Penguins blank Capitals in Spencer Carbery’s NHL coaching debut

Six months after the 2022-23 season ended with the Washington Capitals missing the playoffs for the first time since 2014, the Capitals took the ice Friday night at Capital One Arena intent on proving that they can bounce back.

Instead, a 4-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on opening night only served as fodder for the skeptics. The Capitals were outshot by their longtime rivals 35-19.

With a new coach in Spencer Carbery and a largely unchanged roster that still stacks up as one of the oldest in the NHL, Washington is counting on more productive seasons from many of its core players to chart a different path. A raucous home crowd cheered the introduction of forwards Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom — both healthy to begin the season after they missed significant time last year — summing up the belief that the team’s cornerstone players will provide more this season.

A fairly even first period did little to dispel that notion. But the Capitals quickly found themselves in trouble in the second period.

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“They grabbed momentum there to start the period, and we just couldn’t stop the bleeding,” Carbery said. “We get hemmed on the one shift; they turn that into two, three. Lost momentum right away.”

Pittsburgh was rolling from the first shift of the second period. Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin scored the game’s first goal just over four minutes later. While the Capitals struggled to find their footing, Pittsburgh pounced, and center Sidney Crosby scored twice six minutes apart to make it 3-0 by the 11:51 mark of the period.

When Washington did get the puck into the offensive zone, the sequences were often limited to the perimeter of the ice. The Capitals simply didn’t create quality scoring chances. Fans are notorious for yelling at a team to shoot the puck while on the power play, but the Capitals’ fans grew so frustrated by the lack of shots on goal Friday that they were calling for shots while the teams were at even strength.

“When you have a team that’s on the ropes, it’s easy to kind of just want to play possession and try to find something and keep wearing them down,” defenseman John Carlson said. “But I think it comes to an end. There’s no perfect chances. You’re also skating around the zone pretty fast, and if you don’t strike and really put them on their heels, then one little bounce of the puck, one little nice play for them and you wasted a perfect opportunity to get into attack mode.”

The Capitals’ best chances in the frame came on a breakaway by forward Alex Ovechkin — goaltender Tristan Jarry made the save as Ovechkin tried to shoot the puck through the five hole — and a shot that forward T.J. Oshie sent wide on the power play in the dying seconds of the period.

Carbery was concerned Friday morning about his players pressing too hard to make something happen in the opener; his message was to take the game as it comes and not go overboard trying to make an early impact. But after digging themselves into a hole in the second period, the Capitals struggled to change the flow of the game. They largely let it come to them, and what came to them was a dominant performance from Pittsburgh.

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“It was more our fault, I think,” Backstrom said. “We shot ourselves in the foot with our execution and puck management.”

The flow didn’t change much in the third period. Washington struggled to sustain possession, and its attacks fizzled. Pittsburgh forward Reilly Smith sent the fans, who just two hours before had been optimistic about the new season, to the exits when he scored on a breakaway with three minutes left.

A flat loss in the first game of the season doesn’t change much for the next 81 games for the Capitals, but as omens go, this was inauspicious.

“If you chalk it up, it’s the worst scripted start we possibly could’ve had in terms of just being disappointed,” Carbery said. “Home ice, trying to generate some momentum from a season standpoint. That certainly did not happen.”

Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ loss:

Kuemper out, Stevenson recalled

The Capitals didn’t make it through the first game of the season without having to make adjustments to the roster. Goaltender Darcy Kuemper was in line to start Friday’s game — before his wife gave birth to the couple’s first child Thursday night. Kuemper’s long night meant that Charlie Lindgren stepped in as the starter and Washington needed to call up another goaltender to be Lindgren’s backup.

Because of salary cap constraints, the Capitals had to send a player down to their American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., to have the space to add Clay Stevenson to the roster. They sent down forward Aliaksei Protas, who is exempt from waivers and thus could give Washington the immediate salary cap relief required to call up Stevenson.

Lindgren made 31 saves on 35 shots after learning he would get the nod midway through the day Friday.

“I honestly thought he was really good,” Carbery said. “We put him in a tough spot. He wasn’t slated to play today. Just didn’t help him.”

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