After managing just one five-on-five goal in their previous four games, the Caps erupted for five of them on Sunday in Chicago against the Blackhawks, all five of them from defensemen. Unfortunately, the Caps also surrendered half a dozen goals at five-on-five, and the result was another ugly loss to a Western Conference opponent, 8-5 to the Hawks.
Sunday's loss sends the Caps back to the District with a five-game losing streak (0-4-1), their first slide of that length in more than four years, since they dropped five straight (0-4-1) from Oct. 26-Nov. 4, 2014, in the first month of Barry Trotz's tenure behind the Washington bench.
"A lot was going on in that game, and a lot of mistakes," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "They were able to convert on them, and then we got some opportunities and we got back into it. I loved our willingness to come back and stay with it, and then we make another mistake and it ends up in our net. It was a game of mistakes both ways, which sometimes you'll have in those early games, but not good enough from our end."
Video: Todd Reirden Postgame | January 20
The Caps are now 1-7-1 in their last nine games against Western Conference opponents, and they've permitted a staggering total of 45 goals against in those nine contests, an average of five per game.
Although they allowed just two goals in their previous loss, the Caps have now yielded 17 goals against in their last three games, tied for the most they've surrendered in any three-game span in the Alex Ovechkin era, and the most in any three-game stretch since 2007.
"I just think we're not following through with what we talked about and the execution just isn't there," says Caps defenseman John Carlson. "It's not like we changed everything up and don't know what we're doing and are adapting, it's all on us, really."
With both teams dealing with a rare Sunday morning start time of 11:30 in Chicago, the Caps had a chance to get an early jump on their hosts, but Jakub Vrana was not able to finish on his breakaway chance in the first minute and Washington didn't take advantage of a power play chance in the second minute.
From there, it was mostly downhill.
The Hawks, who were dealing with a five-game losing skid (0-3-2) of their own at game's outset, got offensive production from all of their top players. Jonathan Toews had a hat trick - the second straight road game in which Washington was victimized by a three-goal game from one of the opposition's skaters - Patrick Kane had a pair, and Brandon Saad and Alex DeBrincat each netted one. Dylan Strome iced it with a late empty-netter.
Video: WSH Recap: Carlson tallies twice in 8-5 road loss
Those five skaters entered the game as Chicago's top five goal scorers on the season, and most of their goals on this Sunday morning/afternoon came from prime scoring areas with little to no resistance from white-sweatered defenders.
Washington, on the other end, entered Sunday's game with most of its forward corps mired in deep scoring slumps, and they'll head back home with the status quo. For that reason, Reirden mixed up his forward lines and his defensive pairings at the start of this one. All four lines and all three pairings were different than they were for the Caps' previous game, a 2-0 home ice loss to the Islanders on Friday night.
Chicago jumped out to a 1-0 lead at 6:36 of the first, getting a transition goal from Saad, who found way too much room in the middle of the ice and was able to walk down Broadway and beat Braden Holtby from the outside middle of the left circle, staking the home team to an early lead.
Chicago doubled down just 80 seconds later. The Hawks put together a strong offensive-zone shift, snapping the puck around crisply and culminating in a Kane wrist shot from the left circle to make it a 2-0 game at 7:56.
The Caps got on the board and halved the Chicago lead at 14:25 when a Brooks Orpik shot from the left half wall found purchase behind Hawks goaltender Collin Delia at 14:25, making it a 2-1 game.
Video: WSH@CHI: Orpik beats Delia short side
Alas, the Caps gave it right back on an own goal. A loose puck popped up in the air near the Washington cage, and Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov attempted to punch it out of the way with his glove hand. Instead, he punched it into the net, a gift goal for Toews. Just 28 seconds after Orpik's goal brought them to within a goal, the Caps were again down a pair, which was how the first period ended.
DeBrincat scored at 2:30 of the second, ending Holtby's day after four goals on 11 shots in 22:30 of work.
Late in the second, Orlov scored from way down low on the left half wall to make it 4-2 heading to the third.
When Carlson scored on a one-timer following an o-zone face-off win at 3:09 of the third, the Caps were again within one. But as was the case the first time the Caps pulled within one, the Hawks needed less than a minute to restore their two-goal cushion.
Nicklas Backstrom went off for hooking 23 seconds after Carlson's goal, and 13 ticks after he was seated in the box, Kane made it 5-3 with a power-play goal, his second goal of the game at 3:45. Kane's second goal extended the Hawks' power-play goal streak to eight straight games, and it came just 36 seconds after Carlson's goal.
The Hawks came 200 feet to make it 6-3 on Toews' second of the game; he scored on a two-on-rush, shooting from the right circle at 7:20.
Again the Caps carved into a multi-goal Chicago lead. Carlson netted his second of the game at 10:38, and when Matt Niskanen struck at 13:55, the Caps were again within a goal at 6-5, and with just over six minutes remaining.
Video: Caps Postgame Locker Room | January 20
But 62 seconds later, Toews completed the hat trick, beating Orlov and then Pheonix Copley to make it 7-5. Strome scored into an empty net with 1:49 left.
While it's remarkable that the Caps had gone more than four years without losing as many as five straight games, it's also rather remarkable how poorly they've played over the last three weeks, going 3-6-2 and permitting 43 goals in the process.
"We continue to try to find the right combinations, the right ways that we can have success," says Reirden. "Winning streak, losing streak - you have to be better defensively. That always for our team is important. If you look back at giving up this amount of goals in this game [and the game in] Nashville, it's unacceptable and we've got to make sure we take care of the defensive zone first."