Whenever any hockey team plays another that's at or near the top of the standings, the phrase "measuring stick” is inevitably trotted out. Dale Hunter didn't want to think of the matchup between his Washington Capitals and the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers as any different.
"You pretty much measure it every game," he said. "You're measured by it by 11 o'clock tonight how well you did."
In Tuesday night's measurement, the Caps came up pretty small thanks to a 5-1 loss to the Flyers at Verizon Center that featured plenty of breakdowns and missed opportunities but mostly shaky goaltending from Tomas Vokoun. All-around, it was a difficult defeat to swallow.
"It's incredibly disappointing. No one wants to do that, especially at home," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "You'd like to play a little bit better than this. It's a tough one for us. We've got to go back to the drawing board a little bit and watch some video of the mistakes we made, because they're pretty obvious to us."
Vokoun's goaltending was the most obvious problem, as he allowed admittedly two bad goals before getting yanked after two periods.
"It was terrible performance. Certainly not pleasant and it's unfortunate in a game like that," Vokoun said. "But there's really not much to say. It was a bad performance by me."
Players didn't throw Vokoun under the bus after he allowed four goals on 21 shots in one of his worst games with the Caps.
"Voky's been good for us all year. Sometimes he's going to have a bad one. That's when the team needs to pick him up and help him out. But we didn't help him out," forward Troy Brouwer said.
Hockey is so often a psychological sport that a couple of the soft goals the veteran gave up just broke the Caps. The first was an easy-to-stop Scott Hartnell shot that sneaked through Vokoun's pads — less than two minutes after an unsuccessful Washington power play ended.
Vokoun admitted it was a "bad goal," but Hunter and the Caps said they need to rebound better instead of falling apart.
"If he said it was a soft one that went in, that shouldn't factor in to much on the bench," right wing Mike Knuble said. "You don't blame it on the goalie; you don't say anything like that."
A couple tip shots were hard to peg on Vokoun, as the puck went in off Mathieu Perreault's stick in front on the Flyers' second goal and then in off Wayne Simmonds in front on the third. But the fourth goal Vokoun surrendered hurt, as he let a Max Talbot wrister go under his arm, off the post and in.
The Caps mounted an attack in the third — and for spurts throughout — but they didn't get much chance to control the puck, as the Flyers possessed and cycled it much better than they did in the teams' first meeting in October.
"They obviously were playing a hard, physical game. They're great down low. Their cycle is really tough to play against," Alzner said. "I think the ice is tilted one way, it seems like. Every single time we get out there, we're in our own zone. I don't know exactly what it is."
Meanwhile, Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov was sharp on his end to stifle any momentum the Caps were trying to develop.
The problem wasn't all goaltending, as a few deflections in front could be blamed on defensemen not tying up opponents' sticks. Defensive zone coverage, which looked to be improving as Hunter's time here grew longer, was a mess all around as the Caps couldn't prevent the Flyers from getting quality chances in front.
"Every time the puck crossed our blue line, it ended up in our end for 30 seconds at a time," forward Jeff Halpern said. "We didn't work hard to get to spots and we never came out with the puck clean out of our own end. It was like D-zone coverage practice, and we weren't very good at it."
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