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Insider analysis: Capitals suffer first loss of the season despite Grubauer's heroics

Insider analysis: Capitals suffer first loss of the season despite Grubauer's heroics

T.J. Oshie scored a pair of power play goals and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer was outstanding Monday night in Tampa.

But the Caps blew a 3-1 second period lead, and the Lightning handed Alex Ovechkin and Co. their first loss of the season, 4-3, thanks to an overtime goal by Brayden Point.

How it happened:

Nicklas Backstrom opened the scoring at 16:42 of the first period, snapping a slick cross-zone pass from Andre Burakovsky past Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (23 saves).

Oshie’s first tally came on a redirection of a John Carlson point shot less than two minutes later, and the Caps took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission.

Early in the second period, the Bolts got on the board thanks to Alex Killorn, who rifled a shot over Grubauer’s glove from the top of the circles.

A turnover by Dmitry Orlov in the neutral zone led to the opportunity.

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Oshie’s second goal—a blast from the middle of the power play diamond—restored Washington’s two-goal lead. But the 3-1 cushion didn’t last, either. With 51 seconds remaining in the middle frame, Chris Kunitz redirected a shot from Anton Stralman to send the game into the third period 3-2.

In the third, the Lightning turned up the pressure. Grubauer held the Bolts back as long as he could but he couldn’t turn away Nikita Kucherov, who blasted past Taylor Chorney and roofed a backhander to knot the score 3-3. The goal was Kucherov’s third in three games.

A couple of Caps said they were their own worst enemy in the final 30 minutes of regulation.

“They are a good, skilled team and…you have to play as good as you can against these guys,” Backstrom told reporters at Amalie Arena. “You can’t let them have any space or they are going to score. We should have had this game.”

Oshie added: “It’s a mental part of the game that I feel like it’s just natural once you get up, you feel like you’re doing a good job by sitting back and trying not to give them anything. But when a team is as fast as the Lightning are, and as dynamic as a couple of their players are, it just gives them too much time and space. So, early in the season here, that’s a learning moment for us.”

In the extra session, Point's goal, a redirection of a Kucherov rocket on a 4-on-3 power play, clinched the Bolts' win. Tampa Bay was awarded the power due to a too many men violation on the Caps—their second of the game.

“I don’t know about the first too many men—I didn’t agree with that one,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “But the one in overtime, that was definitely a penalty. It was on us a little bit.”

Boom, Backstrom:

Backstrom’s first goal of the season was the 189th of his career, pushing him past Bob Carpenter for eighth all-time in franchise history.

Next up in No. 19’s sights: Dave Christian (193), Bengt-Ake Gustafsson (196) and Alexander Semin (197).

Great Grubi:

Grubauer, in his first start of the season, finished with 36 saves, including saves on 16 of the 17 shots he faced in the third period to force the game to overtime. Two of Grubi’s late stops came without his stick.

“It was a tough game,” Grubauer said. “They came out in the last period and we gave them a little bit too much. [Some] simple mistakes cost us. But overall we did a lot of good things tonight. The PK was pretty sharp.”

Special Teams Doing Special Things:

The Caps’ power play went 2 for 4, while the penalty kill went 4 for 4 in regulation.

Point's game-winner marked the first power play goal the unit has surrendered this season. Orlov, Matt Niskanen, Lars Eller and Devante Smith Pelly saw the most PK time on Monday. Grubauer, however, was the star, making 12 shorthanded saves.

“It all comes down to pretty good goaltending,” Trotz said. “We had some pretty good stops there during the penalty kill.”

Other Observations:

O’s All the Way Across: Ovechkin has been the NHL’s most prolific goal scorer to start the season, racking up seven in the Caps’ first two games. Against the Bolts, he did not record a point, though he played well and nearly set up a couple of goals with nifty passes. No. 8 did, however, finish with four shots on goal.

All Together: With Grubauer getting his first start, Trotz has worked 21 of the 23 players on the roster into a game. The only players yet to suit up are rookie defenseman Christian Djoos and right wing Tom Wilson, who served the third game of a four-game suspension. Wilson is eligible to return Friday in New Jersey.

Two-for-Three: Backstrom (1 goal, 2 assists) and TJ Oshie (2 goals, 1 assists) each posted three-point nights.

What’s Ahead:

The Caps have a scheduled day off on Tuesday.

They host the Penguins on Wednesday, then face their first back-to-back of the season—at New Jersey on Friday and at Philly on Saturday.

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3 stars of the game: Grubauer's heroics not enough against the Habs

3 stars of the game: Grubauer's heroics not enough against the Habs

The first time the Caps host the Montreal Canadiens this season, Alex Ovechkin tallied four goals as the Caps dominated a 6-1 thrashing.

Friday's game featured considerably less offense as Montreal just managed to squeak by Washington 3-2.

Philipp Grubuaer got the start and did everything he could to keep Washington in it, but the Caps struggled to find much offense.

Alex Ovechkin did manage to register assist No. 499 as he set up John Carlson on the power play and Lars Eller scored late, but it would not be enough for the Caps to come back.

Here are the three stars of the game.

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1. Max Pacioretty: The Canadiens struggled to get anything past Grubauer in this one, but Pacioretty finally did in the second period on the power play. It was simple enough, he found the puck at his feet, turned and shot. When goalies start to frustrate teams, we see a lot of players respond by looking for the perfect play.

They give up good opportunities for more difficult passes. Pacioretty was smart, he just shot. He also added an assist on Paul Byron's goal as the puck bounced off the board and off Pacioretty's skate right to Byron.

He ultimately put the exclamation point on the win with an empty-net goal.

2. Philipp Grubauer: Grubauer certainly didn't look like a backup goalie in this one.

He was strong in net all night long, but his best save came in the first period. Pacioretty hit the side of the net to Grubauer's left on a pretty passing play, but the puck bounced out to the slot and Charles Hudon passed it over to Paul Byron on Grubauer's right. Grubauer dove with his arm outstretched and managed to corral the puck into his body to keep it out of the net.

He would finish the game with several more fantastic saves, 23 in all despite the loss.

3. Andre Burakovsky: It would be hard to draw up a better return to the lineup for Burakovsky.

He started on the fourth line, but he wasn't there for long. He had four shot attempts in a first period in which the Caps struggled to get anything going offensively at all. He also had a breakaway opportunity in the third period as he came out of the penalty box. He had Antti Niemi beat, but hit the post.

Burakovsky did just about everything right in this game, but just couldn't light the lamp.

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Pressure and confidence has taken Brett Connolly from a healthy scratch to potent scorer

Pressure and confidence has taken Brett Connolly from a healthy scratch to potent scorer

Brett Connolly is the Caps’ hottest scorer with three goals in two games, but this past week almost never happened.

With the team finally healthy, Barry Trotz has a tough decision to make every game with 13 forwards and only 12 spots in the lineup. Connolly was going to be scratched for the game on Jan. 11 against Carolina, but Andre Burakovsky came down with an illness before the game and did not play that night or travel with the team to Carolina the next. Connolly did not score on Jan. 11, but he scored a late game-tying goal in Carolina to set up Jay Beagle’s miracle buzzer-beater. In the team’s return from the bye on Thursday, Connolly scored twice including another late, game-tying goal.

This past week really is a perfect encapsulation of how Connolly’s NHL career has gone. A first-round draft pick from the 2010 draft, Connolly is brimming with talent but always seems to be on the end of two extremes. Either he is scoring like one of the Caps’ top offensive players, or he is battling just to earn a jersey every night.

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That pressure seemed to overwhelm Connolly when he first came into the league, but now it is leading him to excel.

“There's just a lot of competition through our lineup which is pushing guys to be better and it's making us a better team,” Connolly said Friday after the team’s morning skate. “We're just looking to keep going here, we're looking to keep pushing each other. We're going to make everybody better, we're going to be a better team because of it.”

Connolly came to Washington in the summer of 2016 as an unrestricted free agent on a one-year deal worth only $850,000. He became a UFA after the Boston Bruins elected not to give him a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. For a player to go from a sixth overall draft pick to fighting to playing on a one-year deal just to keep his career alive was quite the fall, but Connolly responded with 15 goals and eight assists to earn himself a new two-year contract with Washington.

“When you're drafted in this league there's a lot of expectations,” Connolly said. “Sometimes it takes a little bit longer for other guys just to find that fit on a team. It all comes within yourself, I think. You're the only person that kind of knows how much you can bring to the table every night and how much potential you have. It comes from within.”

The way Connolly responded again this season after a near scratch cannot be lost on the coaches.

But if it was desperation that was fueling him before, now it’s confidence.

“It's all about feel, getting your touches and playing with confidence,” Connolly said. “I think when you go through these stretches, I've been through these stretches before, just try to get open. It just feels like whenever you're shooting it, it doesn't matter how good of a shot you get off sometimes, it just finds a way in.”

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It’s not hard to see why he may be feeling so confident. In addition to scoring three goals in the past two games, Connolly also has 12 goals on the season. That puts him at third on the team behind only Alex Ovechkin (28) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (13).

“I feel like I’m finally kind of figuring out the game and figuring out the way I need to play,” said Connolly.

Whether he has truly turned the corner on his career or if this is just another high in a career full of extreme highs and lows remains to be seen. But so long as he keeps feeling the pressure and confidence that has fueled him thus far, he should certainly remain among the Caps' top scorers for the season.