- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2014

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta faked toward the center of the ice and took Capitals winger Joel Ward along with him.

With the crowd roaring late in Wednesday night’s game at CONSOL Energy Center and the Penguins pushing hard on a long shift, Matta quickly skated back to his left, without Ward this time, and whistled a screened shot past Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth. That goal with1:54 to play broke a 3-3 tie and proved to be the game winner.

It was a crushing loss for the Caps and continued a trend that began in the opening game of the season against Chicago on Oct. 1. Washington can now point to five games where it led in the third period only to see its opponent storm back for the victory.

“We figured out a way to lose it,” Caps coach Adam Oates told reporters in Pittsburgh after the game.

It’s not the first time. Washington was up 4-3 on the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks before allowing three goals down the stretch to lose 6-4 on opening night. It was ahead 2-1 in Vancouver and lost 3-2 on Oct. 28.

In Phoenix on Nov. 9, the Caps held a 3-1 lead entering the third period and lost in a shootout, 4-3. That one stung thanks to two goals allowed in the final four minutes of regulation. They also lost an overtime game against New Jersey when up 4-2 in the third period and then endured Wednesday’s disappointment in Pittsburgh. The one common element? All five blown leads came away from Verizon Center.

But it isn’t just late leads that are a problem. Washington can’t seem to stand prosperity at all, struggling all season to hold off opponents after scoring a goal itself. That could simply be an issue that poor defensive teams always face. The Caps have allowed 135 goals this year (2.87 per game), which is the 11th most in the NHL. But whatever the reason, it keeps happening.

Against the Penguins, Jason Chimera scored at 14:31 of the second period to give his team a 2-1 lead off beautiful passes from teammates Marcus Johansson and Dmitry Orlov. But just 1:37 later Pittsburgh answered with a goal from Taylor Pyatt to tie it. Then, ahead 3-2 with11:25 to play after Alex Ovechkin’s goal, the Caps gave up the lead again three minutes later on a Jussi Jokinen tally.

Washington has scored 132 goals this season and 19 times it has allowed an answer within 97 seconds. Opponents have responded with a goal in 2:42 or less 25 times, which means 19 percent of the time the Caps score they allow a goal in under three minutes.

Some of those were meaningless scores in blowout wins or losses. But that wasn’t the case in Pittsburgh. And it meant something in Vancouver, where a 2-1 lead after a Mikhail Grabovski goal turned into a tie game within 1:01 and a deficit within 3:09.

In New Jersey, the Caps were ahead by two in the third period. But just 1:14 after Ovechkin gave them the two-goal advantage, Marek Zidlicky answered for the Devils. Within 3:40 the game was tied and Washington lost in overtime.

In a tight Eastern Conference playoff race, where the ninth-place Detroit Red Wings were just two standings points behind with a game in hand entering play Thursday, those lost points could spell the difference between making the playoffs or not.

About the only good in its sudden 0-2-1 skid is that Washington hung with San Jose at home in a 2-1 shootout loss on Tuesday and controlled much of the game against the Penguins. The Caps played solid games against two of the NHL’s five best teams on back-to-back nights. That’s only a small consolation, however, heading into Friday’s road contest at Columbus.

“It’s not a real pat on the back to say ‘Oh, jeez, we hung out with the San Jose Sharks,” forward Brooks Laich said on Tuesday. “We expect a lot out of ourselves. We think we’re an elite team, too. So we lost [Sunday] to Buffalo, which was the bottom of the standings and [San Jose] is one of the top of the standings. It can go either way. But we’re certainly not sitting here patting ourselves on the back. We want more.”

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