Capitals fall flat against the Rangers, ending their two-game winning streak

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There were plenty of those in the Capitals’ 4-1 loss at Capital One Arena, a deflating performance that halted what had been a promising week with dominant wins over Pittsburgh and Buffalo that had followed a four-game skid.

Washington Coach Peter Laviolette had gathered his team during practice earlier in the week and talked about building off wins. After Saturday’s dud, in which the Capitals surrendered the first three goals and couldn’t gain traction offensively until it was too late, Laviolette’s team will look to rebound when it hosts the New Jersey Devils on Sunday night.

Before the Capitals can get to that point, there are questions to answer, foremost what they will do in net Sunday. Whether it’s Vanecek, 39-year-old backup Craig Anderson or recovering youngster Ilya Samsonov in goal, the players will appreciate the quick turnaround after Saturday’s loss.

After promising performances Tuesday in Pittsburgh and Thursday against the Sabres, Vanecek struggled Saturday — he gave up a first-period power-play goal to Chris Kreider after failing to secure a rebound, then gave up goals to Alexis Lafrenière, last year’s No. 1 draft pick, and Ryan Strome just under a minute apart late in the second period — and he didn’t get much production in front of him.

The Capitals survived a scary moment early after forward Tom Wilson headed to the dressing room after taking a puck to the face, and although he eventually returned, Washington lacked energy in the first period. The Capitals came up short on four power-play opportunities on the afternoon, and they only found life on offense when defenseman Dmitry Orlov scored his first goal of the season to make it 3-1 with less than a minute left in the second.

The Capitals scored first in their wins over Pittsburgh and Buffalo, and they had a chance to follow suit Saturday after drawing an early penalty. But the Capitals came away empty on their first power-play opportunity — their best look came on a one-timer from Alex Ovechkin — and the Rangers were afforded a pair of man advantages when Richard Panik and Lars Eller committed penalties.

With Eller in the box, Vanecek couldn’t control an Artemi Panarin slap shot off his pad, and Kreider cleaned up the rebound for his fifth goal of the season to make it 1-0 at 14:57. The Capitals ratcheted up the energy in the second period, producing 11 shots, but they struggled to solve Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin, who finished with 27 saves.

Vanecek had done his best to keep Washington within one goal for most of the second period; he stopped 10 straight shots at one point, including three in an early 15-second span. But after Washington squandered another power play, the Rangers kept applying pressure and Vanecek’s workload — in Thursday’s win over Buffalo, he became the fourth goaltender in franchise history to start 12 consecutive games — appeared heavy for the first time in days. Lafrenière scored on a nifty backhander in front of the net with 2:16 remaining in the period, and Strome followed with a long-distance wrister with 1:17 left to boost the Rangers’ lead to 3-0.

Orlov’s goal cut the deficit, but the Rangers held firm in the third period and clinched the win with Mika Zibanejad’s shorthanded empty-net goal late.

Samsonov, who entered the season as the No. 1 goalie, hasn’t played for the Capitals since Jan. 17. He entered the NHL’s coronavirus protocol Jan. 20 and didn’t return to practice until Feb. 8. Samsonov said Friday that he feels ready to start for the Capitals again after completing two games with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa. — “I feel much, much better,” he said — but the Capitals assigned him to their taxi squad Saturday morning, with Laviolette indicating the Russian, who turns 24 on Monday, needs more conditioning.

After Saturday’s game, it was unclear whether Samsonov would return to action Sunday against the Devils, but regardless the Capitals will need to reignite their offense. Laviolette said after Thursday’s 3-1 victory over Buffalo that he wanted his players to attack more — and while there were opportunities in the second and third periods, with three power plays and a combined 20 shots — the Capitals’ push to keep their winning streak going came too late.

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