During NBC’s broadcast of the Capitals’ 6-5 overtime win against Detroit Sunday, analyst Joe Micheletti said that General Manager George McPhee told him that Washington would have 10 more points with better goaltending this season.
Through a team spokesman, McPhee declined to elaborate on that statement to local reporters Monday, leaving Coach Adam Oates and goaltender Braden Holtby to offer their assessments.
“Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” Holtby said. “I think if we pay any attention to comments like that it brings the team apart. So us in here that are going to go out on and play on the ice, we can’t focus on that type of stuff. We’re all trying to accomplish the same goal of winning games and we don’t want to be separated by things like that, so it’s in one ear and out the other and we’ll focus on the next game.”
The Capitals have struggled mightily in numerous aspects of their game this year. To be sure, the goaltending has been extremely inconsistent over the past two months but Washington also suffers from a lack of top tier defensive depth, an inability to play a cohesive game in its own zone and an absence of secondary scoring.
Any one of those fissure can be isolated to demonstrate why the Capitals reside in 11th place in the Eastern Conference but to do so risks eliminating the greater context of the team’s overall shortcomings.
“There’s probably nights where they could have played better and there’s nights that we can all play better,” Oates said. “I think definitely there’s 10 more points out there that we’ve wasted. I think it’s a cumulation of all of us.”
Washington’s goaltending picture has been a complicated one this season, especially so when Philipp Grubauer was in the NHL for a month and between early December and mid January snatched the starting spot from his older, more experienced teammates. In returning Grubauer to the AHL on Jan. 20, though, the Capitals chose to move forward with Holtby and Michal Neuvirth.
Neither one’s numbers are all that encouraging when looking at their recent body of work. Since the beginning of January, Holtby is 2-3-0 (seven total appearances) with a .877 save percentage and 3.02 goals-against average. Neuvirth is 3-2-1 with a .909 save percentage and 3.15 goals-against average.
But those numbers are difficult to evaluate because they don’t reflect complete defensive breakdowns, as on several of the Red Wings’ goals Sunday afternoon. Still, in many games there has been at least one soft goal allowed and depending on the situation, that can shift momentum for the Capitals or their opponents.
Take Detroit’s second goal Sunday. Tomas Tatar was able to get a clean shot off as he came down the left wing. Neuvirth wasn’t screened on the play and got a piece of the puck, but it ultimately found its way to the back of the net. The Capitals had been leading 3-1 but that goal pulled Detroit within one and offered more life to the visitors.
“If he makes that save — to me that’s a savable puck. Do they score three more? I can’t answer that,” Oates said. “But as a team, that goes in gives them a little bit of life, puts us back a page and before you know it then we’ve got a couple icings and all of a sudden we’re on our heels, right? Then we take a penalty. Sometimes the stop does more than just one save.”
That play and goal have a different context than early in the third period of that same game when three Capitals fail to defend a pass from the streaking Henrik Zetterberg to Gustav Nyquist at the doorstep for a tap in. There’s no question that a save there would have been significant, but it is a challenging stop for any goaltender to make when the defense is caught flat footed and falls for a shot fake.
For Oates, as much as the highlight reel saves are important, he wants the routine saves just as much if not more because those types of goals can do more damage to a team’s psyche.
“One play matters, a momentum swing is huge, so if our goalies can stop a momentum swing great. I don’t want the spectacular save, no I don’t. It’s a bonus. But the stock save you want,” Oates said. “In fairness to [the goalies], we’ve got to play better in front of them a lot of times too. Gotta help them out some nights.
“Sometimes you almost want the pretty play [on a goal against] because then it’s on us versus a guy scores from center ice – well, that’s obviously on the goalie,” Oates added. “That takes the wind out of your sails sometimes. When the team is playing a lot better you can handle some of those. Right now we’ve put ourselves in this position and we’ve all got to collectively get out.”