COLUMBUS, Ohio – Monday afternoon, once the Washington Capitals reassembled here following the all-star break and began preparing for a gantlet of two back-to-backs over the coming week, defenseman Brooks Orpik attempted to explain a tricky issue without getting bogged down in semantics, but he found it unavoidable.
Before they scattered, the Capitals had blown a two-goal lead against the lowly Edmonton Oilers and limped into vacation ruminating over their struggles maintaining advantages. Some tried forgetting. Others watched film. But the issue had surfaced even before falling at Verizon Center in a shootout, before Washington lost its third straight game, so Orpik attempted to relay how Coach Barry Trotz hoped they would act while ahead in games.
“I hate the word ‘safe,’ because you play safe you’re playing not to lose, and that usually gets you in trouble,” he said. “I guess you’ve got to be a little careful with what you call it or what language you use. I think you’re just a little smarter with some of the decisions you make, especially when you’re up 3-1 against Edmonton at home.”
At even strength with leads, the Capitals rank 17th in the NHL with 45.4 percent of total shot attempts going in their favor, according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, and only three squads – Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and Detroit – enjoy greater than 50 percent of attempts while ahead. They are the league’s second-best team when scoring first, posting a .821 winning percentage in those situations, but they haven’t led wire-to-wire in many of those 23 victories.
The worst came last Tuesday against Edmonton, when the joy over two early goals from forward Alex Ovechkin – including one that busted the net camera – disappeared fast. Up 3-1 in the dying seconds of the middle period, defenseman Matt Niskanen took a kneeing penalty. On the ensuing faceoff, a clean win for the Oilers, Nikita Nikitin blasted a point that brought his team within one goal, four seconds before the Capitals could escape into intermission.
Then, once Nicklas Backstrom’s tip-in put Washington ahead 4-2, it allowed two goals over the final five minutes of regulation, survived overtime and lost in the shootout.
“It’s one of the most difficult things to come by, or to become as a group,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Once you get a lead — you always say you play for your team at all times — but when you have a lead, there’s a lot more sacrifices that have to be made. You never want to change the way you play, but you have to change certain situations to make sure you use it to your advantage that you do have a lead. That’s not necessarily safer plays, but simpler plays throughout the game. But it’s limiting that, playing a boring style if we have the lead, to just grind the other team.”
After the Edmonton game, several players believed the Capitals “took our foot off the gas,” as forward Jay Beagle said, a notion that when relayed to Trotz irked the coach who is working through his first season in the District.
“You don’t need to score another goal, but you need to secure the hockey game,” Trotz said then. “If that’s the way they’re thinking, they’re thinking wrong. That’s the absolute wrong answer that should be coming out of their mouths.”
Asked Monday at Nationwide Arena to elaborate on the elements he wanted from the Capitals when holding a lead, Trotz replied, “puck management.”
“A good example of that was end of the second period,” he continued. “There’s 20 seconds left, just make a good play or get it out and don’t try to be too fine. That’s to me managing the game and managing the situation. We had a couple leads. We’re just a little loose on our coverage. A guy sniped one, then they got a lucky one. But it was 3-1. If we made it 4-1 in that game, you’re fine. But we kept letting them get nice and close, nice and close, then they get a lucky puck and they score a goal, tie it up, then they win in a shootout.”
Of course, there’s a fine line between protecting the lead and playing too cautious, between making wise decisions to avoid unfavorable situations and simply flinging the puck out of the defensive zone, thereby handing possession over to the opponent who cannot mount comebacks without possession.
“I think how aggressive you are, pinching, obviously you don’t want to give up an odd-man rush last minute of the period, then ultimately a goal last minute of the period,” Orpik said. “Just little things like that, how aggressive you press to create scoring chances, maybe you’re a little smarter there. You don’t want to sit back and play not to lose, but it’s somewhere in between the two.
“It’s 3-1, do you press and try to make it 4-1 last minute of the period and take that chance where it could backfire? I think sometimes it’s great if you could make it 4-1, but when you’re in control of those games, just be patient, and eventually the other team’s going to open up and start taking chances, that’s where you can capitalize and get your scoring chances from them opening it up. I guess ‘patience’ is a good word too.”