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Close-game woes leave Capitals mired in mediocrity
As a defenseman, Karl Alzner doesn't mind playing in low-scoring, narrow-margin games. The pressure keeps him mentally sharp, and the excitement from such situations can make an eventual victory much more satisfying.
This season, though, such victories have been rare for the Washington Capitals, who were plagued by miscues in a 1-0 home loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday night.
Washington's mark in one-goal games this season isn't stellar, but it's not downright disturbing. Twenty-nine of the Capitals' 57 games have been decided by one goal. They've won six of 14 games in regulation or in overtime, and 15 other games have progressed to shootouts, in which the Capitals have won eight.
Including the goal awarded in a shootout victory, the Capitals have not won a game while scoring fewer than three goals this season. In parts of two seasons under coach Adam Oates, they are now 26-25 in one-goal games.
Those are marks of mediocrity, and with the Capitals entering Wednesday in seventh place in the eight-team Metropolitan Division, and 12th in the 16-team Eastern Conference, mediocrity late in the season won't help them qualify for their seventh consecutive playoff appearance.
"It's unfortunate," forward Brooks Laich said Tuesday after the loss, the Capitals' third in four games. "You score six goals on Sunday and you come up with a goose egg tonight. So far this season, I don't think we've been able to put together a six-, seven-, eight-game [winning] streak, which gives you a little bit of breathing room in the standings, and that's why we're in a fight right now."
An offense-oriented team, the Capitals are tied with the Ottawa Senators for 11th in the league with 2.87 goals per game. They've scored six and seven goals in victories; they've twice scored four in a loss.
Tuesday marked the first time since 2011-12 they played in, and lost, a 1-0 game. They took only 22 shots on Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who had his second shutout of the season and his third in 18 appearances against the Capitals.
"I don't think you can ever get too many shots on the goalie," said winger Eric Fehr. "I think we had good puck possession in the first period and I think it was a little too much around the perimeter. We didn't take it to the net when we got it back to the point, whether it was traffic or what we didn't find a way to get them through. Those are momentum killers, too. We have the puck in their end, and they just take it down right away."
The Capitals were playing their third consecutive game without defenseman Mike Green, who sustained a concussion in their Jan. 30 road loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Their defense has been patchwork as of late — Dmitri Orlov, Connor Carrick and Tyson Strachan, all of whom played Tuesday, have spent significant time with the AHL's Hershey Bears — and their goaltending has been inconsistent as well.
Michal Neuvirth, making his third start in as many games, had 27 saves and held the Islanders to 0-for-5 on the power play. The only goal he allowed was early in the second period — a slap shot from the right point by Andrew MacDonald, who was screened by Strachan and center Nicklas Backstrom.
Alzner suggested fatigue was an issue Tuesday, as the Capitals played four games in six days and finally earned a respite Wednesday with a day off. Being able to win close games when not sharp or strong is much more difficult.
"We liked that a little bit when [former coach Dale Hunter] was here because our style wasn't a goal-scoring style," Alzner said. "We just had to grind it out, and that's what happened. It's pretty necessary. You go west and play those teams, and you're not going to get many goals. You've got to be able to find a way to win those ones, and we struggled with that over the years."
MacDonald's goal on Tuesday seemed to deflate the Capitals more than it should have. They wandered aimlessly around the ice during the remaining 17:44 of the third period and squandered a pair of power-play chances.
"I think what it proves is you can't worry about goals," Oates said. "You've got to worry about your own end. We've talked about [how if] you turn it over too many times, you give them a little bit of life, discipline with the penalties. You've got to be a defensive team first, and it's amazing when you play good defense how you get chances."
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