For most of the first half of the 2019-20 season, the Caps have excelled on the road and in back-to-back situations. But playing on the road for the second time in as many nights on Saturday in Carolina, a Washington team suddenly plagued by injury and illness couldn't get up the hill against the Hurricanes, taking a 6-4 loss.
Hours before Saturday's game, Caps coach Todd Reirden warned that he had multiple players whose presence in the lineup would be a game-time decision, that's in addition to Michal Kempny, who missed a second straight game with illness on Saturday. Midway through the warmup, Caps right wing Tom Wilson returned to the room, unable to play because of a lower body injury.
After the first period, blueliner Christian Djoos (upper body) joined Wilson in the room, leaving the Caps to run with five defensemen the rest of the way.
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Washington played a penalty free first frame on Friday night against Columbus, giving its oft-used penalty killing outfit some richly earned down time after facing 13 shorthanded situations - including some 5-on-3 time - in the two previous games. But the Caps' propensity for taking penalties reappeared in the first period of Saturday's game in Raleigh, enabling the Canes to take an early lead.
Filling in for Wilson, Travis Boyd was sent to the box for holding the stick at 8:30 of the first. Just past the midpoint of that kill, Caps defenseman Nick Jensen was incarcerated for tripping, giving Carolina a two-man advantage for 55 seconds. Washington managed to navigate its way through the Boyd minor, but eight seconds after he was released, Lucas Wallmark scored a power-play goal for the Canes, beating Braden Holtby from the right circle at 10:38.
"You look at certain things and why we've had success in our back-to-backs," says Reirden. "We've done a good job of understanding the back-to-back mindset you have to have going into it. Part of it is getting the lead, and part of it is shifts after goals.
"I thought we really had some good chances to start the game and we were really getting some opportunities. We didn't convert, and then we take two penalties and they go on a 5-on-3 and score at the end of it."
Video: Reirden Postgame | December 28
In the opening seconds of the second, Carolina added to its lead with a Warren Foegele goal just eight seconds into the period. Carolina won the opening draw, and Foegele one-timed a Jordan Staal feed on a 2-on-1 rush to lift the Canes to a 2-0 lead.
Nic Dowd cut into that lead a couple minutes later, scoring on a 2-on-1 rush of his own after taking an indirect feed from John Carlson at 3:26. Much of the rest of the night played out in this fashion, the Caps cutting the lead to one, and the Canes quickly restoring it to two.
Carolina went up 3-1 after an Alex Ovechkin turnover at the Carolina line produced another 2-on-1 for the Canes. This time, Foegele set up Dougie Hamilton for a one-timer from the left circle at 5:12.
Just ahead of the midpoint of the middle frame, Ovechkin drew a kneeing call on Staal, and the Caps' captain scored on the ensuing power play, blasting a one-timer past Petr Mrazek from his office. Dmitry Orlov got Mrazek to bite on a pump fake, then deftly fed Ovechkin for the goal to make it a 3-2 contest at 9:56.
Washington got another power play opportunity soon after, and a chance to get even on the board, but instead the Canes netted a shorty that made it a 4-2 game. Carolina got a stop in the defensive zone and carried into Washington ice rather than settling for the clear. Jordan Martinook put the puck to the Caps' net front, where Foegele was parked with a pair of Washington defenders. None of the Caps were able to tie it up, cover it or clear it, and Foegele kept hacking at it until it slid behind Holtby at 13:02.
Video: Postgame | December 28
"I thought it was under my glove," says Holtby. "I think it was Lars' [Eller's] stick that was underneath my glove to stop that, but I thought [Foegele] kind of kicked my glove in order to spin me, to open up a little where it went in. I'm not sure what happened there."
The Caps had a glorious chance to pull within one in the first minute of the third, but T.J. Oshie hit the post in a 1-on-1 situation with Mrazek. Soon after, Washington went on a power play and quickly did close to within a goal.
In neutral ice, Nicklas Backstrom bumped the puck for Evgeny Kuznetsov, enabling him to carry into Carolina ice with speed and driving the center lane. Kuznetsov neatly tucked the puck through Mrazek's five-hole to make it a 4-3 game exactly two minutes into the third period.
But 80 seconds later, the Canes were once again up by a pair when Martin Necas scored to make it a 5-3 game.
"We start to make a push to get back in it," says Reirden, "but our shifts after goals cost us tonight. We get a little bit of momentum, and we give it right back. It was a little bit of a seesaw game like that."
With a little over four minutes left, Reirden waved Holtby to the bench for an extra attacker. But the Caps turned the puck over in neutral ice, leaving an easy empty-net goal for Andrei Svechnikov at 15:58 of the third, making it a 6-3 contest.
With 1:13 remaining, Radko Gudas wound up and blasted a shot past Mrazek from center point after the Caps won an offensive-zone draw, accounting for the 6-4 final score.
"Obviously it's huge," says Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour of his team's victory that halted a three-game slide. "We've lost three in a row, so we needed a win desperately. Washington has got a huge cushion. We needed to be the desperate team, and we needed to be the team that needed the win. I'm just happy that we got it."