- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. | Perhaps the result was predictable, the Washington Capitals concluding a grueling five-game road trip with a loss to one of the NHL‘s stoutest defensive teams - one that has made a name for itself recently by muting the game’s best players.

But the manner in which they were controlled by the Minnesota Wild has to be disconcerting.

At the end of a 4-3 loss to the Wild at Xcel Energy Center, two things were eminently clear: Washington’s smooth-skating offense is prone to periodic struggles against trapping defensive systems like Minnesota’s, and the absences of Alexander Semin, Sergei Fedorov and Mike Green are causing so much pain that even a mercurial talent like Alex Ovechkin can disappear for long stretches.

The Capitals lost for the fourth time in five games, their depleted offense falling limp against the Wild’s trap. Only Carolina’s 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers kept Washington from falling out of first place in the Southeast Division. And to make matters worse, the Capitals had lost defensemen Jeff Schultz and John Erskine, as well as center Boyd Gordon, by the end of the game and had shifted Brooks Laich to defense.

The Capitals have a chance to get healthy with a day off Tuesday, followed by a two-game homestand that couldn’t come soon enough.

“We didn’t play well in the neutral zone, we didn’t control the puck and we didn’t have a good attack,” Ovechkin said.

The Wild took a 1-0 lead with 6:06 remaining in the first period on Cal Clutterbuck’s wrist shot - the first goal of his career. Minnesota enforcer Derek Boogaard played a different role on the score, screening Jose Theodore as Clutterbuck flipped a shot to the goalie’s left.

Early in the second period, it was evident the Wild’s grinding style was going to dictate the game. Minnesota worked the puck into Washington’s zone, getting its second power play of the game when Milan Jurcina was called for holding at 3:13. The Wild turned that into a 2-0 lead when Clutterbuck put back a rebound off Brent Burns’ shot from the point.

And though the Capitals generated more activity toward the end of the period, they still had most of their offense choked off by Minnesota’s defensive scheme, which kept the Capitals from finding much room to work in the neutral zone and virtually eliminated their legitimate scoring chances after Viktor Kozlov hit the crossbar early in the first period.

“When we did what we were supposed to be doing from the prescouting, we were effective,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It’s when you get individualistic and you try to go through the middle against these guys, it’s very difficult to go through.”

Most affected of all might have been Ovechkin, who was held scoreless in his only other trip to Minnesota and entered the night never having scored a goal against the Wild. He played 16:07 through the first two periods, logging heavy minutes as he has done most of the season, but put just four shots on goal, none of them particularly threatening.

His best early look came on a one-timer with less than 10 minutes left in the second period and Washington on a power play. But Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom swallowed it up.

By the early part of the third period, with Minnesota on a power play after Tom Poti was whistled for closing his hand on the puck, Ovechkin’s desperation boiled over. When his stick broke at the blue line, he grabbed the puck and whacked it with his right hand in a kind of futile, if blatantly illegal, slap shot toward the Wild’s goal.

All that did was put Ovechkin in the box for the same offense as Poti, and 19 seconds later Minnesota took a 3-0 lead on Marek Zidlicky’s goal during a 5-on-3 advantage.

The lead stretched to 4-0 with 12:33 left in the third when Pierre-Marc Bouchard slid a pass past Tyler Sloan on a 2-on-1 and James Sheppard buried a wrist shot.

Matt Bradley’s goal with 5:17 left got Washington on the board; Ovechkin exacted a measure of vindication when he threaded a shot from the left wing around a Minnesota defender and through Backstrom’s legs.

The Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom scored on his nearly identically named counterpart with 1:44 left. But against an empty-net Capitals attack, Minnesota survived the game’s final minute.

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