For most of the year, the Washington Capitals have been the NHL’s best team. But since coming back from their eight-day break (bye week plus the All-Star Break) on January 27, they’ve looked like a shell of their former selves.
The Capitals have lost four of their last five games and six of their last nine overall. They’ve given up the first goal six straight games. The bad stretch of play has erased their cushion atop the standings and knocked them out of first place in the Eastern Conference. With a victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight, the Pittsburgh Penguins will take the Metropolitan Division lead from the Caps. Washington sits only eight points ahead of division-rival, Philadelphia, for the final playoff spot in the East. Every game matters here on out.
On Sunday, Peter published his snapshot, a statistical analysis of the team, and it points to a team-wide problem (minus Braden Holtby who has been brilliant lately).
But what do the players and coaches think? After the Capitals lost to the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 on Monday (they fell behind 3-0 before clawing back late in the third period), TJ Oshie, Lars Eller, John Carlson, and Todd Reirden all spoke to the media and shared their insight. Players and coaches usually aren’t the best at articulating or diagnosing problems to the media – there’s inherent pressure to not reveal much tangible information and keep things in the room – but I found the interviews to be more illuminating than usual.
Here are the Capitals in their own words about their recent stretch of poor play.
“It seems like, post-Christmas a little bit but definitely post-All-Star Break, teams are kicking it into gear and typically that starts with the drop of the puck. Teams are fired up, ready to play, ready to do the right things. At least that’s how it seems against us.
“[The Vegas Golden Knights] came out, got pucks deep, were playing the body, and we had a little bit of it, but our level was just not high enough. You can’t say one word or write something on the board that’ll get that going – that’s gotta be the guys in the room here: myself, O, Nick, John, Holts – all the leaders. I think it’s on us to have the boys ready and prepared to go.
“I think it’s amazing how much starts from our D-zone. When we turn pucks back and guys have to stop at the far blue line, our forecheck is non-existent and with that comes limited offensive time. When we do get it in there, it seems like the guys have been making some plays. A couple of tough ones today. Guys coming up the wall and losing it and them going the other way. For the most part, we know how to play in the O-zone it’s just we have to enter the zone as a group of five, whether that’s carrying the puck or chipping it in, that we have speed and support each other.
“I think there’s been an emphasis on us being physical probably since that last Pittsburgh game in the third period when we kind of started playing a little more physical and got that back into our game. I thought we did a pretty good job of being physical tonight but just didn’t create enough. We’ll keep working on that. We have a lot of guys in here that were on the same team a few years ago that knew how physical that team was. We just have to get back to that. For the new guys in here, we have to show them that’s a staple of our game. That’s how our game’s built with speed, size, skill, and also some physicality. That’s gotta be a part of our game moving forward.
“We have no concern about [any other teams]. We’re obviously struggling to get wins and to play a full 60 minutes. Right now, that second part, playing a full 60 minutes is our only concern. We’ve seen it in the past. We feel like we’ve won the Presidents’ Trophy by like 15 points a couple of times. We’ve had a clear-cut lead and it was easy going into the end of the year. Right now it’s hard, and I think that’s going to be good for us. Not concerned where we are in the standings, come playoffs. We want to get there and have our game going the right way before we do.”
“You [have to get your] emotion in the game right away. We said all the right things before the game. Try to get a hit the first shift. Try to get engaged. And then I just think we played a little slow. I think we played slow and that didn’t work well today, especially in the first. So when there are times we slow down the pace of the game, we have to be able to play quick. The four guys that don’t have the puck, they have to want the puck and show they want the puck. When the guy has no options, he’s going to just get it off his stick and now we’re chasing again. We know we’ve got it within this team. We’re in a tough stretch here and in the end, it’ll make us better.
“There’s nothing wrong (with) the first or second guy in on the forecheck. When they move it up around to the winger, it has to be a five-man forecheck. It’s not enough (with) one or two guys. And I think we were forechecking one, two, sometimes three, but we need all five guys working together. I think if one or two guys were there early, the three and four or five were just a step or two behind and then they get out of their zone easy. Little things.
“I think rough stretches teaches you important stuff going into the playoffs. I would not say it would be healthy for a team chasing a playoff spot. We’re also where we are because we hate to lose and nobody likes losing in here. We’re not happy with the last couple weeks. We just gotta go home, regroup, reset mentally. I know we can play a lot better and I think that’s just the problem. We can play a lot better and we’ll find it. We’ll find it.”
“[Our forecheck] is our strength and whether we’re placing the puck to forecheck it or whether it’s not running our routes properly, it’s a number of things we can get better with. We’re going to need to utilize that because it’s kind of our heartbeat, our calling card, of what makes us successful and just starting games and not having to chase it makes our lives a lot easier. It makes us play a little more to our identity versus trying to chase some games early on.
“In an ideal world with a lead, we can roll over the lines more, play with a little more pace, we can get everyone involved. Sometimes when we get down, you kind of get out of rhythm and guys get out of rhythm and the more we can stay in rhythm, stay tighter in the lead, the more we’ll have a chance.
“Win the next game. There’s a lot that can happen. There’s plenty of time left one way or another and we’ve got to pave our own way. No one’s feeling bad for us. We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves either. We’ve got plenty of time left to start playing our brand of hockey that’s a lot more intense and upbeat. We’ll keep working and find that formula, but that’s all I can say about that.”
“The start is not been where we want it and we’re chasing the game far too often lately. I think we’re able to turn the momentum of the game a little bit with our physicality and eventually we wear the opposition down in the third, which is why we can have some more success but the mistakes that we’re making to start the game is really putting us behind the eight ball. We have to overuse our top guys and spend too much chasing games right now.
“I thought our physicality tonight was at a much better level. That I didn’t have a problem with and I think that’s why we come back often. Physical teams, when you continually put the puck behind the team and you go in and finish their defenseman for large periods of time, then eventually you’re going to break the opposition. That’s one of our keys to success. It may not come early on but you have to continue to play that way and eventually, you’ll get gains out of it. That being said, we need to be sharper in first periods – no question about it. When you chase games, I’m not able to use four full lines and use six d-men. You overextend your guys.
“We’re obviously spending a lot of time the last couple games working on getting better on our D-zone coverage around our net. We’re getting players to the front of the net to defend the net better and then we’re not doing our job. We’re not hard enough around that area and we’re losing battles. So at least we’re working from a position of structure which is better around our net but now you have to do your job. That showed its face in a few different times during the game. In turn, Braden keeps us in it, we have a couple of good kills, and our guys don’t quit. Our guys do not quit until that final buzzer regardless of the situation this entire year. That’s the one thing that stayed true most with our team. They never quit until the final buzzer.”
After transcribing all of this, several themes emerge.
The Capitals are consistently coming out flat and the players point to that complacency being their fault. The Capitals’ opponents are coming out guns-blazing for one of the best teams in the league and the Capitals are struggling to handle it. The Caps make tiny mistakes, such as in their coverage, how they break out, or with turning over the puck. The team defense then lapses and the opponents score goals. Wallah! The Capitals then go down early and they subsequently chase games.
And then there’s the forecheck. The team is struggling to forecheck together as a five-man unit. They’re also not consistently playing physical enough to wear teams down as they have before.
Combined with struggles on special teams and their best goalscorers like Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana not scoring, these reasons seem as good as any why the team is scuffling so bad right now.
Headline photo courtesy of the @Capitals
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