Hurricanes 4, Caps 0: Five Observations

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

1. There’s no way to sugar coat things or try to find silver linings. The Capitals came into the week needing a pair of wins over the Carolina Hurricanes to cut the Southeast Division lead in half. That won’t happen. In fact, after a 4-0 loss they’ll have to find a way to win in Raleigh at RBC Center on Thursday just to head into the weekend where they started: eight points off the pace. A loss all but buries them at 12 points out with 22 games left. A win at least gets their confidence back and keeps alive fading hopes of catching the No. 8 seed. Right now that’s the New York Rangers, who are seven points ahead of Washington.

The Caps didn’t feel they were outplayed by Carolina. Oates noted that his team had 11 quality scoring chances to seven for Carolina at even strength. There were a few soft goals in the Hurricanes’ favor – a bank shot off Braden Holtby’s mask, a broken stick for Matt Hendricks that led to a tip in by Riley Nash and a misjudgment by Holtby, who thought defenseman Jeff Schultz would win his race for an icing. Didn’t happen and the Hurricanes suddenly had numbers in the offensive zone and Nash ripped home a one-timer.

And so the Caps were left groping for answers:

“I don’t know what to say,” captain Alex Ovechkin said.

“I don’t feel like we got dominated, I don’t,” insisted coach Adam Oates. “But, it’s a loss and a hollow feeling.”

2. The second Nash goal – he only had one in his first 15 NHL games – put an end to the competitive portion of the contest. The Caps just didn’t have much burst after that one. It came with just 94 seconds left in the second period, too – an especially galling was to head into intermission. They had overcome a 3-0 lead against Boston just a week before. But that kind of effort was lacking this time and, to be fair, Carolina played a pretty effective road game.

Schultz admitted afterwards he went to the wrong side of the net to play the puck and absolved Holtby of any blame. He didn’t have the legs to stay ahead of Carolina forward Patrick Dwyer – who would later add an empty-net goal of his own. Schultz went to the right side of the net and that let Dwyer, legs churning, cut inside of him to touch up and kill the icing call. Dwyer skated around the net with the puck, had Drayson Bowman waiting on the opposite side, but instead patiently hit the trailing Nash, who hit the top right corner of the net. Holtby bears a little responsibility, though. He made the call that Schultz would get there and was wrong.

“I would have actually probably thought Holts would have played it for him,” Oates said. “But he was giving Schultzy the chance to win that battle and we lost it and we broke down after that.”

3. The tables were turned in this game. Two weeks ago Carolina came into Verizon Center and was drilled 3-0 thanks in part to the absence of three of its four best defenseman. That’s never good. This time the Caps were down Mike Green (groin), John Erskine (upper-body injury) and Tom Poti (upper-body injury). Jack Hillen (shoulder) is also on injured reserve. That left Cameron Schilling to make his NHL debut next to Steve Oleksy, who was playing his fifth NHL game ever. Not ideal.

“That’s definitely a spot of concern right now for them,” Hurricanes defenseman Joe Corvo said. “They’re missing a bunch of guys. That was part of the game plan: just get it down in their end and grind away.”

Mission accomplished. Carolina coach Kirk Muller noted that in the game two weeks ago Ryan Murphy had gone from playing junior hockey with teenagers to trying to stay with Ovechkin. There were two other defensemen on the ice who were relative NHL novices. It made for a rough night. It was easy to see this time with veteran Tim Gleason and steady Jamie McBain back that breakout passes were much crisper for the Hurricanes.

4. Goals are hard to come by for the Caps right now. They had seven in an easy win last Thursday over Florida. Since then they have scored just three times in three games. That’s not going to get it done. And so when they feel like they’ve done well to generate chances only to whiff and then see Carolina bang one in off Holtby’s mask at the other end it can get deflating. Troy Brouwer was stopped by Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters on a breakaway and Marcus Johansson missed a golden chance with an open net yawning after a feed from Ovechkin in the first period. Those misses, among a few others, proved costly when a lucky break went the other way.

“Seems like there’s been a lot of those lately,” forward Eric Fehr said. “They’re just tough goals against. We’re squeezing it a bit, having a tough time trying to find a way to score. We’ll take them any way, but we just can’t put it in the net right now.”

Part of that, Fehr explained, was passing up too many open shots. Ovechkin put some of that on the team’s defensemen, who had some room Tuesday, but too often passed up decent opportunities for better ones that never came. The Caps could stand to go to the net harder, too, to take advantage of the bounces they do get. Peters’ rebound control wasn’t great early.

Added Oates: “That’s kind of been our MO the last 10 days or so. We’ve come out very well, we’ve had good first periods, had lots of chances. We haven’t scored. And they do and then we’re fighting an uphill battle. And when you’re struggling in scoring, obviously, that makes it very difficult.”

5. Luck is the residue of design, right? Well, former Washington defenseman Joe Corvo picked an intriguing shot from below the goal line in the first period when he banged a shot right off Holtby’s mask. The puck deflected home for a 1-0 lead. That wasn’t exactly what the Verizon Center crowd wanted to see. Corvo was acquired by the Caps late in the 2009-10 season and had a shaky, short tenure here. The fans in the District don’t usually let him forget it and often apply the “Whoop, whoop” cheer reserved for unpopular ex-Caps. That the assist on the play came from Alex Semin, himself a longtime Washington player with a penchant for angering a portion of the fanbase, didn’t help.

“Caught me off guard. Obviously, I was trying to keep my place on the post and trying to read where he was going to pass it to,” Holtby said of Corvo’s shot. “It was pretty creative on his part, I’ve never seen someone try that.”

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