NoVa Caps “Round Table” – First Period Woes: What’s Up With That?

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Graphic: @topazhockey

First period woes and oh the Caps sure have them. The first half of the season saw the Caps scoring first in 57 percent of our games but that number has plunged significantly since the Snovechkin storm in January.

In fact, the Caps have only scored first in five (yes FIVE) times in the last 21 games — a 26 percent decline in first scores for the Capitals since January 27, as detailed in the table below. And history has shown, slow starting teams do not necessarily do well in post-season play.

While some quick calculations show that the second half of the Capitals schedule is slightly more difficult than the first based on the number of playoff contention teams (top 4 in their conference). To illustrate, from October – January we played 22 top-tier teams (47 percent of the schedule) and from February – present 12 of our 22 games – or 60 percent of the schedule.

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Therefore, while the competitiveness of the teams the Capitals face during the second half of the season is 13 percent higher may account for some, but not all, of their first period woes.  Or does it?

Since inquiring minds want to know, we’ve engaged the NoVa Caps team to ponder the Capitals recent first period performance, and gather some ideas and suggestions, which are provided below. We want to hear from you too. Here’s what the NoVa Caps team has to say.

Caps Opponents are Prepared for the NHL’s Best (Aaron Davis and Michael Marzzacco) – The slow starts are a result of the success they have had with that strategy combined with the stretch of a long 82 game season and the monotonous routine that comes along with it.  As the best in the league, the Caps are facing every team’s best effort each and every night. I think there is extra motivation from the opponents knowing they are playing the best team in the league. As a result, the opponents are coming out of the gate with a lot more fire to prove that they can take on the best team.

Play like a winner, play like a champion (George Foussekis) – The Capitals have not been mentally prepared in the start of games, especially in the first periods and they need to play the full 60 minutes. Bad habits like giving up the first goal in the game or taking early penalties have nearly cost them more games/points.

So what can the Capitals do to improve their starts?  Fix the mentality.  Come out of the locker room with a new attitude and swagger.  The Capitals need to bury opposing teams early in games, so they do not have to risk having to make a late comeback.  Come out of the locker room with the winning mentality, and play for the guy that sits next to you.  There is nothing wrong with showing confidence.  Play like a winner, play like a champion.  The rest should take care of itself.

RELAX – and shake it up baby (Stephanie Judge) – Awareness that there’s a problem is creating a problem. Braden Holtby said it best in a post-game interview on 2-26, “I think we’re a little too focused on trying to get that first goal too much right now … we’re just kind of wanting to get that stat fixed so badly that we’re pushing things in places where we usually wouldn’t”.

To break this streak, I think the caps need to do two things: (1) Take a break. With five games last week that included two back-to-back games and with six of their last seven games against top-tier teams the Caps need to take the next two days for some well-needed rest and relaxation – just have fun. (2) Trotz needs to mix up those lines – crazy stuff – just shake everybody up and get them out of their comfort zones so they have to be “in the moment” while they’re on the ice. The players will play sharper and change some behavior patterns that hopefully help the team to break this slow start habit before the playoffs.

Five keys to success in the first period (Andrei Poleschuk) – Here are the five things the Caps must do to start off well in the first periods:

  1. Establish their physical presence early in the game,
  2. Patiently control their puck movement without rushing out of their own zone,
  3. Make sure that they avoid passing the puck in areas where they are under pressure or they will cost a turnover,
  4. Test the opposition’s goaltender by taking as many shots as the can to test the keeper to find any holes and weaknesses, and
  5. Reduce the number of penalties they take. In the first period last night the Caps got penalized four times. Granted the team did better in the 2nd and 3rd period by remaining disciplined, those early penalties costed the Caps dearly and wearied their defenders who struggled to clear the puck out of their zone.

Dumb Penalties & an Overreliance on the Goaltenders (Andrea Sobolik) – Part of the issue with the Capitals play in the first period is the fact that they come out flat and take bad penalties. Last night was a good example of this. Los Angeles was flying up and down the ice, so much so that it seemed the Capitals couldn’t keep up with them, so they took dumb penalties in the hopes of slowing them down, which led to a Kings power play chance and subsequent conversion. But the Capitals have the mindset that their goalie (either Holtby or Grubauer) can bail them out, as they are able to come back late in games. Hence, no need to panic.

Change Up the Game Plan (Jon Sorensen) – At this point I believe that Trotz, the coaching staff and the players have tried every kind of “rah-rah” speech imaginable. Maybe, maybe not. My point is that I’m sure the Caps have been trying to correct the slow start issue for some time now, and arguably with little success. At some point, I believe the issue has to be considered systemic, meaning something in the Caps general approach to games, possibly with regards to planning, preparations or even organizationally, is off. Do the Caps need to re-asses how they approach games? Possibly take a look at the two hours, or entire game-day, leading up to puck-drop? The Caps were slow starters last season as well, just not to this extent.

If in fact the plan is to wear-down teams, what systemically needs to be adjusted while the “wearing down” takes place. Do the Caps need to flip the script and play more of a defensive game in the first period?

It’s all about the Flow (Scott Zweibel) – The last month of slow starts, yielding at least the first (if not the first two, or in the case of last night – first three) goal(s), and requiring furious comebacks in the late second and third periods is a function of THREE things.

  1. Swagger. They are running through a spate of underestimating opponents, and it is leading to a mentality that “Oh well, we can come back.” Trotz should be employing some new tactics so that this swagger/confidence related malaise does not follow the Caps into the postseason.
  2. Legs (energy). So many games in so many nights and especially since the Snowmaggedon in DC caused the Caps to lose momentum and stay idle for a long time. That period killed their flow, and they’ve won games since, but not with the same rhythm and ease.  I think once the back-to-back grind and west coast swing are over, they will need to find a healthy upswing in energy so they can start a game with more jump and more focus. Though the bright spot is that the playoffs are a grind, and having some really good practice in a playoff like environment (or a must win mentality) will help.
  3. Hitting. The Caps have come out flat in first periods for a few weeks and I’ve noticed that they’ve not been hitting, creating and finishing checks in their zone, nor have they been pressuring the puck carriers. They’re giving too much time and space, leading to scoring opportunities, leading to bad rebounds/bounces, leading to goals against.  It’s not on Holtby (although he didn’t look sharp last night in the first), nor Grubi.  The defense must be engaging on the puck from the get-go.

You cannot go down by 1-2-3 goals in the playoffs and expect teams to back off like the Kings did.

It’s a strategy (Scott Zweibel) – And then there’s the conspiracy theory (there’s always one): What if the Caps are “testing” themselves.  What if this is their way of baiting teams, playing off of lesser opponents?  It is perplexing, but remember this folks: since the Bruce Boudreau era the Caps were historically a FIRST period team…scoring first, having a strong second period (used to be their best 20 minutes)…and then they would fall flat in the third, let opponents back into games, and scare the living BeJeebus out of us….now, they’re asleep through the first 20 minutes, sluggish and sloppy, but somewhat effective through the second, and an absolute guided missile in the third.  Total reversal.  Which is why they will correct this first 20 debacle and be an effective playoff team this year.

Caps fans – enough from us, what do you think?  Why do you think the Capitals are having some slow starts?

By Stephanie Judge

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About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His passion for the Caps has grown over the decades, which has included time as a season ticket holder, social media and community organizer, and most recently led to the founding of NoVa Caps in 2014. Jon earned a Bachelor's of Science in Engineering at Old Dominion University, and is a Systems Engineer during intermissions, which has been instrumental in supporting his Capitals habit.
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3 Responses to NoVa Caps “Round Table” – First Period Woes: What’s Up With That?

  1. Joe S. says:

    I see two issues with the first period: First of all they are having difficulty in moving the puck deep into the opponent’s zone and establishing a forecheck that will allow them to cycle and shoot. Even when they manage to do that they spend too much time passing it and not enough time throwing it at the net. The second problem they have is getting the puck out of their own zone. It would be interesting to see how much time is spent in their iwn zone in the first ten minutes of the game. It seems that opponents are quickly establishing a cycling game in that time and not allowing Caps players to switch out, thus creating great scoring opportunities.

  2. Les Fork says:

    Remain calm, the Caps have 103 points and still have 19 games left. Win or loose we are in the playoffs. Why kill your self and risk injury during the regular season. Allow the guys to save their health for the playoffs. We need everyone in the post season. The last Caps team that made it to the finals got there playing great hockey and a lot of luck. This team has talent and luck is necessary but we have a better chance of winning this time. Allow the team a little down time and let them bring it during the playoffs. Let’s Go Caps!!!

  3. Dave F says:

    Les Fork…. i have been saying basically this for a while. The team CAN and DOES respond to win most games (still approximately 75% games we are winning.), but WHY take a chance to get serious injuries? Better to rest up some. Keep winning as many as we can (even if only playing HARD for 20-30 minutes a game and be RESTED and HEALTHY for the playoffs where we CAN pick back up and go FAR.

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