As far as afternoon affairs go, Saturday's game against the Vancouver Canucks went much better than the Caps' previous matinee outing this season, but it still did not end with two points for Washington.
For the fifth time in 25 Caps games this season, a perfectly good hockey game suffered the ignominy of a shootout, and the Canucks came away with the extra point in a seven-round, postgame skills competition. It goes into the books as a 2-1 Vancouver win, leaving the Caps saddled with consecutive losses (0-1-1) for the first time in more than a month, since they dropped three in a row from Oct. 5-10 (0-1-2).
"It was nice to get a win tonight," says Canucks coach Travis Green. "We played a hell of a hockey game against one of the best teams in the league, and you're proud of your group when you play like that."
This was one of those games where both teams got a point, and both coaches can be reasonably happy with the outcome because red lights were minimal.
"I liked our start, I liked the first," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, whose team was down 4-0 after 20 minutes the last time it played an afternoon game. "And then we take a penalty, and then I feel like we lost a lot of momentum there. Then we take another penalty, and obviously that's something we've got to clean up.
"They score 5-on-3 to tilt the ice a little bit in their favor, and it took us a while to get it back. But for the most part, at 5-on-5, we did some good things."
Washington got out to a quick start, scoring an early goal on the forecheck to grab a 1-0 lead. Lars Eller fought for the puck below the goal line in Vancouver ice, and after winning that battle, he put a precise backhand pass to the front for Jakub Vrana, who opened up and one-timed a shot past Jacob Markstrom at 2:22 of the first.
Video: VAN@WSH: Vrana buries one-timer for opening goal
"I was in that soft area. As a third guy high, I just wanted to be sure that I'm first guy back. Then Lars won that battle and gave me the puck, so it was good."
Some 10 minutes after Vrana's goal, the Caps were rolling along nicely with their 1-0 lead, and they had permitted just two shots on net more than a dozen minutes into the contest. That's when Chandler Stephenson took a rare penalty, going off for interference after an offensive-zone draw.
Two nights earlier in Nashville, Vancouver scored five power-play goals in a 6-3 win over the Predators, so staying out of the box against the Canucks' fourth-ranked power play was imperative. Sixty-two seconds after Stephenson was seated, Richard Panik compounded the Caps' penalty problems when he tripped Elias Pettersson along the half wall in Washington ice.
Vancouver needed only 16 seconds worth of that 5-on-3 manpower advantage with which to draw even. J.T. Miller put the puck on a tee for Pettersson, and the standout sophomore blasted a one-timer past Caps goalie Braden Holtby from the right dot, making it a 1-1 game 14 minutes into the first.
Reirden parked Panik for a bit after that untimely infraction.
"I did do that today, with a penalty that puts us down 5-on-3," says Reirden. "There was some ice time that was missed there, and that's what will continue to have to be the statement on that. In particular, that's one that was pointed out between periods. Most teams are converting at a high rate at 5-on-3, and I felt that was a game that we were carrying the play in the first, and we let them back in with that."
The remainder of the game was well-played and entertaining, with both goaltenders stopping everything sent in their direction. Each side had a pair of power play chances over the final 40 minutes of regulation, and the Canucks had a 4-on-3 power play in overtime. Both netminders made upwards of 30 saves in regulation, and both continued to impress in the shootout.
Video: Postgame | November 23
For a brief period of time, it appeared as though Lars Eller had given the Caps a 1-0 lead in the shootout, but video review showed his shot had not actually crossed the line, and the attempts continued. Finally, Canucks center Bo Horvat ended the afternoon by beating Holtby, the only one of 14 shootout shooters to find the range.
A week after his dazzling shootout goal helped the Caps to a 3-2 skills win over the Bruins in Boston, Vrana moved up in the lineup because of the absence of Nicklas Backstrom (upper body). But like all the rest of his teammates, Vrana was unable to solve Markstrom, who finally earned his first career win over the Capitals (1-7-1).
"Well, when you've got a tree in the net, you've got to figure it out how he is going to move," says Vrana of his thinking in the skills competition. "I don't know, man. I just look up for a free spot, and he was so in the net. He didn't go out at all. The goaltender surprised me with the shot. I didn't fake anything; I should have maybe faked a little bit first, but that's history now. It just didn't work out today."