Tuesday night at Verizon Center was the biggest game of the season for the Washington Capitals. In fact, it could be argued that this was the biggest regular season game played inside the Phone Booth in four years.
“[It’s going to be] like the seventh game of the playoffs,” said Dale Hunter earlier in the week.
Boy, was it ever. For this Capitals franchise, at least.
In the biggest game of their season to date, the Capitals fell spectacularly at home, getting overwhelmed by the Buffalo Sabres by a 5-1 score. Washington never had a chance, falling behind 2-0 after one period and allowing a more desperate and concerted Sabres team to run them over in their own barn.
And by the end of the night, the Capitals were on the outside looking in of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Washington got an early sign that it was going to be one of those nights less than nine minutes in to the game, as Braden Holtby misplayed a puck behind the net and made an ill-advised pass to Jeff Schultz. The ensuing turnover led to a wide open net and an easy goal from Cody McCormick.
“That happens, you know, when you play the puck,” said Hunter after the game. “Every goaltender has done it, but it’s one of those plays that he probably wants back.”
“We really gotta do a better job of holding the fort there at the beginning,” said Mike Knuble. “We just never really recovered after that.”
The Sabres would score twice more on either side of the first intermission before Alexander Semin brought his team within one with a wicked wrist shot off a faceoff that briefly energized the Verizon Center crowd. The Capitals kept pressing after their goal, and looked for a bit that they were going to get back in to the game. A power play late in the period gave the Capitals a huge chance to get back to within one heading in to the final period.
Predictably, however, it was not to be, as Jason Pominville beat Alex Ovechkin at the blue line and roared in on Michal Neuvirth, who had replaced Holtby, potting a fourth to effectively put the game out of reach.
“I should probably play [the puck] with my skate and not my stick but it happens,” lamented Alex Ovechkin. “This mistake probably cost us the game.”
“That shorthanded goal, it was a big blow,” added Knuble.
After that goal, the energy was effectively gone from the building, and an apathetic final 20 minutes of the self-proclaimed biggest game of the season wound down without much incident except a fifth goal from Buffalo, whose contingent inside the stands was loud and proud the entire night.
This was a game that could not be blamed on any one individual, or even a few individuals. This was a team loss; one that everyone inside that locker room must be held accountable. Especially the defense.
Braden Holtby was not stellar, there is no denying that. But blaming this loss on him, I feel, is unfair. From the start of the game, the Capitals had poor defensive coverage and were allowing a fast Buffalo team to penetrate their zone with ease. Eventually, it led to Holtby being pulled, and the vitriol from the fan base abounded. But it was not his fault.
“I wasn’t blaming the kid,” said Hunter of his decision to pull the 22 year-old goaltender. “I was just trying to change momentum, trying to give us some jump.”
The fact of the matter now, just as it was two weeks ago when the Capitals had won four in a row, is that Washington simply is not very good. They have a depth problem down the middle. Their stars, with the recent and notable exception of Alex Ovechkin, are not playing up to their contracts. And they continue to be square pegs forced into the round holes of a system designed, in its most basic sense, for the Ontario Hockey League.
That’s not a recipe for success.
So now, it’s on. The Capitals have five games left: in Boston, at home against Montreal, in Tampa, at home against Florida, and in New York against the Rangers on the final day of the season. Tonight was a game that the Capitals really needed to win in order to remain in the drivers seat. With three of their five remaining games on the road against elite clubs in Boston and New York, they no longer have that luxury. It’s a daunting task.
“The season isn’t over,” said Brooks Laich. “There’s five hockey games left. It’s a tough loss, but it’s not a devastating one. We reduce ourselves to fighting every day, you don’t look any further than that. These next five games, they’re gonna tell the story of a hockey team.”
Karl Alzner concurred. “We’re going to have to be a desperate hockey team, every single second of every game.”
And that’s just the beginning.
Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Caps for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.