On the road for most of the last week, the Caps rarely trailed. In their first game back home on Monday, they fell behind early, never led, and their six-game winning streak came to a halt in a 5-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Columbus halted a four-game skid of its own, a stretch during which the Jackets managed to score only five goals despite pumping an average of 39 shots on net in those four losses. The Jackets opened a four-game road run on Saturday with a 4-1 loss to the Panthers in Florida, but they jumped all over the Caps early on Monday.
"We looked lethargic against Florida," says Jackets coach John Tortorella. "We played much better tonight as a team."
Coming home from a long trip can be a challenge, and so it was for the Capitals in the first. They were flat at their best, and they found themselves on the wrong side of a lopsided 29-12 disadvantage in shot attempts at 5-on-5, a 20-6 disadvantage in shots on net, and - thanks to goaltender Braden Holtby - only a 1-0 deficit on the scoreboard.
Right from the opening puck drop, Holtby needed to make a number of superb stops to keep the Caps close, and the Jackets still managed to reach him for an early goal. Rookie Jackets defenseman Andrew Peeke pinched down the right-wing wall to keep a puck alive in the Caps' end, and Alexandre Texier helped it along the perimeter to Gustav Nyquist at the left-wing half wall. Nyquist put a shot on net from there, and Columbus' Cam Atkinson tipped it past Holtby for a 1-0 Jackets advantage at 3:27 of the first.
It marked the first time Washington trailed in a game in more than eight periods, and they trailed for the rest of the night.
Video: Reirden Postgame | December 9
"Our execution was off, and our goaltender played phenomenal in the first to give us a chance," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "Major credit to him for the first period, and us giving up that many shots and him being able to keep it at 1-0. But the play other than that was unacceptable."
Washington was fortunate to get through the first 20 minutes without further damage, and it was a more assertive group at the outset of the second. But again, the Jackets scored in the front half of the frame, using their forecheck to double the lead.
Alexander Wennberg got in on the forecheck and forced a Nick Jensen turnover behind the Washington net. Eric Robinson collected the puck and fed Ryan Murray, who got behind the coverage of Washington's forwards in front and scored from the inside of the left circle at 6:52.
The Caps had a couple power play chances in the second, but weren't able to cut into the Columbus lead, despite a few good looks. Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo was excellent in his own right, especially in denying Jakub Vrana with a blocker save on a rebound chance, seconds after the second Caps power play expired.
"We lost momentum," says Tortorella. "Korpi made three or four really good saves in that sequence there."
Heading to the third, the Caps were down a pair, which is where they left off here 10 days ago, trailing Tampa Bay by two after 40. In that Black Friday game, Washington rallied for a 4-3 overtime win. But despite a positive development early in the third, the Caps would not add to their collection of comebacks on this night.
Washington completed killing off a carryover Columbus power play early the third, forced an icing in the immediate aftermath. It was then that the Caps finally broke through and got on the board.
Nicklas Backstrom - returning to the lineup after an eight-game absence because of an upper body ailment - won the offensive-zone draw, pulling the puck to Dmitry Orlov at the left point. Orlov's shot was blocked in front, but Alex Ovechkin pounced on it for his 21st goal of the season, making it a 2-1 game just 40 seconds into the third.
Video: CBJ@WSH: Ovechkin backhands rebound past McElhinney
Before the Caps could muster another, Holtby gave up one he won't like much, a Riley Nash shot from below the goal line on the right side at 6:53, restoring a multi-goal lead the Jackets would not surrender.
"It was a quick little turnover behind [the net]," recounts Holtby. "I didn't really know where the pass options were; I was trying to keep my edges available for anywhere I had to go, and he shot it."
It clanked off Holtby's skates and bled through on the short side. He has bailed out his mates on numerous occasions in the first two months of the season, but they weren't able to return the favor on Monday.
Robbed twice earlier in the game, Jackets forward Oliver Bjorkstrand made it 4-1 when Sonny Milano's pass hit him and then glanced off the shaft of Holtby's stick at 10:37.
With Holtby pulled for an extra attacker, Backstrom drove home a rebound of an Ovechkin shot from the slot, cutting the Columbus cushion to 4-2 with 2:06 left. But Atkinson's long-distance empty-netter seconds later removed any doubt that might have lingered, accounting for the 5-2 final.
Video: Postgame | December 9
The loss is just the fifth regulation setback in 32 games for the Caps, and four of those five - the last four - have come by a margin of exactly three goals.
"We've been so consistent for so many games that at some point you're going to have something where you don't like the game," says Reirden. "It didn't go the way we wanted, we didn't execute, there were a number of different things where we weren't sharp.
"That game is over and done with. We've got a big game against Boston [Wednesday]. We'll make some adjustments to things we can improve on, and get back at it. But obviously it's been a good run here. Disappointing to come home and have that, but we've got another game on Wednesday that will be a very competitive game."