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Capitals @ Panthers Recap: Caps Squander Opportunity To Clinch Division With 5-3 Loss To Cats In Regular Season Road Finale

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It took a while to get interesting, but a furious comeback fell just short in Sunrise.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Florida Panthers Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

With an opportunity to clinch the Metropolitan Division with a win (and some help) the Capitals came out flat, falling behind 4-0. They were able to rally back to bring the game to within one in the contest’s final moments, but fell in the end 5-3 to the plucky Florida Panthers.

Here’s Monday night’s Plus/Minus:

Plus: After basically exclusively using this space to write about how bad the Capitals have been at the faceoff dot, they finally eked out an advantage in faceoffs 32-to-29. They also out-paced Florida in hits 35-29.

Minus: It shouldn’t be a great sign that the “plus” today was about a stat that was immaterial to the outcome of the game. Don’t let the final score fool you, they didn’t come ready to play tonight in their final road contest of the year.

And now, this…

Ten more notes on the game:

1. It was a sleepy first ten minutes with neither team taking control. Though the Capitals maintained the majority of zone time, their offensive sequences became somewhat predictable with a number of passes to the high slot through traffic. The Caps’ cycle game was nearly non-existent in the early going, and fits into a pattern we’ve seen when they play teams who aren’t going full-bore: they sometimes seem to match their opponent’s intensity and, particularly in first periods, and find themselves having to play catch up.

2. That lack of intensity was a harbinger of things to come. Some lax play in the defensive end coupled by with an aggressive forecheck by the Panthers third line resulted in Frank Vatrano beating Pheonix Copley on a weird bouncing goal, his 24th of the season, to put the Caps in a one-goal hole with under seven minutes left in the first period. Upon second review it appeared that the puck may have deflected off of a referee to keep play alive for Florida and resulted in the tally.

3. The Panthers out-shot the Capitals 14-5 in the period, and their shot selection heat map tells you just about everything you need to know: namely that they played it safe and were content to play from above the dots.

4. Jonathan Huberdeau had a nearly identical goal (save for a ricochet off the referee) under four minutes into the second period. More sloppy play by the Capitals in their defensive zone resulted in his fifth goal of the season against the Capitals.

5. Washington got their first, in truth their only, solid opportunity midway through the second as they went to the man advantage. Unfortunately it was more of the same as Vincent Trocheck streaked down the wing with five white-clad visitors playing spectator and gave way to a short-handed unassisted goal to go down 3-0 just 15 seconds into the powerplay.

6. The Washington top unit was on ice for another Panthers goal, courtesy of ex-Cap Troy Brouwer who had the most wide-open net. I remain convinced he would have missed this shot if the same situation was presented to him while he was in D.C. It was a tough night for the Caps’ top unit of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson, all of whom were on the ice for each of the Panthers five-on-five goals. Wilson and Backstrom were also both the ice for the short-hander finishing both -4 and -3 +/- (which, I know, is a stupid stat) respectively.

7. John Carlson’s strong slap pass from the blue line found Evgeny Kuznutzov all alone between the circles who picked up his 70th point of the year (13 goals, 57 assists) on the tip in to extend his points streak to four games. It was an ugly game for Kuzy, but it was nice to see him get the goose egg off the board.

8. Even after trailing by four through two periods, the Caps stuck with Copley in the third -- a largely unsurprising move given that this was decidedly a rest day for Braden Holtby. Despite having won his last six decisions, the deck was decidedly stacked against him, though it’s hard to pin this loss entirely on netminding. If this is the last regular game of the season for Copley, he finishes the year with a 16-5-3 record in 23 starts with a 2.88 GAA and a .906 save percentage. With Philipp Grubauer’s departure last offseason, backup goaltending was one of the bigger question marks for the defending Cup champs heading into this year but despite some rocky stretches Copley was an admirable reserve this season, giving Washington more than a respectable chance any night that Holtby was rested.

9. T.J. Oshie made minced meat of two Panthers defenders and connected with Nick Backstrom off a beautiful back-hand pass before Nicky B found the twin to trim the deficit to 4-2. For Backstrom, it was his 22nd goal year and his third in the last two contests. He continued a stellar year, became the only player in the NHL with four straight seasons of at least 20 goals and 50 assists.

The Capitals were not done, as Jakub Vrana collected in another Oshie back-hand pass from the slot to the wing, and he scored with the empty net to make it a 4-3 contest. The goal was Vrana’s 24th of the year. The furious comeback bid came up short as Trocheck found the empty net to give the Panthers the 5-3 victory.

10. The Panthers extended what is now a five-game winning streak that dates back to last season, and remain the only team in the Eastern Conference to sweep the defending champions. Roberto Luongo, in what very well may be his final game against Washington was very strong, and continued his trend of playing some of his best hockey against the Capitals. Over 40 career games against D.C. he posted a .923 save percentage and gone 23-12-3, good for the fourth most wins against any team over the course of his 19-year career. While we’ll definitely see him in the Hockey Hall Of Fame in Toronto some day, he unquestionably is a first-ballot inductee in the Hockey Twitter Hall Of Fame.

Though the Capitals got the help they needed by way of a 2-1 Leafs victory over the Islanders, Washington’s lackadaisical first... 51 minutes were their undoing and means they will need their final two games to continue in their chase for the Metropolitan Division title. It was a bit of a wasted opportunity to be sure, but after a high-energy victory over the league’s top team in Tampa Bay, it was a bit of a regrettably “on brand” let down against an inferior team in a half-empty building.

If you stuck with it, you were treated to a very exciting five minutes of hockey! There will unquestionably be some more of the same with the regular season coming to a close and the Metro still on the line.