Dale Hunter likes to keep talking about every night being a playoff game for the Washington Capitals. Sunday, it actually felt like it.
Perhaps it helps that the Caps and Philadelphia Flyers played a rough, seven-game playoff series in 2008, so it's not hard to envision. Naturally it doesn't hurt that these two teams have plenty of bad blood built up even more recently than that.
"I think guys are going at each other a little bit harder than some of the games," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "A few things after the whistle. It had a good feel to the game — low scoring."
But with the hitting and back-and-forth action, and fans at Verizon Center going back and forth with chants of "Let's go Flyers" and "Flyers suck," it looked like a game happening in the spring. It was still a game with plenty of meaning, but it turned out to be a much bigger missed opportunity as the Caps were shut out for the second straight game.
This one, a 1-0 loss to Philadelphia, stings because the Caps felt good about their game and had nothing to show for it.
"At this time of the season, a loss is a loss. We can be happy with the way we played, but we can't be happy with the outcome," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "Moral victories don't mean anything right now."
The Caps outshot the Flyers 34-23 and got another solid showing from goaltender Michal Neuvirth. But they couldn't crack Ilya Bryzgalov, who ensured Washington was blanked two straight at home for the first time since March 2001.
Alzner lamented not getting too many scoring chances in front of the net, but Hunter praised Bryzgalov.
"You've just got to keep doing the same thing and hopefully they go in. It's like nothing — you can't be frustrated. You've just got to go, 'Goalie was hot,' so just keep getting the pucks to the net," the coach said. "We fired a lot of rubber on them tonight, and we just got to get more traffic, try to get more traffic in front because the goalie's been sharp. He was good tonight."
The Caps already know they're in must-win territory with home games if they want to capture a fifth straight Southeast Division title. They're not out of it because the Panthers have been stumbling in a bad way, but Florida snapped out of a recent funk Sunday to beat the Ottawa Senators.
That result went final before even the second intermission in Washington, as the Caps slipped five points back of first place and couldn't keep pace.
"There's no silver lining to losing a hockey game at this time of year. I think Florida won; they're moving ahead of us in the division now and it's a hard pill to swallow," forward Matt Hendricks said. "I thought we fought, we battled for 60 minutes."
While there was perhaps a glance at the out-of-town scoreboard, the Caps know full well that they need to take care of business. An entertaining first period including plenty of hitting, a fight between Troy Brouwer and Scott Hartnell and a healthy amount of good goaltending. It was the kind of hockey that makes fans wish for a full series between these teams.
It took a deflection goal by the Flyers' Eric Wellwood to open the scoring, as he tipped a Pavel Kubina shot by Michal Neuvirth. Alex Ovechkin was responsible for the turnover that led to Wellwood's goal, and he took responsibility for that afterward.
"I try and make a play in the offensive zone and it cost us a goal. It was my mistake," Ovechkin said. "My mistake cost us two points and it cost us the game."
Ovechkin and linemates Brouwer and Marcus Johansson didn't take another shift for over six minutes, but the captain and his coach both vehemently denied this was a benching of the superstar.
"Guys, it's not a benching. It was, maybe he missed a shift," Hunter said. "Guys, I was matching lines. So he played and he played a lot in the third and he had his chances and the goalie stood tall."
It didn't mean much that the Caps put together a much better showing than in a 5-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Friday night. This was progress in the sense that they played better, but it wasn't much progress toward the goal of making the playoffs.
"We obviously don't want to lose at any time, but especially this time of year, when you're fighting for spots and they're up for grabs," forward Joel Ward said. "There's really no excuses, really. We just want to win and we're just not getting it done."
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.