During the early stages of Friday night’s game against the Winnipeg Jets, it looked for a while that it was just going to be “one of those nights” for the Washington Capitals.
In the end, it was.
The Capitals got off to another one of their hot starts, a hallmark in recent weeks, and roared out to a 3-0 lead by the 5:47 mark of the second period, riding a goal form Jason Chimera and two more goals from Alex Ovechkin. Washington had Winnipeg on the ropes.
But the Jets would score four unanswered goals, tying the game late in regulation before winning it in overtime, to leave the Verizon Center – and the Capitals – stunned.
“We just fell apart pretty much,” said defenseman Karl Alzner. "Embarrassing, embarrassing loss for us. We really (expletive) the bed.”
“It’s stupid play by us,” concurred Alex Ovechkin. “We just totally stopped playing after they score first goal.”
After an early burst of pressure from a rested and desperate Winnipeg squad, the Capitals began to take control of the game. They hit a post. They hit the side of the net twice. They missed wide open shots and chances.
You certainly thought those missed opportunities were going to come back to bite them.
Suddenly, however, those missed chances turned in to goals. Chimera and Ovechkin fueled a three-goal charge over a span of 23 minutes that had the Jets reeling. A truly electric and energized Verizon Center crowd was serenading their two-time MVP with chants of “O-vi! O-vi!” after his two fine goals.
It was, for lack of a better phrase, like old times.
And then it was gone. Suddenly, Winnipeg began playing like it was their season on the line. The Jets scored two goals in 71 seconds, one each from Ben Maxwell and Bryan Little, near the midway mark of the period to silence the crowd and climb back in to a game they had little business being in.
“They’re gonna push back,” said a visibly morose Brooks Laich. “It’s all about your mentality. You can think, ‘oh, they’re coming back, it’s 3-2,’ or you can change your mentality and say ‘hey, pretend we got a goal to go up 3-2.’ It’s hockey. Things are going to happen, it’s just a matter of how you respond to it.”
Incidentally, the Capitals responded very poorly, and kept the mentality that the Jets were in control.
“We gave them everything after that [the Jets’ two goals],” said Alzner. “We just sort of curled up there, we weren’t pressing as much as we were before. The energy was deflated. We have to be able to have a better response.”
For the entire third period, Washington waited back and allowed the Jets’ forwards to take control of the game. Winnipeg dominated the frame from the start, and you could tell that they wanted it more. Whether it was by design or not, the Caps sat back and attempted to wait out a win.
It was only a matter of time before the goal came. Eventually, it did.
The Jets’ fourth line, which was at the center of the comeback, controlled long stretches of play in the offensive zone. It was only fitting, then, that fourth line winger Spencer Mahachek would score the tying goal with a diving play across Michal Neuvirth’s goal crease at the 16:15 mark of the period.
“It was their fourth line that changed the game and they scored the goals,” said Dale Hunter. “They came through with a couple of big goals, and it changed the game.”
That tying goal, which utterly deflated the building, set the stage for Tim Stapleton to win it in overtime with a rifle over Neuvirth’s shoulder that the Czech goaltender had no chance on. It was a fitting and deserved result for the Jets, who have new life as they chase the playoffs.
“We really believed,” said Stapleton. “There wasn’t a doubt in our minds [with] the way we were pressing a shooting.”
This is a game that the Capitals not only should have won, but also would have given them a big advantage in the standings over the season’s final two weeks. A regulation loss by the Jets would have all but killed their postseason chances. Now, obviously, that’s not the case. And in the end, it goes back to the third period. The Capitals had the game in their hands, and they lost it. Even when they should have been in control, they weren’t.
The Jets played with an edge. The Caps, well, they didn’t.
“It’s got to be one of the hardest things in hockey,” said Alzner of the dangers of holding a lead. “Nobody wants to be that guy who tries to make the pass, make the play and it gets intercepted and something bad happens. I guess everybody’s just got to have more confidence in themselves and find another level. We didn’t have that level.”
That’s not the mark of a good team, and it’s certainly not the mark of a Stanley Cup caliber team. There was no urgency, their was no drive. Once the Caps got their lead, they turtled. You can’t win hockey games consistently with that mentality.
"You knew they were going to come at us because their season’s on the line but you can’t sit back like that,” said Jason Chimera.
“We have to have better composure than that,” Laich said. “It’s tough. A commanding lead, a 3-0 lead, then a couple mistakes. We have to protect that lead and win that hockey game.”
The reality, of course, is that the Capitals didn’t win that hockey game. With their loss, and Buffalo’s win on Friday night, Washington is now in a virtual tie with the Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Caps hold the tiebreaker, which is the number of regulation and overtime wins, but the Sabres are right on their heels. Now, so are the Jets.
There is no time to dwell on this loss, though. For the first time in four years, the Capitals are in a playoff chase that will come down to the wire. “You have to rebound,” said Hunter. “It’s playoff hockey and you just have to put the bad behind you and move on.”
But the Capitals shouldn’t move on. They have to find that killer instinct that made them so good in the past. They simply have to do it. This game should pose as a reminder, and a lesson, to this team about the dangers of sitting back on their opponents.
Because if they don’t, it’s going to be another long summer.
Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Caps for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.
NOTES: Capitals winger Joel Ward was seen entering Verizon Center on crutches prior to the game. He is listed by the team as day to day with a lower body injury, but he took a shot off the foot during Thursday’s game in Philadelphia, so he is almost surely dealing with a foot or ankle ailment…Alex Ovechkin has now scored eight goals in his last six games to give him 35 on the season. That total ranks 8th in the NHL, but Ovechkin’s 24 assists place him 134th in the League and his 59 total points are 41st…Michal Neuvirth stopped 38 of 42 shots in his return to the crease after yielding the last start to Braden Holtby…Tonight’s game was the first time this season the Capitals lost a three goal lead; it was also the first time all season they did not collect two points while leading after two periods...The Capitals will practice Saturday at 11 AM at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.