In a shortened season, every event takes on more importance, relatively, than it would be during a normal campaign. Every streak, every injury, every win or loss, every period, every face-off... all of it amplified, especially for a team that dug itself a grave-sized hole over the first quarter or so of the season, as the Washington Capitals did.
And so Saturday's loss on Long Island felt like another nail in the Caps' coffin, a dramatic downturn in their chances of making the post-season, from nearly a coin-flip to once again long odds. Of course, it felt that way because that's the reality of the situation in which these Caps now find themselves. But there will be losses along the way even if the Caps do make an improbable run to the playoffs, it's just critically important that these individual losses don't become losing streaks, and that each one is answered with at least a couple of wins.
To that end, the Caps had played three consecutive three game spans in which they'd won two-of-three entering Thursday night's game against Florida, which they won handily and followed up with that ugly loss yesterday, making Sunday's game against the Rangers the "rubber match" of the current three-game stretch. Win (especially against the 8th-place Rangers) and things are still relatively on-track; lose and the already miniscule margin for error becomes even smaller.
On Sunday afternoon, the Caps made the hard road ahead even harder, dropping a 4-1 decision to New York.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Just over two minutes into the game Marcus Johansson (playing in his first game since February 7) won a battle along the boards to keep possession in the Rangers' zone, and Jason Chimera fed Steve Oleksy for a shot from the point that would elude Martin Biron in the New York net (thanks, in part, to Joel Ward's presence in front). It was Oleksy's first NHL goal, Johansson's first assist of the season and Chimera's second point in the last month. That trifecta had to pay handsomely.
- Nearly ten minutes later, Alex Ovechkin looked to be lining up Derek Stepan for a neutral zone hit reminiscent of his famous hit on Jaromir Jagr at the 2010 Olympics. Stepan moved the puck and Ovechkin was left with two decent options - hit Stepan and risk an interference penalty (or, quite possibly, something worse) or peel off and hustle to get back into the play defensively. Instead, he chose Option #3 - peel off in the opposite direction of the puck and the play and not hustle to get back defensively. Stepan got the puck back, drove wide, and ended up banking the puck off Braden Holtby and in from below the goal line. It was a terrible goal for Holtby to allow, and even if Ovechkin's play in the neutral zone was far from the proximate cause of the goal, it was another another questionable neutral zone play by the Caps "lead-by-example" captain, something that's become a bit of a theme lately.
- Midway through the second period, and soon after successfully killing a penalty, the Rangers drew two penalties on the same play, both on Ovechkin... and in differing degrees of legitimacy, to put it politely. But on the delayed penalty before the first of the two could be called, Brian Boyle scored his first goal of the year on what was essentially a fade away shot from above the face-off circle. That's another one that Holtby probably should have had.
- On the ensuing power-play - for the Ovechkin penalty that will go on his record - Rick Nash beat Holtby and chased him from the game (and for the second time in his last five outings). If the Caps were going to make a comeback in this one, it would be Michal Neuvirth backstopping them to it.
- Late in the second period, Matt Hendricks drew a penalty to put the Caps on their second power play of the afternoon, and Ward drew another to put the Caps up two men for 31 seconds. And while the Caps had a couple of terrific chances on that 5-on-3, they couldn't beat Biron and the stanza ended with the Caps trailing by two to a team that was 65-0-3 when leading after two periods over the last three seasons.
- With New York predictably going into a shell for the last twenty minutes, chances both ways were minimal and the result, unsurprisingly, was no scoring... until Brad Richards potted one with 1:12 left with the Caps hoping to pull their goalie for a sixth attacker. Ballgame.
- Back to Neuvirth, one of the silver linings to come from this one was that he got some game action and looked good, stopping ten of the 11 shots he faced. With the most-compressed part of the schedule still ahead, the Caps will need at least two goalies playing and playing well if they're to have any chance at a playoff spot... and even if they're not heading to the playoffs, they'll likely want some time to see what pending-free-agent Neuvirth's got the rest of the way.
- Nicklas Backstrom won all 14 of the faceoffs he took today, which is... something.
- The Caps certainly missed Mathieu Perreault's creativity and his and Wojtek Wolski's puck possession. And John Erskine's snarl. And Mike Green 's offense, especially on the power play. And Brooks Laich, and Dmitry Orlov...
- One of these days, Joey Crabb may show why he gets a sweater every night, but that day hasn't come yet and didn't come today.
The Caps' inability to pick up even a point this weekend against the Empire State's two teams hurts (and hopefully you made better use of these two beautiful days than they did). And with a home-and-home series against the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes looming, the Caps' playoff hopes could be all but extinguished by the end of the week. But until they are, wins will continue to provide hope and losses will continue to provide pain... and more than it would in a normal year.