The Capitals are learning that too much of a good thing can sometimes be a bad thing.
That was the lesson coming out of Sunday night’s 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Consol Energy Center, where the Caps started strong, fell behind by a pair of goals, battled back to tie, then had the wheels come off by surrendering four unanswered goals.
The loss was the Caps’ most lopsided since a 5-0 beat down against the San Jose Sharks back on Oct. 13 in the second game of the season and served as a reminder that the Caps’ 19-point lead over the Penguins in the Metropolitan Division standings will mean nothing when the playoff begin a little more than three weeks from now.
“You can talk all you want about how many points you’ve accumulated during the regular season,” said Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, who dished out four hits in the loss to his former team. “But once you get to the playoffs that’s all out the window. We better start playing a little bit better.
“The Nashville game (a 4-1 win Friday night) was probably the best we’ve played in a while and you’d like to think we would roll some momentum from that game into this one.”
At the start, they did. The Capitals controlled play against the Penguins in the opening seven minutes, but an aggressive step-up by Caps defenseman Mike Weber led to a goal by Bryan Rust and a giveaway by defenseman Dmitry Orlov led to a goal by Trevor Daly to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead after one period.
“I liked our start,” Caps coach Barry Trotz told reporters after the game. “I think the first 7 or 8 minutes we were fine and then we got away from what we were doing. We had some good looks real early, we didn’t score and then we got impatient and started cheating and mismanaging pucks. We started opening up.”
In the second period the Caps battled back to tie on a goal off Jason Chimera’s helmet and a breakaway goal by Andre Burakovsky, but the Penguins answered back just 42 seconds later with a goal from Tom Kuhnhackl, who got past Orlov and avoided a check by Justin Williams to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead.
“I think when we tied it up we weren’t playing very well,” Caps goalie Braden Holtby said. “We kind of got lucky in tying it up. Maybe we got a little complacent thinking that if we keep doing this it’s going to go the right way again without pushing to do the right things and it bit us. They’re a hungry team over there and we need to be more prepared and more realistic in what we’re doing.”
Everyone in the visiting locker room agreed the Penguins’ third goal stole away the Caps’ momentum and tilted the game in the Penguins’ favor, leading to their sixth straight win.
“A turnover, a lost battle and one of our D was lazy coming back,” Trotz said, referring to Orlov losing Kuhnhackl. “Those little mistakes get magnified. I just thought they stayed with it longer and harder than we did. They were in playoff mode. They wanted it more and we got what we deserved tonight.”
With 11 games remaining in the regular season, the Caps will have another opportunity to clinch the Metropolitan Division title when they visit the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night. (The team was given today off). But clinching a division title is not nearly as important to the Capitals as manufacturing the desperation they will see from their opponents over the final weeks of the regular season.
“I’m not going to let guys off the hook,” Trotz said. “There’s no excuse for the sloppy play and lack of execution when the heat was on. We had some guys I felt were not strong tonight and you can’t do that against a decent team that’s trending well. They’re the hottest team right now. They’re in playoff mode and we weren’t and you can see the difference between playoff mode and not playoff mode.”
Trotz said that is the inherent danger of a team clinching a playoff spot with 13 games remaining in the regular season.
“We’ve been fighting that for a while,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’re at playoff mode, that’s for sure. It has been a challenge, but one thing we do is we respond all the time. We have a very strong group and they respond well. We’re going to have to respond after that one. That was not a good effort by our standards and I expect them to rebound.”
The Caps are an impressive 13-0-1 following regulation losses this season.
As for the Penguins, the Capitals will get their shot at revenge when the two teams meet again on April 7 at Verizon Center. That game could turn out to be a playoff primer for a future meeting in the post-season. If the playoff started today, the Caps and Red Wings would meet in the first round, with the Penguins facing the Rangers in Round 1.
“Barring some disaster I think both of us will be in the playoffs in the East and there’s a pretty good chance we’ll either start with each other or play against each other, hopefully, at some point,” Orpik said. “I think guys are aware of that.”