For the Washington Capitals, Monday’s game was a microcosm of their season under Dale Hunter.
The Capitals played the first half of the game conservatively and sloppily, failing to get any sort of sustained offensive momentum and allowing the speedy and skilled Tampa forwards to impose their will. It wasn’t a case of waiting back, it was a case of being controlled by a better forward corps.
But after somehow managing to score the game’s first goal on an Alexander Semin slap shot that would have broken the glass should it missed the net, the Capitals immediately reverted back to their passive defensive system, and they immediately paid for it.
After Dmitry Orlov took an ill-advised penalty four minutes after the goal, Teddy Purcell one-timed one past Michal Neuvirth from the faceoff circle, a goal that Neuvirth would certainly like back. Victor Hedman scored 25 seconds later, as his long wrist shot somehow found a way through the maze of bodies in front of Neuvirth’s net. And just like that, what was a promising lead was gone.
Clearly sensing their desperate situation once the third period began, Washington came out hard and got several excellent chances, including a rang post, but Dwayne Roloson, who was lit up for six goals in his previous start, held the fort with some highlight-reel saves.
Finally, though, Jason Chimera came up big, like he has so many times this season, with a backhanded tally that gave the Washington bench energy. It certainly looked and felt like the Capitals were going to be able to ride out a critical win, or at least a point.
As has been their habit all too often for the last four months, the Capitals immediately took their foot off the gas pedal. They played for the point, instead of keeping with what made them dangerous. And again, they paid for it.
Steven Stamkos, now without a doubt the National Hockey League’s most prolific and dominant goal scorer, would pound home a rebound in front after an offensive faceoff win with 92 seconds left in the game to give his team the lead before potting another in to an empty net with only two seconds left in the game. The Lightning’s star came to play, and he got the job done. They were his 57th and 58th goals of the season, respectively and they all but crushed the Capitals’ hopes of winning the Southeast Division.
At this point, anyone who is surprised that this team gave up another lead hasn’t been paying attention of late. They are coached to sit back and wait; they are coached to play a tight, man on man, speed centric defensive system that they are not good at or built for. The result has been very poor over the last several weeks, in particular, but it is nothing new. This is life under Dale Hunter.
But there is no time to cry over spilled milk, as bad as it may have been to watch in the moment. The Capitals still need to close out their season strong to make the playoffs; at this point it seems almost certain that if they make the dance, they will be forced to play against the Rangers for the third time in four seasons. But, again, they still have to win out in order to secure that.
It’s going to be a fun five days. Or not.
Harry Hawkings is a college student who is credentialed to cover the Caps for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.