The Washington Capitals face their most heated rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, for the second time in five days Thursday. But as players prepared to travel to Western Pennsylvania, the usual excitement over the matchup was replaced by a serious, somber tone in practice. For the NHL-worst Capitals, the only focus is on rebuilding fortitude after a dreadful 2-7-1 start.
Mental mistakes, a lack of offensive production and too many soft goals against are among the woes that have cost the Capitals on what seems to be a nightly basis. But there’s not one single issue that players could pinpoint Wednesday as the root of their troubles.
“Our confidence is a little low right now,” said top center Nicklas Backstrom, who has one goal and eight points in 10 games. “We need to get a win to get our confidence back.”
To earn a victory and help shift the momentum surrounding this team, though, the Capitals need quite a few things to start coming together, according to players.
They need more consistent scoring — Washington is the only team in the NHL that hasn’t scored four goals in a game. Goals need to come from every corner of the lineup, beginning with star left wing Alex Ovechkin. The team captain has just two goals, neither at even strength.
“We’re good in a lot of areas, but not great,” said veteran forward Jason Chimera, who singled himself out for not scoring a goal yet this season. “You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror, that’s the biggest thing. You can’t go and look at one thing and say, ‘This is our problem.’ Obviously, we’ve got a lot of problems the way we are. We’re playing good, but not good enough.”
“We struggle when we don’t score on our chances, and that leads to us letting in easy goals and easy chances,” Johansson said. “We want to score, we want to play good hockey, but then we let up two easy goals the other way, it’s tough.”
The Capitals simply need to be tougher to play against, center Jay Beagle said, driving to the net and making life difficult for their opponent.
“Play a way harder game,” Beagle said. “Make it hard on the opposition throughout the whole game and not let them have those two- or three-minute breaks where we almost let off.”
With players still struggling at times to grasp their assignments under Coach Adam Oates, opponents have capitalized on Washington’s missteps. There has also been miscommunication between defensemen and netminders, and occasionally lackluster goaltending from both Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby.
It’s not just a matter of the errors, but the Capitals’ reaction to them. Washington has struggled to regain its poise in a game after a bad shift, allowing a quality chance or soft goal.
“It’s deflated us quite a bit. We’ve got to stay with it. It’s been tough since Day One,” Mike Green said. “We can’t get down. As soon as we drop our heads or momentum it’s tough to battle back. We need these points right now. It’s important and crucial; we don’t have time to worry about that stuff.”
Oates reiterated Wednesday that he believes the way the Capitals are playing is “the way to do it,” and said he’s seen a tremendous amount of progress in the team’s performance since the earliest games of the season. To Oates, it’s a matter of fixing the details of the game.
“You can pinpoint a lot of little things that we might be in a little different situation if we executed better on those,” Oates said. “We have a lot of time left to fix those and get on a roll and play better and keep it going.”
While the Capitals know they must remain positive, fend off frustration and find ways to move forward, they understand that time and other teams are rapidly passing them by in this lockout-shortened season.
“Playing well is not enough. We got to win games,” Chimera said. “Unfortunately, you don’t get prizes for just too close. Too close only counts in horseshoes, I think. That’s what you get points for. They don’t count here. You got to get wins, somehow.”