WINNIPEG — You hear it all the time in the complaint category, mostly by coaches.
"We were too cute."
It almost always seems like a minor offence compared to other matters like missed checks, assignments and shots.
Thursday at the MTS Centre, it was the entire difference in one of the dullest nights of the new NHL season, when the Washington Capitals stole a 1-0 decision over the Winnipeg Jets on Alex Ovechkin’s goal with just 1:14 remaining.
After a strong forecheck for most of the third period, one that they didn’t use very much before that, the Caps slid back into their 1-2-2 defensive scheme and got just what they were looking for — an opponent trying to make too cute a play in the neutral zone.
Just over his own blueline, Jets captain Andrew Ladd tried to slip the puck to the middle but could not get it past Caps defender Nicklas Backstrom.
Backstrom turned the play immediately the other way and Ovechkin was the recipient of the puck in the slot, taking little time to whip it through the pads of Winnipeg goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
"We created a lot of chances but at a certain point, I think you just have to go back to the mill and you take the cute out of it and throw pucks at the net and it’s what we’ve been doing," said Jets winger Blake Wheeler, his team’s five-game home winning streak now a thing of the past.
Ovechkin should make the difference in many games, but the fact that the Caps would be engaged in such a style as Thursday’s is more remarkable. This is the plight of a team that has recently changed coaches and dramatically underachieved in a season of Stanley Cup aspirations in D.C.
"Obviously he can wire it," Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey said of Ovechkin and his 10th goal of the season. "Again, you can’t win scoring zero goals. We had our chances to have a lead again in our building and we just didn’t do it."
With the win, one very well executed on the road, Washington moved to 4-4 under new coach Dale Hunter and jumped a point past the Jets in the standings, 33-32.
Their loss cost Winnipeg a chance to move into a playoff position in the Eastern Conference for the first time this season. The Jets are now 14-13-4 and Claude Noel was one cranky coach after the result.
"We didn’t play smart, that’s the disappointing part and I’m extremely mad right now," Noel said near the start of a rambling post-game grievance. "I didn’t think we played the right way.
"I didn’t think we played to win the game; we played not to lose in the third. That was the disappointing part for me."
Noel is a big believer of "managing" games, which is another way of saying, "figure out what’s going on and adapt."
"We played cautious in the third," he said. "Why would we play cautious? That’s exactly how you play not to lose. We don’t need to be reckless, we just need to play in straight lines and I told us that. And our power play wasn’t very good and we didn’t deserve to get anything done."
As always, the coach saw some of it through the lens of the bigger picture, too.
"It’s a loss of four points, it’s huge loss for us," he said. "We had a chance to get up and get something done in this game. It wasn’t necessarily the turnover, we didn’t play well. We played poor.
"We played the way Washington wanted to play and that’s the sad part. They lulled us into this game and we thought we could be cute. We wanted to play a sideways game and not a north-south game and that’s exactly what we did."
During his session with reporters, Noel almost spit at the mention of how his players might have been waiting for some magic from the MTS Centre crowd. It, too, seemed flat on Thursday.
"You play the right way, you play the right way to win the game," he said. "This ‘home magic’… if you play the right way, you manage the game, you pay attention to what’s going on, you do the things necessary, you put yourself in position to win. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but at least you put yourself in position to win.
"It’s a bad two points we gave that team. It’s stupid. We deserve exactly what we got."