It was bad enough the Capitals were playing their second game in less than 23 hours against a New York Rangers team that was in D.C. before the Caps even finished their game on Long Island the day before.
But for the second time in as many days the Capitals’ undisciplined play cost them two valuable points in the Eastern Conference standings.
Back-to-back penalties to Alex Ovechkin midway through the second period resulted in goals by Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan just 41 seconds apart, sending the Rangers to a 4-1 win on Sunday at VerizonCenter, their fifth in six games.
The loss gave the Caps their first back-to-back defeats since Feb. 17 and 21 and left them with a 10-13-1 mark at the halfway point of their season.
“Average,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said when asked to assess his team at the midway point. “I think we can do a lot better. I think we’ve seen signs of what we can be if we do it right. We have to figure out ways to improve.”
It starts with taking fewer penalties and improving on the penalty kill.
The Capitals were locked in a 1-1 tie with the Rangers midway through the game when Ovechkin wrapped his stick around Ryan Callahan in the Capitals’ slot. Ovechkin drew a delayed penalty on the play, but before the referee could blow his whistle Ovechkin took a holding penalty on Ryan McDonagh just before Boyle ripped a shot through a screen and past Braden Holtby.
“To be honest, I know I tripped [Callahan] on the first one because I lost position,” Ovechkin said, “but I don’t know about the second one. Four minutes on one play, I don’t know.”
Before the game, Ovechkin told reporters the Capitals deserved more respect from the referees, noting Mike Ribeiro’s double minor against the New York Islanders on Saturday that led to the game-winning power play goal.
It is worth noting that the same referee who called Ribeiro for high sticking and unsportsmanlike conduct on Saturday, Dean Morton, also gave Ovechkin his two penalties on the same play.
Oates said he didn’t see Ovechkin’s hold on McDonagh but said his players need to stay away from getting emotionally engaged with the referees.
“They’re human beings, right?” Oates said. “We’ve talked about unsportsmanlike [penalties] and how [the referees] are more sensitive. We have to abide by the rules.
“You can’t let it get to you. Obviously, I respect it’s heat of the moment, but we have to be professional.”
With Ovechkin in the box, Callahan gained position in front of Holtby and got his stick on Rick Nash’s blast, giving the Rangers a 3-1 lead on their 19th shot.
Oates yanked Holtby after that goal, saying he wanted to change the momentum, but thought Holtby should have stopped the goal by Boyle.
Holtby said he never saw the second goal.
“My mind says I want to finish every game,” Holtby said. “If that’s in the coach’s best interests to do it I respect his decision. But I like to battle through every challenge.”
The Rangers entered the game 6-0-0 when leading after two periods and backup goaltender Marty Biron shut the door the rest of the way for his first win since Feb. 2.
While Ovechkin played a role in the Rangers’ second and third goals, he also had a hand in their first one.
After rookie defenseman Steve Oleksy gave the Caps a 1-0 lead with his first career NHL goal and fourth point in four games, the Rangers tied it on a goal by Derek Stepan.
Stepan carried the puck through the neutral zone and avoided a big open-ice hit by Ovechkin before catching a return pass from Marian Gaborik and swinging behind the Capitals net, banking a shot off the back of Holtby’s right skate and into the net.
Ovechkin said he tried to make the hit on Stepan but, “he saw me at the last second and moved.”
Oates said Ovechkin made the wrong read on the play.
“We have tracking rules and I think he was going to hit him and let him go,” Oates said. “And because of that he was out of position.”
In the end, though, it was a 10-second lapse by Ovechkin in the second period that ended up costing the Caps, giving them their second loss in two days.
“I don’t know what it is, whether we’re out of position or what,” Matt Hendricks said. “We shot ourselves in the foot.”