DETROIT -- Not even a month ago, the Detroit Red Wings were clipping along at the top of the Western Conference and riding an amazing NHL record home winning streak.
In three weeks that followed the end of that streak, however, the Wings have been riddled with injuries and now find themselves winless in five straight games after losing 5-3 to the Washington Capitals on Monday night at Joe Louis Arena.
Despite a late push to tie with third-period goals by Todd Bertuzzi and Danny Cleary that brought the Wings to within 4-3, there just wasn't enough left in the tank to get them past a terrible start and 3-0 deficit after one period.
"In the end we got a push, but we came up short," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "With the lineup we have, we can't out race anybody to four or five. We have to win 3-2 or 2-1. We have to give up as little as we possibly can. I think we had lots of effort. No problem with that, but we can't get behind and especially to a good team. We dug ourselves a hole."
Washington superstar forward Alex Ovechkin scored a pair of power-play goals in the first period and Mike Knuble added another at even strength in the opening 20 minutes for the Capitals (37-30-6) -- who'd dropped two straight and needed more than 16 minutes on Sunday night in Chicago to even record a shot on goal in a 5-2 loss.
The goals were Ovechkin's 31st and 32nd of the season and third in the past two games, while Knuble's was his sixth of the year and second in as many games.
"There's nine games left and we have to try and win all nine games," Ovechkin said. "Right now, for this team, it's not about the playoffs. It's about how we're going to play in (the) playoffs. Playoffs (are) a different game and a different speed and different emotion."
This game showed the Capitals are capable of gearing up for that kind of intensity, even with an untested goalie in net. Braden Holtby (30 saves) picked up the win after being called up on Saturday to replace goalie Tomas Vokoun -- who's day-to-day with a groin injury and hasn't dressed in two straight games.
Locked in a battle with the Winnipeg Jets and Buffalo Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Washington needed a victory before heading to Philadelphia on Thursday to conclude its season-long five-game road trip.
"This is the team we've got to be," said Jason Chimera, who set up Knuble's goal and added his own into an empty net in the third to seal it. "I said to myself in the first intermission, 'Wow, that's the Washington Capitals.' That's what we can be like."
That first period by the Capitals was also the stark opposite of how they looked just 24 hours earlier in Chicago, when they got down 2-0 and couldn't buy a shot on goal.
"(Sunday) was a stinker in the first period and then today was probably the best period we've played all year," Chimera said. "It was a great period of hockey. We were saying, 'Holy smokes. Keep it up, boys.' I was really proud of the guys. It was a great period of hockey. I was really happy with it."
The third wasn't nearly as good, but the building was also steaming hot because of abnormally-high spring temperatures in Detroit and Holtby was cramping up for almost the whole period.
"I felt really good out there the first two periods and in the third I don't think I had enough fluids in me, electrolytes and stuff," Holtby said. "I tried to battle through that and the guys just did a great job blocking shots. They could probably see that I was fatiguing a bit and we pulled out a win."
As for the Red Wings (44-25-4), it's not a pretty picture right now with the season winding down. They've won just once in the last eight outings and are now 2-3-0 in five home games since Feb. 23, when the Vancouver Canucks ended their League record 23-game winning streak in overtime.
They're currently sitting fifth in the Western Conference tied with Nashville at 92 points and have just nine games left before the playoffs start. They're also close to sliding even further down the conference standings with Chicago (88 points) on their tail in sixth.
They're not making excuses, but it's clear the Wings' main issue right now is their litany of injuries. Detroit is without a slew of players, but captain and top defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom (ankle bone bruise), leading scorer Johan Franzen (back spasms) and checking-line center Darren Helm (MCL sprain) are all out and hold down key roles when healthy. The Wings are also missing defensemen Jonathan Ericsson (wrist fracture) and Jakub Kindl (oblique strain).
"You can't look at injuries, you have to look past that," said Detroit defenseman Brad Stuart, who finished plus-1 and assisted on Bertuzzi's goal 36 seconds into the third that made it 4-2 Washington. "Every team battles injuries at some point. For us to use that as a crutch or anything is a mistake. We have enough good players in here to make up for that. We have to find a way to win some games. That's the bottom line."
They've come close to winning two times in a row, but have come up short in both.
"It's great to come out feeling good about battling back and almost winning, but at this point that's really not good enough," Stuart said. "No one needs to feel sorry for themselves. We just have to keep working hard and work our way out of it, because that's the only way it's going to happen. You can't sit around and hope something good is going to happen. You have to make it happen."
Helm is going to be out 4-6 weeks and Joey MacDonald (back) might be out for a while, too. Lidstrom went through his first full morning skate on Monday, but is still "day-to-day" and not having him or Helm on the penalty kill against the Capitals was evident on Ovechkin's goals.
The first one was scored 45 seconds after Niklas Kronwall was called for high-sticking on a play that Ovechkin appeared to sell with some theatrics and capped Washington's first man-advantage just 7:48 into the game.
Detroit struggled to clear the zone without Helm's speed putting pressure on the puck and Marcus Johansson eventually found Ovechkin wide open in the slot for a one-timer that beat Jimmy Howard (17 saves) high to the stick side for a 1-0 lead.
Less than four minutes later, a misplayed puck at the Wings' blue line by rookie defenseman Brendan Smith led to the Capitals' next goal. Two great passes by Matthieu Perreault and Chimera set up Knuble with an uncontested scoring chance from the low slot and he buried it for a 2-0 lead. Ovechkin then put the Caps up 3-0 a little more than three minutes later on Washington's second power play.
He scooped his own rebound and scored just 13 seconds before Tomas Holmstrom would've exited the penalty box for a goaltender interference minor that wiped out an apparent goal.
Quincey got one back for the Wings with a power-play goal of his own 5:15 into the second to make it 3-1, his seventh goal of the season, but the biggest thing it did was end a long scoreless drought on the man-advantage. The Red Wings had gone scoreless in their previous 31 power plays, which was Detroit's longest dry spell on the man advantage since going 0-for-33 through the first eight games of the 1996-97 season.
Keith Aucoin's third goal of the year late in the second made it 4-1 after two periods and that was too much for Detroit to overcome in the third, despite the goals by Bertuzzi and Cleary -- the first goals by either of them in 15 games.
The Caps were understandably relieved to pick up a big win on the second half of tough back-to-back road games, especially after looking lifeless to start Sunday's loss and starting a goalie making just his second start of the season.
"We're really trying to play playoff hockey right now," said Capitals coach Dale Hunter, who scrambled his forward lines and made a couple other lineup changes by making Joel Ward and Dmitry Orlov healthy scratches. "We're battling for our lives to get in ... we're a desperate team trying to get points."