Coming off their five-day bye week, the Capitals expected to have a tough go of it on Saturday afternoon in Detroit. Playing for the first time in a week and doing so with one Friday practice and without a morning skate, the Caps faced a foundering Red Wings team.
The rather abrupt return to action wasn't as rocky as it could have been, but the Caps weren't able to keep their six-game winning streak going. Washington came out on the short end of a 3-2 shootout decision in its last ever visit to Detroit's venerable Joe Louis Arena.
Detroit scored twice in the game's first 24 minutes to take a 2-0 lead, and the Capitals rallied back to tie the tilt and force overtime with two tallies in the final 22 minutes of the contest.
Video: Trotz talks after a 3-2 SO loss in Detroit
"You saw in the first period we were trying to catch the train a little bit, execution-wise," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "Coming off the break, you can try all you want but you've got to play through it a little bit.
"In the second period, we played with a little more pace and our execution started to improve a little bit. We had a much better period, we had a couple of sustained shifts, we had some really good looks but weren't able to score. Finally, we broke through.
"In the third, we found a way to get the [tying] goal there, by going to the net. We knew it was going to be a challenge, and it was."
Video: WSH Recap: Caps' rally falls short in shootout loss
Detroit earned the game's first power play when Marcus Johansson was sent off for holding at 6:49 of the first, and the Red Wings used that extra-man opportunity to grab an early 1-0 lead. Henrik Zetterberg made a terrific backhand saucer pass across the crease to Frans Nielsen, who had quietly crept down to the back post. Nielsen put his initial shot off the goalpost, but it bounded right back to him and he put his second try behind Caps goalie Braden Holtby for a 1-0 Red Wings advantage at 8:13 of the first.
Washington came out of that first period trailing by a goal for the first time in nine games, and the hole got a little bit bigger just a few minutes into the second. Detroit winger Anthony Mantha picked off John Carlson's indirect pass in the neutral zone, creating a short-iced two-on-one. Mantha fed Zetterberg, who waited and then fed the late guy into the zone, Tomas Tatar. Tatar's shot from the slot beat Holtby to move the Detroit advantage to 2-0 at 3:33 of the second stanza.
The Capitals' hands seemed slow for most of the game up to that point; passes didn't have their usual zip and triggers weren't pulled with their usual swiftness. But the Caps kept at it and finally - in the penultimate minute of the second period - they were able to cut into the Red Wings' lead with a critical goal.
Lars Eller forced a turnover in neutral ice, and then carried into the zone with linemates Brett Connolly and Zach Sanford. He threaded a feed to Sanford, whose shot beat Red Wings' goaltender Petr Mrazek, cutting the Detroit lead to 2-1 just 84 seconds ahead of the second intermission.
Video: WSH@DET: Sanford fires a snap shot past Mrazek
"It was just a bit of a giveaway in the neutral zone," relates Eller. "That's where a lot of goals come from, is being able to turn turnovers into offense quickly. And we did that there. Sanny made a quick shot. Quick plays and a good shot."
Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov drew a power play for his team with less than a second remaining on the clock in the middle period, and it turned out to be the first of three man-advantage opportunities the Caps would have in the final frame as they vied to tie the score. The Capitals' extra-man unit came up dry on all three of those chances, despite pouring six shots on Mrazek in the process.
Secondary scoring has been a boon for the Caps over the last two months, and that was the case again on Saturday. Matt Niskanen forced a Detroit turnover in the neutral zone, and Nicklas Backstrom sent T.J. Oshie back into the Red Wings' zone with the puck. Oshie pulled the trigger from the right circle and Mrazek made the save, but Washington winger Daniel Winnik beat Detroit defender Brendan Smith to the juicy rebound. Winnik potted it for his eighth goal of the season, tying the game at 2-2 with 4:48 remaining.
Video: WSH@DET: Winnik bats puck out of midair, ties game
Holtby was very good throughout the game, making a handful of strong stops that helped paper over some of the after effects of the bye week on the part of some of his teammates. It was his strong play and the timely secondary strikes from Sanford and Winnik that enabled the Caps to force overtime.
Washington's failing was in not finding a way to win the game during the five-minute overtime session. It wasn't for a lack of effort. The Caps had the puck for the better part of those five minutes, and Mrazek had to make huge saves on Carlson and Justin Williams to keep the game going.
"You could tell we kept getting more comfortable as the game went on," says Holtby. "They're a desperate team and they did some things that make it hard on other teams; they crashed the net and they came with speed. It helped us get into the game that way, with speed early.
Video: Caps players talk after a 3-2 SO loss vs. Detroit
"We battled it out. It's one of those games where we are able to come back in a hot building where the ice isn't great and we've just got to fight through it. I thought we were resilient. There are obviously areas we want to improve on, but coming out of a break it's not bad."
Detroit entered Saturday's game with a 3-10 mark in games decided in overtime, but the Wings were 6-0 in games that went to the shootout. With their win over Washington in the skills competition on Saturday, the Wings moved to 7-0 on the season and dropped the Caps to 1-5.