- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2015

When the Washington Capitals last faced the St. Louis Blues, visiting them a month into the season, they were a disjointed bunch still trying to get used to coach Barry Trotz and to each other. They took a thumping that day, a three-goal loss that marked their seventh defeat in 10 games, and Trotz and players alike spoke afterward about looking to the Blues as a model for how to organically grow a franchise.

Sunday’s game, then, was an opportunity for the Capitals to show how many strides they’ve taken. Just two and a half weeks ago, they completed a stretch where they had earned a point in the standings in 18 of 19 games, putting them among the group of teams in the upper half of the Eastern Conference. After a four-game losing streak, a shutout of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday and a hard-fought overtime road loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday gave them enough confidence that their inefficiencies had been overcome.

“We weren’t in the same ballpark as them last time,” Trotz said. “I mean, they were miles ahead of us in terms of structure.”

Though that gap had apparently narrowed, it hasn’t yet tapered enough. The Blues defeated the Capitals, 4-3, at Verizon Center, showing Washington that despite the gains it believes it has made, the best teams in the league are still in a different stratosphere.

Left wing Alexander Steen had two goals and assisted on a third, and right wing T.J. Oshie had three assists for St. Louis (32-13-4), which peppered the Capitals with 40 shots en route to winning for the 10th time in its last 11 games.

Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin had two goals, prolonging a stretch where he has scored 14 goals in 15 games. Defenseman Karl Alzner had the third goal for Washington (25-15-10), scoring midway through the period and injecting a bit of life into his team for the final seven minutes.

Goaltender Justin Peters, who was in net for the entirety of that 4-1 loss to the Blues on Nov. 15, had 36 saves in his first appearance since Jan. 17 at Dallas. A longtime backup for the Carolina Hurricanes — he played 68 games over five seasons, spending time in the AHL during four of them — Peters has now allowed three or more goals in seven of nine appearances this season.

The inconsistent work has certainly been a factor for Peters, who had only started and finished the games against the Blues and Stars before Sunday.

“These are the games I need to find a way to give the team a chance to win, to keep trying to earn those other starts,” Peters said. “Nothing’s handed to you here, obviously. I just got to continue to try to prove myself, to try to give the team a chance to win, and instill confidence in the coaching staff that maybe they would give me a different start or something like that. But that’s out of my control. All I can control is trying to give the team a chance to win.”

St. Louis lost defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who ranks second among defensemen in scoring with 40 points, to an unspecified lower-body injury early in the game, then had top-line center David Backes sent off early in the second period following a boarding call on Alzner that drew a game misconduct.

Although the Capitals made quick work of their first power play attempt, with Ovechkin knotting the score at 1-1 with his 30th goal of the season a minute into the session, they were silent during the five-minute advantage. The fourth-ranked power play managed just two shots on goal against the Blues‘ 20th-ranked penalty kill.

“It killed our momentum on that power play,” Ovechkin said. “A great opportunity to get the lead and kill the lead, but I think it was the worst effort ever from our group.”

Steen, who scored on the power play 2:34 into the game, put the Blues ahead again 11:45 into the second period when he stuffed a rebound of his own shot past Peters. Ovechkin then provided an equalizer after a brilliant play by center Nicklas Backstrom, who lunged to keep an errant pass from Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester from crossing the blue line before flipping it back to Ovechkin on the breakaway.

Right wing Dmitrij Jaskin hammered home another rebound not even 90 seconds later to reclaim the lead, and Vladimir Tarasenko scored on a two-on-one around Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik 6:13 into the third period. Alzner scored his fourth goal of the season six minutes later, beating St. Louis goaltender Brian Elliott, who had 33 saves, with a slap shot from the left point into the far top of the net.

Acutely aware of the mistakes the Capitals made — the inability to clear pucks, the stagnant power play — Alzner reflected on the difference between the teams the last time they played.

On Sunday, he, too, could notice a difference from earlier in the season — results aside.

“It’s definitely narrowed,” Alzner said. “I think we’re right there. I think we’re right there with all the teams in the league right now. We’ve got to limit just a couple — I wouldn’t say game-changing mistakes, but just ones that help push the game away from us. If we do that, we beat teams the way we beat Pittsburgh, and that’s what we need to focus on.”

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