recap sens

In what was tantamount to a must win game on Sunday night against the Ottawa Senators at Capital One Arena, the Caps jumped out to an early one-goal lead, but they couldn’t add to it. They restored that slim lead late in the second period, but again couldn’t add to it. Ottawa pulled even twice, and in the first minute of overtime, Sens defenseman Jake Sanderson stung the Caps with a game-winning shot from just inside the blueline, giving the Sens a 3-2 overtime victory.

Ottawa’s win extends Washington’s losing skid to six games (0-4-2), matching their longest slide of 2023-24 the worst possible time of the season. With five games remaining on the season, the Caps have surrendered control of their playoff destiny by virtue of Sunday’s setback. If they manage to sneak in, they’ll require help from the out-of-town scoreboard.

“I feel like at certain points of the game, we’re really struggling to find our way through momentum shifts,” says Caps’ coach Spencer Carbery. “We mismanage pucks in odd situations, and you just can’t at this time of year. And when you peel it back, and you even go back to [Friday in] Carolina and you look at these games, I think a lot of is – to me – a product of two things.

“One is some young players playing at the end of the year, where the intensity is ratcheted up. The speed of the game is ratcheted up, and now the importance of the games is ratcheting up. And you can just see we’re just gripping the stick, and we’re making really poor decisions that are snowballing. And you can probably find about 25 of them that are head scratchers. So that’s part of it.

“And then I think for some of our veteran guys, because they’re having to shoulder so much of the responsibility, now they’ve become overwhelmed, and now they start to do things that are uncharacteristic.”

Asked prior to the game what his team needed to do to jump start its sleepy offense that has not produced more than two goals in any game during the life of the skid, Carbery began by mentioning the need to turn some pucks over on the forecheck, and they did so to manufacture the game's first goal.

Max Pacioretty got in on the forecheck and put a hit on Sanderson, jarring the puck loose for Washington winger Sonny Milano and Sens’ center Mark Kastelic to jostle over. The puck slipped off Kastelic’s stick and drifted to the front, where Hendrix Lapierre quickly fed Pacioretty, who lifted the Caps to a 1-0 lead with his fourth goal of the season – and his first since Feb. 27 – at 4:43 of the first frame.

As has been the case in three of the last four games now, the Caps then went quiet for quite some time after notching the game’s opening salvo. They managed just two more shots on net in the 15-plus minutes remaining in the first. Although the Sens only managed five shots of their own in the first frame, they had much more zone time, out-attempting the Caps 28-13 in a frame played entirely at 5-on-5.

Ottawa’s Parker Kelly laid a hard hit on Caps’ defenseman Rasmus Sandin – who, according to Carbery is going to "miss some time" as a result of the hit – at the final buzzer of the first, resulting in a kerfuffle between Kastelic and Tom Wilson, and enabling the Caps to open the second period on the power play. When Ottawa’s Mathieu Joseph was busted for tripping Connor McMichael, the Caps found themselves with a 5-on-3 power play of 48 seconds in duration.

With a golden opportunity to pad their lead, the Caps couldn’t get anything going on that power play, and a couple of minutes after they killed off those penalties, the Sens pulled even when Jakob Chychrun made a nifty play off the rush to send Kastelic to the net. Kastelic tucked in his fifth goal of the season to make it a 1-1 game at 5:40 of the middle period.

Late in the frame, the Caps again took the lead, again doing so with some secondary scoring. This time, it was Aliaksei Protas, who potted a rebound of a Trevor van Riemsdyk point shot to give the Caps a 2-1 lead at 17:10, a lead they would take into the third. Protas’ sixth goal of the season was his first since Ottawa’s last visit here on Feb. 26.

Despite finishing up a set of back-to-backs on Sunday, the Sens seemed to have better legs for most of the game. They had the better of possession and zone time in all three periods, though the Caps generated more high danger opportunities, but again, without the finish in most instances. Each team missed the net a remarkable total of 24 times in Sunday’s game.

Midway through the third, the Capitals turned in a textbook penalty kill, only to yield the tying tally to Ottawa’s Ridley Greig five seconds later; Grieg scored from the slot on a setup feed from Shane Pinto to make it a 2-2 game with 7:11 remaining.

Charlie Lindgren protected the Caps’ slim lead with some stellar stops in the front half of the third, and he kept the Caps from falling behind with a few more over the remainder of regulation after Grieg’s tying tally.

In overtime, the Caps never had a shot at the Sens’ net. Ottawa won the opening draw, gained the zone, made a few plays, and then Sanderson twirled and spun a few times up high in the zone, waiting for a screen to develop in front and releasing his shot at the perfect moment. It found its way past Lindgren just 41 seconds into the extra session, sending the Caps to a sixth straight excruciating defeat. Sunday's defeat was the second straight in which Washington took a lead into the third period.

“I was just possessing the puck a little bit,” recounts Sanderson. “We talked on our bench before [overtime] that they might pull their goalie, so I was trying to hold onto the puck. I just got up top and Brady [Tkachuk] was going to screen the goalie a little bit, and I shot it off his back and it went in.”

Down to five games remaining in their season, the Caps now take to the road for the next two games. They’ll visit Detroit on Tuesday for what essentially is a must win game for them. The Red Wings are one of two teams the Caps must claw their way past – Pittsburgh is the other – and the Caps do control their destiny with Detroit, but will only continue to do so if they win on Tuesday.

“I think just simplify,” says Caps’ defenseman John Carlson, honored prior to the game for skating in his 1,000th NHL contest late last month, on what Washington must do to right the ship. “Even tonight, when we were going pretty good we were just getting the puck deep; we weren’t making great plays through the neutral zone to spring a 2-on-1 or a 3-on-2. We control play like that more than any other way.”