You thought that the Washington Capitals had kicked the habit. Admit it, you had convinced yourself that the unexpected and down right bizarre dip in form that saw the Caps drop 5-0 decisions at Atlanta and New Jersey three days apart in November and endure a 7-0 whitewashing at the hands of the New York Rangers December 12 had gone, hopefully for good. And if it was going to resurface, surely it wasn't going to be in their first home game in 13 days, coming off a 3-2 cross-country road trip that bested the expectations of most fans and media, and with defenseman Mike Green returning to the lineup? Surely not with the memories of two straight no-shows at home against San Jose and Los Angeles to drive them on?
After a frantic first five minutes, one of the Caps' many nightmares for this evening came true when Mike Green was forced to leave the ice after skating just two shifts with a total ice time of 2:25. He was the victim of a hit to the head by Derek Stepan that was wrongly not called by referees Tom Kowal and Dan O'Halloran, who, it must be said, did not have a good night. Ironically, had either official spotted a clear cross-check laid by Green on Stepan seconds before the latter laid his shoulder into the former's jaw, Green would not have been the recipient of the hit the saw him escorted to the dressing room less than six minutes into the game.
Larry Brooks of the New York Post reported that the NHL would examine Stepan's hit to determine whether it was in violation of NHL Rule 48, which bans "lateral or blind side hit[s] to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact." It seems very likely that Derek Stepan will be suspended by the league, while Green will not travel with the team to Long Island for tomorrow night's game.
"It looked to me like [Stepan] came up with his shoulder and hit [Green] in the jaw," said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. "From behind it would have looked like an elbow."
Rangers coach John Tortorella, for his part, claimed that Stepan's hit was clean because it was a shoulder hit, even though Rule 48 does not specify whether hits to the head are delivered with a particular body part, but merely whether they are, in fact, hits to the head, which this clearly was.
Ten seconds after the Stepan hit, as Green was still trying to find his bearings on the ice, New York scored the first of six goals. And the Caps were never the same. They had looked quite lively in the first few moments of the game, with Alex Ovechkin darting into the Rangers' defensive zone and troubling Henrik Lundqvist with a couple of shots from the slot. But from the moment Steve Eminger's slap shot made it 1-0, the Capitals were distinctly second-best.
Nothing could be done about some of the goals the Capitals allowed. For example, the third New York goal was a masterpiece of tic-tac-toe power play passing, the kind of thing the Capitals were so adept at once upon a long, long, time ago (Washington, for the record, went 0-for-5 on the power play tonight). The fourth Ranger goal, also scored on a power play, was the result of a funny bounce off the end boards and an alert play by Stepan.
But that should not be used as a blanket excuse for the whole team. The second goal would not have been possible if Karl Alzner had not first lost a battle for the puck with Brian Boyle and then been caught out of position behind the net. The fifth goal resulted from not being able to clear a blocked shot before Vinny Prospal could have a second bite at it. And the sixth goal, scored by Boyle with 33.6 seconds remaining was a sloppy, contemptible goal to allow. Beginning with a giveaway in the neutral zone, continuing with Brandon Prust and Erik Christensen slaloming through Washington's defense, and ending with Boyle slamming the puck past a prone Michal Neuvirth, it was almost an insult to the few thousand Caps fans who hung around still the bitter end, squeezing every last penny out of their hundred-dollar-or-so investment.
Even more bizarre and noticeable was the utter lack of a response to Stepan's forced removal of Green from the game. Line brawls have broken out over more innocuous hits than this, but Friday night, there was nothing to be seen. For the third straight time on home ice, the Capitals were outplayed. More disturbingly, for the first time in a long while, the Caps were utterly cowed.
"They played, said Mike Knuble of the Rangers, "like they wanted to be in the playoffs. We played like we were content."
"It seems like we have individuals who can't put five and 10 good games together," Boudreau said. "They can put three and and have a set back."
Complacency and inconsistency--two things which are the death of Stanley Cup contenders. They're also the two things that are most prominent in the Caps' play right now. A new second-line center and a puck-moving defenseman will only go so far to change that.
My Three Stars
Erik Christensen-Scored his first goal since December 15, and liked the feeling so much, he thought he'd score a second and add two assists just for fun.
Derek Stepan- Illegal hit or no, Stepan was a terror for the Capitals' defense the entire night. Put the game to bed with the fourth Ranger goal late in the second.
Henrik Lundqvist-Faced 35 shots and stopped them all.
Mike Green is officially listed as day-to-day (head). He will not travel with the team to Long Island for tomorrow night's game against the New York Islanders (7:00 p.m., CSN).