NEW YORK — Even now, when every Washington Capitals game is televised, players admitted playing in this spotlight was a big deal: On national television, against the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers, at Madison Square Garden.
"There's usually a couple more texts if you mess up, that's for sure," defenseman Dennis Wideman quipped.
Sunday was a big-time game for the Caps, but it didn't look like it. Left wing Alex Ovechkin struggled to get shots on net, No. 1 goaltender Tomas Vokoun wasn't in net and the energy level seemed inconsistent. A third-period push made things interesting, but ultimately the 3-2 loss Sunday kept Washington on the outside of the playoff picture.
"We fought hard, but we made some stupid mistakes," center Mathieu Perreault said. "We battled hard, but we've got to find ways to win games because we're getting closer to the end, and we've got to get points so we get into the playoffs."
It was another chance for the Capitals to make a statement, not even a week after destroying the Florida Panthers 4-0 at home, but they couldn't recapture that form in New York, falling to 9-15-3 away from Verizon Center. With Sunday afternoons on NBC being the NHL's prime time, this also was a high-profile opportunity for the Caps to show they could be a tough team to beat in the playoffs.
Instead, they looked too much like a team that could remain on the bubble, bouncing between the third seed (first in the Southeast Division) and out of the picture. They surrendered too many odd-man rushes, hanging surprise starting goaltender Michal Neuvirth out to dry, and even giving up a short-handed goal in the third period to Brandon Prust.
"The shorthanded one is the critical goal," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "You want to always say critical goal of the game — that was the big one where you give up a shorty and it ended up being the game-winner."
It was an odd afternoon for the Capitals,, who were outshot 28-26. Veteran right wing Mike Knuble was a healthy scratch for a second straight game, and Neuvirth got the nod despite Vokoun — the undisputed starter in goal — leading the team onto the ice for pregame warmups.
It was a late change as Vokoun tried to play through the flu but was not healthy enough to start. Neuvirth struggled early to adjust but gave Washington a chance to win.
"I was kind of ready to play, but he took the warmup as the starting goalie, so I didn't really get to warm up. But it is what it is, and as the backup you've got to be ready all the time," Neuvirth said. "It's tough, especially early game and no pregame skate. I think I got better as the game went on."
But the offense couldn't bail him out.
Ovechkin, who thrives on attention, didn't take a shot on goal in the first period and was a nonfactor for most of the afternoon. But he didn't think there was a struggle with putting pucks on net, more the lack of opportunities to do so.
"I think in the first period we don't have that many chances. We maybe control the puck very well, but we don't get chances to shoot," the captain said. "You can see when we play in the third period, when we cycle the puck, and the one guy was in front of the net, we can find the rebound. When we start using our 'D,' it was working."
That didn't happen until it was too late. And on the other side, Rangers captain Ryan Callahan was a force, scoring and blocking shots — more or less doing everything his team counts on him to do. Couple that with typical brilliance from goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and the Capitals remained in ninth place in the conference, unable to push the Panthers for first in the Southeast.
And while forward Jason Chimera disagreed with the notion that Washington struggled for much of the game, Perreault pointed out that even a strong final five minutes doesn't count for much.
"Every point is important at this stage," he said. "We have to find a way to win games, because at the end of the day, they're two points we need no matter how good we play or not. We've got to find ways to get points."
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