ARLINGTON, Va. — Scoring the first goal of a hockey game is vital. It puts the opposing team on their heels, and it could set the tone for the rest of the game. However, that had been the Washington Capitals’ Achilles’ heel for eight out of their first nine contests.
“I think we were doing a lot of really good things for a while and the pucks just weren’t going in at the right times,” Tom Wilson said. “When you don’t have your best in those games, maybe when the other team is kind of pushing a little bit, you get the first goal, that can kind of give you some life or you get a goal late in the game or in certain circumstances, it can really help you out and help swing the momentum in your favor.”
However, it has been a complete 180 since the start of the year. After scoring the opening tally in the 3-0 win over the Vegas Golden Knights, Washington (8-4-2) has now scored the game’s first goal in five straight games and are now 5-0-1 when drawing first blood.
“It’s important when you get the lead, different things have to open up and play differently,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said.
Since blowing a 3-0 lead to the New Jersey Devils back on Oct. 25, the Capitals have done a pretty good job at not letting the snowball effect takeover the game. While getting out to an early lead is just as important, it is more important that the lead is sustained. Washington has been spending a lot of time in its own end in the latter stages of games. According to the new NHL EDGE stats page, the Capitals have spent 43.7% of their time in the defensive zone.
“Us not being able to do that early in the year and chasing games, you see now when we’re in front, other teams have to try to catch up,” Capitals head coach Spencer Carbery said. “Whether it’s forcing the issue, whether you’re really bearing down and grabbing your stick. Just playing from in front puts you in a position of strength.
A big reason why the Caps have not blown a lot of leads is because of the number of shots they have blocked. The Capitals blocked a season-high 32 shots in the 4-1 win against the New York Islanders and the defense did a good job at keeping the Islanders’ offense to the perimeter.
However, against Vegas, the structure started to deteriorate because of how aggressive the Golden Knights were on the forecheck. Had it not been for Charlie Lindgren’s heroics, it could have been a completely different game.
“There’s some hiccups [against Vegas] with some breakaway stuff,” Carbery said. “But as a whole, when we’re back in structure [with] our five-man [unit], we’re doing a pretty good job. Especially with how much time we’ve been spending in [the defensive zone] over the last four games.”
“It creates a completely different game plan when you’re playing with a lead versus without,” Wilson said. “It’s one of those things that you always try to do, and it definitely helps. When you can get on top early and make a big play against a good team like Vegas, it helps. Then our structure and our defense can take over and get us through the rest of the game.”
The Capitals will look to extend the trend of scoring first to six straight games when they take on the Columbus Blue Jackets on Nov. 18 at Capital One Arena.
By Jacob Cheris