After a shellacking by the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday, there was plenty of justified fear concerning the Washington Capitals defensive side of the game. However, the Flyers game should be taken with a few grains of salt. The Capitals may have been a bit tired, playing the night before. It was their 3rd game in four days, and 4th game in six days. The Caps were also playing a team on its home opener, and had their backup goalie in net. But after two days of rest and a full practice, the defensive unit returned to the classroom for their test. And oh boy, was it a test.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are supposed to be in their 3rd year of rebuilding, but with young guns including Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner, the Maple Leafs are by most accounts ahead of schedule. They surprised everyone last season getting into the playoffs and have got off to a hot start this season, starting 4-1-0 with 26 goals, the most in the league.
The Caps defense had a rough start to the game. Within the first two minutes, Toronto had three prime scoring chances, including a breakaway, but Holtby stayed strong. But as the game evolved, the Capitals defense seemed to relax a bit. “I thought we settled in after the first 5 minutes.” Holtby insisted.
The defense definitely gave up their chances, which was expected, but seemed to limit them a lot more as the game went on. The primary issue was when Toronto created their scoring chances, they immediately followed with additional chances. Instead of getting one dangerous shot off, they would get them in bunches; something the Capitals will be sure to work on.
When Toronto finally did strike, about 6 minutes into the 3rd period, Tom Wilson called it “a little break down”. The breakdown he was referring to happened when young defensemen Christian Djoos went backhand off the boards, which is always dicey, which resulted in a turnover and eventually the winning goal.
It’s these kind of mistakes the young kids will make and need to make in order to learn. Wilson added, “We’re going to continue to work, it’s still early, a couple of young D.” He continued, “Everyone needs to step up.”
That Maple Leafs goal stood as the game winner, meaning Capitals never scored a goal themselves. This is concerning for fans and players. With defense already expected struggle as Niskanen stays sidelined and the young kids find their way, the Capitals offense really needs to step up. “That’s normal for us to play like that defensively,” John Carlson stated after the loss. “But we need to score goals. You don’t score you don’t win.”
The slowish start, especially with the Niskanen injury, was something the Capitals were anticipating, as Holtby inserted, “We aren’t kidding ourselves if we thought we weren’t going to have growing pains along the way.” Holtby continued, “We have the capability. It doesn’t take one or two weeks to build a team chemistry and team identity, it takes awhile. As long as we’re working at it with full commitment, it will come sooner rather than later.”
And that is what it will come down to: hard work. The Capitals will have their struggles with the young, inexperienced defense, but if they work hard they can come out the other side stronger.
By Luke Adomanis