On Friday night hockey fans in Columbus, Ohio, were given the pleasure of watching a hockey team that was cohesive, balanced, confident, dominating, and efficient.
The other team was the Washington Capitals.
The Columbus Blue Jackets scored early, late and often, held the Capitals to an inconsequential window dressing goal, and closed to within two points of the fourth-place Capitals in the Metropolitan Division with a 5-1 win at Nationwide Arena.
John Carlson notched the only goal for the Caps, a floater from the blue line through a maze of bodies almost nine minutes into the second period. By that time, though, the Blue Jackets already had three goals of their own. James Wisniewski opened the scoring on a power play 12 minutes into the first period, but the critical sequence came in the wrap-around from the first period into the second. Cam Atkinson scored in the last minute of the first period, and Ryan Johansen scored before there were two minutes gone in the second.
The competitive portion of the evening was pretty much over. The Caps managed just one shot on goal after the Johansen goal at 1:44 until Carlson’s goal at 8:53 and never threatened seriously thereafter.
-- The Capitals and their multi-vitamin offense (“One-a-Day”) managed a single goal for the fifth time in their last ten games.
-- The Caps have lost four in a row. Nicklas Backstrom does not have a point in any of those games. The Caps have eight losses in their last ten games. Backstrom has two points in those eight games. Coincidence?
-- The Caps did not have a power play goal. That makes five games in a row without one, the longest games drought in Adam Oates’ tenure as head coach. The Caps are 0-for-21 in 23:59 of power play time in that stretch. Alex Ovechkin, who has not had a power play goal in 14 straight games after drawing a blank against Columbus, is on an 0-for-12 shooting streak over these last five games and 0-for-28 since he scored a power play goal against Philadelphia in a 5-2 loss on December 17th.
-- How’s that whole “three-goaltender” thing working? Braden Holtby gave up five goals on 11 shots in his last full game, Michal Neuvirth allowed four goals in his last appearance, and Philipp Grubauer was nicked for three goals on 14 shots before being relieved by Holtby in the second period of this game. If the object is to play the hot goaltender, the Caps might think about Riley Gill.
-- The Caps allowed two power play goals to Columbus. That is the eighth time that Washington allowed two or more power play goals in 35 games since they ended a streak of eight straight games without allowing a power play goal in early November. In those 35 games the Caps’ penalty killers are 93-for-123 (75.6 percent).
-- It is an unfortunate fact of life with this club that nothing and no one epitomizes the problems the Caps have on the blue line more than Connor Carrick. It’s a bad place for a 19-year old rookie to be, but here it is. He was on ice for both Columbus power play goals last night. On the first, not only could he not move Nathan Horton from the top of the crease, where Horton was screening Grubauer, he was barely within a stick length of him (not that his partner, Karl Alzner was any closer on the 4-on-3 power play). On the second power play goal, Carrick was a half-second too late stepping across to interrupt a shot by Mark Letestu, who broke past the rest of the Caps…uh, “defense?” Carrick should be learning his craft in Hershey, not playing the penalty kill on a bad penalty killing team, but the club is so thin on defense (no, Jack Hillen returning to the lineup is not going to cure that), Carrick is actually a good option based on merit. He is better than a lot of options. That’s not to say “best “ option. We might expect to see Steve Oleksy back on the right side of the third pair soon.
-- Carrick seemed to be the only guy who had much punch. Well, punch”es.” He had his first NHL fight, courtesy of Matt Calvert. It was not a heavyweight duel, but it was energetic. We had it a draw. By that time, though, the matter was settled, the Blue Jackets having compiled what would be their 5-1 margin of victory.
-- Martin Erat had an assist. That makes 16 assists for the season. Despite the fact that he has played in only 40 of 48 games and averages only 13:48 in ice time per game (only two and a half minutes of 5-on-5 time per game with Alex Ovechkin, on average), he is fourth among forwards in assists. What might have been if he was a regular scoring line winger for this team on more nights.
-- The top line had eight shots on goal, Ovechkin had seven of them. The top line had 13 shot attempts, Ovechkin had 12 of them. Either Ovechkin isn’t getting Brooks Laich or Mikhail Grabovski the puck, or the other guys are looking only to feed Ovechkin, or… maybe this isn’t really working, either.
-- We thought 30 shots might be the key to beating Bobrovsky (60 might not have done it with the way the Caps’ penalty kill was working), and after the first period, when the Caps had 12 shots on goal, it looked as if they were doing a good job of tenderizing Bobrovsky. But the Caps managed only 15 shots over the last 40 minutes, only 12 after Carlson’s goal.
-- How bad was it? Marcus Johansson was whistled for a hooking penalty at 5:39 of the second period. That broke a string of 833:37 to start the season without having taken a penalty.
In the end…
This road trip has already gone poorly, is already unsuccessful, having lost the first two legs of the three-game trip. It is not going to get better, the Caps having to travel to Madison Square Garden on Sunday night to face the New York Rangers in a game to be broadcast nationally. The Caps hang on to a playoff spot by the tape on their sticks, one point over Ottawa and New Jersey, two over Columbus and Detroit.
It is not as if there is one part of the game sinking the Caps these days. They are 3-5-5 in their last 13 games. Over those 13 games they have not been able to score (2.31 per game), have not been able to defend (3.00 per game), have been weak on the power play (5-for-33, 15.2 percent), and have been weaker on the penalty kill (28-for-39, 71.8 percent). Their leading scorers aren’t scoring (Ovechkin is 5-3-8, Backstrom is 3-4-7), the goaltenders are not tending to business (2.88, .907). It was all on display in all its grisly aspects against the Blue Jackets (even though here we issue the required statement that not all of Grubauer’s goals allowed were his fault, a statement that is in fact true).
This is a team that has lost to the worst team in the league – twice – over that 13 game stretch and has won once in six road games. With six road games in their next seven, the Caps might have arrived at the critical point of their season, because at the moment one can make an argument that it is the Caps, not the Buffalo Sabres, that is the worst team in the league.