In many ways, last night's Caps loss to Tampa Bay was as unsurprising as it was disappointing (even if it was the first time since Game 40 of the season that Dale Hunter's Caps had the lead in a game and didn't come away with at least a point). The Caps haven't been a good team on the road this season, but more than that, they've been playing with fire lately, blowing two-goal leads in three of their previous five games prior to Monday night's tilt.
And in a season that's been full of disappointments (but still might yet end on the most positive of notes), last night's game is just one of many that left Caps fans - and no doubt the players as well - lamenting how things ended up the way they did in that particular match-up. Here are ten other games that the Caps might regret having lost (with a link to and quotes from our recaps of those games to capture the mood at the time), and a good reminder that two points in November are worth the same as two points in March:
10. Vs. New York Islanders, January 17. "By any reasonable definition of 'should-win,' the Caps' Tuesday night match-up with the Islanders was one for the boys in red at Verizon Center." New York came into the game (having played the night before) with the fewest wins in the Eastern Conference and just six road wins on the season. The Caps had won seven-straight at home (and hadn't trailed for a second during that streak) and had a .761 home points percentage, third-best in the League. But the Caps managed just five shots on goal in each of the first two periods and seven in the third en route to being shutout 3-0. Guess that's why they play the games. Points gained: zero.
9. At Winnipeg, November 17. "They're not losing despite their play, they're losing because of it; this isn't bad luck, it's bad hockey." Two nights after taking a tough loss in Nashville (more on that game later), the Caps jumped out to a 1-0 lead in their first game in Winnipeg in more than 15 years, thanks to a beauty of an tally, but a couple of Evander Kane goals put the Jets in front. While killing a penalty a couple of minutes later, Brooks Laich failed to even put a shot on net on a 2-on-0 breakaway that quickly went the other way and ended up in the Caps' net after Blake Wheeler beat Roman Hamrlik and then Michal Neuvirth for his first goal of the season. Ballgame (even though the game technically wasn't even half over at that point - Ondrej Pavelec made sure of that). Points gained: zero.
8. At Edmonton, October 27. "You knew they'd lose eventually, but it still stings to go down like this." While no one was thinking "82-0-0," the Caps went into Rexall Place with a 7-0-0 record, scored first, and outshot their hosts 35-19 (including 19-6 in the third period). But the zebras were the story on this night (Stephane Auger, natch), as Edmonton had eight power-play chances through two periods, and the two on which they converted were all Nikolai Khabibulin needed. It's tough to have a winning streak snapped by one of the League's worst teams... and it's really tough to waste Karl Alzner's only goal in his last 137 games. Points gained: zero.
7. At Pittsburgh, January 22. "The season is going to be a grind from here on out, coin flip games take their toll on everybody." The Caps spotted their biggest rival a 2-0 lead before a national television audience before working their way back and taking a 3-2 lead early in the third. James Neal tied the game up seven minutes into the final frame and Evgeni Malkin ended it in overtime, but the Caps were unable to hold that third-period lead and make Alex Ovechkin's only three-point game of the season stand up. Points gained: one.
6. Vs. Carolina, March 6. "If the Caps struggle at home against lower-quality teams, it certainly doesn't bode well for their ability to climb back into the playoff race." Game four of a five-game mid-playoff-push homestand started out well, with Troy Brouwer and Jay Beagle giving the Caps "the most dangerous lead in hockey"... which proved to be just that, as three successive 'Canes goals gave the visitors the lead. Laich scored with under three minutes left to get the game to overtime, but Justin Faulk ended it there, and dropped the Caps to 1-2-1 on the all-important homestand. Points gained: one.
5. Vs. New Jersey, November 12. "[F]rom the time Jersey scored their first goal to cut the lead in half until the time the Caps registered their next shot on goal, 14:18 elapsed off the clock. Not exactly the 'killer instinct' Caps fans were thirsting for." In the first game of what would be a nearly two-month stretch without Mike Green, the Caps dressed Laich as a defenseman (yes, that happened) and scored twice in the first period. Then, they stopped playing, firing just two shots on goal in the second period and five in the third en route to a shootout loss. Zzzz. Points gained: one.
4. At New York Islanders, November 5. "After a strong start to the game the Caps just didn't have enough in the tank to keep up with the tenacity of the Islanders, and while they kept it competitive right up until the end it simply fell short." Another two-goal lead blown, but this one was blown so thoroughly the Caps couldn't even get to overtime (even though they managed to tie the game at three with just under eleven minutes left in the game). Similar story, too - badly outshot in the second period after grabbing that 2-0 lead. All this... to the Islanders. Points gained: zero.
3. Vs. Winnipeg, February 9. "And so the Caps have a few days off to think about a brutally hard loss - a game they had to have and a game they did have. Until they didn't." Through two periods, Verizon Center fans were treated to a goaltending battle that turned into a special teams competition in the third as the Caps' two Alexes scored power-play markers around the period's mid-point. But the calls evened out and so did the score, as Evander Kane scored on a 6-on-3 (goalie pulled) advantage and then Dustin Byfuglien's shot from center ice skipped off Alzner and past Tomas Vokoun in the game's 58th minute. There was nothing doin' the rest of the way, and the Jets finished the Caps off in the shootout. Points gained: one.
2. At Nashville, November 15. "[A] game that promised to leave Caps fans with at least something positive after 55 minutes ends up leaving them wondering how it could all go so wrong, so fast." and Pekka Rinne battled for 55 scoreless minutes before finally broke the double goose-egg and gave the Caps the lead. Inexplicably, Bruce Boudreau put his top line - rather than his effective-to-that-point shutdown line - on the ice for the next shift and it cost him. The Caps couldn't even get the game to overtime, as Colin Wilson scored the game-winner with 25 seconds left and Shea Weber added an empty-netter to close it out. Points gained: zero.
1. Vs. Winnipeg, March 23. "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." Coming off a successful five-game make-or-break road trip, the Caps got a goal by and then two from Ovechkin gave the Caps a 3-0 lead in what was their biggest game of the year to that point. Then they stopped playing and started... well, we'll go with Alzner's description. Two quick goals cut the margin to one, but the Caps still held that lead with 3:45 left before Spencer Machacek scored his first NHL goal to tie the game and then Tim Stapleton scored in overtime to win it. Points gained: one.
So there you have it - plenty of spilled milk to cry over. Ten games, 15 points that were certainly attainable left on the table. Of course, the Caps grabbed a number of points that they probably had no rightful claim to along the way as well, but with a little more luck and ultimately success in the games detailed above, things would look a lot different today than they do, both in terms of the Eastern Conference and the Southeast Division. If the Caps come up short in this final week of the season, they'll spend the summer asking why, and there's a good chance some of these games will spring to mind.
Incidentally, if you were wondering about other leads the Caps held in games they lost over the course of the season, below is a visual representation that answers that very question. The x-axis is game number, the y-axis time elapsed in a given game; the bubbles represent individual games in which the Caps had a lead and ultimately lost, with the opponent as the bubble label, the size of the lead blown (from one to three goals) reflected by the bubble size, and the red bubbles indicating a game in which the Caps failed to get a point while blue indicates games they lost in overtime or a shootout. Lots of lost points there, eh?