. I thought we should’ve won the game, but we didn’t. Give them credit for playing us hard.”
It wasn’t as if the Caps saw the Islanders as an easy matchup. Because they’re not. Look at John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson and company, and the talent is enough to wonder if New York won’t challenge for the playoffs if Evgeni Nabokov holds up in goal.
“They got some quick guys, they got a lot of skill. They got a lot of good, young guys,” defenseman Jack Hillen said. “And we knew that. We didn’t take them lightly. We came in this game, we were very prepared. We knew it was gonna be a really good game and it was a good game.”
I find it hard to blame Holtby for Tavares’ game-winning goal. Or Michael Grabner’s or Josh Bailey’s for that matter. The 23-year-old goaltender might not have been his sharpest Tuesday night, but defensive breakdowns, not shoddy play between the pipes, were to blame.
Grabner and Bailey were both wide-open and fired point-blank shots past Holtby.
“Situations just dictate, we can’t make that kind of mistakes in our zone,” Ovechkin said.
And Grabner’s goal wasn’t even the first time an Islanders player was all alone in front. Veteran forward Marty Reasoner missed the net when he was by his lonesome.
“It happened a couple times before they scored that first one,” Holtby said. “You knew they were doing something to create that, so I don’t know if that’s our play or theirs. It’s hard to tell right now, haven’t looked at anything. But there shouldn’t be any state of shock for me. I should be prepared to stop those shots.”
On Tavares’ game-winner, Laich and Green combined to hand the Islanders what Oates called a “freebie” goal.
Holtby called it a “strange play.” Tavares’ one-timer was a blast from close range.
“I was too busy trying to see the play develop behind the net to notice where Tavares was,” Holtby said. “I’m not real sure what my positioning was, I was kind of surprised he had any room on that short side.”