Over the weekend the Washington Capitals came from behind twice and captured four points in back-to-back games, offering a glimpse of how well they can play when they’re functioning as a cohesive unit.
For five of six periods of regulation play against the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders, they were a hardworking team willing to grind out possession battles in the corners. Players read off each other to make smart plays, with forwards working as three-man units to sustain pressure and defensemen limiting unnecessary threats by minimizing turnovers.
It was quite a departure from previous performances that were riddled with recurring mistakes and top players deviating from the game plan, drawing Coach Adam Oates’s ire multiple times in the past 10 days.
Washington’s sudden reversal only reinforced that nearly a third of the way through this season, it’s still impossible to know which version of the Capitals will be on display any given night.
The Capitals are 14-11-2 and sit second in the Metropolitan Division, seven points behind first place Pittsburgh. But they also have the fewest combined regulation and overtime wins (eight) of all teams in a playoff position.
To the Capitals’ credit they’ve found ways to capture two points more often than not, but they don’t put complete games together. Washington’s 3-2 overtime win against the Islanders on Saturday was one of those elusive victories in which everyone played their role.
“You need everyone to do it. Once there’s a few lines, a D pairing or a goalie that isn’t doing it, it shuts the whole thing down,” Braden Holtby said. “We know we can get on the same page as a group like we have these past five periods plus overtimes. We’re getting it now and it’s going in our favor.”
In a way, winning in New York may prove to be more important for the Capitals than on other occasions. If they would have lost after playing a solid all-around game, there’s significantly less positive reinforcement to encourage playing correctly and it could have led to Washington falling back into familiar traps.
“Some games we’ve been playing really bad and get points anyway,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “Some games we’ve been playing good and it doesn’t get rewarded at all.”
At the very least, gaining a win on a night when the Capitals did things correctly makes the coaching staff’s job a little easier.
“It sure helps, at the end of the day you just want to do the right things,” Oates said. “The last two nights for the majority of the game we played better and if you continue to do that and you grow. It’s amazing how you win games, you get more confidence and hopefully it continues to snowball in the right direction.”
Even as the Capitals find their footing, they have yet to show they can overcome a few prominent bad habits. Sluggish first periods, the inability to respond well after a goal scored by either team and allowing a consistently high volume of shots are still regular parts of Washington’s game that threaten its overall success.
The Capitals have allowed 30 or more shots 23 times this season and 947 total against, third most in the NHL behind only Buffalo (983) and Toronto (970). Holtby has faced more shots (731) than any goaltender except Phoenix’s Mike Smith (753) and Buffalo’s Ryan Miller (732). For as sturdy as Holtby has been this season, it certainly wouldn’t hurt him or Washington’s overall efforts to eliminate some of the close, point-blank looks that opponents seem to find often.
Then there are the starts. Washington has been outscored 26-18 in the first period this year and far too frequently comes out flat in the opening 20 minutes. The Capitals overcame their most recent dud of a first period Friday against Montreal, but eliminating the extreme negative swing at the outset would go a long way to stabilizing them overall.
Mental fragility, demonstrated by giving up goals quickly after scoring one themselves or reeling when allowing an opponent to score, may be the most concerning flaw of all. But that’s something that must be corrected individually as well as by the whole.
“It’s something that we take notice of because it happens so frequently and so often. We gotta come out and we’ve gotta be ready to have a good shift after whether they score or we score,” Troy Brouwer said this past week. “It’s a trend that we’re not happy with, it’s a trend we want to break because you either get momentum and you give it up or have a goal scored on you and you’re hemmed in your own zone the next shift.”
The Capitals managed to overcome all three of those threats at various points this weekend, but whether they can do so consistently to emerge as a team grounded in strong play rather than spurts of it remains to be seen.