The new year has been a frustrating one for the Capitals, and Tuesday’s game against the Blue Jackets may have been the most aggravating of them all.
Washington held a two-goal lead and allowed Columbus to tie the game, then re-took the lead and allowed Columbus to tie the game once more late in the second period. Then Washington tied the game with just 2:26 left to play, only to allow a game-winning goal by Boone Jenner with just 45 seconds left to play.
The Capitals’ penalty kill couldn’t finish the job, they played two goaltenders for the second-straight game for performance reasons and, most importantly, the 5-4 loss at Capital One Arena meant another defeat where whatever the fix is didn’t immediately show itself.
“Special teams hurt us obviously,” center Nic Dowd said. “I actually thought we played really well five-on-five. They had a couple chances early where they hit the post, but we weren’t giving them much and we had a 2-0 lead again in our building, and that’s a really good spot to be.”
Through the first 15 games of the new year, the Capitals are 5-8-2, good for just 12 points since Jan. 1. That ranks 24th in the NHL and fifth-worst in the Eastern Conference.
“The last month we’re having trouble finding a consistent 60 minutes and it’s kinda showing,” defenseman Nick Jensen said. “We’re giving up a lot, battling back but then we’re giving up more. We just have to find a way to play consistent 60-minute games where we’re not giving up a lot defensively and playing a lot of offensively. We have to learn to win games 1-0, 2-1. It can’t be 4-4, run-and-gun style games. That’s not winning hockey in the long run in my opinion.”
The frustration for the Capitals, though, can be summarized in part by the loss to the Blue Jackets. They’ve played well at times, poorly at others, and haven’t been able to put together many complete games in this most recent stretch of play.
The team’s offense, which has averaged only 2.67 goals per game since Jan. 1, put up four on Elvis Merzlikins and dominated the back-half of the third period in a game where they were a bounce or two away from putting the game out of reach early.
In the last 15 games, the team’s power play has been one of those constant sources of frustration — including Tuesday they’ve scored at a 16.7% rate, which ranks in the bottom third of the league. Against the Blue Jackets, Evgeny Kuznetsov scored on the man-advantage to put the team ahead and the team’s top unit nearly scored on a few other tries as it looked crisp and sharp as they constantly fired pucks at the Columbus net.
But Tuesday, it was the team’s penalty kill that allowed two goals on three Columbus opportunities, and another just as a penalty expired, which allowed the Blue Jackets to climb back into the game.
“The PK has been…the effort is there but the execution has been tough the last month,” Jensen said. “I think we came out ready to play on the PK, but we still just kind of found ways to let just a little bit slip past us, give them the one or two opportunities they needed to put the puck in the net. I thought overall we really tried and we really tried to execute but again, we’re letting up just a little bit and it’s costing us.”
The man tasked with stopping the puck to start, Pheonix Copley, was pulled after the Blue Jackets’ 4th goal of the night at 2:40 of the third period. He stopped 15 of 19 shots in his first NHL start of the season, just a game after his solid 21-save performance in relief last week against the Oilers.
That night, Copley replaced Samsonov after he allowed three goals on four shots in the game’s first five minutes. But a big reason Samsonov started was because the night prior, he was outstanding in a 43-save performance in a win against the Penguins. Samsonov stopped all but one of the seven Columbus shots he faced in 16:49 of relief, but it was a killer as the Capitals lost an opportunity at getting a point in overtime.
“I would say take the positives out when you can,” winger Garnet Hathaway said. “Lost the lead, fought back, got the lead again, lost the lead, tied it, lost it. I mean, it’s a league where two points are huge every game of the season and we got another one in two nights so yeah I mean I think we got to give ourselves tonight to be pissed about it, be frustrated. But that’s all we can give ourselves. We got to turn it around.”
In the following few days and weeks, the Capitals will have a chance to break their skid — they’ll play just four games until Feb. 24 and only one team (Nashville) is in a playoff spot. Of the other three teams (Montreal, Ottawa and Philadelphia), none rank better than 26th in the league standings as of Tuesday night.
Still, the frustrating part for the Capitals has been that their offense has been good at times in the last month. So too has the defending and penalty kill. There have been nights, like against the Penguins, when a goalie can steal them a game.
Since the new year, though, the frustration comes from the fact that they haven't put all of it together for any stretch of time.
"The only one that’s going to turn this around is us players," Nicklas Backstrom said. "We’ve just got to keep grinding and come together as a team and find our identity. That’s what we’re here for. We want to be as good as possible, and now is the time to really play as a group.”