The first game of the second-half of a season - even a truncated season such as this one - is never going to be a "must-win" game in anything close to a literal sense of the word. But it sure can be a "hey, you guys really might want to win this one and most of the rest of 'em if you want to keep alive any post-season aspirations" game... even though that's not nearly as succinct or dramatic. And Tuesday night's game at Verizon Center was certainly one of those games.
Washington entered the night trailing visiting - and first place - Carolina by eight points in the Southeast Division with 120 minutes (or more) of hockey to be played between the two teams over a span of 51 hours or so this week, a span that would likely go a long way towards determining the Caps' regular-season fate. Win two games in regulation and they'd be four points back with 22 to play; lose both and the deficit would be an almost-certainly insurmountable ten or more.
But any athlete practiced in the art of the cliché knows that you can't be thinking that far ahead, instead focusing on winning the next period, the next shift, the next battle on the boards, and so on. On Tuesday night, the Caps fell behind early and couldn't recover, dropping a 4-0 decision as they continue to watch their post-season chances continue to fade.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Marcus Johansson was elevated to the top line with Mike Ribeiro and Alex Ovechkin during Sunday's loss to the Rangers and stayed up there for this one. It's a curious trio in that the three had pretty brutal puck-possession numbers entering the game (though, as we noted earlier today, that's obviously not the Holy Grail for Adam Oates when it comes to cobbling together his lineup). But Oates's hunch paid off immediately and Johansson got two tremendous scoring chances early... neither of which he could convert (including a slam-dunk on a Ribeiro feed). The chances, you like. The results, not so much.
- Just under four minutes into the first, the Caps had a defensive zone face-off against Carolina's top line. Oates sent out Nicklas Backstrom's line, and why not? Backstrom was an unreal 14-for-14 on Sunday against the Rangers and won five of seven draws from Eric Staal when these teams last played a couple of weeks back. But the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray, and this one did - Staal won the draw clean, Alexander Semin sent a shot high and wide (shocking, I know) and then a pinching Joe Corvo threw a puck towards the net from near the goal line that somehow deflected up high off Braden Holtby and in. It was a bad goal and a bad start, two things this Caps team could ill-afford on this night.
- The Caps had a chance to level the score on the power play mid-way through the period, but failed to get anything going with the extra man, which has become surprisingly common of late, as the once-torrid special teams unit was just 3-for-20 over the last half-dozen games coming into the game. Regression is a... well, you know. And so is having Mike Green on the shelf.
- The period would end with the Caps trailing by just that one goal, which wasn't too bad... until you realize that the Canes were a perfect five-for-five when leading after the first period this season.
- Carolina tilted the ice a bit more in the second period and were rewarded with a pair of Riley Nash goals, the second of which came after Jeff Schultz (and his superhuman reach) were out-touched on a would-be icing call by Patrick Dwyer, who fed Nash in front for the score. After two, the Caps trailed 3-0, were being out-shot at even-strength by a 25-16 margin, and were trailing in overall shot attempts 53-34. Oh, and Ovechkin was still looking for his first shot on goal of the game... and he'd never find it.
- Much has been made of the Caps' decimated blueline - one that, on this night, included Steve Oleksy and Cameron Schilling (making his NHL debut) in the third pair, and had a grand total of just 873 regular season games of service in the NHL (392 belonging to Jeff Schultz) and 553 in the AHL. But perhaps nothing hammers home how beat up the group is as the realization that Oleksy, who was playing his fifth NHL game was the old man of the group (at 27). Little NHL experience, little life experience... that's a tough way to go in this League.
- Oates reunited Backstrom and Ovechkin in the third period to try to find a spark, but there was none there. Still, perhaps it's time to give the duo another extended look together - with the season hanging on by a thread, maybe it's time to sink or swim with your franchise pair skating together.
- Oleksy fired up the crowd a bit when he fed Drayson Bowman his lunch in a third-period fight, so there's that... which ain't much.
- Carolina added a shorthanded empty-netter. Welp.
- The Caps failed to get a single puck past Justin Peters - the 'Canes third-string goalie and now have scored just three goals in the last three games after scoring 14 in the previous three. Part of that is bad puck luck, but a lot of it is bad hockey - the Caps have been brutally out-shot in two of the last three games and haven't out-shot an opponent in the last seven, outshot 242-176 over that span.
The song remains the same - the margin for error shrinks, the odds get longer and so on. But really, focusing on the Caps' playoff chances loses sight of the forest for the trees - that this simply isn't a good hockey team right now., and that face isn't being covered up by good fortune and mediocre opponents the way it was for an eleven-game stretch leading up to last weekend.