Though his team currently sits in last place in the Eastern Conference standings, Coach Adam Oates wanted the Capitals to feel a “keep-your-head-up sensation” during Monday morning’s film review.
He showed them clips to prove that perhaps these Capitals are better than their 2-6-1 record suggests. Following Sunday’s 6-3 loss to Pittsburgh, he emphasized how strong Washington was in the neutral zone, doubling up the Penguins in even-strength scoring chances and forcing them to ice the puck 14 times.
“The team is playing correct hockey. Yeah, there’s mistakes. We try to fix mistakes every day, but I think the team is playing correct,” Oates said. “You want to win tonight but you have to try and think big picture and that’s what direction we’re going as a team, and I think we’re going the right direction.”
If Monday’s practice was any indication, Oates has targeted Washington’s special teams as the major culprit in its early-season struggles. The Capitals spent nearly an hour working almost exclusively on the power play and penalty kill.
Both units have been mediocre through nine games. Washington is 2 of 14 on the power play with just 19 shots over its last four games and currently ranks 18th in the league. The penalty kill, meanwhile, has stopped opposing power plays at a 72.7 percent rate, good for 25th in the NHL entering Monday’s games.
The lack of shots, and more specifically, rebounds, has been particularly troubling for Washington when it has the man advantage. As forward Troy Brouwer put it, “we’re usually one shot and then back doing a breakout in our zone.”
Oates would like to see defenseman Mike Green shoot from the point more often. He also doesn’t think the Capitals are passing too much, something they tended to do at times under former Coach Bruce Boudreau, but Oates emphasized that he wants center Nicklas Backstrom to make the initial decisions when the Capitals enter the offensive zone.
“It looks like the old days, to be honest, when it’s clicking and we’re moving the puck well and getting shots,” Green said. “It’s just a matter of them going in and getting some bounces now.”
In terms of the penalty kill, the Capitals’ problem lies in a lack of physicality, and it’s also a problem when they’re at even strength. Without John Erskine in the lineup Sunday, Washington’s six defensemen registered just one hit collectively (by Tomas Kundratek) and the Penguins had forwards camped out in front of Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby.
During Monday’s practice, the Capitals used a box out drill to simulate just that. Brouwer blamed Washington’s inability to clear the crease as a reason for Pittsburgh’s first goal of the game, when forward Chris Kunitz re-directed a shot with John Carlson unable to move him from the shooting lane.
“Someone’s got to have his stick. Someone’s got to make a lane for Holts,” Brouwer said. “Those goals are gonna happen because guys are good enough to do it, but we’ve got to be more conscious of stepping in front of shots, if they’re wrist shots, and trying to block a little bit more here and there …
“You’ve got to be able clear guys over. We have to have that mindset in front of the net.”
Of course, the penalty kill issues extend further than simply hitting the opposition. Brouwer noted that the team has struggled clearing the zone and its chemistry has been off a bit when it needs to move as one to pressure the puck and block shots.
The toughest part, though, is that practicing all these things is all the more difficult with this year’s condensed schedule.
“You don’t want a guy to block a shot so that he’s sore for tomorrow,” Oates said. “It’s not easy.”