No points, tonight, folks.
Getting to be a tired refrain, isn’t it? Tonight's 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators makes that three in a row, eight of their last 11, ten of their last 14. As each one is heaped on the last, playoffs are becoming more a wish than an expectation.
Tonight, it was the Ottawa Senators showing why they have been Stanley Cup contenders (well, at least until the playoffs actually start) and the Caps can only see that in their future. To their credit, the Caps played a smart, under control game for the first 15 minutes or so of the game. Then, an odd thing happened. Andrej Meszaros scored a goal from 55 feet out. It was the kind of iffy goal that can have a depressing effect on a young, struggling team, and that’s pretty much the effect it had. Mike Comrie scored a couple of minutes later – in the last minute of the period – and this could have just flattened the Caps.
Then, an odder thing happened. Chris Clark picked up the puck and scooted down the left side in the dying seconds of the period. Looking pass, he snapped the puck far side past goalie Ray Emery and off the post for a goal with 2.3 ticks left in the period. It was the kind of goal that could turn the momentum of a game.
Ottawa didn’t even blink.
The Senators just played a patient game through the first half of the second period, and when an opportunity presented itself, they were quick to convert it. An odd bounce off the end boards behind Brent Johnson ended up on the stick of Daniel Alfredsson just to the left of Johnson at the post. Alfredsson snuck the puck between Johnson’s glove and the post, and Ottawa had their two-goal lead once more. Mike Comrie scored a minute later, and the Caps were bleeding all over the ice again. The rest of the game was mere details.
The Senators handled adversity calmly, patiently. The Caps handled it like, well, kids – panicky and without confidence. The latter is the story of the Caps lately. And that kind of behavior shows up in neon lights on the scoresheet – 17 goals allowed in their last three games, 40 in their last 11 (of which they’ve lost those eight), and 51 in their last 14 (in which they are 4-10-0).
If you look at the standings in the East, there are the first hints of some separation in the standings. Tampa Bay (currently 8th) came into tonight’s play with a four-point lead on three teams tied for ninth. The Caps are on the wrong side of that divide – five points behind the Lightning starting play tonight -- and you get the first sense that the season could be slipping away. And, one can see some frustration starting to creep in (it sure seemed that way with Alex Ovechkin, who has “only” three goals in his last ten games and took an unnecessary shove at Dany Heatley as the latter was going off on a shift change). The Caps did not play altogether that poorly tonight. They played just poorly enough to be on the wrong side of every meaningful play and every odd bounce. Ottawa converted those opportunities . . . the Senators had a few more shots, a couple more takeaways, some more blocked shots, won a few more faceoffs. In no single aspect of the game did Ottawa truly dominate – except on the scoreboard, where it actually matters. And that’s the difference between a club that has skill and experience and a club that is lacking in both. You think maybe you’re not playing that badly, and all of a sudden, you’re on the wrong end of a 4-1 score barely ten minutes into the second period.
The Caps are at a critical juncture of their season right now. As unsuccessful as their last month has been, the risk now is that the bottom falls out of the rest of their season. That’s a test of fortitude as much as skill. Players and a team can have their character tempered under such situations; it’s part of learning how to win. Ten years ago, a young Daniel Alfredsson and Wade Redden were going through it with the Ottawa team the Caps fell to tonight. Hopefully, ten years from now Caps fans will look back on nights like this – all too frequent these days – as part of what building a lasting competitor was all about.