Looks like it will take more than playing for first place in the Metropolitan Division to spark the rivalry between Washington and Pittsburgh once again, because there sure wasn’t much to indicate Wednesday night was a balanced, competitive contest.
Five thoughts on the Capitals loss’ to the Penguins.
1. Even strength? The official scoresheet from a game doesn’t always provide the truest image of what transpired. On Wednesday, though, the lopsided shot totals at even strength were an accurate reflection of how lopsided this game became. That Pittsburgh outshot the Capitals 34-10 at even strength stood as evidence to how the visitors dictated pace, possession and the game at large.
So what was going wrong at even strength for the Capitals? Just about everything.
“Probably just our execution. Obviously have to give them some credit; they played a very good hockey game,” Coach Adam Oates said. “We got behind early. [Pittsburgh is a] tough team to catch up [against] and they didn’t give us anything.”
It was a harsh awakening for Washington, which as of late had improved at even strength. In the four games prior to facing Pittsburgh, the Capitals had recorded 10 of 12 goals at even strength and generally were finding more success at moving the puck out of their zone, efficiently through neutral ice and spending time in an opponent’s end.
The Capitals couldn’t find a way to limit Pittsburgh’s numbers or persistent speed in transition, and when trying to move up the ice themselves they were often derailed in the neutral zone and turned back into their own end.
“They were amazing through the neutral zone. They came with speed every single time, always had three guys — if not three, then four. Didn’t give us any time to pinch. It was a great game by them and a bad game by us,” Karl Alzner said. “And we didn’t possess the puck at all, we didn’t get our cycle game going and they were making us turn and chase pucks all night. It was tough. Real tough.”
2. Defensive zone. Contributing to the shoddy performance at even strength was that for every time the Capitals were sent back into their own zone, they struggled to find a clean exit route. Poor decisions combined with a lack of crisp passes to keep Washington trapped or only ignite the Penguins’ transition game again.
“I honestly thought we weren’t very clean coming out of our zone and in the neutral zone. And that was everybody,” Laich said. The passes even to the final buzzer weren’t on the tape. I’m sure, if you watch on the tape or on TV tonight we probably look slow tonight — having to turn back and face our own zone, gather a puck and go north with it rather than have some momentum up the ice. I think it limited our speed and our attack.”
With the exception of the four-minute burst in the second period that saw the two teams go back and forth, up and down the ice without a whistle, the Capitals hardly entered the offensive zone with speed, largely because they couldn’t escape their own with any efficiency.
“I would say that was our biggest weakness tonight,” Oates said. “We had a shift once in the third where we’ve got two guys open and we ice it both times. Then we make a wrong decision and we barely get it out. You don’t want to make it such a simple conclusion that it’s passing, but a lot of it was tonight. We didn’t put it on the tape, we didn’t help ourselves in terms of allowing the puck to go forward. They’re a good skating team, they’re a well-coached hockey team. You can’t give them second and third chances, and we did.”
3. That’s a lot of shots. All told, the Penguins outshot the Capitals 40-18, making Wednesday the 19th time in 22 games that Washington has allowed 30 or more shots on goal. It was also the 15th time this season they’ve been outshot by an opponent. Totals don’t indicate quality or the type of chance that was barreling down on a netminder, and Oates has said before he doesn’t mind high shots against if the majority are coming from the perimeter.
The problem is that the Capitals are giving up too many shots, far too consistently against all opponents and — more often than not — it shows a lack of possession. Washington has given up a total of 771 shots on goal this season, third most in the league, for an average of 35 against per game. That’s a high workload for a goaltender on most nights, and even if it doesn’t now, might that volume of shots take a toll later in the season?
Braden Holtby’s faced 30 or more shots in all but two of the 16 games he’s started and finished this season. He’s faced 587 shots, third most among all goaltenders this year. While he didn’t have his best outing against the Penguins, Holtby has often kept contests within Washington’s reach.
“I don’t feel like it’s too much. I feel like I can handle that,” Holtby said. “It’s just when you do get pucks thrown that often, you get goals like that first goal that just have eyes. When you throw them enough at the net, sooner or later you’re gonna get luck on your side.”
4. Too many. The Capitals took three penalties Wednesday night, which is a reasonable number, all things considered. But when one of those penalties is a too-many-men-on-the-ice call with less than two minutes to go in the second period, the only frame in which the Capitals looked to have life, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Penguins converted with a power-play goal by Sidney Crosby after a perfect passing sequence between three other players to set up the star center.
After the game, Oates took the blame for that penalty, which occurred when Tom Wilson was sent over the boards to take Troy Brouwer’s place but the veteran winger wasn’t coming off the ice.
“My fault, quite honestly. I apologized to Willy,” Oates said. “Brouw was coming off, he lost his stick and he yelled, ‘Right.’ So I told Willy go and he was just getting another stick and we got too many guys on. It was really my fault, I yelled and Willy was there. That’s something we’ll address [Thursday].”
5. Move on? This was a game and an opponent that the Capitals wanted to use to measure themselves at this point in the season. They came up far short, and the mood in the dressing room was a justifiably sour one. But more than one player suggested that the Capitals shouldn’t dwell on this particular loss, and maybe shouldn’t even watch the tape.
“I don’t think we should,” Alzner said. “The only reason we’d watch it maybe is to look and see how bad we were, and just with the little things. Chipping pucks in, better passes out of our zone. Things that we’ve been doing a much better job of. So you only [need] to see probably four clips, and that’d be enough just to kind of show a difference of what happened tonight.”
If Oates’s history is any indication, though, the Capitals will relive some of this losss. But Oates and the coaching staff typically try to emphasize the positives in a game and focus on corrections. There’s no doubt that there’s plenty for them to learn from this game.
“We always do that, no matter what. Win or lose, we always do that,” Oates said. “It’ll be a little harder [Thursday] because it was a game you were looking forward to — a team that you want to beat. There’s lots of ways to lose games, and that’s not really one way you want to do it.”