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POSTGAME NOTEBOOK: Rangers 6, Caps 5 (OT)

Zibanejad hangs five on struggling Caps, a closer look at Washington's ongoing woes, Kovalchuk scores, Jensen is shorthanded gem, more

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

Hang Five - The ongoing struggles of the Washington Capitals aside, if you were at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night and you witnessed Mika Zibanejad's virtuoso five-goal game in a 6-5 win over the Caps, you should savor and appreciate the rarity of the achievement and be grateful you were able to witness it.

Zibanejad has had a terrific season and has been hot lately; he was the NHL's second star for the month of February with 11 goals and 20 points in 15 games last month. Since Jan. 1, Zibanejad is the league's third leading scorer with 40 points (22 goals, 18 assists) in just 28 games.

But his Thursday night performance was the stuff of legend.

Zibanejad's first goal came on a New York power play, tying the game at 1-1 in the first. His second goal came on a delayed penalty and gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead in the second. He completed the hat trick a dozen seconds into the third period, giving New York a 4-3 lead. His fourth goal came on the power play with 1:42 left in regulation, giving the Blueshirts a 5-4 lead. And his fifth goal was the game-winner, coming on a breakaway 33 seconds into overtime.

Zibanejad finished the night with eight shots on net and 11 shot attempts in 24:56 of ice time.

He is the third player in Rangers' franchise history to score five goals in a game, and the seventh player in the league to achieve the feat in the last 25 years. Winnipeg's Patrik Laine had a five-goal game on Nov. 24, 2018 at St. Louis. Among all active players in the league, Zibanejad and Laine are the only two players with a five-goal game in the NHL.

Zibanejad is the second player to hang a five-goal game on the Caps; Detroit's Sergei Fedorov scored all of his team's goals in a 5-4 overtime win over Washington on Dec. 26, 1995 at Joe Louis Arena in Motown.

It Ain't Working - Okay, now onto the Capitals' ongoing woes. In yielding six goals to the Rangers on Thursday, Washington has now surrendered three or more goals in 10 straight games, and it owns a 3-6-1 record over that span.

Video: WSH Recap: Ovechkin scores twice in OT defeat

This is the first time in nearly 30 years the Caps have endured such a stretch of defensively lax hockey; they gave up three or more goals in 11 straight games from Dec. 15, 1990 to Jan. 5, 1991, going 2-7-2 in the process. That was back in the final season of the Original 21, a season before the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL. The 1990-91 Caps finished 37-36-7 but made the playoffs with 81 points, defeating the Rangers in the first round and falling to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins in the second round.

Game after game and night after night, it's the same problems that are leading to the Caps' unrelenting struggles in keeping the puck out of their net. They take too many penalties, they take too many penalties clustered together, they're too soft at defending their net front, they don't manage the puck well enough and are guilty of shortening the ice for the opposition too frequently, and they're turning over too many pucks in dangerous areas of the ice.

For the second time in as many nights against divisional foes in the midst of a tight playoff chase, the Caps squandered a strong start with a stretch of unwise and unnecessary penalties. Less than half a minute after Carl Hagelin scored to give the Caps a 1-0 lead - and an 8-0 lead in shots on goal - Nic Dowd took a tripping minor to put the Rangers on the power play, on which Zibanejad scored his first goal.

Minutes after exiting the box, Dowd took another penalty, this one in the offensive zone. He was benched for the remainder of the first and played well afterwards.

With the game tied at 4-4 late in the third, the Caps astonishingly took three minor penalties in a span of 4:01 of playing time, a night after they took three minors in 4:17 to lose control of a game against the Flyers at home. This time it was Lars Eller taking two penalties - an offensive-zone roughing call and a hi-sticking minor - sandwiched around a John Carlson crosscheck to the grill of New York's Brendan Lemieux.

Washington's penalty killing outfit came within 35 seconds of completing the trio of three successive missions before Zibanejad intervened with his fourth goal of the night with 1:42 left in the third.

After Thursday night's debacle, Caps coach Todd Reirden was visibly and understandably miffed at his team's troubles, and in particular with its ongoing lack of discipline. The Caps have taken a league-leading total of 258 minors this season, 16 more than the second-place Rangers in that dubious category. The distance between the Caps and Rangers on that list is greater than that of any other two teams all the way down to 31st-place Columbus at 175.

Video: Reirden Postgame | March 5

"We have lots of high-end skill players that end up having to sit there for far too long," says Reirden. "That being said, some of them took penalties as well. You're just not going to win with taking this number of penalties. You can only sit players for so many times - not dress them, scratch them - for taking penalties. And then eventually they've got to make a decision in our own room that they're going to stop handcuffing our entire team from having success.

"I can hold them accountable by not playing them like I didn't tonight, from poor penalties or uneven play. But at the end of the day, our group in that room needs to make a decision that we have to be more disciplined, there's no doubt about it."

The penalty woes have plagued the Caps all season. The defensive struggles are more troubling at this stage of the schedule, but the problems don't stop there. There is a lack of consistency from night to night and even from shift to shift, and the team's best players have not played to that distinction recently, and in all aspects of the game. Washington is too easy to play against and too easy to game-plan against right now; it drifts too frequently from its perceived identity and lacks consistent cohesion as a five-man unit all over the ice.

Caps captain Alex Ovechkin - who has 10 goals in his last 14 games - owned up to his own struggles after Thursday's game.

"Our line didn't play well at all," says Ovechkin. "I think we get mad, we tried to do some bad things on the ice, me and [Evgeny Kuznetsov]. And it cost us zone time. We have to play better, no doubt.

"It's a good lesson. It's a hard lesson, but we have to take it and accept it because last couple of games I don't think our line created any moments and any chances. So we just have to control the puck better."

Lessons are good and sure, they can be hard, too. But they're really only good if you learn from them and don't repeat the same mistakes that are leading to them. That goes for both players and for the coaching staff, which has constantly fidgeted with its blueline personnel over the last five weeks but seems to have much more - and perhaps too much - patience with the makeup of a forward group that is scuffling, too.

Over a 45-game stretch from Oct. 18 to Feb. 2, the Caps used the same six defensemen in every game except two, when Christian Djoos came up from AHL Hershey to fill in for Michal Kempny during the latter's illness in late December. Washington ran up a 31-11-3 record during that span - best in the league - and allowed 2.89 goals per game, 11th in the NHL during that time.

Video: Postgame | March 5

In 14 games since, four of those same six defensemen have been scratched at various times, the defensive pairings have been in a nightly state of flux, and the team has allowed a league-worst 3.71 goals per game.

The additions of defenseman Brenden Dillon and winger Ilya Kovalchuk were good ones, making the team better and deeper. Washington's bottom six forward group has been solid for much of the season, but that is especially so in the last several weeks. It's the top six that has struggled with turnovers, consistency and defensive coverage, but the wings on those units have largely remained the same from night to night, especially at game's outset.  

Ovechkin made defensive mistakes that led to goals against by blueliners in each of the last two games. Kuznetsov's turnover led directly to Zibanejad's fourth goal of Thursday's game. Jakub Vrana's turnover resulted in a rarely seen 5-on-2 rush - and goal - against on Wednesday against Philly. Nicklas Backstrom has three points at 5-on-5 in his last 15 games, 10th on the team, and he hasn't displayed his usual crisp touch in making and receiving passes. It's a flawed stat for sure, but Tom Wilson is now a league-worst minus-14 in his last 15 games. He also has five goals in his last 11 games for a team that isn't scoring as consistently as it did in the first half of the campaign.

"[Wednesday] night, I make a mistake and it cost us the game," says Ovechkin of the home ice loss to the Flyers. "Tonight, I lost my [defenseman] again and I have to play better in the defensive zone, especially when the team needs it. The coaches put me out there to get results, and I blame myself on that."

Meanwhile, Hagelin, Eller, Kovalchuk and Richard Panik have played extremely well over a longer period of time and could perhaps be sprinkled through the lineup to try to spark some other players from extended slumps. All four have history of being able to move up in the lineup. Garnet Hathaway has three goals in his last five games in limited ice time. He doesn't have the hands of some of the top six guys, but he always competes and has no hesitations over playing in traffic or going to the net.

Over the Caps' last 15 games, their leading scorers at 5-on-5 are: Hagelin (nine points), Eller and Panik (eight each). Kovalchuk has three points at 5-on-5 in his five games since joining the team.

We say it all the time here in this space and elsewhere: No matter what the forwards lines are for a given team, two things are true - people will hate those lines, and those lines will change. But here is another truism - when the air in a room gets stuffy and stale, you open a window. When the alignment or layout - or feng shui, if you prefer - of a room isn't working or has grown tired, you rearrange the furniture.

The Caps may want to consider going bottoms up before they bottom out.

Dos For Ocho - Ovechkin added some spice to Zibanejad's night with two goals of his own in the third period, ultimately giving the Rangers center the opportunity to tack on that fifth goal in overtime. Each of Ovechkin's goals tied the game in the third period; the first was scored at 4-on-4 and it tied the game at 4-4 at 9:22 of the third. Ovechkin's second goal came in a 6-on-5 situation with Ilya Samsonov pulled for an extra attacker and just 42.9 seconds left in regulation, tying the game at 5-5.

Ovechkin now has 47 goals on the season - tied with Boston's David Pastrnak for the league lead - and 705 for his career. With 145 career multi-goal games, Ovechkin is now two such efforts away from matching Hockey Hall of Famer Gordie Howe (147) for fourth place on the NHL's all-time ledger for multi-goal games.

On The Board - Kovalchuk had a three-point night, scoring his first goal as a member of the Capitals and assisting on Washington's first and last goals of the game - Carl Hagelin's marker against his former team in the first and Ovechkin's 6-on-5 tally in the final minute.

Personal Bests - Eller provided the primary hook-up on Kovalchuk's first goal with Washington, and that pushed the Great Dane's point total to 39 (16 goals, 23 assists) on the season. That's the most points Eller has recorded in his 11-year NHL career, exceeding his 38-point performance for the '17-18 Caps. Eller's 23 assists matches his career high, established last season.

Killing It - Nick Jensen led the Caps with 22:41 in ice time on Thursday, the second time in as many nights that he established a single-game personal best for this season in that category. Jensen logged more than five minutes worth of penalty-killing time for the second time in as many nights as well; he was on for 6:19 of the 10:52 in which New York enjoyed the man advantage on Thursday.

The Caps have surrendered three power-play goals in their last two games, and although Jensen was on for more than half of that shorthanded ice time in the two games - 11:29 of the 19:43 - he was not on the ice for any of the goals against.

On the season, Jensen has been on the ice for only six power-play goals against in 154:31 of shorthanded ice time, fewest in the league among the 67 NHL skaters who have logged 150 of more penalty-killing minutes this season. San Jose's Brent Burns is second, with 11 goals against in 167:58 of shorthanded ice time.

By The Numbers - Dillon led Washington with 6:30 in shorthanded ice time and Hagelin led Caps' forwards in that department with 6:05 … Wilson and Ovechkin led the Caps with five shots on net each, and Ovechkin and nine shot attempts to lead the team … Ovechkin, Dowd and Wilson had three hits each to lead the Caps … Panik, Eller and Jonas Siegenthaler had two blocked shots each to lead Washington.

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