The Washington Capitals white-knuckled their way through the first 60 minutes of Thursday night’s game against the New Jersey Devils, holding on for dear life as a faster opponent dictated the pace for long stretches at Capital One Arena. The Capitals had survived — exhaling as several pucks clang off the post, killing two power plays, even scoring first on their own lucky bounce — but after they couldn’t earn a victory in overtime, they settled for one point as the Devils celebrated a 3-2 shootout win.
Timo Meier scored the winning goal in the skills competition for New Jersey, which entered the night with the best road record in the league and widened the gap in the standings between themselves and the Capitals to 21 points. Just three nights after Washington Coach Peter Laviolette had criticized his team’s competitive intensity level in a road loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the Capitals amped up the urgency Thursday and received another brilliant performance from goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who finished with 38 saves and did everything in his power to keep his team in the driver’s seat for a victory.
But while they salvaged a point, the result was much the same as it has been for the past month — a ninth loss in 12 games, sending Washington’s playoff hopes into code red.
“We definitely needed two [points]. We had chances to score and weren’t able to capitalize. They certainly had their chances as well,” said Laviolette, whose team was outshot 30-11 in the last 40 minutes. “I thought the compete level was better, for sure.”
The Capitals have 10 games remaining against playoff teams — including a handful against opponents that are also chasing the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference.
Thursday night’s contest featured two teams that have traveled in opposite directions the past few weeks. The Capitals, with the oldest roster in the league and their playoff hopes dwindling, held a sell-off at the trade deadline for the first time in 16 years. The Devils, with an abundance of young talent and optimistic they can make noise in the Stanley Cup playoffs, added Meier in a blockbuster trade — and he caused problems from the onset against the Capitals, drawing an early penalty against Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway chance.
But Washington countered New Jersey’s speed late in the first period with physicality and several quality offensive possessions. Capitals defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk found himself with the puck some 42 feet from the Devils’ net in the first period when he threw caution to the wind. After the month he’s had — from sweating out the trade deadline to helping teach a trio of newcomers on the blue line — he had nothing to lose when he slung the puck into a mass of skaters in front of the crease. When the shot ricocheted off a defender’s leg and angled into the net, some of the Capitals turned and laughed. It looked as if they couldn’t believe it either.
“I thought we had moments where we were very good,” van Riemsdyk said.
It was exactly the kind of play the Capitals had game-planned for — a greasy, scrappy scoring opportunity born out of pure gumption. Yet Washington, playing without injured defensemen Nick Jensen and Martin Fehervary for a third straight game, could not fully contain New Jersey’s speed, playmaking or luck.
The Devils tied the game on their third power play — Erik Haula scored after his shot deflected off the leg of defenseman Alexander Alexeyev, then ricocheted off the mask of Kuemper and into the net. Just 37 seconds later, Dawson Mercer gave the Devils a 2-1 lead, scoring off a rebound at 7:32 of the second period. Washington created another hard-working chance later in the second period when Dylan Strome rushed the net and scored off an assist from T.J. Oshie to tie the game at 9:50.
But while Kuemper made a series of acrobatic saves to keep the game tied — “Darcy was our best player,” Laviolette said — the Capitals again struggled to generate offense late. As the Capitals scrapped for the go-ahead goal, New Jersey continued its barrage against Kuemper. The Devils held a 39-18 shot advantage by the end of regulation.
Van Riemsdyk had a breakaway opportunity early in overtime, but his backhand was knocked away by the right pad of New Jersey goaltender Akira Schmid. The Capitals had more chances, and they earned a man-advantage in the final 45 seconds after a penalty by Meier.
But Washington couldn’t convert, and it missed four attempts in the shootout round — including a final wrister from Ovechkin that went wide — before Meier ended the stalemate by beating Kuemper’s glove.
“To see it through to overtime … obviously we want to get that second point and that’s disappointing,” van Riemsdyk said. “We had chances — just weren’t able to get it over the line.”
Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ loss:
Jensen, Fehervary remain out
Both Jensen (upper body) and Fehervary (lower body) missed their third consecutive game. Both players were upgraded to full-contact uniforms in practice this week; Fehervary was listed as a game-time decision while Jensen was ruled out earlier in the day.
Their absences left the door open for Vincent Iorio and Gabriel Carlsson to make their home debuts with the Capitals a week after being called up from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa.
With some of the lineup still mired in scoring slumps, Strome and Oshie continued to flourish on the third line alongside Sonny Milano. Strome’s goal in the second period to tie the game extended his point streak to three games — he has two goals and three assists in that span — and it came off a feed from Oshie, who has recorded 12 points in his past 11 games (six goals, six assists). Milano has tallied an assist in four straight games.