The Washington Capitals flashed back to January on Sunday afternoon, and that was the last thing they needed. Just like the start of this up-and-down season, blunders masked any semblance of strong play. Untimely penalties proved costly and the New York Rangers pounced on nearly every opportunity.
Just like the start, coach Adam Oates saw plenty of positives. But after a 4-1 loss at Verizon Center, that wasn’t much consolation.
“I don’t want to keep standing here and saying that answer,” Oates said.
It’s no longer about picking up a system or playing correct hockey. After zero points against the Rangers and New York Islanders during a lost weekend, the Caps are trying to keep this from being a lost season. They’re eight points back of the Southeast Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes at the halfway point.
“It wasn’t what we wanted, obviously,” said goaltender Braden Holtby, who was pulled after giving up three goals on 19 shots. “We didn’t play the way we wanted; I didn’t bring to the table what I should’ve in order to at least get a split on the weekend.”
The back-to-back losses were reminiscent of those early in the year, when penalties piled up and frustration followed. Captain Alex Ovechkin was the biggest culprit Sunday, taking two penalties on the same play that contributed to things unraveling for the Caps.
Ovechkin tripped Ryan Callahan to set up the delayed penalty and then held Ryan McDonagh. Oates took issue with the second call, but in chasing the play the Caps were vulnerable.
“I know I trip him [on the] first one because I lost the position, so I play it like it’s going to be pass to him,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t know where he find the second one; it cost us the game.”
Within 41 seconds, the Rangers turned a tie score into a 3-1 stranglehold. Holtby criticized himself for Brian Boyle’s goal, and Oates tried to “stop the momentum.”
It was too late. Ovechkin drove the momentum the other direction.
A day after two double minors in the third period paved the way for a dreadful loss at the Islanders, the Caps were left to lament penalties costing them again.
“When we’re parading to the box all the time, we don’t have a hope,” said right wing Troy Brouwer, who hasn’t taken a minor penalty since Feb. 17. “We kind of shot ourselves again with penalties.”
Purely by the numbers, the Caps weren’t bad. Ovechkin’s extra tripping penalty was negated by Boyle’s goal, and the rest of the team managed to stay out of the box for all but two minutes the rest of the way.
But sloppy play wasn’t limited to penalties. Against a disciplined Rangers team that forward Matt Hendricks said thrives on mental errors, this was far from the Caps’ best effort.
“They put relentless pressure on our D, they have a great forecheck, and when we have the opportunity to clear pucks and we don’t, they’re all over it,” Hendricks said. “We didn’t come out and play a smart game. We had turnovers, again, in the neutral zone and such. For us to be successful, we can’t continue to make those mistakes.”
That includes Ovechkin, whose misplay on Derek Stepan led to the Rangers’ first goal. Ovechkin had Stepan lined up for a neutral-zone hit, but the center avoided contact. Even if the Caps star was smart to avoid contact, he didn’t get back to stunt the odd-man rush.
Oates said that wasn’t the way Ovechkin should have played it.
“No, it’s not,” Oates said. “We have tracking rules and I think he was going to hit him and he let him go, and because of that we got a little out of position.”
Out of position, out of sorts, the Caps still had chances to get back into it. Thirty-one seconds of five-on-three power-play time faded away, and goaltender Martin Biron kept them off the scoreboard after an early mistake.
That defenseman Steve Oleksy scored his first career NHL goal was a positive, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
“We’ve got to continue to have the pressure, continue to put it on,” Brouwer said. “We can’t think one goal is going to win in this league now.”
Throw in at least one soft goal allowed by Holtby and this one felt familiar, like it happened during a 2-8-1 start that had Washington last in the league and five points out of a playoff spot. An 8-3 stretch engendered some good vibrations, but the Caps are now eight out with half the season gone.
“Especially in a short season like this, every two points is huge,” Oleksy said. “We’ve got to bear down and find a way to get those two points.”
Every loss digs the Caps a deeper hole. While the play has improved since an ugly start, they might regret letting four points get away this weekend.
“It’s frustrating, but we can’t dwell on the past now,” Holtby said. “We’ve got to keep pushing forward and we’ll get back to work.
“It wasn’t what we wanted, obviously. We didn’t play the way we wanted; I didn’t bring to the table what I should’ve in order to at least get a split on the weekend.”