WASHINGTON -- While the Capitals have played with a bit of swagger in recent seasons, this season that has melted away into some undisciplined play.
The latest setback for Washington on Thursday night at Verizon Center saw the Caps pull an unwanted feat they hadn't pulled in almost four years. The Devils became the first visiting team since Feb. 24, 2009 to erase a deficit at the second intermission in Washington and rally to win in regulation. Washington, who was 25-0-1 in the category overall last season, now has three such losses this year in just 16 games with such losses to Ottawa, Toronto and now New Jersey.
Perhaps even more troubling than the loss itself for the Capitals was the way they lost. Washington was whistled for six minor penalties in the third period -- resulting in New Jersey five power plays, including a pair of 5-on-3s -- and after initially surviving the first three of the power-play parade, eventually Washington couldn't kill off the second 5-on-3 of the first 12 minutes and ended up losing 3-2.
While Washington had played 40 disciplined minutes against the defending Eastern Conference champs and seemed poised to grab at least a much-needed standings point, the third period reversal of fortune proved to be fatal.
"In the start of the third period you have a lead, and then you give them two 5-on-3's in one period," a frustrated coach Adam Oates said afterwards. "Obviously that's too much."
Several Capitals players seemed to be very unhappy with the officiating, but declined to answer specific questions for fear of being fined. But outspoken Cap Troy Brouwer did say "we feel like we were robbed a little bit tonight."
But clearly, while the officiating could be classified as erratic at best, even taking half the minor penalties Washington did take would be asking for trouble against a team that has an effective power play like New Jersey.
"It's frustrating and we talked about it," Nicklas Backstrom said afterwards. "We have to be more disciplined. It's not good enough. The first 5-on-3 we did a good job, but we got another one right after."
Washington managed to survive some early penalty woes in the third, as a called Backstrom minor for boarding Adam Larsson was negated when the Larsson retaliated with a cross-check as Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur was skating to the bench.
But at the 2:55 mark, Matt Hendricks took a minor for holding, and then just 14 seconds later, Jay Beagle was whistled for a delay of game penalty. But the Caps caught a break when the linesman who called the penalty didn't flag Beagle -- who admitted afterwards he hid a bit to stay out on the penalty kill, but instead Tomas Kundratek was sent to the box.
Washington killed the ensuing 5-on-3 to the roaring approval of the crowd, and seemingly had dodged a big bullet. But instead of clamping down and playing with discipline, the Caps played reckless and continued to tempt fate.
Alex Ovechkin was overzealous on a shift right after the kill, making three hits in short order in the Devils' zone, eventually drawing a penalty for the final one on Alexei Poinkarovsky for New Jersey's third power play in less than four minutes.
While the Caps managed to kill the penalty, with Ovechkin on the ice after the kill, New Jersey tied the game with 9:19 gone in the third.
Just 40 seconds after the equalizer, John Erskine was whistled for hooking Patrik Elias, and less than a minute after that, Tom Poti was called for interfering with David Clarkson, giving New Jersey a second shot with the two-man advantage. That opened the door for Ilya Kovalchuk's game winnerwith 8:20 to play.
Handed the setback, the Capitals simply deflated, forcing future Hall-of-Fame-netminder Brodeur to make just one save after the Kovalchuk goal, with theshot coming with just :39 left and Braden Holtby pulled for the extra attacker. A team that fans in the nation's capital had used to see teams finishing strong were left in shock, and Washington fell to 5-10-1 in dramatic fashion.
While the players seemingly were unhappy with the officiating, the penalty parade continues to be a troubling trend for the Capitals. Washington is taking 4.75 minor penalties per game, in the bottom third of the league, and 7 of the game-winning goals against Washington this year have come on the power play - including Thursday night's.
The only silver lining for the Capitals is despite the poor start, they still remain -- amazingly -- just six points out of the Southeast Division lead as the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning lost. While under normal circumstances a team in last place in the East would have to try and make up ground on 8th, Washington actually has two avenues to try and sneak into the postseason.
But clearly, the Capitals were asking for trouble in the third period continuing to take minor penalties. And if they have any postseason hopes, that has to end sooner than later.