Capitals’ familiar errors show a team stuck in place, not improving

January 31

Columbus Blue Jacket Ryan Johansen carries the puck across the blue line as the Washington Capitals’ Brooks Laich defends during the second period Thursday night. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

(Note: With another game tonight in Detroit, the usual five thoughts has been boiled down to one following Washington’s 5-2 loss to the Blue Jackets.) 

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Nothing that went wrong for the Washington Capitals Thursday night was new, except perhaps the lack of hustle that all but ceded puck battles to the speedy, hard-working Blue Jackets.

But the turnovers, the errant passes, the absent-minded defensive play that leads to opponents with more time and space than anyone in the NHL seems to have these days are all familiar problems that have dogged the Capitals since the beginning of the season.

That these fundamental mistakes continue to occur on a nightly basis, still combining to cause demoralizing losses four months into the season suggests that these Capitals are not improving – at least, not enough.

“It’s a lot of our game that we need to clean up,” Troy Brouwer said. “Coming in every night, with our meetings we’re addressing the same things and we need to learn. We need to progress as a team. We need to get better and then we’ll start putting wins together, putting streaks together feeling good about our game, climbing the standings. Until we can do those little things and make sure that we’re not making the same mistakes night in and night out we’re going to be fighting for a playoff spot and fighting for position the rest of the season.

“It is a lot of the same stuff since the beginning of the season. Since exhibition — even since last year that we’ve been talking about.”

Lazy penalties, putting passes in skates rather than on the tape, a lack of a net-front presence to turn solid offensive chances into successful ones, over-committing on a play that opens up more defensive vulnerabilities than it solves, getting beat to the inside, not taking the body against an opponent … the list of foundational errors goes on.

Some nights it is one or two specific miscues that haunt the Capitals; some nights they all make an appearance to create a full-scale debacle like the 5-2 loss in Columbus. But they all persist, with Washington unable to put any of these bad habits behind them for more than a few games before they resurface.

“You’ve got young guys and you expect them to make mistakes but not those mistakes there [Thursday night],” Coach Adam Oates said. “I have no problem with a young mistake or a hard-work mistake. But not on simple reads and getting beat to the inside and giving them 2-on-1s on a play when they have nothing.

“We didn’t pass the puck well, forwards didn’t track good,” Oates continued. “Collectively, it was terrible.”

The Capitals do have youth in the lineup, but the mistakes aren’t coming exclusively from inexperienced players. Against the Blue Jackets, every player on the roster was ineffective if not sloppy. Usually reliable presences like John Carlson made passive decisions, got beat to the puck and turned it over throughout the game.

“I made a couple of mistakes – not just mistakes, mistakes are fine but definitely fixable [things that] shouldn’t have happened,” Carlson said. “We need to get better at those little things to keep our game fluid and keep us all on track. We have the guys in here to put something together.”

But do they? The Capitals have suffered from a lack of top-level defensive depth all year, and the blueline took another hit when Mike Green left Thursday’s loss with an injury. Up front, everyone not named Alex Ovechkin among the top six forwards has underachieved to some degree and even the unexpected bursts of offense from grinders like Jason Chimera and Joel Ward can’t provide enough balance.

Or is it the way the Capitals are trying to play that’s causing the problems? Oates has maintained during his tenure that his style of play is predicated on a team making rapid decisions and crisp passes in its own end to alleviate pressure and, in turn, move up the ice cleanly. But Washington accomplishes that ideal far too infrequently. Instead, the Capitals cough up the puck routinely with ill-advised clearing attempts, lose track of assignments and fail to provide proper support along the boards to offer outs for teammates. Usually, by the time they cross the blueline, they have only enough energy left for a line change.

It’s likely a combination. And even amid their struggles the Capitals are treading water, if just barely. After the loss to Columbus, they sit seventh in the division and 13th in the conference but only two points out of the last wild card spot. But the only way they will be able to leapfrog the teams ahead of them is to fix these familiar problems.

“Our attention to detail needs to be there night in and night out,” Brouwer said. “We need to make sure that we’re not being predictable with our mistakes so teams can key on them. You’re going to make mistakes night in and night out, that’s just how the game goes. But you’ve got to be cleaning up your end, you’ve got to be cleaning up your decision making, your possession with the puck, making sure that you’re not making it easy for teams to read off how you’re playing.”

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Katie Carrera · January 30

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