March 23, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Capitals center Brooks Laich (21) fights Winnipeg Jets center Jim Slater (19) in the second period at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE
It's a bit of a hockey cliche to say that the toughest game of a road trip is often actually the first game home after the trip itself (even if the Caps have bucked that trend in recent years), and the Caps had played their last five away from D.C. prior to Friday night. Couple that with the fact that they were playing the second of back-to-back games after playing in Philly a night earlier, and you might have expected a letdown from Dale Hunter's charges... if it weren't for the fact that they're fighting for their playoff lives in the season's final weeks and hosting one of the teams with whom they're in that scramble for eighth in the East.
And while the Caps had their moments on this night, they were relatively few and far between - and vastly outnumbers by stretches of low energy and bad decision-making en route to blowing a big lead and losing by a 4-3 count in overtime.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Flatter start to the game: the Caps or the Verizon Center crowd? What once was confidence and swagger for both groups has clearly been replaced by nerves and tentativeness - it's been four years since there's been this much doubt in the boys in red this late in the season. Turnovers aplenty early, most notably (but certainly not only) from John Carlson, and a hitting advantage to the visitors characterized the game's first ten-plus minutes.
Alexander Semin displayed plenty of skill early in his return to the lineup, setting up Alex Ovechkin for a scoring chance, faking Ondrej Pavelec out of his jock (but putting the shot off the outside of the net) and then threading a behind-the-back pass in the slot to Carlson for the game's best opportunity to that point. Carlson's failure to convert led to a bit of a jail-break the other way, but when the Jets shot wide and neither the battleship known as Dustin Byfuglien nor Tobias Enstrom could get back on defense, Jeff Halpern was able to spring Jason Chimera, whose legs and then hands allowed him to beat Pavelec and give the Caps a 1-0 lead.
- When you think of the patented Alex Ovechkin goal, you think of him streaking down the left wing one-on-one against a defender (with no back-pressure from an opposing forward), then a rocket of a shot through the defenseman's legs and past the screened-by-his-blueliner goalie. Yup, he did it again (Brad Stuart playing the role of hapless defender) for goal number 34 on the season and a 2-0 lead.
- But Ovi doesn't only does it on his own these days. Four minutes later the Caps put on a passing clinic with a delayed penalty pending and it ended with Ovechkin wiring a one-timer past Pavelec off a sweet backhand pass from Mathieu Perreault. Three-zippy, good guys... but that's when the good times ended.
- Just over a minute later, the Jets got on the board, and it was the fourth-line - and Roman Hamrlik daydreaming after Halpern turned the puck over at center ice - doing it, as Ben Maxwell scored his first of the season (second of his career) on a spinning backhand shot that looked to be in slow motion in real time.
- Following the faceoff after that tally, Brooks Laich decided to fight Jim Slater. It's always questionable timing to drop the mittens for a scrap like that while leading, but perhaps he had his reasons (or was just paying tribute to Olie Kolzig). Whether or not the bout gave either club a momentum boost is questionable, but...
- A minute later the Thrashers, err, Jets won an offensive-zone draw, Enstrom put a shot off the post a minute later and Bryan Little easily out-muscled Marcus Johansson on the rebound and deposited it behind Michal Neuvirth to cut the lead to 3-2. The goal knocked Johansson - a fourth-liner on this night - to minus-two on the night, and he'd wind up a minus-three.
- Still, heading into the third period, Caps fans had to feel pretty good about their chances - the Caps, after all, were 22-0-0 when leading after two and the Jets were 0-22-3 when trailing after forty. But the Caps went into the defensive shell to end all defensive shells and allowed Winnipeg to pepper Neuvirth with shots while generating none of their own. It was truly only a matter of time...
- ... and that time was 16:15 of the third period. Another draw lost in the defensive zone, a fumble by Carlson, an inability to tie up Spencer Machacek in front by Jeff Schultz and Perreault, and it was a tap-in to tie on the Jet's 15th shot of the period (against not a single shot from the prevent-defending Caps). For the second time in the past month-and-a-half, the Caps had blown a multi-goal lead at home to Winnipeg in the waning moments. To overtime (again) we went.
- The Jets picked up where they left off in overtime, dominating possession and ultimately scoring after Ovechkin (among others) failed to clear the puck. The gut-punch was complete.
On the plus side, there's the point in the standings. But when they blow a three-goal lead at home in the biggest game of the year, one wonders how much that point will even matter in two weeks. It was a brutal loss at the worst time... and it'll be tough to recover from for a team not necessarily noted for it's mental fortitude.