NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A quick wrist shot by Troy Brouwer into the upper-left corner of the net ended the torture.
For over 55 minutes, Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne tortured the Capitals by turning aside everything — whether he saw it or not. This should've been it, a victory earned by stellar goaltending and timely offense.
It wasn't. Just 28 seconds later, the score was tied again — when the Caps stopped skating.
"From winning to losing. From putting ourselves in an unbelievable spot to win a hockey game to scrambling," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "And even though the game was tied, you lose the momentum like that, you feel like you're behind."
It only took a few more minutes for the Caps to actually be behind, with another defensive breakdown paving the way for a 3-1 loss on Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena. Counting a shootout defeat to the Devils, it's the Caps' fourth loss in five games and sixth in their past nine.
The Caps, almost to a man, were at a loss to explain how they let this one slip away.
"This is a tough one to take," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I thought for 56 minutes, we played as good as we can play. We scored the goal and in the last two periods we totally, I thought, dominated, and then we scored the goal to take the lead and we stopped playing. What are you going to say?"
Boudreau did say that the Caps stopped skating on the goal that cost them the lead. Players wondered if the play was offside as Ryan Suter carried the puck over the blue line. While the Caps pulled up and at least hesitated, Shea Weber streaked down the wing and eventually fed the puck to Martin Erat for the equalizer.
"I think all the guys on the ice thought it was offside, so they stopped playing," Boudreau said. "And [the Predators] didn't stop playing. That's why you have to play to the whistle. Just looking at the replay, guys were putting up their hands and they stopped skating, and they kept coming. That's why it looked so easy."
That was just the start of what turned out to be shocking late-game collapse. With under a minute left, a strong forecheck by Colin Wilson helped expose the Caps' defense. John Erskine followed the Nashville forward into the corner and lost his stick; in the meantime Dennis Wideman and a backchecking Jason Chimera failed to pick up Erat — or anyone.
When the puck made it back to Erat at the side of the net, Tomas Vokoun had to turn and face him; Wilson made it to the net past four Caps players unabated to put the puck in with just 24.3 seconds left.
"I even don't know what really happened on the second goal, why the guy was all alone in front of the net. There was actually two guys — the guy who make that deke and went behind the net was by himself for a second," Vokoun said. "It was basically one against four of our guys coming into the zone. We can't blame anybody but ourselves. We basically give them the win."
Added Erat: "I don’t know what the defense was doing there, and Willy gave me a great puck down low, and I was by myself in front of the net. Willy was coming he was almost two-on-none; I don’t know what happened there, it was just probably their mistake on the defense."
It was a costly series of mistakes in the final minutes that wasted what was an excellent defensive effort that included 28 saves by Vokoun.
Rinne was brilliant all night, finishing with 39 saves. But when the Caps finally solved him, they figured it could be enough.
"One or two goals are hard to come by when you play him," Brouwer said. "So when you're able to score a goal and get a lead, you've got to be able to protect it. And obviously we protected it for about 15 seconds, and that just wasn't good enough."
Said Vokoun: "You get a 1-0 lead five minutes left in the game or whatever, you can't give up plays like that. I really don't know what to say. It happened five minutes ago, and I'm still stunned."
Stunned almost-silence was the theme throughout the Caps room after this one. Boudreau lamented getting 40 shots against a stingy Nashville team and not coming away with a victory.
After breaking through, the Caps looked as if they would escape from Bridgestone Arena with two points. Once they coughed up the lead, Boudreau was just hoping for overtime.
But the game kept unfurling on the Capitals and left them with nothing in the first game of the road trip.
"It was hard to take because we worked so hard," Boudreau said. "We'll have to regroup tomorrow and get ready for Winnipeg."
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