CHICAGO — The Capitals surrendered three unanswered goals in the third period to lose 6-4 to the Chicago Blackhawks in the season-opener Tuesday. They almost spoiled the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup banner-raising celebration, but Washington’s defense failed to make Mikhail Grabovski’s hat trick and the team’s three power-play goals stand up.
Here are a few thoughts and observations about the game:
Goalie Braden Holtby was characteristically hard on himself about three goals, including defenseman Johnny Oduya’s game-winner with 6 minutes, 7 seconds remaining. It was a sour turn after Holtby made several difficult saves to keep the Capitals in the game.
He had a clear look at Oduya, who shot the puck from the left point. But forward Joel Ward deflected it as he tried to close out Oduya, and that was enough to affect Holtby. The puck went in off Holtby’s weak glove hand.
“I knew it was going to be kind of a knuckler, but it kind of just sunk out of my sight,” he said. “I don’t know why. I have to watch on the replay why. It just completely fooled me.
“I just kind of lost vision on it,” Holtby continued. “I was not expecting it to hit me in my glove there, that’s for sure. I was expecting it to go well wide.”
Holtby was pleased with his rebound control but insisted he wasn’t sharp overall.
“The first one (a rebound from close range by forward Brandon Bollig), I know I can get over there and get my blocker on top of that and give them nothing,” Holtby said. “Then the fourth one (game-tying goal by forward Brandon Saad), as well, a long pass like that gives me plenty of time to react and skate over there, and I just kind of didn’t get a very good push and got a little sprawled out and not on top of the puck. Those two are two I feel I should have.”
The Capitals took a 4-3 lead on two power-play goals to in the first 5:16 of the third period, but those good vibes dissipated after they failed to tie the game during a five-on-three advantage that lasted 1:26 later in the third.
On that two-man advantage, they had four shots on goal, two shots that were blocked and one that missed the target. Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford played his best in that decisive sequence and left the Caps full of regret.
“I saw him make a couple of good saves, and I saw that a couple of the one-timers that got blocked,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said. “I think in a sense they got lucky because they went in the stands. Sometimes when a guy blocks a shot it stays on the ice, and that helps the power play because now they’re moving around, where if a guy blocks a shot and it happens (to go) in the stands, we have to reset and we have to win a draw again. That hurt us a bit, lost a little momentum from that.”
Added forward Nicklas Backstrom: “They did a good job blocking and the goalie was making saves there. We should have scored there on the five-on-three.”
Pressed on the matter, though, the Capitals were encouraged by their power play. They generated three goals on six opportunities against a Blackhawks penalty kill that ranked best in the NHL last season. Washington passed the puck well, created open shots and took advantage of the attention the Blackhawks paid forward Alex Ovechkin.
“Power play works well, but I think our line have to create more chances out there, especially in the neutral zone because the skills we have, we have to make decisions better,” Ovechkin said.
Oveckin’s goal and assist occurred on the power play, an auspicious sign for the Capitals. They generally don’t win if he’s not scoring on the power play.
Grabovski’s hat trick in his Capitals debut featured two deflected goals and a gorgeous wrist shot on a two-on-one. Grabovski, generously listed at 5-11, is not a particularly imposing presence in front of the goal, but his positioning and timing were superb in redirecting a pair of shots by defenseman Mike Green on the power play.
“So many teams try to take Ovi away, and the league nowadays crams it back toward the goalie because the goaltending is so much better, so we have to find other ways to score, and that’s one way,” Oates said.
Defenseman Connor Carrick negatively impacted the outcome of his NHL debut. Brandon Saad tied the game 4-4 in the third period after Carrick turned the puck over in the offensive zone. Then Carrick glided back into the defensive zone as Saad drove in front of him to the net and got on the end of Michal Handzus’ pass.
On the Blackhawks’ first goal, Bollig beat Carrick on the forecheck, which freed Bollig to position himself away from Carrick and clean up a rebound.
Oates took it easy on Carrick in his postgame comments to reporters.
“When there is a goal against, everybody contributes in some way that maybe we can do something better,” Oates said. “I thought at times he played good. We’ll just work on it, like always.”
Oates actually spoke kindly of all three rookies — Carrick, Tom Wilson and Michael Latta: “Fine, yeah fine. Tough environment, first game, this building, Cup champs, kind of overwhelming. I thought they did good.”
The Blackhawks’ pre-game Stanley Cup banner ceremony was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen live in sports. The video montages, the youth hockey players handing over the banner to the team, the light show, the photo projections onto the ice. It was all top notch. Here’s hoping every fan out there gets to one day experience the elation Blackhawks fans savored before Tuesday’s game.