Washington Capitals look for even-strength goals from top forwards

After a successful West Coast trip, the Capitals are on the verge of yet another postseason appearance. The Post Sports Live crew debates whether their recent hot streak portends a run to the playoffs. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
March 24

As the Washington Capitals found their stride in recent weeks to remain in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, there have been some conspicuous absences on the score sheets.

Of the nine five-on-five goals the Capitals have scored in the last five games, during which they’ve captured nine out of possible 10 points, only one came from a top-six forward and that was an empty-net goal. The recent trend highlights a persistent lack of five-on-five goals from the top half of Washington’s lineup this season. With a postseason berth on the line, those forwards are hoping a more straightforward approach yields both greater offensive results and more reliable, mistake-free play overall.

“I think something that the first two lines need to do is look at our third line,” Nicklas Backstrom said, referencing the combination of Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward, who have combined for 36 of 118 of the team’s five-on-five goals this season, excluding empty-net tallies.

“They’re cycling the puck, and off that they create chances. I think our first lines haven’t been doing that, not the whole year,” Backstrom said. “That’s something we need to do. We’ve been talking about it but we need a better effort from the top guys for sure.”

In 13 games since the Olympic break, only six of the team’s 21 five-on-five goals have come from forwards Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich. Two of those half-dozen tallies came from Laich, who is out for four to six weeks after undergoing groin surgery on March 17. That means Capitals defensemen have as many five-on-five goals (four) as Ovechkin, Backstrom, Johansson and Brouwer combined in that span. Ovechkin, the NHL’s leading goal-scorer with 46, has gone 12 games without a five-on-five goal.

Coach Adam Oates doesn’t especially mind the low goal totals at even strength, though, as long as the top lines are contributing to the Capitals’ recent steady performances.

“Our goals against is down, our zone time — we played much better as a team, which means that those two lines are contributing to that factor,” Oates said. “I don’t really measure the production, it’s kind of a weird statistic. You want everybody to play well so the team can play well.”

This season the forwards who most commonly fill the two top lines — Ovechkin, Backstrom, Johansson and Brouwer plus Laich and Mikhail Grabovski, who has missed 20 of the last 21 games with a sprained left ankle — have accounted for 50 five-on-five goals, just 25 percent of the team’s overall offensive output.

The Capitals say they don’t want to depend on their power play, but their 61 goals with a man advantage account for 30 percent of their scoring, the highest percentage in the NHL, and they’ve yet to find steady offense at even strength from sources other than the third line.

“We need to be able to score five-on-five because we do rely heavily on our power play to break us through in certain games,” said Brouwer, who echoed the need to model themselves after the third line.

“We’ve got to do the right things moving forward here, and in the playoffs everything just tightens up even more,” Brouwer said. “Teams close down and backcheck even harder and don’t let those [fancy] plays get through. You don’t have to change your game at the end of the season but you’ve got to read the play and read how things are going and read what’s working against the other teams.”

With 10 games remaining in the regular season, the Capitals (34-27-11, 79 points) trail Toronto and Detroit, who are tied with 80 points, for one of the two wild-card playoff spots. As games grow in significance and more teams take on the tone of the postseason — embracing the low-scoring, grinding style of hockey that the Capitals’ next two opponents, Los Angeles and Boston, thrive in — Oates wants his team to be able to succeed in that fashion as well.

“They don’t give you anything. They don’t. You’ve got to work for everything you get,” Oates said. “If you don’t have that attitude you’re going to get spanked. It could be a 1-0 game. If we win 1-0 I’m going to be happy the next day. . . . It’s got to be that mentality and if that affects production I’ve got no problem with it.”

Capitals notes: Grabovski skated with teammates Monday for the first time since Feb. 27 but isn’t expected to be ready to return to the lineup for several more days at least. . . . Goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who skipped a start Saturday in San Jose with a lower-body injury, took part in practice and said he’s ready if called upon to face the Kings on Tuesday. “Everything is good. Just needed a little break, I got it and I’m ready again,” Halak said.

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