Rapid Rewind: Slipping Away. Capitals 1, Penguins 2

Another battle between the two rivals resulted in a great game, but a bad DC result. (PPG)

The Washington Capitals fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night in the Steel City, falling by a score of 2-1 at the CONSOL Energy Center.  Despite taking the lead on an Alex Ovechkin goal for the second consecutive game, the Penguins would score two unanswered goals in response, both of the sticks of defensemen, to wrap up their first season sweep of the Capitals in more than half a decade.  Braden Holtby made 34 saves in his second consecutive start, and couldn’t be faulted for either goal against.  With the loss, their fifth in seven games, Washington falls to 12-16-1, which is fourth in the Southeast, 14th in the Eastern Conference, and 28th in the NHL.  According to SportsClubStats, their chance to make the playoffs is now 6.7%.

Midway through the third period with the game tied, Matt Cooke took a double minor for boarding and unsportsmanlike conduct after a hard hit in the corner in his defensive zone.  Washington, granted an amazing opportunity to take the lead with their now-vaunted power play.  Instead, they failed to even get set up or generate sustained pressure on Marc-Andre Fleury’s net, only getting two shots off.  The Penguins killed off the penalty magnificently, getting their home crowd back into the game and changing the momentum to their favor.  Nine seconds later, Matt Niskanen scored the game-winning goal on a rush up ice that was started on an exchange between Sidney Crosby and Cooke.  It really was a five-minute sequence that was a microcosm of the Capitals’ season, and it was hella unfortunate.

Alex Ovechkin had his motor Tuesday, as he has for three consecutive games now.  He attempted over 10 shots on goal, scored a goal on the power play, and was again the Caps’ best forward.  This has been the best stretch of hockey we have seen from Ovechkin in the last three weeks or so; not necessarily because of his production but because of the way that he is moving and creating offensively.  Can it last?  Has Adam Oates’ system finally got him re-invigorated?  Only time will tell, but this has, no doubt, been a great stretch from the great eight.

John Carlson is struggling a bit right now in his own zone after a prolonged stretch of good play.  He’s changed partners regularly over the last two weeks as the Caps’ defensive corps continue to drop like flies because of injuries.  He’ll turn it around and is still a stud in the making; I’m not worried in the slightest about the long-term ability and status of Carlson as a player in this organization.  Besides, his underlying numbers and offensive production are picking up.  “Even NHL referees think John Carlson will win a Norris Trophy some day.” – Elliotte Friedman.

Brooks Laich, playing his first NHL game of the season, quickly moved from where he started, the fourth line, in to the top six during this contest.  He did not seem to be skating differently than last season or even than he did in Switzerland when I saw him in November, when he got hurt.  Laich is a big part of this team, whether you think he is “overrated” or not, and his return will be a big boost for Washington and their playoff hopes.  The energy, defense, and leadership that Laich brings are not undervalued, and in addition, because of Adam Oates’ insistence that wings play on their correct side, could be the answer to Washington’s top-line left wing issue (for now).

Dmitry Orlov also made his season debut, and I must say I didn’t really notice much with him on the ice, in a positive or negative way.  That’s probably a good thing in the grand scheme of things, as it’s been almost a full calendar year since he played a NHL game and his ability to adapt quickly after two concussions and a long time in the AHL bodes well for his time with the team for the rest of the year.  Dima is still a high-end prospect on the back end and will be a part of this team hopefully for years to come as his game evolves both offensively and defensively.

This game has two sides to it.  On one hand, I thought the Capitals played an excellent road game in the first two periods, attacking the puck in all three zones and playing a very talented Pittsburgh squad tight in their own barn.  On the other hand, the third period was not very good; not only did that disastrous power play sequence seal a loss for them but they were also doubled up in shots in that final frame.  That goal by Niskanen was just an absolute gut punch for this team, you have to score in that sitation; the Capitals did not and paid the price.  It will be very interesting to see how they react against Winnipeg on Thursday and then Friday.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the rest of this week, ending with a Sunday evening tilt with the Rangers, can decide Washington’s season.

The Caps will practice in Pittsburgh on Wednesday before jetting to icy Winnipeg for those two critical games.

Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR.  Follow him on Twitter here for all your news needs this season.