Known last season for scoring early and then frequently piling on thereafter, the Washington Capitals have been struggling to regain that winning formula over their past three games, when each time the opponent has taken the lead in the first period.
Washington is 1-1-1 over that stretch, with the losses coming consecutively to Florida and Tampa Bay. In both those games, the Panthers and Lightning captured 2-0 leads and went on to win, 4-3 in overtime and 3-0, respectively.
Following an optional practice yesterday morning, Capitals players referred to their sluggish beginnings to games as among the primary culprits for this modest losing streak that could expand to three in a row if they don't come out with ferocity tonight against Vancouver.
The Canucks have the most points in the NHL and have beaten Washington in three of the teams' last four meetings.
"It doesn't matter what team we're playing. Our first-period performance has to be addressed," center Brooks Laich said. "But you know what? We haven't lost our identity. We're an attack team that puts people on their heels and plays downhill hockey and keeps coming, and we haven't shown that the last maybe month, but we want to get back to that."
The last time the Capitals were able to play that style of hockey was during a 3-0 victory over Montreal on Dec. 28, when Jay Beagle and Mike Green both scored in the first period. One game later in the Winter Classic, Washington fell behind Pittsburgh by a goal before rallying for a 3-1 win at Heinz Field, and pretty much ever since, the Capitals have fallen into a pattern of playing from a deficit.
Trailing may not have been much of an issue last season, when the Capitals didn't mind winning games by scores of 6-5 and the like. This season, as they undergo a transformation into a more defensive-minded club, recouping deficits no longer comes as naturally.
Thus the emphasis is on getting the lead and forcing opponents into mistakes when they begin to press a bit too much for goals.
"There's obviously a few different reasons," forward Matt Hendricks said of the team's recent penchant for starting slow. "Obviously preparation might be one. I'm just speculating preparation. We're not as players doing what we need to do to get ready for the start of the game."
Should the Capitals fail in that preparation for Vancouver, circumstances could become unmanageable in relatively short time. The Canucks are second in the NHL in total goals, and forwards Daniel and Henrik Sedin can strike quickly and often. Each has 55 points, tied for third most in the league.
Vancouver was 14-0-3 before losing to the New York Rangers last night, 1-0. It was the first regulation loss for the Canucks since Dec. 5.
"We have to be at the top of our game or we're going to get our butts handed to us, is basically what it is," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We seem to be able to get up for those kind of teams. I think we'll be able to do the same thing again."