Alex Gallardo/Associated Press
As winter haphazardly turns to spring, many Caps fans, myself included, have been known to get the jitters brought on by the team’s average results beginning in late February, much like the 6-6-2 record the Capitals have most recently amassed. Last year, the Caps posted a record of 11-7-4 in their final 22 regular season games of their President’s Trophy-winning campaign. This article talks about the team’s recent four-game losing streak, notable statistics, and what to look for during the rest of the regular season.
The uneasiness felt is compounded by the looming Stanley Cup Playoffs. We are conditioned to a season ending with a heart-wrenching loss, as happens to 95% of NHL fan bases lucky enough to experience the playoffs each season. The Capitals have only made a couple Eastern Conference Final appearances, and a single trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in their 42-year history; it’s akin to one of Pavlov’s dogs having its food bowl snatched away at the last-minute time after time. Sports are not for the faint of heart.
But this year, however, I feel no jitters and I’m at peace for a number of reasons. I’ll share these reasons with you in case they help ease any of your concerns.
These are not last year’s Caps; four new players have been added, and the existing team is one year wiser. Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan did a very good job bringing in players to strengthen the third-line, and adding depth of puck-moving right-handed defensemen without mortgaging the team’s future. Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, and Kevin Shattenkirk are great additions for this year’s playoff push. Are there any players the Caps could have picked up in the offseason that would have been better? Perhaps Eric Staal, but who knew he had so much left in the tank? Alexander Radulov has been a strong producer for the Montreal Canadiens, but he’s on the wrong side of 30-years old too. In short, MacLellan made strong roster moves to assemble the best 23 players possible.
Key forward Andre Burakovsky could be back in the lineup as early as next week, according to multiple reports. In Burakovsky’s absence, top prospect Jakub Vrana has fit in nicely, and will serve as an able insurance policy for this year’s playoff run. But there’s been something special with the Connolly-Eller-Burakovsky line that should be rekindled once Burakovsky is 100% healthy.
THE CAPS’ RECENT FOUR-GAME SKID
On the surface, for the Capitals to just have lost four in a row in regulation for the first time in three years, and to return from a three-game California road trip with no points for the first time since 1999, would engender concern. However, a deeper look at the Caps’ recent four-game losing streak shows that a general malaise has not swept over the team. Rather, each game had its own distinct issues, which are either addressable or not applicable to the postseason. Here’s a closer look at each game.
PUCK POSSESSION AND TEAM DEFENSE NEED TO REMAIN CAPS’ BREAD AND BUTTER
The 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars at home showed that the Caps are indeed human. Yes, it was an ugly loss, with uncharacteristic mistakes by defenseman Brooks Orpik, center Nicklas Backstrom, and defenseman Dmitry Orlov in the defensive zone resulting in the first three goals of the game; a deficit that the Capitals could not overcome. But this performance came on the heels of a franchise record-setting 15-game home winning streak. If you watched these 16 games, you would have seen that the Stars game was an anomaly. This season’s Capitals are playing better than last season, and when they’re at their best, attentive puck possession and a defense-first approach by all skaters are front and center; this was not the case in the Stars game.
THE PENALTY BOX IS NOT A GOOD PLACE FOR YOUR PENALTY KILLERS
The 4-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on the road was a function of playing one of the better teams in the NHL, when the margin for error is slim, and the tale of two special teams: the Sharks went 2-5 on the power play (PP), while the Caps went 0-5 on the PP. An important detail is that the Capitals had many members of their penalty kill (PK) squad serving time in the penalty box instead of killing the penalties, including during the last couple of goals the Sharks scored.
EVERYONE HAS A BAD PUCK LUCK GAME
Like the game against the Sharks, the Caps got off to a fast start against the Los Angeles Kings, but could not hold the lead and lost 4-2. I thought the Capitals would at least get a point from this match, but the Kings benefited from excellent offensive plays from both Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe. The Caps had some bad puck luck too. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer’s mask needed repair, which led to a delay of several minutes during a PK; and shortly after play resumed, the tired Capitals surrendered a goal that knotted the game up 2-2. Later, both Backstrom and Vrana hit the goal posts; either shot would have given the Caps a 3-2 lead. By the end of the game, some Caps were either trying too hard, or were frustrated, which led to a couple of ill-advised penalties by first Shattenkirk and then Evgeny Kuznetsov. These penalties were disruptive to any comeback the Capitals might have achieved, but it just seemed to be one of those games where most situations were not going the Caps way. This sometimes happens.
THE CAPS’ PLAY IS NOT AS STRONG IN THE 2ND GAME OF A BACK-TO-BACK
Their away game against the Anaheim Ducks was the second game of a back to back — in which the Caps are now 1-6-1 (.188) this season. Moreover, the balance tipped in Anaheim’s favor as they were obviously more rested. After a scoreless first period, Tom Wilson nearly scored early in the second, when he pounced on a puck fed to him by Alex Ovechkin that was passed behind the defense. Instead, the Ducks scored on an uncharacteristically bad giveaway by Eller just a few minutes later, which was finished off by Corey Perry. Defenseman John Carlson then had a decent shot on goal, but shortly thereafter, as a Backstrom penalty elapsed, Daniel Winnik was not able to pick up Ryan Kessler trailing on the play; the Ducks stretched the lead to 2-0, as Kesler’s shot was deflected in by Perry. Less than 30 seconds later, the Ducks made it 3-0 on a wrist shot from Rickard Rakell off the draw, as Ovechkin was unable to get to him in time. Even though the Caps were spent, they kept fighting until the end. To me, this is a positive sign that the Capitals have a heart of a top competitor, which will serve them well in the playoffs even if it didn’t help them in California. In the third period, the quality of hockey worsened despite the team’s best efforts. A trip in the offensive zone by Jay Beagle was followed by a slash by T.J. Oshie, who lost ground to Antoine Vermette during an infrequent appearance (less than 3%) on the PK. The Ducks made it 4-1 at the tail-end of this 5-on-3. Defenseman Matt Niskanen, Orlov, and Wilson were too slow to stop a fifth goal by the Ducks. Fortunately, these “scheduling” losses do not occur in playoff series; very infrequently are games scheduled back-to-back in the playoffs and when they do, both teams have equal amount of rest.
WHAT WAS ILLUSTRATED OVER THE FOUR-GAME LOSING STREAK THAT THE CAPS SHOULD ADDRESS BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS START?
Puck possession and team defense: While it can be done, it’s hard to win when scoring only two goals, and near impossible to do with defensive zone breakdowns and poor defensive pressure. The average number of Capitals’ takeaways were cut in half (10 to 5) from the team’s strong play at the beginning of the year compared to the losing streak. During the losing streak, the Caps’ number of blocked shots went from averaging 17 per game, to less than 14 per game; not a huge dip but a dip nonetheless. The Capitals should make puck possession and defensive play the priority for the remainder of this season, as this will help them win low-scoring games and perform well against any opponent. While on their best win streak of the season, the Caps were outshot in over half of their games, but created better scoring opportunities. The Capitals’ ability to create better opportunities comes in large part from better puck possession, defensive detail, work ethic, and execution, spatial, and situational awareness. Furthermore, this approach limits the situations in which the Caps play from behind. The Caps did not have a lot of time to practice during the four-game losing streak.
Penalty Kill: The percentage of penalties that the Capitals PK squads took, rocketed from a 1/3 average of total penalties to almost 2/3. I believe this was the primary contributor of the penalty kill dropping from a 83% kill rate to 74% effectiveness during the four-game losing streak.
Power Play: The Capitals need more practice in terms of working Shattenkirk into the PP, which dropped from a 31.25% success rate when the Caps were playing their best, to a 11.8% success rate over the four-game losing streak. Shattenkirk has served his two-game suspension for charging, and has now returned to the lineup. Shattenkirk also needs to work with his 5-on-5 defensive linemate, which has been primarily Brooks Orpik.
Stick Penalties: On most nights, the Capitals have more penalties than their opponent, including throughout their long winning streaks this season. For the most part, these penalties are due to the fact that the Caps are physical and play aggressively. I seriously doubt the penalty minutes (although some referees tend to call less in the playoffs) or style of play will change, but the Caps could try to eliminate some of their stick penalties (e.g., tripping) that opponents are trying to sell. The Capitals can be a little more careful with their stick placement and swinging to avoid the frequency of such calls, especially those that occur in the offensive zone.
Adjustments: Are teams adjusting to the way the Caps have played, and is there a need for the Capitals to make some adjustments of their own? Share your thoughts on what you think the Caps should do if anything. For instance, the Capitals’ failure to clear the puck from the defensive zone when pressured by strong fore-checking would be an area in which they need to work on their execution, and perhaps their approach as well. At the other end of the ice, are the Capitals getting enough traffic in front of the opponent’s goal-crease and shooting enough? How about 4-on-4? Only the Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes have yet to score a 4-on-4 goal, while the Caps have conceded four goals in these situations. With all the talent on this team, I expected the team to perform better in these situations. Should this be worked on before the playoffs start?
The losing streak did illustrate the need for the Caps to work on key parts of their game, but there is no need to panic or be concerned, as every team faces its own challenges. The one effort that will probably require the most time and practice is the first power play unit, but the Caps have a month to work on it.
If the Capitals had been guilty of looking too far ahead, they can’t afford to do so any longer. I believe the Caps will see the value in winning as many games as possible to secure home ice advantage against as many teams as possible. Moreover, coming in second or third place in the Metropolitan Division would make for a tougher road for them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While I want the Capitals to finish first, disaster is not imminent if they don’t.
There are only a dozen games left in the Caps’ regular season. This Capitals team is not half-baked, but they do have a few ingredients that need to be mixed in thoroughly. The regular season exists so that the Capitals can qualify for the playoffs and prepare to advance as far as they can. This team will be judged by what it does in the playoffs, regardless of its regular season record.