Not only is the Caps' bye week in the rear view mirror, so now too is their reintegration back into the rigors of the 2016-17 regular season schedule. After five days away from the ice entirely, the Caps had a single Friday practice session in preparation for a pair of weekend matinee games in tough road buildings.
It's difficult enough to try to ease your way back to midseason form without the added annoyance of back-to-back games in the afternoon with no morning skates, and the Caps had no grand illusions of success going into Saturday's game against the Red Wings in Detroit and Sunday's contest against the Rangers in New York.
On the heels of a 3-2 shootout loss to the Wings on Sunday, the Caps fell 2-1 to the Rangers on Sunday afternoon in New York.
Given that the Caps never led at any point in either contest and were trying to get back up to speed on a pair of slow and subpar ice sheets, dropping both games by a single goal and scraping a standings point out of Saturday's game can be seen as a minor positive.
Sunday's game was a 1-1 affair as the midpoint of the final frame loomed, but three tough seconds for the Caps enabled the Rangers to retake the lead and score what would prove to be the game-winning goal in the third.
New York winger Chris Kreider is particularly aggressive on offensive zone draws, and he cut in front of Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt to gain possession and keep Jay Beagle from winning the face-off, then fed Mats Zuccarello in the slot. Zuccarello fired it home three seconds after the puck was dropped for the draw.
Video: Trotz talks after a 2-1 loss vs. the Rangers
"We got beat off the wall," recounts Caps coach Barry Trotz of the play. "That forced everyone to be in between, and I think [Kreider] was probably going to take it to the net. He realized that our [defenseman Brooks Orpik] was in between and he passed it over to Zuccarello and bang, it was in the net."
For all the talk about hands and feet needing to catch up after a week away from the ice, the Caps lost a chance at pulling at least a point from Sunday's game on a couple of minor details of a play that happens dozens of times a game.
"It's little details like that," says Trotz. "We talked about them being a real face-off ready team, and they beat us in an area that they're pretty good at."
Great Grubi - Washington was under siege throughout the first period of Sunday's game, as the Rangers fired 19 shots on Caps goaltender Philipp Grubauer. Making his first start since Feb. 5, Grubauer stopped 18 of the 19 to keep the game close and give his teammates a chance to find their legs, which they did in the second period.
"He kept us in the game there," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom of Grubauer. "We were lucky we were only down a goal; it could have been more. He made some good saves."
Grubauer has now permitted two or fewer goals against in three straight starts, but he has just one win during that stretch, a shutout over Los Angeles on Feb. 5.
Video: Caps players talk after a 2-1 loss in New York
"It was good to get into the game," says Grubauer of the early barrage, "but that's not the way we want to start, giving up that many scoring chances. I think we did a pretty good job in the second period of coming back and we dominated the second and the third period. We've got to learn from that and move on."
In the wake of Saturday's loss, Grubauer is now 10-4-2 on the season with a trio of shutouts, a 1.98 GAA and a .932 save pct. He has permitted two or fewer goals in 10 of his 14 starts this season.
Office Work - The Caps' lone goal of the game came on a Washington power play late in the second period. Alex Ovechkin fired home his 27th goal of the season, shooting from his office near the left dot, but getting a bit of a boost when his shot nicked the stick of Rangers defenseman Nick Holden en route to its destination.
Video: WSH@NYR: Ovechkin nets PPG from left circle
"It was kind of a lucky goal," admits Ovechkin. "I was mad because I missed pretty good chances before. It's kind of a frustrating moment. It's nice that it goes in, but I have the opportunity to play much better."
The power-play strike was Ovechkin's 12th of the season, tying him for second in the league just two behind Philadelphia's Brayden Schenn.
Sluggish Starts - Fast starts have fueled the Caps' league-leading record this season; Washington leads the NHL with 63 first-period goals and it has allowed just 27 goals in the game's first 20 minutes, fewest in the league.
Washington leads the league with a plus-73 goal differential this season, and nearly half of that (plus-36) has been achieved in the first period of the Capitals' 58 games this season. But those quick starts deserted the Capitals over the weekend, particularly on Sunday against the Rangers.
The Rangers dominated the game's first frame on Sunday, pouring 19 shots on Grubauer in the Washington net. Nine of those came from inside 25 feet away, and Grubauer made a series of dazzling stops to keep the game from getting out of hand.
New York also lit the lamp twice in the first, and only a sage coach's challenge from Washington's crack video review team kept the Caps from being in a two-goal hole at the end of the first on Sunday. Video review wiped Mika Zibanejad's power-play goal off the board late in the first, keeping the score and the game manageable for the Caps the rest of the way.
"They played really ell in the first, too," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen of the Rangers. "They came out flying and we just couldn't handle the puck well enough to transport it or move it up the ice efficiently. We just gave up too much. Grubi was outstanding in the first, especially. We're shaking off the rust a bit, and the second two periods was a step in the right direction."
Video: WSH Recap: Ovechkin scores in Caps' loss to Rangers
Washington was held off the scoreboard in the first period of both of its weekend games, the first time in more than two months the Caps have gone consecutive contests without scoring in the first period. The Capitals went three straight games without scoring in the first from Dec. 13-17.
Down On The Farm - The AHL Hershey Bears were on the wrong side of a 5-1 count at the hands of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in Bridgeport on Sunday. Chris Bourque scored Hershey's lone goal of the contest - his 15th of the season - on a Hershey power play early in the third period. Christian Djoos and Travis Boyd collected the helpers on Bourque's goal.
A night after pitching a 4-0 shutout win over the Bruins in Providence, Bears goaltender Vitek Vanecek was dented for four goals on 28 shots in the loss to the Sound Tigers, falling to 13-9-7 on the season.
The Bears are now idle until Friday when they visit the Wolf Pack in Hartford.
Down a level, the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays also lost on Sunday, dropping a 5-2 home ice decision to the Adirondack Thunder at North Charleston Coliseum. Andrew Cherniwchan and Scott Tanski scored the South Carolina goals while Adam Carlson (18 saves on 22 shots) absorbed the loss in the Stingrays' crease.
South Carolina is off until Friday when it visits the Rapid City Rush out in South Dakota.
By The Numbers - Niskanen led the Caps with 23:42 in ice time … Ovechkin, Dmitry Orlov, Brett Connolly and Marcus Johansson each had four shots on goal to lead the Capitals … Ovechkin led the way with 10 shot attempts and four hits … Niskanen, Backstrom, Justin Williams and John Carlson each had a pair of blocked shots to tie for the team lead … Backstrom won eight of 13 face-offs (62%).