A weekend of back-to-back road games in difficult barns is never an appetizing situation for an NHL team, and that's even less true when both games are in the afternoon and the set of contests comes in the immediate aftermath of a week away from the ice.
This weekend, NHL schedule makers were able to do what the rest of the NHL has been unable to accomplish over the last two-plus months - to cool off the Capitals.
Video: WSH Recap: Ovechkin scores in Caps' loss to Rangers
Likely the hottest team in the league when their bye week started a week ago, the Caps are now losers of two straight games (0-1-1) for the first time in calendar 2017 after Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Rangers in New York.
Mats Zuccarello scored what proved to be the game-winning goal after New York won an offensive-zone draw in the third period, breaking a 1-1 tie. Both teams entered the game with six wins in their previous seven contests.
"In this league with the fine line that separates every team, you have to find different ways, and that's what we did tonight," says Rangers coach Alain Vigneault.
"That's a real strong hockey team. They're not in first place in the league for nothing. They have four lines that come at you and real strong [defensemen]. They're a real good team. We beat a real good team tonight."
Sunday's setback came on the heels of Saturday's 3-2 shootout loss to the Red Wings in Detroit, Washington's first game in a week. With all the talk about the Capitals' collective hands and feet being slowed by the time away from the rink, both the hands and wheels seemed fine once the first period was behind them. Sunday's game came down to details and execution in a matter of just three seconds on the Zuccarello goal.
Strong starts have been a hallmark of Washington's success this season, but those swift starts haven't been at all evident in the Capitals' first two games back from their bye week. Afternoon games can be challenging from a preparation standpoint, and the Capitals scuffled their way through the first frames of both games this weekend.
While the Caps had the occasional good scoring chance sprinkled among their 10 shots on net in the first 20 minutes of Sunday's game against the Rangers, Washington also surrendered a single-period season high of 19 shots on net in the first, and many of them were grade A scoring opportunities.
Fortunately for the Capitals, goaltender Philipp Grubauer was at the top of his game in the first. He had to be. Nearly half (nine of 19) of New York's shots on net in the first period came from inside 25 feet away.
Video: Trotz talks after a 2-1 loss vs. the Rangers
"We were atrocious in the first," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "We played poorly, and Grubi was outstanding. It could have been 5-0 in the first and not 1-0. We were able to get through that."
Grubauer committed right pad robbery on Kevin Hayes just ahead of the first television timeout of the first period, and he denied Pavel Buchnevich from in tight seconds later.
Video: WSH@NYR: Grubauer stretches leg out to make fine save
But just after that first television timeout, the Rangers drew first blood. Blueshirts blueliner Ryan McDonagh picked up a rebound of a Rick Nash shot, then skated himself into prime scoring real estate in the home plate area in front of the Washington net. From there, McDonagh ripped a wrist shot high into the cage behind Grubauer for a 1-0 New York lead at 7:49.
Grubauer halted Chris Kreider on a breakaway later in the first, and after killing off one Brooks Orpik minor, the Caps were tasked with killing off a second infraction against the veteran Washington blueliner in the waning minutes of the opening period.
Video: WSH@NYR: Grubauer saves Lindberg's shot from doorstep
Rangers center Mika Zibanejad potted a rebound goal on the power play, but Washington's ever-alert video coaching tandem of Brett Leonhardt and Tim Ohashi urged Trotz to challenge the goal, alleging the Rangers were offside ahead of the red light. Sure enough, that was the case, and the goal was wiped away as if it had never happened. The Caps killed off the remainder of Orpik's minor without incident.
"Our video coaches do a really good job of communicating that," says Trotz. "We have some protocols in place, and I think we understand what the league will look at.
"I think our group is on top of it; they're real sharp in those situations. Today, [the Rangers] were still in our zone [before Zibanejad put the puck in the net] and we already knew it was offside."
Grubauer made one more sublime stop late in the period, denying Oscar Lindberg from the top of the paint off the rush to keep the deficit manageable.
"We were just moving too slow," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. "Moving the puck too slow, and not moving our legs quick enough, and it showed.
Video: Caps players talk after a 2-1 loss in New York
"They're quick in on the forecheck, and we weren't moving it quick enough to get out, and then when we did get it out they were catching us from behind and we turned it over too much. As a result, we looked really slow. We got moving then, and had a pretty good second 40 minutes."
The Capitals found their game in the second, particularly in the second half of the second. Washington began to spend more and more time in the New York end of the ice, generating chances and getting pucks to the net. New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist was strong when he needed to be as well, as the Caps owned a lopsided 22-7 advantage in shot attempts in the middle period, getting 13 of those shot attempts on net.
Lundqvist made a big stop on Justin Williams at the doorstep, aided by Williams' stick snapping in half as he tried to bury it from in tight. Shortly thereafter, Daniel Winnik hit the pipe squarely on an opportunity in which he had both the time and space needed to put a well-placed shot toward the net.
With Kreider in the box for interference, the Caps poured the heat on the New York net on the power play. After taking a feed from Lars Eller, Caps captain Alex Ovechkin ripped a shot from his office at the left dot. The shot clicked off the stick of New York defenseman Nick Holden and beat Lundqvist high to the far side, evening the game at 1-1 at the 17:24 mark of the second period.
Video: WSH@NYR: Ovechkin nets PPG from left circle
The Rangers regained the lead just ahead of the midpoint of the final frame. Zibanejad beat Jay Beagle on an offensive zone draw, and the Caps weren't able to effectively muzzle either Kreider or Mats Zuccarello on the play. Kreider won possession down low near the Washington goal line and fed Zuccarello in the slot. His shot beat Grubauer a mere three seconds after the puck was dropped for the draw.
"In the second and third, I know we had the better of the chances," says Trotz. " I know we had a majority of the play. I thought we managed the game much better. And then the details of the game - I thought we got beat off the wall [on the Zuccarello game-winner]. It gets everybody in between and then they make a play and score.
"I think they had 11 shots in the last two periods. I thought we stabilized pretty well, but they found a way to win. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter. We could have lost the game in the first period. Philipp Grubauer was fantastic in the first period."
The Capitals endured a winless weekend in their return from the bye week, but they did get a point on Saturday and their game improved as the games wore on, both on Saturday and Sunday. With two dozen games remaining, the hope is that the Caps' elite level game returns as the schedule normalizes in the weeks ahead.