Tuesday night, as the Washington Capitals failed to finish any of their top-tier scoring chances, as they fired shots wide or straight into the crest on the jersey of the opposing netminder, it was even more obvious that their offense has become too reliant on two factors: Alex Ovechkin and the power play.
The Capitals were without both Ovechkin, who sat out with an undisclosed lower body injury, and anything resembling a potent man-advantage in their 2-0 loss to Ottawa. While that loss may be just the latest low point in a seemingly endless collapse by Washington, it also illuminated a lack of scoring depth that has been apparent all season long.
“It’s pretty obvious we have to [score], we have to do it to win games,” Marcus Johansson said. “We need to score goals; you can’t have one guy do it or two guys do it. Everyone has to contribute and we have to find a way to do it.”
Through 50 games, the Capitals have scored 134 total goals, 90 at even strength. Ovechkin alone is responsible for a staggering 26.1 and 24.4 percent of those tallies, respectively. Ovechkin has 22 even-strength goals; no other Capital has double digits in that category.
His 35 goals lead the league and even when he’s not the one scoring, Ovechkin draws attention and double-team coverage from opponents that typically equates to more time and space for his teammates to create their own chances. Without Ovechkin on the ice, teams are better able to guard the Capitals as a group rather than trying to take away the big right wing.
Which is why his injury couldn’t have come at a worse time — Washington has lost 13 of its past 17 games. Yet his teammates don’t want to use his absence as an excuse.
“Yeah, he's a big part of our team, but if he's not in the lineup, we can't just drag our lip around all night,” Brooks Laich said. “We push forward. That’s the only way to go. Otherwise, you're using some sort of crutch or an excuse for why you didn’t get something done. We don't operate like that. We always push forward.”
Ovechkin suffered what the team will only describe as a lower-body injury against the New York Rangers on Jan. 19. It’s unclear precisely how Ovechkin was hurt, but he did take a big hit from New York defenseman Dan Girardi on a forecheck just less than 10 minutes into the second period that caused him to fall, land on his right knee and then struggle to stand afterward. He also had a hard collision with Johansson late in the first period in the offensive zone.
To be sure, Washington’s offense had dried up in the five games before Ovechkin was sidelined — the team has been outscored, 19-7, during this six-game losing streak with the star winger accounting for three of those goals — and the group needs better offensive balance even with him in the lineup. But his absence, especially if it continues for any length of time, makes it that much more imperative that other players begin to find the back of the net.
“He’s absolutely a dangerous goal scorer, leading our team and leading the league in goals. And we’d love to have him out there, but we don’t have him right now,” said Troy Brouwer, who with only nine goals is one of several forwards with underwhelming results. “Even when he was in the lineup the last few games we still haven’t been scoring goals."
Then there’s the power play, which with 41 goals has accounted for an immense 30.6 percent of Washington’s offensive output.
During this six-game skid, though, the man-advantage has faltered both with and without Ovechkin, going 1 for 17. It’s no coincidence that this lack of overall scoring coincides with the first four-game stretch of the season, Jan. 12-17, in which the Capitals went without a power-play goal.
Unable to lean on special teams goals as they’ve done all season, or Ovechkin, the Capitals must force offense out of any situation possible, but few players or lines have sustained a steady presence on the scoresheet this season.
Washington is able to generate its most consistent threats at even strength when it works through a grinding cycle, relying on the size of its forwards to establish and maintain possession while wearing down opponents. When those shifts extend, thanks to smart decisions to work the puck around the offensive zone and involve the defensemen, the Capitals can create traffic in front and score the types of gritty goals that might not make a highlight reel but count just the same.
That’s something they need with or without Ovechkin in the mix.