The Washington Capitals tried just about everything. They scratched Mike Knuble, again. They called up prospect goaltender Braden Holtby and gave him a surprise start. They called up enforcer Joel Rechlicz.
And they announced Holtby and Rechlicz were around less than two hours before faceoff against the San Jose Sharks. The subterfuge lasted well into the evening, but it didn't help. Instead, Holtby gave up a goal from the neutral zone, Rechlicz took a 10-minute misconduct and the Caps dug themselves a little deeper of a hole in the Southeast Division race with a 5-3 loss Monday night at Verizon Center.
"I was just trying to approach it as any other game," Holtby said. "There's different factors that go into it, but just tried to approach it the same. It was a tough game, but you can't change it now."
Monday morning Michal Neuvirth figured to be the no-brainer option to start, thanks to Tomas Vokoun's illness and the 23-year-old's solid showing at the New York Rangers. Neuvirth mentioned he was starting, but coach Dale Hunter claimed it was a "game-time decision" as late as 5:20. At that time he also said the Caps had "not yet" recalled another goaltender.
Meanwhile, Holtby was in the locker room preparing for his first NHL start since last March, less than 24 hours after he played for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. It took until the 22-year-old led the Caps onto the ice at just after 7 to know for sure he was getting the nod.
Holtby found out he was coming to Washington at 9:30 a.m. and found out he was starting when he got to Verizon Center at 2.
"This is where I want to be. I don't want to look at those types of excuses," Holtby said. "They could tell me 10 minutes before the game and I'd take it and try and be as prepared as I could. That's not the factor tonight. I think there's just some technical stuff and that's it."
Even though the Sharks didn't have much time to prepare for Holtby, they didn't need it.
Midway through the first, a shot from beyond the red line by Dan Boyle tipped off Sharks teammate Joe Pavelski's stick, skipped off the ice, deflected off Holtby's glove and into the net. It was the third neutral zone goal allowed by the Caps in the past seven games.
"It's one of those shots from the red line that took a hop and a hockey play, I call it," Hunter said. "It's one of those things where the hockey gods, you know? Hopefully it evens up down the road."
Although Holtby gave up five goals on 35 shots, his teammates blamed themselves for this loss.
"We left him out to dry. Special teams were the difference tonight, and we didn't really give him too much help out there," defenseman Jeff Schultz said. "I feel bad for the guy being called up right away and put in this situation and no one helping him out."
Meanwhile, as Knuble and Keith Aucoin watched from the press box, Rechlicz earned a 10-minute misconduct for apparently saying something to Sharks forward Ryan Clowe while sitting on the bench. He finished with 1:30 of ice time.
The toughest part for the Caps may have been that they actually had some chances to score and didn't get totally skated off the rink by a quick and strong Sharks team. But they couldn't buy a break as backup goaltender Thomas Greiss turned aside plenty of quality opportunities.
San Jose went 3-for-6 on the power play, while the Caps went 0-for-4.
"Five-on-five I think we played pretty good hockey. But when it comes down to special teams, we've got to be better," forward Matt Hendricks said. "We've got to score goals on the power play and more importantly we've got to shut their power play down as penalty killers."
Holtby and the Caps weren't. And no amount of deception could make up for that. The Caps are now four points back of the Florida Panthers for first in the Southeast and have played one more game. They remain in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, one out of the final playoff spot.
"The season's starting to wind down and we're getting into crunch time," Schultz said. "All the points we can get are so important right now."
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