Any hopes that the Capitals' convincing victory over Toronto in Saturday's Stadium Series game would spur Washington into a more consistent stretch of hockey were dashed on Tuesday in Anaheim, in the Caps' very next game.
The Ducks rolled to a 4-0 win over the Caps in the opener of Washington's three-game California road trip on Tuesday at Honda Center. Anaheim netminder John Gibson blanked the Caps on 36 shots - two-thirds of which came after Washington had fallen down by three goals - and earned his first career win against the Caps in his fifth career start against them.
Video: WSH Recap: Caps can't solve Gibson in 4-0 loss
"We stuck to our game plan and focused on defense," says Gibson. "We made sure we kept them on the outside and limited their chances as much as possible."
Three nights after ending a six-game winless streak with a 27-save performance, Caps goalie Braden Holtby was pulled for the fourth time in his last 11 starts. Holtby yielded three goals on nine shots in 25:37 of work before Philipp Grubauer came in in relief after the Ducks scored their third goal early in the second period.
"We had a decent start," says Ducks coach Randy Carlyle. "It was a duplicate of the other night that we get a power play and score early in the hockey game. It seemed like we had things going our way.
"There was a little bit of a hangover from the opposition's perspective off the [Stadium Series] game. I don't think we saw the true Capitals team tonight. They're usually a lot sharper with the puck. I didn't think they had their A-game tonight. You could see the frustration in some of their players."
Washington fell down early, going shorthanded in the first minute of the contest and falling behind for good in the second minute. Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen wasn't able to execute a backhanded clearing try on the ensuing kill, and the turnover led to Anaheim's Adam Henrique scoring from the slot at 1:24 of the first, marking the second straight game in which Washington yielded a goal on the opposition's first shot on goal of the game.
Video: Caps Postgame Locker Room | March 6
"Ideally, I would take a slap shot and make sure it gets 200 feet," says Niskanen. "I don't know if I put myself in that position, but once I get in that corner, I'm on my backhand and try to get it as hard as I can. They kept it in and made a quick play to the middle and the guy sniped it, so that one is on me."
Twenty seconds later, Holtby had to make a strong stop on a Ryan Getzlaf redirection bid to keep the deficit at just one.
Washington had a chance to pull even on a power play of its own just past the five-minute mark of the first, but the most distinguishing characteristic of that man advantage opportunity was the two icing calls the Caps took in the first half of the power play.
Anaheim made it a 2-0 game with 6:45 left in the first period. After taking a pass from blueline partner Josh Manson, Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm surveyed briefly before letting go of a shot from the left point. With a fair amount of traffic in front, the puck pinged off Caps defenseman Michal Kempny and behind Holtby, doubling the Ducks lead late in the first frame.
The Caps started the second a bit better, recording five shots on net in the first five minutes. But seconds after a Washington rush broke down without yielding a shot attempt, Anaheim scored the backbreaker.
After taking a cross-ice feed from Evgeny Kuznetsov, Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik tried to put the puck on a tee for Jakub Vrana, who was trailing in the slot and would have had a great look from there. But a sprawling Manson broke up the pass with his skate, starting what briefly looked to be a three-on-one Anaheim rush. The Caps got back in time to prevent an odd-man rush, but Ducks winger Rickard Rakell got lost on the weak side, and Getzlaf found him there. Rakell put a shot to the far corner to make it a 3-0 game, putting an end to Holtby's night.
Washington generated some chances the rest of the way and got some pucks to the net, but Anaheim's defense was effective in preventing any seconds from in front. Ultimately, the Caps' flat first did them in; it was too big of a hole to dig out of against a hot and suddenly healthy Anaheim team in the middle of a long homestand, and rolling quite nicely in its own barn of late.
Video: Barry Trotz Postgame | March 6
"We talked before the game, you know, 'let's focus on the start,'" says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "Because of the time change and all that, sometimes you're a little bit off. And first shift, we actually were okay and then we took a penalty and they ended up scoring.
"I thought the first 10 minutes or 12 minutes of that period, we couldn't really execute. So you have no speed on the puck, and you don't have a lot of [offensive] zone time. I thought in the last 10 minutes [of the first] we sort of settled in, and then the rest of the game we settled in fine. We just couldn't find the back of the net.
"We had a good push in the second, and then they come down and score. You're sitting there halfway through the game and [the Ducks] have nine shots and you're down 3-0.
"We kept pushing. Right to the end the guys were pushing, trying to get one and then hopefully get a couple, because you're never out in this league. From that standpoint, I thought we went the distance early. But we lost the game early, and couldn't really get by Gibson. We didn't make it hard enough for him."