Nicklas Backstrom couldn’t see many positives.
Staring up at the Southeast Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes going into Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals stared up at the scoreboard at the end of the game to see a crushing, 4-0 defeat.
“Our effort is not good enough,” Backstrom said. “I think tonight was 60 minutes of just terrible effort from us.”
Defenseman Karl Alzner questioned even more, not just about this loss but the Caps’ past three that dropped them to 14th in the Eastern Conference. They’re now 10 points back of the Hurricanes in the division race.
“It’s almost like we’re not playing with that energy and that intensity anymore,” Alzner said. “Our battle, our compete level hasn’t been high enough, so the exact reason I don’t know, but it’s been a downward spiral in the last three.”
Coach Adam Oates didn’t necessarily agree with that assessment, that his team lacked that requisite “compete level.” All that even though his team was outshot 36-26 and struggled to possess the puck most of the night.
“We were doing a lot things right,” Oates said. “We had a lot of chances early, we didn’t score, they got a soft one and put us on our heels.”
The Caps did get some chances, like when Alex Ovechkin set up Marcus Johansson for what should have been a lay-up in front. But they were stifled at every turn by goaltender Justin Peters, who earned his second career shutout, both against Washington.
But Peters didn’t want to soak up the praise. This was about the first-place Hurricanes flexing their muscles.
“We played an awesome game, I think, tonight as a team, right from the drop of the puck right to the last buzzer,” he said. “That was a total group effort tonight and a huge confidence-builder for us.”
What the Hurricanes did was play a polar-opposite game from the Caps. While Backstrom was questioning effort, Carolina coach Kirk Muller called it one of his team’s better 60-minute performances of the season.
“As a team you just try to go out there and play a full 60 minutes, and that’s your goal each and every night,” said center Riley Nash, who scored twice. “I guess it’s good that we’re finally getting close to our goal.”
The Caps’ goal is to make sure their season doesn’t end after 48 regular-season games. Nights like this won’t help, especially with opportunities ticking away.
“If you’re gonna hunt that playoff spot, you can’t play like this,” Backstrom said. “We’ve gotta be better than this.”
Muller’s team was simply better, not just based on talent but effort. The Hurricanes took advantage of a banged-up Caps blue line featuring three rookies and executed the game plan to near perfection.