Defensive vulnerability typified a nervy display as the Edinburgh Capitals fell to a comprehensive 6-3 defeat at the hands of the Belfast Giants. It has not been the ideal start to December, coming off the back of a tough 6-2 loss in Cardiff on Saturday.
Belfast had beaten the Capitals in each of the two Challenge Cup meetings earlier in the season, so the odds were perhaps stacked against Edinburgh in the first league meeting between the two sides. That said, the hosts have shown that they can match anyone, but unfortunately this was not one of those nights.
Without the services of Garrett Milan and with SNL coach Martin Cingel skating in his absence, things did not actually begin that badly for the home side. In fact much of the early play was in the Giants defensive zone with a strong forecheck by Mason Wilgosh eventually fashioning a chance for captain Jacob Johnston, though the shot flashed wide.
Tremendous work by Ian Schultz followed on the Capitals’ next series as he skated deep into the zone and behind the net before playing the puck back across the goalmouth. Unfortunately for Edinburgh, no one was on hand to turn home from a promising position.
But Belfast were beginning to get a grip of the game themselves and an early Colin Shields shot forced Travis Fullerton into work and he eventually did enough to claim on the second attempt.
By now both sides were trading chances and the Capitals were close to lighting the lamp following more good work on the forecheck by Wilgosh. The puck eventually presented itself for Taylor MacDougall and his rocket shot crashed into Stephen Murphy’s shoulder to safety, though the Giants netminder knew little about it in truth.
Up the other end, more heroics in net prevented Belfast from grabbing the lead. Fullerton has bailed out the Capitals countless times already this season and he had to be at his best to deny Chris Higgins from point blank range following a neat square pass.
After failing to capitalise on a power play chance following a call on Matt Nickerson, the Capitals tested Murphy’s reflexes soon afterwards. Yevgeni Fyodorov did well to fire the puck into the boards and then reacted quickest to pick up the rebound, though Murphy did well to make the stop.
It would prove to be a crucial save as, on their next series, the Giants would carve open the Capitals’ defensive rearguard. Higgins was the architect exchanging passes with Mike Forney and, when Forney’s initial shot was only parried by Fullerton, Higgins was rewarded for rushing the net to tap home the rebound with 11:32 to play.
Belfast would take control of the rest of the period, highlighting why they are currently at the top end of the Elite League standings.
They successfully killed off a second Edinburgh power play opportunity and nearly grabbed a short-handed goal in the process. After the Capitals player/coach Michal Dobron fired a stinging slapshot wide, Blair Riley skated clear following a turnover at the blue line but Fullerton made himself big to save.
The pressure would continue. Forney and Higgins continued to be the Capitals’ chief tormentors with the former firing at Fullerton following a neat feed. And on their own man advantage following a delay of game call against Johnston, the Giants ought to have added a second.
Credit must be given for a strong pokecheck to deny Higgins a certain second at the back door, but Edinburgh were living dangerously by this stage foreshadowing what would prove to be a tough second period for the hosts.
It goes without saying that Edinburgh have the firepower to hurt their opponents, but defensive lapses have been their undoing so far this season. That nearly rang true barely 10 seconds into period two when a bad bounce off the boards by Michael D’Orazio gifted an opening for Higgins, but he failed to gobble up the chance.
Edinburgh were looking to shake off any nerves and a tremendous pass by Pavel Vorobyev had Wilgosh bearing down on goal, forcing Murphy into an unconvincing stop.
Jared Staal was next to try his luck, swivelling on the turn to test Murphy’s reactions with the pad and then, on the next series, a cross-ice pass by Johnston had Vorobyev in behind and his effort cannoned into Murphy’s glove and out again as the Giants scrambled the puck clear.
The Capitals’ best spell of the period nearly brought a leveller as Karel Hromas found Staal and his drive shortside nearly caught out Murphy, who diverted away well with the blocker.
However, the period was one of persistent Belfast pressure. A Shields effort was cleverly redirected by James Desmarais though Fullerton did well to save on this occasion.
It commenced wave after wave of Belfast attacks as Edinburgh failed to clear the zone and, consequently, could not substitute for fresher personnel as the Giants continued to cycle the puck in search of a shooting lane.
A loopy Desmarais effort forced a glove save, temporarily releasing the pressure but off the ensuing face-off Shields would fire over. By now it seemed a matter of when Belfast grabbed a second, not if.
Edinburgh did manage to clear their zone, thanks in no small part to Vorobyev’s precision pass that set Wilgosh free though Murphy was alive to turn it aside. But back came Belfast. Alex Foster was next to go close as Fullerton did well again to save, before being forced into action with a shot from the point.
A well worked Giants move then found Riley though Fullerton was again on his toes to save. Edinburgh were holding on by this stage, but a terrific Jay King pokecheck on Desmarais at the blue line set the Capitals on a breakaway and though he had Cingel arriving in the slot, King went solo on an effort that forced Murphy into work. The arriving Schultz was, however, unable to do enough to turn home the rebound.
After both sides traded chances, Staal was tied up as he raced through on goal following a slick Jaroslav Hertl pass all the way off the boards behind his own net.
But Belfast would add a second with 7:18 to play. Belfast player/coach Derrick Walser fed Shields and he picked out the arriving Forney at the back door for 2-0. In truth he could not miss as the pressure finally took its toll.
However an opportunity on the man advantage would provide the ideal chance for Edinburgh to register on the scoreboard. A holding call against Jim Vandermeer was the catalyst although the hosts would nearly concede short-handed. With Edinburgh looking for a spark, a turnover allowed Forney to feed Riley who was not far away from finding the net.
Edinburgh were undeterred though and were close to finding the net when D’Orazio’s slapshot was blocked in front. On this occasion, persistence paid off. The Capitals kept the puck in the zone and this time D’Orazio’s slapshot did find the net. While on first glance it looked to have been redirected, the defenceman was credited with the strike.
Perhaps more importantly it had the Capitals on the board with 4:51 to play, halving the deficit in the process.
But it proved to be short lived as back came Belfast just 44 seconds later, again the product of Edinburgh failing to clear the zone that rather undid some earlier good work.
Steve Saviano had the freedom of Murrayfield Ice Rink, ghosting in to tuck beyond Fullerton from in front following a sweet Shields pass. It was a rather soft way to concede and it gifted the Giants a goal that re-established their two goal cushion.
The hosts would pepper Murphy in the Belfast net for the remainder of the period, to no avail, with Edinburgh unable to sweep home any of the rebound chances from Wilgosh and MacDougall strikes respectively as the period came to a close.
Yet any hopes the Capitals seemed to have looked to have ended just 41 seconds into the final frame. An odd-man rush quickly developed into a 3-on-1 chance and Riley made no mistake, drilling an effort five-hole on Fullerton for 4-1. It rather summed up the Capitals’ performance to that stage, coming from nothing.
It goes without saying that Fullerton will not look back on that with any fondness, though it was hard on a player who had kept Edinburgh in the contest in the second period. This was ruthless finishing at its finest.
To Edinburgh’s credit they mustered a response, highlighting the fact that they never know when they are beaten.
It nearly got worse before it got better, however, with Fullerton again alive to block a shot and then to swat away the rebound, before Saviano was close to his second of the night.
But the catalyst for an unlikely comeback attempt was a huge 5-on-3 penalty kill by the Capitals following calls against Dobron and Hromas.
And it was the Edinburgh player/coach, Dobron, who fired home with 12:57 to play. The hosts showed patience to keep the chance alive and a trademark slapshot by the Czech gave Murphy no chance in the Belfast net.
4-2 became 4-3 just over a minute later. The comeback was definitely on. Vorobyev started the move, robbing Jonathan Boxill at the blue line. He did well to work the puck to Matt Tipoff who teed up the arriving Schultz, and his bullet of a drive found the net, top-shelf, with 11:47 to go.
By now the Capitals faithful were sensing another trademark comeback. Edinburgh certainly had the bit between their teeth and we have seen already this season how the script is written.
However it was Belfast who looked more likely to ice the game with a succession of chances. Saviano and Shields went close in quick succession before a Brandon Benedict drive was snared with the glove by Fullerton.
Hearts were in mouths as the tireless Schultz raced behind the net, finding Fyodorov in front but he could only fire wide as Edinburgh searched for the leveller that would force overtime.
The Capitals were unable to capitalise on a golden power play chance soon afterwards as Belfast survived unscathed following a succession of near misses.
Tipoff would go close immediately after the penalty kill by the Giants and Hromas’ effort that crashed into the side netting was as close as Edinburgh came to completing their comeback.
A penalty against Fyodorov with 1:59 to play seemed to extinguish any hopes Edinburgh had of grabbing a fourth, especially as Belfast would strike on the man advantage.
Another odd-man rush gave Desmarais plenty of time and space and he made no mistake, perfectly weighting his square pass for Foster who tapped in from close range for 5-3 with 1:32 to go.
The Giants rubbed salt into Edinburgh’s gaping defensive wounds with a sixth goal just over 20 seconds later. The hosts were incensed after they felt Wilgosh had been tripped, but the officials allowed play to continue and Belfast rammed home their superiority.
A superb no look pass by Higgins out in front found Riley and it never looked in doubt as he swept home for 6-3 to round off an impressive night’s work for the visitors.
Edinburgh, meanwhile, will reflect on a disappointing no point weekend. They showed flashes of delivering the performance they are certainly capable of, but consistency has been the problem.
Defensive frailties were cruelly exposed by a clinical Belfast outfit, but the Capitals do not have much time for reflection as they embark on a busy December. They will have to quickly shrug off the disappointment of slipping back to the basement of the Elite League standings as they get ready for next weekend.
Matt Tipoff delivered an honest assessment of the Capitals’ performance. Goals have not been an issue, it has been keeping them out, and defensive work in practice will be a priority according to the Canadian forward.
“It’s obviously not a good weekend, I can’t really lie and say we’re happy with any of that at all. Fortunately we had a couple of good periods that we can reflect on and bring into next week’s practice but we’re disappointed. We know we can do a lot better than that and we’ve just got to take the positives and move forward.
“Yeah we can,” said Tipoff when asked if the third period response showed the Capitals can match anybody if they cut out the errors. “But hockey’s a 60 minute game, it’s not a 10 minute game. If we’re only going to play for 10 minutes we’re going to lose every game. We’ve definitely got to start better, we have to play a way more sound defensive game and we’re going to work on that in practice this week. If you’re going to give up six goals a night then you’re not going to win any games in this league. We can take the positives from the third period but we’re definitely going to have to work on our defensive game this week.
“They’re an extremely skilled team over there and if you give them a little bit of space, that’s what they’re going to do to you. We can definitely work a bit harder in our own end and it really just comes down to winning one-on-one puck battles. When guys aren’t winning one-on-one battles out there, and if you have defensive breakdowns everywhere, then you’re going to have those tap in goals like they did. We’re going to look at the third period, figure out what we did there and then bring that into next week.
“Yeah definitely,” replied Tipoff when asked if the Capitals are looking to get on a bit of a streak in a busy December. “We’re playing a ton of games this month and we’ve really got to get off to a good start. We don’t want to get into a hole this next weekend, so if we can get a couple of wins and get rolling then you never know what can happen. We’re just going to focus a lot this week defensively in practice and hopefully get a big win next game.”