After eight days on the road in Western Canada, the Capitals are in the same place they were before they embarked on the four-game trip. Two games under .500, the Capitals still face more questions than answers on how to stabilize their defensive play and establish the possession-based game they want to utilize.
That Washington managed to hold a lead with just more than 18 minutes to play in regulation against the Vancouver Canucks only to fritter the advantage away on a pair of unorganized defensive shifts by the top line only reinforced the team’s deficiencies.
“We had a chance to have a really great trip, and we didn’t get it done,” Coach Adam Oates said. “So I’m sure the guys are dejected. We had a 2-1 lead, not a lot of time left — we’ve got to finish. We didn’t play our best game, but we gave ourselves a chance, and we’ll reset it.”
In only one of the four contests did the Capitals appear to have anything resembling their best game. Even the 4-1 win over the Oilers on Oct. 24 featured a tenuous start and relied heavily on goaltender Braden Holtby to withstand sustained pressure.
In each of the three other games — all one-goal decisions — Washington played to significant discrepancies in offensive zone time and suffered from an inability to take care of the puck. In turn, opponents seemed to generate quality scoring chances at will. Players called into question their collective preparation and focus twice in a four-game span, after a sloppy 5-4 shootout win in Winnipeg and again following an ugly 5-2 loss in Calgary.
The Capitals were outshot in each contest, a combined 152-106. In addition to giving up 30 shots a night — which has happened in all but two games this season — the Capitals allowed opponents to cycle at will and work the puck around as though on a never-ending power play. Other details, like a lack of success on faceoffs — Washington won just 98 of 242 draws (40.4 percent) in the past four games — are hurting the cause by prohibiting the team from gaining possession.
Far too many shifts on this trip passed by with Washington unable to clear the zone or gain the possession for anything more than time to make a line change.
“You don’t have to make the pretty play all the time. You’ve got to get pucks out, get pucks in. It’s pretty easy. Been playing this game a long time, it’s not rocket science,” said Jason Chimera, whose line is the only one that has been able to spend shifts in the offensive zone consistently at even strength. “We’ve got to get pucks out, get pucks in that’s how you win games, especially against good players like the Sedins. It doesn’t matter who you are against them — if you’re Backy’s line, our line — you’ve got to get pucks deep, get pucks out or it’s going to hurt you.”
Single errors, ranging from failed clearing attempts to losing track of an opponent for even a moment, seem to compound rapidly and send the Capitals’ defense into chaos rather than an organized recovery.
“We have to make good plays, and that starts [with] we have to limit our giveaways and make sure that pass is on the tape for the next guy. I think a lot of times we’re throwing it and putting the next guy in a bad position and it kind of snowballs from there,” Steve Oleksy said. “They get a shot on net and then next thing you know they’re getting a rebound and we’re kind of scrambling from there. That’s a major area we have to clean up.”
Offensively, Washington has shifted from one source of production to another. The Capitals began the trip with the top-ranked power-play unit in the league, but went 1-for-15 and haven’t recorded a goal on the man advantage in the past three games. As the power play dried up, though, the Capitals finally found their scoring chops at even strength.
Washington has 21 goals five-on-five through 12 games, with half of them coming in the last four games. The third line of Chimera, Mikhail Grabovski and Joel Ward accounted for six of those, but the top unit (4) and fourth (1) also took their turn contributing. Missing from that list is the second line, which remains unable to limit how much time it is spending in the defensive zone. Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich each have one even-strength goal, which is far from ideal production out of the second line.
Asked about how to get more from that particular unit before the loss in Vancouver, Oates gave a response that can also apply to the team as a whole.
“At the end of the day, it’s decisions; where the puck goes and how many times it takes to clear the puck,” Oates said. “If you spend too much time in your own end fighting to get it out, then you have no energy left on the other end.”