Five Washington power-play opportunities in the final 40 minutes of Wednesday night's game against the Flyers in Philadelphia had an impact in a tight game in which neither team led by more than a goal at any point. Unfortunately for the Caps, that impact was negative for them.
Kevin Hayes' unassisted shorthanded goal broke a 2-2 tie late in the second period, and it proved to be the decisive marker in a 3-2 Flyers win. Philly ended a four-game slide (0-3-1) and halted the Caps' modest three-game winning streak.
"For us this was an important win," says Flyers coach Alain Vigneault. "Everybody knows we struggled on the road coming back home, and playing hard this way was a real character win for us tonight."
Hayes scooped up a turnover high in Washington ice and beat Caps goalie Braden Holtby on the ensuing breakaway, the last of only three shots on net the Flyers were able to muster in the second.
"It was one of those games where you play pretty good in the second period," says Holtby, "and a breakaway is a save I would like to have for the guys, but I thought it was a pretty evenly matched game. They're a good team. There were just a couple plays here and there that went their way."
For the 11th time in their last 14 games, the Caps yielded the game's first goal. In the process of exiting his own end, Caps defenseman Nick Jensen lost the handle on the puck high in the Washington zone. Philly's Sean Couturier collected it and fed Travis Konecny, who was down low all alone on the weak side. In a 1-on-1 situation with Holtby, Konecny fired a precision shot to the top far corner for a 1-0 Philly lead at 3:24 of the first.
Jensen was benched for a few shifts after his miscue; he skated only 3:22 in the first period and finished the night at 13:04, his second lowest single-game total this season.
Washington got even a few seconds after the first television timeout of the first. Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson got in on the forecheck and put some pressure on the Philly defenders. Wilson came up with the puck and threaded a feed to the front for a late arriving Nicklas Backstrom. From the inside of the left circle, Backstrom's one-timer glanced off Flyers goalie Carter Hart and dribbled over the goal line, knotting the game at 1-1 at 7:11.
Just over five minutes later, the Capitals took the lead. Hart stopped Michal Kempny's point drive, but Evgeny Kuznetsov controlled the rebound and was hacked by Flyers forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel, putting the Caps in a delayed penalty situation. Kuznetsov retained control of the puck and issued a brilliant backhand feed to the front for Jakub Vrana. From the slot, Vrana beat Hart to make it a 2-1 contest at 12:34.
Late in the first, the Flyers hemmed the Caps in their end during a lengthy offensive zone shift that culminated in a Lars Eller tripping minor. At the same time, the Caps lost the services of Richard Panik, who was assessed a 10-minute misconduct.
"He shot a puck after the penalty, and had a verbal exchange with the referee," explains Caps coach Todd Reirden of Panik's misconduct penalty.
The Caps killed the Eller penalty, but Philly drew even on the next shift, in the final minute of the frame. From the left point, Robert Hagg's shot eluded Holtby at 19:18 of the period, squaring the score at 2-2 just seconds before the first intermission.
"We give up a goal, so they get some momentum at the end of the first," laments Reirden. "That is important in their building; we could have left that [period] with a 2-1 lead. Then special teams are always important, and we give up a shorthanded goal. Those two things coupled with an unforced error on their first goal - we were fighting against it tonight. I'm disappointed in those areas of our game."
The Caps went without a power play in their Tuesday night win over Ottawa, but they got three of them in the middle period on Wednesday in Philly. They might have been better off at 5-on-5.
Washington's extra-man unit generated little in the way of zone time or possession, and managed nothing in the way of threats or scoring chances in the middle period. But worst of all, their listless and sloppy play led to the go-ahead goal late in the second.
From the right-wing corner, Kuznetsov went to the right point for John Carlson, who had little to no separation from Philly's Scott Laughton. Carlson's return feed was picked off by Kevin Hayes, who tore off on a breakaway as Laughton canceled out Carlson with a hit. Hayes tucked the puck just beyond Holtby's outstretched left pad, putting the Flyers back on top at 17:59 of the second.
"It was a little different because there hadn't been any action all period," says Holtby, when asked about his mindset as Hayes approached. "When that happens, you try to simplify things and make him do something, especially when a guy comes in with that speed, especially shorthanded, that shot five-hole is usually the one most guys go to. So I wanted to make sure to force him to do something like that, and just got caught a couple of inches too far out and couldn't get the leg back there."
The Caps worked hard enough to draw six penalties on the night; they were on a delayed penalty when Vrana scored and had five full power plays as well. But they generated little in the way of dangerous scoring opportunities during those 10 minutes with the extra man, and worse, that unit gave up the game-winner.
"We draw enough penalties; five opportunities are a lot for us," says Reirden. "Unfortunately, we don't leave with a power play goal. In fact, we leave with a shorthanded goal against.
"Again, that was at the end of the period. So, after the end of the first and second, [the Flyers] took momentum out of those two periods and at home, those are things you can do to help take the air out of a building and start to tilt things in your favor in a back-to-back situation, and we were not sharp enough."