After owning the lead for 151 minutes and 8 seconds of the 180 minutes of hockey they played in California last week, the Caps fell behind Columbus in the fourth minute of Monday's game and trailed for the remainder of the evening.
Caps killer Cam Atkinson staked the Jackets to a 1-0 lead with a deflection of a Gustav Nyquist shot at 3:27 of the first, and it took a heroic goaltending effort from Braden Holtby to keep the Caps within one going into the second.
"There is a lot of parity in the league," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, "and you've got to be on top of your game or you're susceptible to coming up on the wrong end of things. We've been really consistent obviously through 30-plus games of doing that, and tonight we had a bad start to the game and it cost us. It was something we discussed, and it got better as the game went on, but it was not acceptable at the start of the game."
Video: Reirden Postgame | December 9
The Jackets doubled their lead in the second, and the Caps appeared to have the makings of one of their patented late comebacks when Alex Ovechkin scored in the first minute of the third to make it a 2-1 game. But Columbus scored the next two and led by multiple goals for the rest of the night.
Playing their first game at home after a long and prosperous road trip, the Caps didn't have their "A" game at the start, and they were never able to get to it. So for just the fifth time in 32 games this season, they failed to collect a point.
The first game home after a long trip is typically seen as a bit of a trap game, and while there is some truth to that, it's not an excuse. The Caps have kept their clunkers to about two per month thus far this season, and they should take pride in that.
"All that stuff exists," Reirden acknowledges of the return home after a long trip. "You're never going to hear me use it as an excuse, because we expect to win every game we play. That's the intention we go into the game with, and how we feel about our team.
"Regardless of the situation, we feel we have an opportunity every night when they drop the puck. Tonight, we weren't where we needed to be and we lost. Yes, that is the case. I could go through five reasons of time zone and this and that and whatever. But to me, it's a game. We've found a number of ways to win other games in different situations, and tonight we didn't. We'll be back at it on Wednesday."
Hey, Nineteen - Nicklas Backstrom returned to the Washington lineup for Monday's game, playing for the first time in three weeks and after missing the previous eight games. Backstrom didn't show any visible signs of rust; he made a couple of typically sublime feeds in traffic, and also picked up an assist on the Ovechkin goal and scored one of his own, a 6-on-5 strike with just over two minutes remaining.
Video: Postgame | December 9
"Maybe the first period was a little off for me, not having played in a while. The second and the third felt better, but when you lose a game you just have to forget about it and move on."
Backstrom's return put all of Washington's pieces in their proper places; for the first time this season the Caps had a full, healthy roster with no one absent for reasons of injury or suspension. As Reirden notes, it may take some time for the group to reconnect with one another now.
"I think he got better as the game went on," says Reirden of Backstrom. "With eight games off, that's quite a bit of time at this point of the season. I thought he got better obviously, and was able to create a little there at the end a little bit.
"We've got to recreate some chemistry with some lines, and it's going to go through a bit of a growing period here with having our full group back, and that's part of it as well. It's not just dealing with the injuries when you have them and everyone raising their game, and taking advantage of opportunities, and next man up. It's what happens when you get healthy again, of how to reconnect everybody. So tonight was part of that. At least the second period was better for us, and we had some opportunities in the third but it didn't go our way. So we'll be working at some things [Tuesday] and then getting ready."
Third Men - Washington's newly reconstituted third line of Lars Eller between Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik is one to keep an eye on. The Caps' top six has been consistently strong for most of the season, as has the fourth line. The third unit has hardly played together because of injuries and suspensions, and had only four uneven outings together early in October, after Evgeny Kuznetsov came back into the lineup following a three-game NHL suspension.
On the three games of the California trip, Hagelin and Panik played well together with Travis Boyd in the middle, and with Backstrom back on Monday, they were reunited with Eller for the first time in nearly two months.
"I felt great," says Panik. "We had great chances, good looks. We played mostly in the [offensive] zone. But at the end of the day, we lost the game and we didn't score a goal, so it's hard to say something about that."
"It went well," says Hagelin. "I think we spent a lot of time in the [offensive] zone. Obviously, we didn't score a goal, but I think if we continue to put pucks deep like that and continue to control the game in the [offensive] zone, we'll find some openings."
Reirden also saw some good things from that line, while noting that they were also on the ice for Columbus' second goal, on which a defenseman - Ryan Murray - managed to cut right to the lower middle portion of the Washington zone and take a pass from below the goal line, unimpeded. Murray scored to make it a 2-0 game early in the second.
"I think they did some good things early on," assesses Reirden. "They were probably one of our better lines to start the game. So I thought they were the group that was giving us some offense and some possession time, and executing probably at the highest level.
"Obviously the goal against, that one hurts. It's a bad time for that, and it's a missed coverage in the defensive zone. But that comes with them playing together and some of those reads off of one another."
By The Numbers - John Carlson led the Caps with 23:55 in ice time … Eller led the Caps with seven shots on net and Ovechkin led the way with a dozen shot attempts … Ovechkin led the Caps with nine hits … Dmitry Orlov led the Caps with three blocked shots … Eller won 12 of 19 draws (63 percent) and Kuznetsov won eight of 13 (62 percent).