SUNRISE, Fla. — Saturday was a clinic. The Capitals were all over the Tampa Bay Lightning from the start, Alex Ovechkin scored his 50thand 51stgoals and they rolled to a big win.
Monday was a disaster. With a chance to clinch the Metropolitan Division with some help, Washington played its worst game in weeks and lost 5-3 to the Florida Panthers. There was some bad luck early, to be sure. But the Capitals struggled to generate anything of note when it mattered in a quiet BB&T Center that was a far cry from Saturday’s rowdy Stanley Cup playoff atmosphere in Tampa.
That could hurt them. With two games left, one of them against the second place New York Islanders, the Capitals have work left to do if they want to win the Metro for the fourth year in a row. And they do.
“It would've been nice to clinch it today, but we've got two more chances,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “Hopefully we can get it done."
Early in the game, a puck ricocheted off a referee and the ensuing chaos resulted in a goal by Frank Vatrano. A nice poke check by Evgenii Dadonov on defenseman Matt Niskanen led to a Jonathan Huberdeau goal. The Capitals could be criticized for playing backup goalie Pheonix Copley instead of starter Braden Holtby. But those goals weren’t on Copley.
Down 2-0, you could see a comeback coming. Maybe. But at 12:01 of the second period, with their first power play of the game, the Capitals collapsed. Aleksander Barkov blocked a pass from defenseman John Carlson, got the puck out of Florida’s defensive zone and hit Vincent Trocheck in stride. He blew past Evgeny Kuznetsov and beat Copley to make it 3-0.
Troy Brouwer, the ex-Capitals forward, ended the competitive portion of the game with an easy goal at 17:57 of the second. That one stung. If there was some rough luck early, the Capitals did little to mitigate it.
“It starts with being emotionally in the game and not waiting for what kind of game it’s going to be,” forward Lars Eller said. “Don’t wait to get down four. I think it starts with being emotionally in it, being ready. And then usually the other things come. But we were just slow. Not executing passes. That was the main thing.”
And so there was little solace taken in a late rally. Evgeny Kuznetsov made it 4-1 at 10:55 of the third. At 4-1 things still looked hopeless. But the Capitals are always capable of turning on the jets.
Backstrom, whose line admittedly played a big part in that rough start to the game, made up for it at 16:25 with a goal to make it 4-2. Suddenly the BB&T Center crowd was nervous. They were downright angry when Jakub Vrana scored 1:14 later to cut the lead to 4-3 with Copley pulled for the extra attacker. It was a nice rally and Washington had some chances in the final two minutes against Florida goalie Roberto Luongo. But it didn’t happen. It wasn’t their night. And, to some, it didn’t matter anyway.
“Yeah, but I think we shouldn’t be focusing on that,” Eller said. “We know we are capable of that, but we should not put ourselves in that position. We should not.”
Added Carlson: “It’s nice to see us battle but there are no consolation prizes for stuff like that. We needed to be better earlier, that’s really what it comes down to.”
The Capitals caught a break thanks to the New York Islanders’ 2-1 home loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. That leaves New York at 99 points with two games left. The Islanders play here against the Panthers on Thursday.
The Capitals can clinch the Metropolitan Division outright for the fourth year in a row with a win against the Montreal Canadiens back at home on Thursday. If they fail there, they have another shot when the Islanders visit for the final game of the regular season. That would be an epic night.
“We obviously want to win the division and we’re disappointed, but I don’t know if we throw it out,” Carlson said. “You can learn a lot from games like this. Todd [Reirden] talked about it after, just when things aren’t going our way to simplify. We could have kept it a lot closer than four. When we’ve got the players that we do we can come back from one or two or maybe even three. But four is difficult.”
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
- Failed Comeback: Caps fall to Panthers 5-3 and can't clinch the Metro
- 2019 Journey to the Cup: Who's the next Kempny?
- Metropolitan Division: Caps can clinch fourth-straight title Monday
- April Fools': Best pranks from around the NHL