On Saturday, after the Washington Capitals spent much of a 4-2 loss trying to execute a basic play as the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins demonstrated machine-like efficiency around them, defenseman Karl Alzner examined the difference between the two teams.
From top to bottom, star players to fourth liners, Boston plays within one framework every single shift. Players do what is required within the Bruins’ possession-heavy system and work with their teammates to accomplish the desired effect. Conversely, the Capitals often fragment as a group because players attempt to do more than what is required of them.
“I don’t think those guys over there care about who gets the glory or who makes the nice plays,” Alzner said. “It's just doing your job. And I think sometimes we don't necessarily do enough of that, and we try and do more than our job.”
Following Washington’s 5-0 dismantling at the hands of the Dallas Stars on Tuesday, Alzner again brought up the team’s tendency to play as individuals rather than a cohesive group — a troubling sentiment 76 games into the regular season with another matchup against a team vying for a playoff spot, New Jersey, on Friday.
“It goes back to what I said about wanting to be the guy. You want to make the nice play to spark the team to get a goal or to make the nice pass to break us out,” Alzner said. “Very few teams can do that. It’s about playing simple. It’s not always fun to play that way, but we sure haven’t helped ourselves by us all being irresponsible on the ice with the puck in all three zones.”
It’s not only Alzner — one half of the Capitals’ shutdown defensive pairing — who sees the team’s inability to work together as a problem.
Multiple players and Coach Adam Oates have either acknowledged or pointed to a tendency by the Capitals to try to play the hero as one of the most significant fissures in their overall play.
Rather than look for the could-be-awesome setup — such as when Dmitry Orlov tried to send a stretch pass to Mikhail Grabovski against Dallas but wound up creating a two-on-none goal — the Capitals need more decisions of the will-be-completed variety. They might not be flashy plays, but where Washington has often struggled this year — and especially during the current four-game losing streak — is in making the simple passes, chips or reads that allow a team to move around the ice as a well-connected group rather than five individuals.
It’s one reason Washington’s third line has been so successful at even strength. Joel Ward, Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr have accounted for 37 (or 30 percent) of Washington’s 122 five-on-five goals, excluding empty-net tallies, because they are able to work off of each other.
“I think guys are just trying to do too many things and be that guy to do everything at once. Just play your area and play your position, have some more faith in your linemates and it will help you out,” said Ward, who acknowledged he and his unit don’t have the same elite skill level as the top tier forwards but the same concepts can be used by anyone.
“When you’ve got the skill set and the abilities to do different things, you try to go out there and make plays that you hope work out,” Ward said. “But we’re getting caught on the side of them not working out. We need guys to realize they need to play their own spot, do less and take care of your position.”
It can be a tricky proposition for players to adhere to that mantra, though, especially when playing from behind or hurriedly searching for an avenue into the playoffs. Players want to be the one to help put the team back on track, but by trying to do it themselves they throw the group further off the path it should be traveling.
That’s part of what happened against Dallas. Instead of finding a common foundation to work off once they were down by three, the Capitals splintered further, and the result was more breakdowns.
“We’re yelling as fast as we can on the bench to stop that, and every guy is yelling and then they go out and do it,” Oates said. “That’s kind of a human nature thing. I've experienced that in my career. When it’s going down the tubes, it goes down the tubes fast.”
Capitals notes: Neither Jack Hillen nor Patrick Wey, defensemen out with suspected concussions, will travel with the team for back-to-back road games this weekend. There is no timetable for their returns.