The Washington Capitals suffered another key loss Sunday, falling in New York to the Rangers in what was a game that they absolutely needed to win. But once again, poor personnel decisions by Dale Hunter, missed opportunities, and bad defensive play sunk what was once the NHL's most electric team into an even deeper hole of irrelevance and futility. John Carlson and Alexander Semin scored for the Capitals, who are now two points behind the Panthers in the Southeast Division, and Florida holds a game in hand. In other words, they may be toast.
The Capitals got off to a poor start, failing to generate chances and conceding a power play only three minutes in to the game off a Dennis Wideman holding call. Washington's kill was excellent, though, not allowing New York to get any quality chances. But after their unsuccessful power play, the Rangers dialed it up again, forechecking hard and forcing turnovers. Their pressure came to fruition after eleven minutes, when Ryan Callahan backhanded one over Neuvirth's shoulder after a terrible turnover from Roman Hamrlik down low, giving the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
After the New York goal, the Capitals tried to pick up some of the slack offensively, but the Rangers' defense around their own net was excellent, and it was only a post that kept the Rangers from doubling their lead on a rush off a great neutral zone play by Brad Richards. The first intermission came with Washington behind 1-0.
The second period got off to a very slow start for both teams, with only four shots total in the opening seven minutes of the frame. But the Capitals finally got their equalizer from Alexander Semin after a nice pass from Jason Chimera, giving the away team hope in a tough building. Eventually, though, the Rangers took control once more,
New York continued to attack ferociously on the forecheck, taking advantage of every bad play and turnover to get chances on net. After a particularly dominating zone possession that saw Dmitry Orlov cough up the puck down low and Alex Ovechkin standing around in coverage, Ryan McDonagh pulled a nice toe-drag to the middle and shot one that fluttered over Neuvirth and in to the net. The Capitals got a power play late in the frame to try and draw level again, but were unable to convert.
Predictably, it was the Rangers who took control at the start of the third period, with Marian Gaborik dangling through the entire defense and drawing a power play for his team. The Rangers were not able to score on their man advantage, and soon after, the Capitals got one of their own, giving them a prime chance to equalize. But it was not to be, as a bad pinch from John Carlson led to a shorthanded 2-on-1 in which Alex Ovechkin was abused defensively and Brandon Prust buried one past Neuvirth for a 3-1 lead.
Now down two, the Capitals came hard at Henrik Lundqvist, generating chances and shots. With two and a half minutes left, the Caps drew within one when John Carlson pounded one low and hard and under Lundqvist's right pad. Despite a desperate late push, the Capitals could not get another, and the result was final.
Can someone please explain to me why Mike Knuble is being benched so that Keith Aucoin can play in the NHL? I understand that Knuble is struggling, but he is still a veteran leader on the team. He is still one of their biggest players and one of their best forecheckers. By sitting Knuble for a career AHL player who has continually floundered at the NHL level, Dale Hunter is continually proving what I have been saying for two and a half months: he has no idea what he's doing.
Michal Neuvirth belongs nowhere near the Capitals' net for the foreseeable future. Yes, his defense hung him out to dry on the final goal. But if you're going to be an elite NHL goaltender, you have to find a way to make big saves for your team. The fact that Vokoun was ill for this game is incredibly unfortunate.
After the Caps got down by two goals, it became a different game. How is that possible? How pathetic does your team's motivation have to be that they need to be trailing by two goals in a must-win game to get excited and desperate to score? It is beyond embarrassing. It is a hallmark of poor teams. And it's one of the main reasons the Capitals won't win anything.
Now, the Capitals have to figure out a way to beat the Sharks on home ice. Because if they don't, they are likely cooked in terms of making the playoffs. That game will be played at 7:30 Monday night.
Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Caps for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.