PHILADELPHIA – If there’s one team you need to play mistake-free hockey against, it’s the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.
Which is exactly what the Flyers didn’t do on Thursday night.
Two of the Caps’ four goals came off glaring errors and that proved the difference in the Flyers’ 5-2 loss at the Wells Fargo Center.
Brett Connolly scored a pair of goals and assisted on another as Washington won in Philadelphia for the second time in eight days.
Rookie goaltender Carter Hart, out since Feb. 21 with an ankle injury, returned to action and really couldn’t be blamed for the outcome of this game.
Fortunately for the Flyers, the Montreal Canadiens lost to the New York Islanders in regulation time, so the Flyers stay five points out of a playoff spot with 12 games to play.
It takes almost a perfect performance to beat Washington, which has gone 8-2 in its last 10 to regain control of the Metro Division lead.
The Flyers fell short, especially early on.
“They make great east-west plays,’’ Shayne Gostisbehere said. “Any turnovers are probably going to end up in the back of your net. For us, we’ve got to clean it up, put our best foot forward.’’
Philadelphia won’t have much time to lament the loss. The Flyers are back in action on Friday night at Toronto which has lost two in a row at home, giving up a total of 11 goals.
Captain Claude Giroux said the Flyers needed a cleaner effort against a powerhouse offensive team.
“They play a great team game,’’ Giroux said. “They have four lines that can make a lot of plays. We had our chances, it’s definitely frustrating.’’
Scott Laughton was disappointed with the Flyers’ inability to sustain offensive pressure on the Washington net. The Flyers were outshot, 32-24. The Flyers also had 10 misses and 21 shots blocked.
“They’re Cup champs for a reason,’’ Laughton said. “We got off to another start where we made too many mistakes and they end up in the back of our net. Hard to come back from that.’’
In the first period, the Capitals took a 2-0 lead which they never relinquished.
The second goal was the result of a bad clearing attempt by Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim, whose weak try was stopped and eventually placed on the stick of Lars Eller for a sweeping move around Hart at 9:30.
In the second period, it was more of the same.
After a James van Riemsdyk goal cut the deficit to 2-1 at 1:03, the Capitals came right back on Connolly’s second goal.
Rookie defenseman Philippe Myers tried to use his stick to knock down an airborne puck at the attack blue line. But the puck wouldn’t sit still and when a kick attempt by Myers failed, Connolly was off to the races for a pinpoint shot past Hart at 8:43.
Then, just 1:05 later, Flyers nemesis Tom Wilson finished off an Evgeny Kuznetsov set-up to make it 4-1.
Hart could be excused for being a little rusty after the three weeks off but he insisted he had to be better than what he showed. He’s now given up 10 goals in his last three starts and was pulled from two of them.
“At the end of the day, I’ve just got to make a couple more saves to give our team a better chance,’’ Hart said. “After the first 20, 25 minutes, I started to feel a little bit better, started to feel like myself, seeing the puck a little better off the release. Controlled my rebounds better.’’
Laughton cut into the lead with a goal at 12:22 but goaltender Braden Holtby tightened things up after that.
Kuznetsov added an empty-net goal with 2:26 to play.
Coach Scott Gordon wasn’t about to second-guess himself for starting Hart in this game, knowing it might be tougher for him to play against Toronto on the road Friday night.
He has Brian Elliott ready for the Leafs in another must-win game.
The Capitals have beaten the Flyers three times this season and could make it a clean sweep when the teams meet in D.C. on Sunday, March 24. The Flyers haven’t lost to the Caps four times in one season since 2001-02.
Flyers defensemen Radko Gudas and Robert Hagg are ranked 1-2 in the NHL in hits among defensemen. Gudas entered Thursday night’s game with 222 (ninth overall) and Hagg 213 (10th overall). . .Since Jan. 9, Sean Couturier is a plus-19, third-best in the NHL over that timeframe. . .Laughton’s goal extended his scoring streak to six games, which is a career best. His previous high was three games. . .Flyers continue to lead the NHL in faceoff percentage. They were at 55.3 entering the Caps game. . .Gostisbehere made a brilliant dive play to break up a Washington three-on-one shorthanded rush, then set up the JVR goal.