Capitals trying to stay patient despite early offensive struggles


Capitals center Marcus Johansson is one of several Washington forwards held without a goal so far this season. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
October 11, 2013

Adam Oates is preaching patience. Sure, he’s not happy that the Washington Capitals have only one win in their first four games. It’s not ideal the second line has yet to record a single point as a unit at even strength. And the lack of NHL experience in the bottom half of the defensive lineup has made for some growing pains.

But it’s not yet time to push the panic button, the Capitals’ coach said after Washington suffered its third loss of the young season Thursday.

The Capitals are 1-3-0 as they prepare to host the undefeated Colorado Avalanche Saturday at Verizon Center, but Oates isn’t shuffling the line combinations. He’s sticking to essentially the same lineup he’s leaned on since the opener — with a few exceptions, because of injuries — confident that the Capitals need only to clean up their game rather than make significant changes.

“Obviously we want wins, but I told the boys today, we did a lot of good things,” Oates said. “Our team is not a team that I think has problems scoring goals. We are right now, but that’s not going to be our forte. Keep playing the way we’re playing. . . . That’s the message, and if it means at some point we’ve got to shake it up, I’ll shake it up. But I don’t think it’s a chemistry thing right now.”

That doesn’t change the fact that Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, Eric Fehr, Joel Ward and Martin Erat still don’t have a goal. Or that despite creating consistent offensive chances against Carolina, the Caps didn’t yield enough results.

There’s a benefit to allowing the lines time to find a groove, but the Caps’ situation could be better.

“It’s good and bad,” Brouwer said. “It’s good because it gives lines more time to try and work things out, but it’s bad because if it’s not working, it’s not working.”

There are similarities, like untimely penalties, but this isn’t the same type of slump that the Capitals dealt with last season. Through four games last year, Washington was 0-3-1, having been outscored 17-8. This season the discrepancy is 15-12 overall and 12-5 at even strength.

The most critical difference, though, is that the Capitals are no longer learning the basics of a system. The breakdowns, while still frustrating, aren’t stemming from confusion in assignments but mistakes like turnovers that hem the Capitals in their own zone or prevent them from establishing a cycle offensively.

“I think it’s just a matter of cleaning things up,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “It’s hard to put your finger on it right now. The system we play takes a lot of attention to detail, and if there’s a time you’re going to struggle, it’s going to be the start of the year.”

The biggest alteration for Washington heading into Saturday’s game against first-year Coach Patrick Roy’s Avalanche (4-0-0) is that netminder Michal Neuvirth will make his first start of the season and get to face off against his former teammate.

Semyon Varlamov (3-0-0, .967 save percentage, 1.00 GAA) is expected to make his first start against the Capitals since they traded him to Colorado in July of 2011, and Oates is hoping to play off any extra motivation that might stem from that matchup.

“Yeah probably, I will be a little bit nervous,” Varlamov told the Denver Post. “I’m so excited to be coming back and to play in the Verizon Center.”

Neuvirth facing Varlamov could offer a spark for the Capitals, but getting the overall game in order is plainly up to the players. The forwards have had two weeks of the regular season — longer, in some cases — to develop chemistry with their linemates, and it’s time to start executing.

“We need to just stay with it,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “We need to follow our system and follow our game plan. That’s what it’s all about, and you’ve got to put in a good work ethic and off that you’ve got to create chances.”

Alex Ovechkin, who leads the Capitals with five goals and seven points, is optimistic that the team will find a rhythm.

“We have such a good group of guys here who plays together and knows exactly what we have to do,” Ovechkin said. “Of course some guys feel not that good because they can’t score or have moments out there. It’s going to come. I’m positive about this group.”

Capitals notes: John Erskine will miss Saturday’s game with an upper-body injury. . . Washington recalled defenseman Nate Schmidt from the AHL’s Hershey Bears, and the 22-year-old left-handed shot is expected to make his NHL debut against the Avalanche….Defenseman Connor Carrick and center Michael Latta were reassigned to the AHL.

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