Throughout most of the first half of the season, the Caps prided themselves on their bounce back ability. On the relatively rare occasions that they lost a game in regulation, they put forth a better performance in the next game. Washington didn't suffer back-to-back regulation losses until Dec. 28-31, in the final two games of the first half of the season.
But in the wake of a listless 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night in the opener of a three-game homestand, the Caps have lost two straight in regulation for the second time in less than two weeks.
"I just think we're going through a time in the season right now where we're not executing, and we're not outworking the opponent," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "And if you're not going to do those things, then you're not going to have success in this league. It doesn't matter if you're playing the best team in the league, the worst team in the league, or anywhere in between. That's not our identity, that's not why we're in first place, and that's not acceptable - that type of play.
"We don't we don't give ourselves a chance to work hard, because we don't manage the puck properly. Far too many turnovers - whether it's 5-on-5 or it's power play, or it's the penalty getting a clear on the full ice. That has crept into our game, and it needs to be better if we're going to have success."
Washington didn't manage the puck well. Many of its passes hit skates or rolled right off stick blades. When it did get looks at the Devils net, shots were shanked or missed. The Caps played as poorly as they've played for 60 minutes this season.
On the other side, the Devils played a structurally and positionally sound game. Three weeks after they gave up six 5-on-5 goals to the Caps in a 6-3 loss in Newark, the Devils were spotless at even strength, and goaltender Louie Domingue - who entered the game at 1-4-0 on the season with a 3.99 GAA and an .867 save pct. - was sharp, stopping 33 of 34 shots on the night.
"Very good offensive team over there," says Devils coach Alain Nasreddine. "Guys were committed to playing good defense. Like I said this morning, in this league you can score goals, but you have to defend. And I thought we did a really good job tonight.
"We did a good job not only in our end, but also 200 feet away from our net where we tacked pucks and we hunted pucks and we used our speed. So guys did a really good job."
New Jersey grabbed an early lead, going up 1-0 on a Nico Hischier goal at 5:27 of the first period. The Devils won a draw at the Washington line, broke back into the zone on a 2-on-1, and Hischier beat Caps goalie Braden Holtby from the bottom of the left circle.
After a sluggish start, the Caps were better in the back half of the first. That led to hope that they would right the ship in the second, but instead it came off the rails.
Seven seconds after killing off the lone New Jersey power play of the game early in the second, the Caps' deficit grew by a goal when Nikita Gusev slammed a rebound into a yawning cage at 3:28, extending the New Jersey lead to 2-0.
When Devils forward Miles Wood recklessly cross-checked Richard Panik in the grill, Washington got a four-minute power play and an opportunity to cut into the Devils' lead. Instead, Blake Coleman scored a shorthanded goal - the second surrendered by the Caps in as many games and the sixth they've given up this season - on a breakaway to make it a 3-0 game at 6:48.
With Wood still in the box, Jakub Vrana scored his first power-play goal in more than a year to make it 3-1 at the 8:28 mark. Plenty of time remained in the game, but breaking even on a four-minute power play was certainly suboptimal.
When Hischier scored his second of the night at 12:11 of the second to give New Jersey a 4-1 lead, Reirden called his timeout and animatedly chewed his team out for 30 seconds.
In the third, the Caps had a 5-on-3 power play for 43 seconds. They managed one really good look during that span, a shanked shot from Vrana at the back door.
Reirden pulled Holtby for an extra attacker with just over five minutes left, and Wood slid the puck into the vacated net at 15:04 of the third, accounting for the 5-1 final.
Domingue picked up his second win of the season, and he improved to 2-1-0 lifetime against the Caps.
"I thought he was tracking the puck really well," says Nasreddine of Domingue's night in the net. "Washington, they like those east-west plays a lot, and he was tracking it all night. He was there in position."