It was a contest between two teams that could lay claim to being the hottest club in the NHL over the last month. When the final horn sounded, one team could still make that claim. The other was left wondering what hit them. Unfortunately, it was the Washington Capitals looking around and doing the wondering as the Florida Panthers scored two goal in each of the first two periods to take a 4-0 lead, then coasted to a 5-2 win at Verizon Center.
The Panthers got on the board with goals a little more than four minutes apart in the first period, first when Jonathan Huberdeau scored from point blank range off a pass from Jaromir Jagr, then on a 5-on-3 power play with Aleksander Barkov taking a behind the back pass from Nick Bjugstad and snapping the puck past goalie Philipp Grubauer.
Florida doubled their lead in the second period, first just 21 seconds into the period on a what might be termed a softie as Vincent Trocheck snapped a harmless looking shot from deep along the right wing wall under Grubauer’s pads. Huberdeau got his second goal of the game just over 15 minutes into the period on a power play when he snapped a shot from the top of the right wing circle off the pipe to Grubauer’s left and in.
The Caps had their fans inching up in their seats in the first two minutes of the third period when they struck for two goals. Nicklas Backstrom notched his 17th goal of the season as a power play was expiring just 34 seconds into the period. Evgeny Kuznetsov, still occupying the low position to the left of goalie Al Montoya, tried to thread a pass through the crease to T.J. Oshie, but the pass was interrupted by defenseman Erik Gudbranson. The puck bounced to the edge of the crease near the post where Backstrom gathered it up, pulled it to his forehand, and tucked it past Montoya’s left pad to make it a 4-1 game.
Andre Burakovsky struck 79 seconds later. Kuznetsov controlled the puck below the Panthers’ goal line and slid a pass between two defenders to Burakovsky in the left wing circle. Burakovsky drew the puck to his forehand and whipped a shot past Montoya’s blocker on the near side to make it 4-2 just 1:53 into the period.
That would be as close as the Caps would get, though. Quinten Howden scored into an empty net with 1:53 left to give Florida a 5-2 win and put the Caps off on the wrong foot to begin the post-All-Star game portion of the season.
-- Andre Burakovsky’s goal (his eighth of the season) bumped his goal-scoring streak to three games, over which he has doubled his season’s production. He also has points in six of his last seven games (4-6-10, plus-5).
-- If you didn’t look at the scoreboard, you would swear the Caps beat the Panthers by a touchdown. They doubled Florida’s shots on goal (38-19) and out-attempted the Panthers, 65-30. That’s right, the Caps had eight more shots on goal than the Panthers had total attempts. Stick that in your Corsi.
-- Stanislav Galiev did not do himself any favors in this game. Playing in place of Alex Ovechkin (suspension) on the left wing of the top line, he recorded one shot on goal, two attempts, and two giveaways. He recorded three shifts in the third period, only one in the last 13:14 of the game, that coming in the last minute with the game decided.
-- The new calendar year certainly agrees with Evgeny Kuznetsov. Already named player-of-the-month for January, he started February as if he wanted to make it two months in a row. His two assists made it four multi-point games in his last six contests, and he is 4-14-18, plus-8, in 11 games so far in 2016.
-- It was going to happen sooner or later. The life of a backup goalie is not easy, not being able to get into a regular playing rhythm. In his first start in more than three weeks, Philipp Grubauer was as sharp as a cheese spreader, which is to say, “not much.” He allowed four goals on the first 13 shots he faced over 35 minutes and change. Low shot volumes faced, getting a start for the first time since people were still thinking of going to the gym to honor their New Year’s resolutions? Bad mix.
-- With his goal in the third period, Nicklas Backstrom extended his points streak to four games. That, in and of itself, is not unusual for Backstrom, but four of the five points he has in those games being goals is. He has six goals in his last nine games and is now on a pace to record his second career 30-goal season (he had 33 goals in 2009-2010).
-- Back to Burakovsky. Ten shot attempts, ten shots on goal. This guy would be something at a state fair shooting arcade.
-- Matt Niskanen also had ten shot attempts. His five shots on goal is a season high for him.
-- Wouldn’t you know it? The Caps were awarded eight power play opportunities – a season high (all in the first two periods) – and Alex Ovechkin is in the press box serving a suspension. The Caps went 0-for-8, including drawing a blank on a 1:17 5-on-3 opportunity. Florida scored two power play goals in four chances, including one on a 5-on-3 advantage. There was your game.
-- Think the Panthers went into a shell late? They recorded five shot attempts from Burakovsky’s goal at the 1:53 mark in the third period until Quinton Howden’s empty net goal at the 18:07 mark, a span of 16:14.
In the end…
Repeat after me…”it’s only one game…it’s only one game.” One game, indeed. It was the first game for the Caps in six days, only their second in two weeks. That’s a beer league schedule. And for all that, the Caps outplayed the Panthers, but the visitors did better as, well, predators (it’s a big cat thing). They scored on the man advantage, the Caps did not. Some of that can be attributed to their big power play weapon being out of action, but eight chances and no goals? The guys who were on the ice own a big piece of that result.
The Caps get a chance to get back on track on Thursday against the Islanders, who are looking to leap over the New York Rangers as the closest divisional pursuers to the Caps. If Washington “plays” as well as they did against the Panthers, they should have a happier result, but nothing is guaranteed in this league, not even for the team with the league’s best record.