The Washington Capitals have scored the third-fewest goals in the NHL to start the 2023-24 season with just 17 in nine games. Frustration over the lack of offense and inability to finish scoring chances have been growing among both the team and head coach Spencer Carbery, coming to a head for the latter after Thursday night’s 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders.
In that game, the Capitals put together chance after chance after chance against New York, thoroughly dominating the game everywhere but the scoreboard. For a team that boasts a ton of talent that has put up high-scoring numbers in the past, the challenge is to figure out what exactly is going wrong and whether it’s fixable.
That challenge has largely fallen on Carbery’s plate. When the rookie bench boss met with the media after practice on Friday, he spent the majority of his time describing what he thinks the exact problem is and how he thinks the Capitals can solve it.
“There’s two areas for me that we’re not doing a good enough job offensively,” Carbery said. “One is – attacking and finishing. When I say finishing, I don’t mean shooting the puck past the goalie, I mean making two passes and stringing them together on the tape. We have a team in a vulnerable spot and we’re just not able to make those last one or two plays.”
Thursday’s game against the Islanders provided a prime example of Carbery’s issue. The Capitals put together season highs in scoring chances (52), high-danger chances (22), and expected goals (5). All of those chances went to waste as former Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov pitched a 32-save shutout.
According to MoneyPuck, opposing goaltenders have stopped more goals above expected against the Capitals in eight of the team’s nine games — the only exception being Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid’s combined five goals allowed in the Capitals’ win over the New Jersey Devils. The combined number of goals saved above expected in those eight games (15.4) would rank first in the league among goaltenders by a count of 6.6.
However, Carbery refused to blame hot goaltending for the Caps’ scoring woes, arguing that his team is helping them out by making their lives far too easy in net.
“The other part is just not doing a good enough job against NHL caliber goaltenders with traffic and interior presence,” Carbery said. We keep leaving games and going, ‘Sheesh, that guy should win the Vezina this year.’ At some point, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror. We have to challenge our personnel and give them the blueprint to get to the interior and screen the goaltender at certain moments. There’s a lot of nuance to that. It’s not as cut and dry as being willing to go to the net – it’s reading when the appropriate times are.”
One way to negate good goaltending, other than getting more traffic in front of the net, is to force goalies to constantly move laterally. To do that, your team has to pass the puck quickly and accurately.
Carbery says that’s something the Capitals have not been able to do since the moment he first took the team’s reins during Training Camp and preseason play. The numbers, to an extent, also back that conclusion up: the team ranks fifth in the NHL in giveaways per 60 minutes (9.58).
“To be honest with you, I’ve noticed it for two months,” Carbery said. I don’t know what that is. For whatever reason it just looks a little sloppy. Rolling pucks, not in wheelhouses, having to double clutch, off a guy’s skates. And, that’s tricky, right? Because there’s a confidence part to that. What we’re trying to do is instill good practice habits. Make sure that we’re doing it out here first and then that will translate out to the game. All of our guys are more than capable and have proved it in the past. We just need to get way more polished with our puck movement and our passing. We need that right now, desperately.”
Some growing pains are to be expected for a veteran Capitals team trying to learn a new system on the fly under a young head coach. In recent outings, the team has started to put together better 60-minute performances — like they did against the Islanders — but are still looking for that consistent overall scoring to take advantage of their good play.
While a new system may be tough to grasp in some areas on the ice, Carbery doesn’t think that’s what’s holding his roster back. He believes the issues at play are much simpler.
“Once you get into those scoring situations — now, it’s just hockey. Now, you’re attacking and it’s you and your linemate against the defenseman. I’ll just use this one as an example. We had a slot-line pass to a right shot one-timer that was opened up last night and we missed the pass by four feet. Okay, that’s going to happen, you’re not going to connect on everything, but that’s happening to us too much. When you create a turnover and when your structure does a good job to give you an opportunity to attack and take advantage of a numerical advantage that’s where we need to be at our best.”
Carbery believes the solution to the issue at hand lies within MedStar Capitals Iceplex. “The last step is making good on those chances,” he said. “That, for me, starts right here. You get those opportunities in practice, make good on them. Make sure you hit the net. Make sure it’s a productive pass. If you go down on a two-on-one make sure you bear down on those situations so tomorrow night when you get one against Columbus you’re confident and you feel like that puck is going to go in the net for you.
The Capitals will take on the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday night inside Capital One Arena to see if they can turn their scoring woes around. Columbus hasn’t exactly been a defensive stalwart team this season, giving up the tenth-most goals in the league (32) through 10 games.
As things currently stand, the Capitals are one point behind Columbus in the Metropolitan Division standings with one game in hand.
Screenshot via @Capitals/X
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