CHICAGO — Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals were loose. They were loose at the morning skate at United Center after a day off and then again when they stepped onto the ice for pregame warm-ups.
Then something went terribly wrong. No shots for over 16 minutes. No "jam," according to Mike Knuble. No "determination," according to Troy Brouwer.
And most importantly, no points in a crucial game thanks to a 5-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday night.
"Intensity was there and everybody was concentrated in the locker room, everybody was a little more like calm and concentrated on the game," a perplexed Ovechkin said. "But after warm-up, I feel pretty good and I think everybody feel good. But the game was just not there. It's hard to say what happened."
Hard to reconcile how the Capitals could come out so lethargic, listless and uninspired while clinging to a two-point lead for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
A loss at the chasing Winnipeg Jets on Friday night should have served as a wake-up call that the Washington couldn't let points slip away.
"Last game against Winnipeg we felt might be a big turning point in our season, and then to come in here tonight and not be able to get one or two points, we're really digging ourselves a hole and really putting ourselves in a tough spot," Brouwer said.
The digging started early, courtesy of a shot drought that lasted until the 16:02 mark of the first period when Mike Green finally fired the puck into the breadbasket of goaltender Corey Crawford. By that time, the Capitals had to hear the strains of "Chelsea Dagger" twice, losing 2-0 and getting blistered in shots.
"You look up at the scoreboard three-quarters of the way through the first period and you're down 12-0 in shots," Knuble said. "You can't come out like that this time of year. It can't be acceptable in our room."
Mistakes on the defensive end were costly in the meantime. The first Chicago goal was a product of the Caps allowing a cross-ice pass in the defensive zone that should have never gotten through, while the second was the result of Viktor Stalberg whipping Dmitry Orlov in a race to the puck.
Coach Dale Hunter blamed turnovers, another familiar problem to go with the all-too-familiar storyline of awful starts on the road.
"It was turnovers from our back end," Hunter said. "Our defense was turning the puck over and making bad decisions with it."
Bad decisions continued even after Knuble made it a game at 2-1 and Ovechkin pulled off a highlight-reel goal to at least make it interesting at 4-2. But Washington unraveled, letting Patrick Kane (a goal) and rookie Andrew Shaw (two goals and an assist) skate all over them.
"We didn't have that determination," Brouwer said. "We didn't have enough push to come back, and we didn't create very many chances in the third. As a result, we were hemmed in our zone the whole time and didn't get opportunities."
But it started a whole lot earlier than that. Green's shot late in the first period drew Bronx cheers from the capacity crowd of 21,561 and, later, the understatement of the night from Knuble.
"To go that long without any shots is just not a great way to start a game," Knuble said.
Especially with the Jets so close. Especially against Crawford, in the middle of a sorry sophomore slump (2.83 goals-against average, .902 save percentage). Especially when this was a game the Capitals needed to win staring at a date with the dangerous Detroit Red Wings on Monday.
"You learn from your mistakes and we're playing a very skilled team again tomorrow night, and we can't be flat off the beginning," Brouwer said. "We can't sit back, we can't let them dictate the pace of the play. We've got to come out, finish our checks, make their skill players work and get around that net more. Because we didn't do any of that tonight."
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