For all the different ways the Washington Capitals had managed to win games over the past two-plus weeks, there was a common thread to what they hadn’t done. The team overcame several multigoal deficits, but excelled at protecting its own multigoal leads. Then on Sunday, on the cusp of an eighth straight victory, the Capitals collapsed in stunning fashion, squandering what had been a four-goal lead in the second period.
The Anaheim Ducks scored five unanswered goals in the last 26 minutes of the game to beat Washington, 6-5, and deal the Capitals their first loss since Nov. 14. The Ducks became the first team in 19 years to overcome a four-goal deficit on the road to win in regulation.
Everything that had worked in the Capitals’ favor during their seven-game winning streak — good goaltending, proper puck management, an improved penalty kill, a dangerous power play — suddenly worked against them as players got too relaxed with a four-goal cushion. Above all else, it was a lesson for the Capitals, who had perhaps gotten a little too cocky over the past two weeks.
“We thought it’s done, but we can’t stop playing,” captain Alex Ovechkin said.
“That’s definitely not an easy way to lose your streak, let alone lose the game,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “We got away from our team identity, and we worked really hard to establish that identity in our run of games we were winning there. If you’re going to make mistakes and turn it into a chance-for-chance game when you’re ahead, then you’re playing with danger. So that was a tough loss, but certainly that will be easy to learn from because they were correctable mistakes.”
For the first half of the game, the Capitals looked very much like a team that has found its game over the past month. They scored on the first shift of the game with a goal from center Nicklas Backstrom, they scored on the power play with a goal from Tom Wilson, and they scored with their depth when fourth-liners Chandler Stephenson and Nic Dowd both added to Washington’s lead. The team starts a three-game road trip with Tuesday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena, where the Capitals hoisted a Stanley Cup just six months ago, and as they built a 5-1 lead through 34 minutes against the Ducks, they didn’t look too far removed from that.
The three-goal first period chased Anaheim starter John Gibson out of the net in favor of Ryan Miller, and goals from center Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dowd gave Washington a 5-1 lead 13:30 into the second period. But then Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano scored 61 seconds later after he was left alone in front of the net to jam a puck past goaltender Braden Holtby. Less than a minute after that, Rickard Rakell batted in his own rebound to trim Washington’s lead to two at the second intermission.
“We had a couple letdowns, the building got a little quiet, and the game got away from us,” Dowd said.
“We kind of stopped playing there after 5-1,” Backstrom said. “When we were up 5-1 there, we should have been more aggressive than we were. It’s our fault. . . . That’s what’s going to happen when we turn pucks over and give them room on the [power play].”
Penalties then completed the meltdown for the Capitals in the third period. Dmitry Orlov was called for back-to-back boarding penalties within two minutes, and after Washington’s penalty kill had been perfect through 20 straight infractions, the team gave up goals on both Anaheim power plays for a tie game.
“We missed some coverage,” Dowd said. “I mean, we did a good job of getting down the ice, we did a good job of keeping shots on the outside, and then we gave them absolutely grade-A opportunities. Good players are going to score on that.”
Meanwhile, Miller stumped Washington’s power play in the third period. The Capitals got two chances, including one 12:48 into the period for an opportunity to take the lead. On the first power play, Ovechkin had three one-timers from the left faceoff circle turned away by Miller. Washington didn’t get a shot off on the second one, and as Ducks forward Kiefer Sherwood got out of the penalty box, Anaheim got an odd-man rush with Pontus Aberg scoring the game-winning goal on Holtby with 5:05 to play.
Entering Sunday’s game, Holtby had posted a .935 save percentage in 10 appearances since Nov. 1. Then he allowed six goals on 25 shots against Anaheim, tumbling down from a high just like the rest of his teammates.
“I don’t think there’s any pointing fingers in here,” Holtby said. “It’s hard to keep that consistent play up every game in this league, and tonight’s one of those games that just humbles myself, humbles our group. You have to make sure we keep our foot on the gas, keep pushing forward. You can’t sit back at any time against any team in this league.”