It seems like every game for the Capitals in the 2021-22 season has been an adventure. With injuries, COVID and other illnesses, the lineup seems to shuffle from game to game. Washington has done a tremendous job overcoming losing significant players this season, but on Sunday it finally seemed to catch up to them in a 4-3 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils.
"It's another crazy day for the Caps, I think," Tom Wilson said. "You wake up and it's a lot of news these days and you're just adjusting on the fly."
With several players eligible to come off of COVID protocol for Sunday's game, the Caps looked like they would have a close-to-full lineup. Of course, the 2021-22 season had other plans and Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie were both declared out with non-COVID illnesses.
Nick Jensen, Justin Schultz and Daniel Sprong all came off of COVID protocol and Backstrom and Oshie both came out of the lineup.
Faced with similar situations throughout the season, the Caps have been able to overcome these sudden holes in their lineup, but not on Sunday. The Devils used their speed and generated a number of odd-man rushes, constantly finding ways to get behind the defense and generate high-danger opportunities.
"It's an early game, you wake up, it's not a lineup that was expected and there's guys all over the place jumping in," Wilson said.
"It's the same set of rules you have to play by, same system, you try to do the same things but somedays it is just not was pretty or not as clean," Peter Laviolette said. "Tonight was not a clean game for us and I feel like we were chasing."
After allowing two goals in 1:14 in the first period, Washington needed to readjust.
"I think there needed to be some adjustments made, some things brought to life in our locker room," Conor Sheary said. "After the first, we were kind of made aware of the things we were doing wrong that were giving them those odd-man rushes. It seemed like they had a 2-on-1 every shift in the first couple shifts for us."
The magic the Caps have been able to dip into this season allowed them to force overtime thanks to two fortuitous goals in the third. Nic Dowd scored a beautiful goal in the third as he knocked the puck out of the air to beat Mackenzie Blackwood. Less than three minutes later, Blackwood made a huge gaffe, handing the puck over right to Lars Eller who fed Conor Sheary for an open-net goal.
Those two goals allowed the Caps to rally for a point, but that would be as close as they would come as the team fell in overtime.
For the night, the team just never looked like it was on the same page defensively and that is understandable. Jensen and Schultz played their first game back from COVID protocol, Michal Kempny played in just his third NHL game this season and Martin Fehervary remains out in. Add the shuffling on defense to the loss of Backstrom and Oshie and it's no wonder the team looked out of sorts.
"I don't think we played well enough," Laviolette said. "I'm not sure it has to do with getting the news that two guys were going to be scratched. It is hard to say that is the reason why we lost. ... Do we wish we had them? Yeah, but it was the hand that we were dealt today and we need to do a better job inside the game."
Games like Sunday's have been rare, but in reality, the type of performance we saw Sunday should be far more common. Washington has had its top four centers exactly one game all season. The lineup changes literally from game to game for a team that many thought was already too old to be a true contender.
"It's weird," Wilson said of the season. "It's been ready, go, stop. Ready, go, stop. Guys that are ready, go and then put back on the shelf. Individually as a team, that's kind of been the theme. There's been some adversity, but we handled it pretty well. It's tough when it's going that way, but we found a way to get points and build as a group and we've just got to keep going."
The fact that Washington entered Sunday's game with the most point in the NHL given what they have had to deal with is pretty remarkable. Losses like Sunday's are bound to happen and the Caps have certainly piled up enough points in the standings for an off night now and again. And even then, Washington still managed to rally and salvage a point.
But, as understandable as Sunday's loss may be and as valuable as earning that point is, you won't hear any excuses coming from the coaches or players. They expect better, no matter the circumstances.
“I think anytime you’re not playing your top game and you come back and get a point out of it it’s always good," Jensen said. "At the same time, we want to be better in the first 60 minutes. Having guys out of the lineup’s never been an excuse for us this year so that’s out of the question. We’ve just got to make sure we show up earlier in the games.”