Twelve days into the NHL’s restart, the Washington Capitals are plenty acquainted with not only the league’s COVID-19 free “bubble” in downtown Toronto, but also an even smaller enclosure known as the penalty box.
A few days after they limited their infractions in their first round-robin game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Capitals took a big step backward Thursday. Seven minor penalties, combined with 15 giveaways and a lack of inspired offense, led to a 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
All seven of the Capitals‘ penalties came within the first two periods, and their penalty kill held the Flyers 0-for-6 on power-play opportunities. But spending 9:41 of the game shorthanded prevented the forward lines from finding a groove at 5-on-5.
“When you are sitting on the bench, getting a shift here and then waiting four or five or six minutes when the penalties are going back and forth, it is tough to get in the game and feel good and get in a rhythm,” T.J. Oshie said, “so I think that is the hardest part.”
The penalty killers, plus goalie Braden Holtby, kept the game from ever getting out of hand. Holtby made 18 saves, including some key stops against 2-on-1 and 3-on-1 chances.
When they did possess the puck, the offense looked staler than on Monday. Travis Boyd scored the Capitals’ lone goal, and the top six forwards now have accounted for just one of the team’s three goals so far this week.
Scott Laughton scored twice and Kevin Hayes made three assists to lead the Flyers.
The loss puts Washington (0-1-1, 1 point) out of the running for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, which will go to Philadelphia or Tampa Bay. The Capitals play the Boston Bruins on Sunday for their final round-robin matchup, which will determine if the Capitals are the No. 3 seed or No. 4 when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin next week.
Both Oshie and coach Todd Reirden referred to another “gear” the Capitals have yet to reach.
“We are still looking for that extra gear that we all know we have, and you know it is good that we get these games, and some of these mistakes are not playing with the right mentality,” Oshie said.
The Capitals took three penalties and killed two Philadelphia power plays before even putting their first shot on net, which came courtesy of Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin couldn’t wrangle a point on Thursday after Philadelphia held him without a point in four regular-season meetings.
Laughton struck first about 13 minutes into the first frame. Radko Gudas lost the puck on a bad pass behind the Capitals’ goal line. Hayes intercepted it, passed it to Travis Konecny and Konecny spun a pass behind him to a trailing Laughton, who scored on a wide-open net.
Perhaps the most regrettable turn of events for Washington came in the middle period. On the way to killing an Evgeny Kuznetsov penalty, Konecny was caught for slashing. It created a brief 4-on-4 spell that would have transitioned to a Capitals power play — if not for Michal Kempny committing an unwise interference penalty just 19 seconds later.
Instead of a man advantage for the Capitals, this led to more 4-on-4 time. The Flyers took advantage when defenseman Travis Sanheim slipped open behind three nearby Capitals players, received the puck from Hayes and wristed it past a helpless Holtby.
That was still technically an even-strength goal, and the Capitals refused to allow a power-play goal cross the line. But the penalty killers weren’t necessarily glad their jobs came down to that Thursday.
“Is it good that we killed the penalties off? For sure,” Nic Dowd said. “And that’s going to be a big issue coming into a best of seven series because special teams is going to be a big deal. But I think we’d much rather obviously take less and not get into a so-called groove of killing six off.”
Laughton scored again midway through the third by redirecting a Hayes pass over Holtby’s shoulder. But just 12 seconds later, Boyd did the same for the Capitals on a Carl Hagelin shot attempt. He screened Flyers goalie Brian Elliott, got the toe of his stick on the incoming puck and sent it behind him, through his legs, for his first career playoff goal.
It wasn’t enough to get the rest of the Capitals’ forwards going, even after pulling Holtby for a sixth skater for the last minute and a half.
Late in the first period, Flyers forward Connor Bunnaman got tied up with Kuznetsov and fell backwards onto his left leg. Kuznetsov grimaced in pain as they fell and made a grabbing motion toward his ankle. He soon left for the trainer’s room but returned to start the second period.
Kuznetsov spent much of the third period out of the game, too, but Reirden implied the center was benched for his play rather than his injury.
“How we break down ice time and use certain guys, we’re going with who’s playing the best at that time,” Reirden said. “We need a different level of play and we know we have it. It’s not a secret. We have a different level of play and we need to get to it if we want to have success. We need more from everybody and we didn’t have that.”
That could apply not only to Kuznetsov — who didn’t see Laughton coming on the Flyers’ third goal, and who finished with a minus-2 — but also to the whole team, with the first true round of the postseason less than a week away.
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