TORONTO — Rather than take out the frustration of yet another loss on the ice here Friday, the Washington Capitals canceled their practice and were given the day off to recharge mentally as much as physically.
After charging to a 7-0 start to the season, the Capitals have rediscovered their mortality over the past four weeks. They are 3-6-1 in their past 10 outings and 1-4-1 in the last six heading into Saturday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Following a team meeting at Air Canada Centre, the attitude of players was businesslike. Players said they have identified what they believe are correctable, self-inflicted problems in their game. They include untimely lapses in discipline and focus, a struggling power play and a lack of hard work at both ends of the ice.
“If you look at our team, you look at our talent and our work ethic when we’re playing good games against good teams like Philly and Detroit, it’s all there,” defenseman John Carlson said. “We’ve just got to stick to those things and not deviate from what we do when we’re winning. Sometimes I think we get a little complacent.”
While the Capitals are not scoring much — they are averaging just two goals per game in the past six contests — the largest dip has been on the power play. In the past 10 games, Washington is 4 for 38 when a man up — a dysfunctional 10.5 percent. Sometimes the power-play unit, which is 0 for 16 in the last four games, fails to even get itself set up in the offensive zone let alone create quality scoring chances.
Part of the slide in success on the man-advantage comes from the absence of defenseman Mike Green, who first twisted his right ankle and now is out because of a strained right groin muscle. When Green was healthy at the start of the season, the Capitals were 8 for 28 (28.5 percent) on the man-advantage.
Coach Bruce Boudreau challenged his players to demonstrate that the power play is not dependent on one man, but so far they’ve done nothing to dispel that belief.
“Absolutely we miss him, but we have to make it work without him. We haven’t moved the puck as we used to,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We need to get some more shots, work a little harder in their zone. For me, myself, I have a lot of puck control and I look for that special pass. Maybe I’ve got to play a little bit easier.”
A constant theme in Washington’s losses has been a stretch of sloppy or undisciplined play, ranging anywhere from five to 10 minutes or even an entire period. Most recently, in Thursday’s 4-1 loss, the Winnipeg Jets scored three goals in less than five minutes of the second period when the Capitals repeatedly turned the puck over in their defensive end. The lapse put the game out of Washington’s reach. In Nashville on Tuesday, the Capitals gave up the lead in the final four minutes of regulation, breaking down defensively and costing themselves a win against the Predators.
The Capitals’ failures during these swoons have ranged from abandoning the team’s system and missing defensive assignments to failing to forecheck aggressively and taking unnecessary penalties.
“We just feel we need to iron it out a little bit and making sure that we have those sections of the game where we’re not imploding,” forward Troy Brouwer said.
The lapses often stem from bad habits that make it easier on the Capitals’ opponents. What helped propel Washington to its best start to a season was a commitment to basics throughout the entire lineup: establishing a consistent, heavy forecheck to fuel the offense, finishing checks in the defensive zone, forwards getting back to help out on defense. The team also was using its size to help gain positioning and win battles for the puck instead of hitting opponents simply out of frustration.
“I think we’ve got the capability. I think we’re the third-tallest and second-heaviest team in the league,” Boudreau said. “We’re not using our size to our advantage. When we used to score a lot of goals it was from cycling and working hard in the corners and we’re not getting them now.”
Said defenseman Karl Alzner: “We feel that we can do more. We’re not doing quite enough punishing teams when they come into our zone and when we go into their zone. . . . It’s chipping pucks in and getting on other teams and when they do get in our zone — hit them, close the gaps. It’s something that’s an easy fix, something that we have to change mentally because physically, I think we work hard a lot of times but I don’t always think we work smart enough.”