- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2020

In the midst of a beatdown Saturday, the Washington Capitals pulled Braden Holtby mid-game in favor of rookie Ilya Samsonov. Two days later, Samsonov made a previously-scheduled start — and for the first time in his career, it was his turn to be yanked early and replaced by Holtby.

The Capitals’ recent defensive woes cannot be chalked up to the goaltending, according to the other players in the dressing room after Monday’s 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders.

“It’s not because of our goalies,” Capitals center Lars Eller said. “It’s because of we’re losing races, we’re not winning battles in front of the net, we’re not boxing out, so whether it’s tips or it’s 2-on-1s or 3-on-2s, we’re getting beat just a couple feet.”

For the second straight game, a Metropolitan Division opponent embarrassed Washington at home. The Philadelphia Flyers shellacked the Capitals 7-2 on Saturday, and the Islanders needed just 30 minutes and change Monday to jump ahead 5-1.

Samsonov allowed five goals on 20 shots before Holtby entered late in the second period. Holtby finished with 12 saves and did not allow a goal. Eller, John Carlson and T.J. Oshie scored for Washington (36-15-5, 77 points).

Holtby stood strong in the third period, but Washington couldn’t convert at 6-on-5 to mount a comeback in the final minutes of the game.

“I’m not exactly an X’s and O’s expert, but the majority of what we’re giving up is off the rush, off plays that you negate by getting everyone working back,” Holtby said. “That’s usually the common denominator. We just gotta get back to work in all areas and that’s basically it. It’s never something you like to go through, but at the same time if we look at it now and we’ve been exposed in some areas, those are areas where we can improve and get better ultimately.”

Evgeny Kuznetsov suffered an upper-body injury in the second period when Leo Komarov hit him into the boards and he crumpled over, favoring his left arm. The center did not return, and coach Todd Reirden said he’d be reevaluated on Tuesday.

Reirden said the Capitals were “finding ways to lose” in recent days, no longer finding ways to win. That was illustrated by the variety of goals they gave up to New York. For instance, Anthony Beauvillier scored New York’s first two goals, first on an odd-man rush and then off a rebound Samsonov failed to track.

The Islanders led 3-1 after the first period and kept piling on in the second. The Capitals have been trying defensive prospect Martin Fehervary in the starting lineup the last three games; though he’s had fine moments, on Monday he fell down trying to defend Brock Nelson and Nelson made an easy pass to Komarov for the Islanders’ fourth goal.

Jordan Eberle left Nicklas Backstrom in the dust to create a 2-on-1 and position himself for the fifth goal. Backstrom was on the ice for four of New York’s first five goals — and Alex Ovechkin was on the ice for all five, finishing the game with a minus-4 rating.

Tom Wilson said the Capitals’ forwards need to backcheck and provide help on defense faster.

“It’s unacceptable,” he said. “Sometimes you get down a couple, you start pushing, it opens up the ice a little more, but we’re just not playing well enough to win games.”

For the second straight game, Ovechkin was frozen at 698 career goals, and the home crowd lost perhaps its best chance to see Ovechkin reach the No. 700 milestone, as Washington’s next three games come on the road. He was nearly credited with No. 699 in the first period — it appeared that he deflected a Carlson point shot into the net, but it actually glanced off the Islanders’ Johnny Boychuk and Carlson was given the goal.

It wasn’t enough, but the Capitals did find the back of the net more after Holtby entered. Just 49 seconds after New York’s fifth goal, Eller scored off the rebound of a Carl Hagelin wrap-around attempt. Before the end of the frame, Oshie ripped home a slap-shot goal on a power play, his second straight game with a goal and 21st tally of the year.

Washington is now just 9-10-1 against divisional opponents, and the Penguins, Islanders, Blue Jackets and Flyers are all gaining on the Capitals’ lead in the Metro.

“These are not fun times, but they’re times that you need to realize, assess properly, come up with a plan and work forward,” Reirden said. “If all you have to do is focus on positives all the time, it’s tough to really … be a prepared playoff team because we’re certainly not right now.”

The Capitals open their road trip Thursday at the Colorado Avalanche.

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