Against most of the top teams they've faced, the Washington Capitals have fallen behind early and struggled to recover. The Pittsburgh Penguins (14-8) were the latest example, beating the Capitals, 4-0, Nov. 20.
Scoring first doesn't guarantee victory, of course, but for the Capitals (12-9-1), it's become important, particularly against high-quality opponents.
Washington has played seven games against the NHL's better teams (those with 13 wins as of Nov. 20), and has won two. The Capitals scored first and beat Minnesota and St. Louis. They trailed first and lost to Pittsburgh, Chicago, Colorado (twice) and Phoenix (shootout).
The Capitals had an early power play against the Penguins, but an Alex Ovechkin shot hit the post. Then, less than seven minutes into the game, Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby won a faceoff at the right circle and sent the puck to Paul Martin, whose wrist shot found its way into the net past goalie Braden Holtby's left shoulder.
"Our start was great," Crosby said. "I thought we came out hard, really set the tone and we got that first one, which is important for us. It was nice to get a couple of goals early and build off of that."
The Penguins are 11-1 when they score first. The Capitals are 8-2 when they score first, with the losses coming against Dallas and Carolina.
Washington's four victories when trailing first came against Calgary, Columbus, Edmonton and the New York Islanders -- all teams with single-digit win totals.
Capitals head coach Adam Oates said his team came out strong, got the power play, but lost steam after Pittsburgh's first goal.
"[The first goal] kind of deflated us," Oates said. "Simple faceoff play and it had eyes. For some reason, it affected us. Then they got another one, and we kind of unraveled a bit."
The loss snapped Washington's six-game home winning streak, which included a 4-1 victory against St. Louis Nov. 17. Oates noted afterward that the game had changed dramatically when the Capitals scored first against the Blues.
During the morning skate before the Pittsburgh game, Washington defenseman Karl Alzner said early leads were vital.
"Especially against a good team, when you can get the first goal against them, it gives you a little bit more confidence," he said. "You get a little boost. It's so important. You feel more confident with the puck. You're a little more sure with your plays."
The Montreal Canadiens (11-9-2) will visit Washington Nov. 22, and the Capitals will play the following night at Toronto (13-7-1).
The Pittsburgh game was billed as a battle for first place in the Metropolitan Division, but it was no contest. The Capitals managed 18 shots, the last one coming during the final seconds. And the shot before that, with about four minutes remaining, drew mock cheers. Holtby faced 40 shots.
"[The Penguins] were amazing through the neutral zone," Alzner said. "They came with speed every single time -- always had three guys, if not three, then four. They didn't give us any time to pinch. We didn't possess the puck at all. We didn't get our cycle game going. They were making us turn and chase pucks all night. It was tough."
It was the second time this season that the Capitals were shut out. The New York Rangers beat the Capitals, 2-0, Oct. 16, also at the Verizon Center.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said a strong start was the key, along with early penalty kills. Washington was 0-for-3 on the power play. The Capitals have scored one power-play goal out of 18 opportunities during their past five games.
"Came out and pushed the pace and the speed of the game," Bylsma said. "We didn't give them opportunities to get speed and space. It's definitely gratifying to get the shutout. We rose to the occasion."