Five thoughts on the Capitals’ 3-2 loss to the Ducks

December 24, 2013

(Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

The Capitals gave away another two-goal lead and lost, 3-2, to the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night at Verizon Center. They head into the NHL’s three-day Christmas break having lost three of their past four games.

Five thoughts on the loss to Bruce Boudreau’s Ducks: 

1. Saku Koivu’s goal. The veteran center’s one-timer to tie the contest at 2-2 with 26.7 seconds remaining in the second period was a punch to the Capitals’ gut. It was also a play in which hardly anything went right on that backcheck.

Washington’s top line had the puck low in the offensive zone when it lost control and the Ducks went the other way, defenseman Ben Lovejoy leading the rush. Daniel Winnik set a bit of a pick to allow Lovejoy to get a step on Dmitry Orlov, who tried to edge his opponent out of the play but despite keeping Anaheim’s blue-liner to the outside didn’t prevent him from making a pass out in front.

But as Orlov pursued Lovejoy behind the net, there was a combination of missed assignments. Mike Green paused at the top, left-hand side of the crease and was marking no one, even though Andrew Cogliano was cutting in front of the net and Koivu was coming from the opposite side. Marcus Johansson – the forward responsible for marking Koivu on the play – let his veteran counterpart get positioning on him for a one-timer.

“We’re in great shape, we’re down below their goal line and they get one rush and put it in the net,” Coach Adam Oates said. “That goal and the third goal we made…incorrect reads on the backcheck, which by now we shouldn’t do.

“It’s a combination of reads there,” Oates explained. Lovejoy’s “a quick guy, Orly had pretty good position on him, could have got a stick on puck maybe could have helped and I thought Greenie faded to the wrong post quite honestly. But it was just generally a tracking read [error] and the third goal we made the same mistake.”

These are the kind of defensive mistakes that persist for the Capitals through the first 37 games of the season and it’s arguably the most concerning trend. When Washington isn’t struggling to find ways out of its own zone, it’s struggling to re-establish coverage patterns when it must regroup to minimize damage.

“You’re tired. It’s the end of a shift, you’re back checking,” Oates said. “There’s got to be communications and by now some of them should be automatic.”

2. The ripple effect. While on the topic of that goal, it certainly wasn’t ideal. The Capitals had given away another two goal lead, in the final minute of a period no less. But then they let that error with less than 30 seconds to play in the period define their focus.

“It’s tough because you’re [ticked] off that you just got scored on. You’re [ticked] off because now the game’s tied and you’re going into the third period where who knows what’s going to happen,” Troy Brouwer said. “If they don’t score in that last 30 seconds we’re in a great situation going into the third. We’re feeling good about ourselves. I think we’ve got to know the time of the game and what we’re doing with the puck whether it’s trying to create scoring opportunities with 30 seconds left or getting it deep and making sure we protect a one-goal lead going into the third period.”

This is far from the first time that a single goal has derailed the Capitals in a game this season (or the past several for that matter) but this too is a troubling trend. When things don’t go well or mistakes are made, far too often they spend more time feeling sorry for themselves than correcting the error.

“If we don’t get scored on starting the third period you just feel a little bit better about yourselves but we’re not a young team,” Oates said. “We’ve got a lot of veterans that have been through that before and we had a decent third period.”

3. Final 40 minutes. The Capitals may have leveled off somewhat in the third period but the final 40 minutes of the game left plenty of room for improvement. After a strong opening frame that saw them score twice and record 11 shots on goal, the Capitals made Jonas Hiller stop the puck only eight more times the rest of the way through the contest.

Washington did have 21 shots blocked by the Ducks and another 13 miss the net, but those attempts reinforce the fact that with better selection and work to sustain offensive possessions could have led to better opportunities overall. Instead, the Capitals didn’t get the puck deep and allowed Anaheim to slow them through the neutral zone. Three second-period penalties, questionable calls or not, didn’t help either as it drained the players sent out for penalty kills in quick succession.

“A combination of them having a good neutral zone and us trying to force things through the neutral zone,” Brouwer said when asked about the lack of shots. “We turned the puck over way too many times tonight, which is usually what gets us in trouble most times that we don’t come out on top. We spent a lot of the time chasing them in our zone and they have a lot of good players that can hold on to the puck and have good puck possession time against us when we give them the opportunity. But it all starts with us turning the puck over, trying to do too much above the top of the circles around their blue line and not getting pucks below the dots.”

4. Laich returns. The Capitals forward was back in the lineup Monday night after missing the previous 11 games with the latest flare up of a nagging groin injury. Laich skated 13:23 against the Ducks, including 4:20 of shorthanded time, recorded one shot on goal and won nine of the 13 faceoffs he took. Time will tell how the season progresses for Laich, but the jump he had was encouraging at the very least.

If, as he believes, Laich and all the various doctors he’s consulted have found the true source of this lingering groin problem perhaps the Capitals will finally have him back at full strength for the first time in a year.

“First three or four shifts were getting legs under me. It’s been about a month since I’ve played,” Laich said. “After that, as the game wore on. I actually felt a lot better.”

Laich started the contest on the fourth line but wound up finishing the game on the third. That’s likely where he was going to wind up sooner or later, regardless of how well Martin Erat seemed to mesh with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward as a checking line.

5. Three-day break. The NHL goes dark for the next three days (Dec. 24-26) with no games, practices or required team activities for players as required by the collective bargaining agreement. Washington has played 37 games and sits in second place in the Metropolitan Division with a four-point lead on both Philadelphia and the New York Rangers, who it hosts on Dec. 27 at Verizon Center in its first game out of the break.

Despite where the Capitals reside in the standings at this point, though, this is still a team with a grand total of nine regulation wins. They have 11 regulation and overtime combined, which is the first tiebreaker when determining playoff seeding and generally looked upon as a barometer of a team’s true success.

With an inability to win games in regulation consistently and lingering defensive questions, the Capitals may be in a playoff position but they’ve yet to reach a point where their play evokes a sense of stability.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone.

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