Last week, Barry Trotz tried to warn his team about the dangers that come with playing in a back-to-back, but the Capitals coach knew his players had to “fail miserably” before they listened. That failure happened in Philadelphia, where the Capitals were blown out after winning the previous day in New Jersey.
On Saturday, Washington faced a back-to-back again, this time against the Florida Panthers at Capital One Arena. Trotz hoped the Capitals would “manage the game better” than they did against the Flyers.
They didn’t manage well enough. The Capitals once again came out sluggish and lost 4-1 to the Panthers. The chances were there, but Washington couldn’t find the mark despite 42 shots on goal.
“Five-on-five, I just thought we were right there,” Trotz said. “I thought we should have scored another goal or two, but we didn’t. To sit here with a loss, it’s frustrating.”
Trotz said before the game the Capitals (4-4-1) owed it to goaltender Philipp Grubauer to make up for an 8-2 loss in Philadelphia. Grubauer, who started in place of Braden Holtby, let up all eight goals, but Trotz joked his team “didn’t even throw him a raft.” The Flyers were able to easily capitalize on defensive mistakes.
Against the Panthers (3-4), with Grubauer starting again, miscues and penalties plagued the Capitals. They committed six penalties and Florida went 2-for-6 on the power play.
“The penalties disrupting the flow of our team is hurting us a lot,” said center Lars Eller, who had two penalties.
If the Capitals want to clean up their mistakes, they need their young defenseman to catch up to speed — with Trotz saying beforehand, they first need to prove they belong on an NHL level.
This meant if they had to force playing time on them, then so be it. The Capitals, Trotz said, couldn’t afford to hide them on defense.
“If you throw them in the pool, you have to see who can swim,” Trotz said.
Both rookie defensemen — Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey — had a rough first period.
Just over a minute into the game, Djoos mistimed a pass behind the Capitals’ net and Panthers center Jared McCann recovered the puck to find a wide-open Connor Brickley, who breezed a goal right past Grubauer.
Bowey’s mistake came later. Trying to make a stop, Bowey committed a hooking penalty with 1:26 left in the period. The Panthers took advantage with Evgeni Dadonov scoring to make it 2-0.
“The young guys have been fine,” Trotz said. “They’re going to make mistakes. They make the same mistakes some of the older guys are making. To just put it on them, I don’t think that’s accurate. I think the young guys are coming along just fine.”
But part of adjusting to the NHL is knowing how to overcome mistakes.
In the second period, Djoos scored the Capitals’ first goal with 4:37 remaining. In an impressive move, especially for a defenseman, Djoos skated effortlessly through the slot and cut the deficit to 3-1.
“I just felt like I got a lot of time, so I was trying to take it to the net,” Djoos said.
The goal gave the Capitals energy, but it didn’t translate to another score. The Capitals weren’t successful with an extra push, unlike Friday in Detroit when they earned a 4-3 overtime victory against the Detroit Red Wings.
But the chances were there. The Capitals outshot the Panthers 34-9 at even strength.
“We’re nine games in and we’re not going to be discouraged,” Eller said. “There’s a lot of frustration in here right now, but tomorrow, we’re all going to have our heads up.”
The Capitals’ loss, however, can’t be solely blamed on a back-to-back. Florida, after all, was also playing their second straight game, and lost starting goaltender Roberto Luongo to a hand injury the night prior.
The Panthers added their third goal in the second period when Vincent Trocheck scored on a 5-on-3 power play. Florida delivered the final dagger with 1:16 left, scoring an empty netter shorthanded. Washington failed to score on a 6-on-4 opportunity.
The Capitals are now uncharacteristically 1-3 at home. Washington hasn’t been able to string together victories like in previous years.
“There is a little bit of learning curve of learning how to win,” Trotz said. “We’ve done a lot of winning here, so it gets a little frustrating. The last three years, we strung a lot of games together and didn’t lose too many in a row. … It’s a little bit of learning curve for everyone.”
Washington returns Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena at 10 p.m.