The Capitals are quite familiar with the elephant in the room. After all, their troubles creating offense and playing a steady all-around game at even strength didn’t start in the first three games of this season but five months ago in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The New York Rangers outscored Washington 14-9 at even strength in the first round last year as they went on to win the series in seven games. In the final three games of the series, New York’s advantage in five-on-five goals was 7-1.
“I think we learned our lesson last year in the playoffs that you cant’ just rely on the power play and we need to be able to score five-on-five,” Eric Fehr said earlier this week. “Ultimately not getting any [power-play] opportunities in the playoffs and not being able to score at other times cost us a playoff run. So we hopefully can learn from that and realize we can’t rely on that. We’ve got to try and win games five-on-five.”
Through the first three games of the season, though, the problem persists as Washington has been outscored 10-3 at even strength. Certainly it is a small sample size and, yes, the Capitals are working to spark chemistry in certain areas of the lineup. But the lack of organized, precise five-on-five play is a trend that they can’t afford to let continue.
The problems stem from the Capitals’ defensive zone, where turnovers and failed clearing attempts are derailing the attack before it can begin to form. Even if the Capitals succeed in moving the puck out of their end, passes in the neutral zone haven’t consistently been in the correct spot or timed so that they aren’t easily intercepted by an opponent.
“It all starts from back, I think. We’ve got to make sure we pass the puck a lot better from back and all over the ice,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “We’ve got to work on passes, the positioning all over the ice. I think our timing is a little off, too.”
Much of the Capitals’ lineup thrives on creativity, being able to outmaneuver a foe or execute a play that few would even consider. That’s an asset and something that the team doesn’t want to minimize, but players must be smart about their options.
“There’s nothing wrong with creating at the right times but there are times where we’re trying to force things, trying to make things happen that aren’t there,” Troy Brouwer said. “As a result we spend long shifts in our own zone, trying to make plays at the blue line trying to get it out. Even with three-on-twos, it just kept on coming back our way. Those kinds of shifts are discouraging and those kinds of shifts are tough to get momentum from.”
Alex Ovechkin agreed that the Capitals need to realize when a simple play is the best option rather than trying to overcomplicate something. In Dallas, the ice was a bit on the slushy side. Rather than try to weave through opponents or make a long-range, low-percentage pass, the Capitals needed to adjust.
“Sometimes ice is not that good, not that clean, but we try to make fancy plays and it costs us turnovers,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes we have to make simple play just give the puck to our stick but we don’t make it and we’re stuck in our own zone and blue line.”
Shifts in which a line is forced to chase its own turnovers zap energy. When any of the Capitals’ lines spend most of their shift hemmed in their zone trying to minimize damage, there’s not much left in the tank to try to establish anything offensively before the next change.
That’s part of the reason for the absence of any type of cycle game through this first week. Washington has the size throughout its forward ranks to work down low in the offensive zone and, with help from the defensemen, maintain significant possession advantages while manufacturing scoring chances. But that element of the Capitals’ game has been largely absent.
“There have been a bunch of shifts where we get it in once, get a quick shot and then that’s it,” Brouwer said. “We’ve got to swarm the puck, we’ve got to get rebounds, turn pucks back, get them to the D-men, get them to the net. It’s all the simple, boring things no one wants to hear about but they’re the things that need to be done to create real offense.”
Everything is connected. Minimizing turnovers and making smarter plays, even if they’re not highlight-reel-worthy, will make for a cleaner transition game. In turn, that should give players more energy to play the puck-control game the Capitals aim to execute. Until they resolve those fundamental issues, it’s difficult to count on their performance at even strength.