With a 2-7-1 record heading into Thursday night's game in Pittsburgh, the Caps' margin for error if they wanted any realistic chance at making the post-season was getting smaller and smaller every day... and already tiny, approaching miniscule, with non-existent roughly a 7-iron away.
Whether or not this reality and the pressures associated with it are now yet more factors contributing to the team's difficulties, the Caps need to get dramatically better and/or luckier, and fast. Against the Pens, they were neither, and a middle-of-the-game meltdown sent Washington to its ninth loss in 11 games on the season by a 5-2 count.
Ten more notes on the game:
- The Caps got off to a good start when Alex Ovechkin forechecked and won a battle on the end boards and threw the puck back to Tomas Kundratek whose shot rebounded off of Marc-Andre Fleury and onto Mike Ribeiro's stick. The Caps' red-hot pivot deposited the puck past the Pens' netminder, who had lost his mask a moment or two earlier after his own defenseman's stick caught him up high. In case you're curious, Rule 9.5 reads, in relevant part, "When a goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask and ... the opposing team has possession of the puck, play shall only be stopped if there is no immediate and impending scoring opportunity." So it's a good goal, and kudos to Fleury for picking up the recently retired Dwayne Roloson's torch as the the floppingest goalie in the League.
- On that first goal, Wojtek Wolski was engaged with Brooks Orpik in front (and it was Orpik's stick that caught Fleury), something that the Polish winger was doing with aplomb early, clearly getting under the Pittsburgh defender's skin. As Caps fans, we know how this situation usually plays out - someone gets physical with Orpik, Orpik seeks out the least-physical Cap for retribution. Perhaps he hunted down the healthy-scratched Mathieu Perreault during the first intermission.
- Karl Alzner? Two penalties in less than a period's worth of hockey? Inconceivable. This was only the third time in 226 career games that Alzner has committed two minors in the same game, and the second one ended up in the back of the Caps net via a world-class snipe from Evgeni Malkin. Of note, it's the first time the Caps had allowed a goal with Alzner in the box since January 17 of last year.
- And then, there it was... The Deflator™. Time and again through the season's first ten games, Caps goalies have allowed soul-crushingly soft goals that have taken what little wind may have been in their team's sails right out of 'em. Tonight it was Michal Neuvirth's in net, and Pascal Dupuis' turn to pad his stats thanks to a soft goal ending up in the Caps net. Adam Oates had seen enough and yanked Neuvy, but the damage had been done... well, some of it, at least.
- If "bad goaltending" is the clubhouse leader for "thing that's killing the Caps this season," "bad penalties and penalty killing" is only a stroke or two behind, and in the second period, it made a charge at the top spot. First there was that Malkin goal mentioned above. Fair enough. Then a Joel Ward delay-of-game followed by a James Neal power-play goal. And finally a Roman Hamrlik hook that turned into a Sidney Crosby goal with just 22 seconds left in the period. Thirteen minutes, three penalties, three power-play goals-against.
- Oh, and there was a Matt Cooke goal at even-strength in between those last two tallies. The Caps have been a terrible team in the second period so far, but never this bad - out-shot 18-6, out-scored 5-0. So there's the hat trick of crappy play for the 2013 Caps - soft goal(s), power-play goal(s)-against and a terrible middle stanza. Toss the chapeaus, friends!
- For what it's worth, Ovechkin looked quite good for most of the time that this game was still a game. "What it's worth" turned out to be not all that much, though a power-play goal in the third (giving him his first multi-point game of the season and Ribeiro his fifth such game) was a tiny bit of silver lining.
- That said, if opponents take away that shot from the circle on the power-play, what does Ovechkin have left in his arsenal?
- Hits are a worthless stat, but... Caps defenders were credited with just three of them tonight (Alzner, Kundratek and Hamrlik). A pair of Pittsburgh blueliners had three apiece. The Caps were the decidedly less-physical team tonight, which may be fine for a finesse team, but they don't seem to be that either. Right now, it's hard to identify an identity.
- Jason La Canfora is not impressed.
And so they'll try to figure out what went wrong in Pittsburgh, attempt the more difficult task of figuring out how to fix it, and try again on Saturday against the Panthers. It's that simple... and that hard.