While every win and pair of points is precious to the last-place Capitals, Oates’s main concern is the long-term goal of establishing a type of play that can be relied on to obtain victories through proper execution every single night.
“When you get a win like that, it makes it a little easier to correct. The messages are still the same messages; they’re always the same,” Oates said. “When you win, you still make a lot of mistakes. [Against Florida], a couple of the mistakes we made hurt us and other nights they didn’t, but you still have to correct them.”
In the 6-5 overtime victory against the Panthers on Tuesday, the method was lacking, especially in the defensive zone.
The Capitals made turnovers routine, gave up scores of odd-man rushes, struggled to clear the puck out of their own end and couldn’t prevent Florida from clogging up the crease with traffic.
“I think we play good hockey but we make lots of mistakes in our zone, especially when we’re losing the puck on the blue line,” Alex Ovechkin said following the win.
“We can do it much better defensively.”
Washington can’t afford to have bad habits creep into its game on a regular basis. The Capitals’ four wins this season have come against teams ranked 12th (Buffalo), 10th (Philadelphia) and 13th (Florida) in the East.
“That’s a game we’re far from happy with, with how we played. That’s for sure,” said goaltender Braden Holtby, who will start against the Tampa Bay Lightning here Thursday. “We play like that against one of the top teams, it’s real ugly.”
Florida’s first two goals came on plays where the Capitals failed to clear the puck out, so they devoted an entire drill during practice at Tampa Bay Times Forum on Wednesday to chipping the puck out while facing pressure.
Repetition is obviously a part of the equation, but in addition to practicing, the Capitals need to find ways to continue adhering to the prescribed program, even when a game or shift turns against them.
A large part of accomplishing that goal is trust.
“Our system is all about relying on the guy next to you,” Matt Hendricks said. “That your teammate’s going to be there where you need him to be at that time. When we get away from that, that’s when we have the breakdowns.”
Part of the problem, defenseman Karl Alzner said, is that when an opponent brings sustained offensive pressure, the Capitals all try to be the player that ends the threat rather than working as a five-man unit.
“We start to get out of position a little bit, and with what we’re doing you can’t get out of position because it compromises everybody,” Alzner said. “We’ve got to remember that, just like [Oates] is, everything’s got to be calm, and you’ve got to do it methodically. There’s times when you get a little bit too antsy and emotional.”
Hendricks described the deviation against Florida as attempting too many things that “weren’t 100 percent plays” instead of making simple choices, like using the glass to help clear the puck defensively and forcing opposing defensemen to go back and chase pucks deep while contending with a forecheck.
“When we let the system do its job, it actually creates less work for us,” Hendricks said. “When we play more positionally sound, when we’re communicating instead of going to areas and wasting energy. If we allow our system to do the work for us, it actually benefits us.”
Oates said that Brooks Laich, who yet to make his season debut because of a groin injury, has been cleared for practice contact.
While it is a big step for Laich’s recovery, Oates said it will continue to be a day-to-day evaluation process.