Penguins 5, Caps 2

It was all there – the troubling goaltending, the defensive breakdowns on the penalty kill, a lack of finishing around the net and an all-points meltdown once things started going south. If the Caps didn’t have any answers a few days ago after a 3-2 loss at home to Toronto, they sure don’t have any now after a second-period beat down by the Penguins that saw five unanswered goals.

Washington is now 2-8-1 and remains the NHL’s worst team with five points. An organization that has made a living off terrible, terrible starts to seasons over the last 39 years is perilously close to its worst yet – and with no time to recover in a 48-game season. Through 11 games only the 1981-82 (1-10, 2 points), 1975-76 (1-9-1, 3 points) and 1974-75 (1-9-1, 3 points) teams have been worse. The 1977-78 (2-8-1, 5 points) and 2003-04 (2-8-1, 5 points) teams both had the exact same record as this group. Not really the company you want to keep there.

1. Let’s start with the goalies, I suppose. Michal Neuvirth let in the killer goal – a Pascal Dupuis shot that slid right between his pads and gave the Penguins a 2-1 lead at 12:49 of the second period. Yes, that sneaky Sidney Crosby was dashing in at the far post for a tap-in. Whatever. Force Dupuis to make the pass.

I’m not sure how much I’d kill Braden Holtby. He did give up three goals on 17 shots after relieving Neuvirth following that Dupuis stinker. That’s bad. But defenseman Tomas Kundratek let Pittsburgh forward James Neal cruise behind him on the power play for an easy goal at 16:33 of the second period. No idea what Kundratek was doing there. He wasn’t exactly engaging Penguins forward Chris Kunitz at the top of the circle with the puck. The rookie just got caught in no-man’s land.

Holtby probably needs to stop Matt Cooke’s one-timer off the faceoff win 11 seconds later. As they did Sunday in Washington, the Penguins beat Holtby glove side. Late in the period – again on the power play – Crosby slipped a pass off the half-wall past defenseman John Carlson and forward Troy Brouwer. The puck went to Neal at the left circle with two Caps to his left and two to his right – but none taking him out. He then made the correct pass to Evgeni Malkin on the right wing and his wrist shot, I believe, deflected off defenseman Jeff Schultz. Crosby – who skated hard off the wall and directly towards the net – used his world-class hand-eye coordination to tip the puck in. It literally took a half-second hesitation from Carlson to let Crosby sneak behind him. Again, no chance for Holtby.

2. The penalty kill is a disaster right now and it was exposed again vs. the Penguins, who scored three times with the man-advantage. Karl Alzner’s interference penalty against Neal was tough. But the big winger kept his legs moving and basically ran right through the Caps’ defenseman. Pittsburgh just moves the puck beautifully. On Malkin’s game-tying goal. Crosby took a pass from the point and immediately slid the puck across to Malkin on the left wing. Again, Carlson tried to get over, but a moment’s hesitation is all a sniper like Malkin needs. It didn’t help that Carlson got tied up with Kunitz in front and he barked at the referee afterwards in frustration at the non-call.

We covered Neal’s goal. But just know that was set up by yet another delay-of-game penalty. This one was taken by Joel Ward. Defenseman Roman Hamrlik, playing for the first time since Jan. 24 and in place of an injured Tom Poti (day-to-day, undisclosed upper-body injury), looked every bit his 38 years on a blatant hooking penalty with 1:42 left in the second period. That led to the coup de grace, Crosby’s deflection.

3. Reporters in Pittsburgh noted that Ovechkin was as angry as they’ve ever seen him afterwards. I seem to remember him once smashing an iPod to death after a loss late in his second season – confirmed by the magical powers of the Internet – but I’ll take their word for it. No question he barely flinched after his perfunctory power-play goal in the third period cut the Penguins lead to 5-2. I don’t ever remember seeing less emotion from Ovechkin after a goal. But all-in-all I thought he had a pretty good night. He assisted on Mike Ribeiro’s goal in the first period, he scored one of his own, he finished with a game-high six shots on goal and took five others. That’s why the captain makes the big bucks. He was on the ice, however, for Cook and Dupuis’ goals and may have screened Holtby on the Cook one-timer off the faceoff win.

4. You almost have to take what athletes say in the aftermath of a frustrating loss with a grain of salt. We push recorders and microphones into their faces five or 10 minutes after the game ends and expect them to make perfect sense. That’s why I can’t put much stock in Troy Brouwer claiming the Caps weren’t mentally ready to play in Pittsburgh on Thursday. Maybe Washington had a rough opening shift. So what? The Caps shook it off, took the lead and basically dominated the Penguins for the next 18 minutes. They gave up five shots on goal in the first period, none at all for a 9:45 stretch bridging the first and second periods, and had an excellent penalty kill. Their start wasn’t the problem.

5. The real issue is an inability to stop the bleeding and give themselves a chance to recover. If one soft goal is enough to send a team into a complete tailspin then something is wrong. We saw it happen in Tampa Bay and twice now against the Penguins. The Caps fell apart in the third period against both Toronto and Ottawa on the road.

Against the Lightning on Jan. 19 two goals in the first period came 2:45 apart. In the third period a one-goal game turned into a 6-3 rout thanks to two goals 3:18 apart. The Penguins scored three goals in the second period on Sunday in 7:03 – two of those 37 seconds apart. Thursday the Caps gave up five goals to Pittsburgh in 12:39 – two of them 11 seconds apart. Montreal had four goals in a 14:34 stretch in the second period on Jan. 24 – two of them separated by just 57 seconds. Winnipeg needed just 3:52 to turn a 1-0 Caps lead into a 2-1 deficit on Jan. 22. When these Caps tank they just go straight off the cliff. That’s one of many problems that need fixing before Saturday’s game against the Florida Panthers.

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