Over his first three seasons with the Capitals, Matt Niskanen missed a total of four games, all of them last season. During that span, whichever pairing Niskanen was on was generally the Caps' top pairing, and if not, it was certainly the team's second best. But Niskanen suffered an upper body injury on Friday in New Jersey, an ailment that has landed him on long-term injured reserve.
Combine that event with Washington's offseason losses of defensemen Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk, the loss of Niskanen leaves the Caps somewhat threadbare on the backline. The Caps got a strong whiff of perspective on that front on Saturday night in Philadelphia as the Flyers rolled to an 8-2 win, handing the Caps their third loss in their last four games (1-2-1).
"We definitely made too many mistakes," says Caps defenseman John Carlson. "We slowed ourselves down, but [the Flyers] played a really good game too. There's no doubt about that, but I think it started in the neutral zone for us. I think they did a good job against us and we kind of shot ourselves in the foot too many times.
"When we would get it in, we wouldn't get it in the right spots like we are always talking about as a group. It makes for easier breakouts, and it makes for less zone time. We're dumping the puck looking to get it back. It should at least be a 50/50 puck unless everyone's changing. A lot of times today, there was no chance of coming up with possession."
Madison Bowey had a tough night in which to make his NHL debut on the Washington blueline, but he takes solace in knowing that it's behind him now.
"It's all uphill from here now, and I can put that one behind me," says Bowey. "I played my first game in the NHL, and I can be proud of that. I know that hard work has to come now. I am just looking forward to keep developing."
With Niskanen out, and with at least three inexperienced (at the NHL level, anyway) defenders in the lineup for the next several weeks, more responsibility falls on the shoulders of veterans like Carlson, Brooks Orpik, and Dmitry Orlov. That responsibility includes managing the puck well and playing a disciplined game, because anytime one of those three defenders lands in the penalty box, the Caps are forced to use a much less experienced player against an NHL power play.
"That's what bugs me the most," says Carlson. "We got a bunch of young guys and [it was] Bowes' first game. I just thought I could have done better myself, and lead the way a lot more. He's resilient and he's got all the tools to do it. I would have liked to play a little better and make him feel a lot more comfortable. We'll get back to work."
And as Braden Holtby reminded us at season's outset - before Niskanen went down - the Caps' netminders also bear more responsibility; they'll need to come up with a few more saves in order to help paper over some of the natural growing pains expected from breaking in a cluster of inexperienced blueliners.
"Obviously it's going to be a challenge," Holtby said, earlier this month, "but a fun one that a lot of us are looking forward to. I think us as veteran guys, we need to expect more out of ourselves, especially true early on to make those young guys feel comfortable and make it known that they shouldn't be scared to make mistakes, just go out and play.
"And us goaltenders - myself and [Philipp Grubauer] - need to be prepared to make a couple of extra saves here and there to make the young guys on the back end feel comfortable and play their game. I think that's a big part, and that's a big part of being a goaltender and being a leader that way. That's going to be fun for myself and for Phil. I think it's going to be exciting."
It's also going to be a work in progress, not unlike Barry Trotz's first season in Washington.
Speaking of Trotz, his take on Saturday night's humbling was a bit different, as you might expect.
"The [defensemen] were okay," says Trotz. "Most of the turnovers came from the forwards. It wasn't really the [defense]. The forwards - even in the first period I said, 'We've got to get to the next level. There are a lot of pucks that are getting stalled out in the neutral zone, and that can't happen.'
"When you [play] back-to-back [games] it just comes down your throat. Once you get tired, we had a lot of swing in our game and we weren't stopping on the puck. [The Flyers] haven't played [since Tuesday]. They're fresh. They've got the home opener. They've got lots of energy.
"Once they pulled away a little bit, we didn't stay with it long enough and our detail wasn't good enough. We sort of deserved what we got. It's not necessarily what you get, it's what you leave, and we left a lot of free offense for the Philadelphia Flyers tonight."
Later, there was more.
"We just need to play the right way - play with structure and play with detail," says Trotz. "If you play the right way, then your structure and your detail is going to be your security blanket. We didn't have enough of that, and we weren't smart - absolutely stupid with the puck. We deserved every ounce of that. [Claude] Giroux's line just ate up [Evgeny] Kuznetsov's line today. It wasn't good."
On to the next one, then.
Down On The Farm - Things didn't go well for the AHL Hershey Bears on Saturday night, either. Playing their home opener against the Belleville Senators at Giant Center, the Bears fell to 0-2-0 on the season with a 5-2 loss.
Before the game was five minutes old, Hershey took a 1-0 lead on a five-on-three power play. Chandler Stephenson scored the goal, his second of the season, with help from Lucas Johansen and Travis Boyd. For Johansen, the assist was his first professional point.
Belleville netted the game's next two goals to take a 2-1 lead, but Chris Bourque evened things up for the Bears with his first of the season - Boyd assisting - at 3:34 of the second.
Alas, Belleville answered with what would prove to be the game-winner just 17 seconds later, a goal that would also prove to be the first of three unanswered Senators goals the rest of the way.
Parker Milner stopped 30 of the 34 shots he faced in the Hershey nets. Milner has started each of Hershey's first two games this season, as both Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek are sidelined with lower body injuries.
Hershey is back in action on Sunday afternoon, hosting Lehigh Valley.
By The Numbers - Carlson led the Caps with 25:03 in ice time … Ovechkin led the Caps with six of the team's 23 shots on net and 10 of its 52 shot attempts … Brett Connolly led Washington with five hits … Four players - Dmitry Orlov, Devante Smith-Pelly, Aaron Ness and T.J. Oshie each blocked two shots to pace Washington … the Flyers got two goals apiece from Sean Couturier, Scott Laughton and Giroux. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the last time the Caps had three players register multiple goals against them in the same game was on Oct. 29, 2011 in a 7-4 loss to the Canucks in Vancouver. Alexander Edler, Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre were the multi-goal getters for the Canucks that night.