ANAHEIM — The doors to the Washington Capitals locker room stayed closed for roughly 15 minutes after their 5-2 loss to the Ducks on Sunday night. The team always has a meeting after games, but this one ran longer because the Capitals had reached unfamiliar territory — their first four-game losing streak since November 2014.
“We’ve been together a long time,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We don’t remember when we lose four in a row, and that’s a good thing. It’s nice it’s happening right now before the playoffs than during the playoffs.”
They all seemed to understand the reasons that have caused the slide during the course of week. The Capitals have taken too many penalties while scoring too few goals, and some turnovers in their own end have cost them. And their mounting losses could cost them as well.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Calgary Flames on Monday night, they will have taken over first place in the Metropolitan Division, putting Washington on track for a significantly tougher first-round matchup as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed.
The Capitals won’t have an easy time snapping out of this with the Minnesota Wild, the Western Conference’s top team, as their next opponent. So how does Washington turn things around at this point? “We make hockey our first priority and focus a little better than we did on this trip,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “We don’t need to elaborate.”
Said goaltender Braden Holtby: “Any adversity is a good thing if you use it the right way. If we’re good enough to be a championship team, we will get through this. We’ll push through and be better. But that’s something we have to do. . . . We have to realize that us as individuals have to be better and more committed to create a better team game, and that’s something we’ll work on.”
The mood in the Honda Center visiting dressing room after the game was disappointment mixed with determination. Ovechkin, Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom, the team’s three captains, all spoke to reporters, as did several others. Rather than point fingers, many players admitted to their personal struggles recently. The last time the Capitals had a team meeting similar to this one was after an overtime win against the Boston Bruins in December, when Washington coughed up a three-goal lead. That helped propel the team to win the next four straight games.
“We pride ourselves on defending and also scoring,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Everyone’s got to get it figured out, me included, for sure, and I think the only good thing is that there’s been parts of our game where you can tell we’re laying it on the line, we’re trying to do the right things. Maybe we do deserve a little better, but it doesn’t really matter at this point. I truly believe you’re going to get slapped in the face a lot throughout the year, and you can pout about it or get over it and get better.”
This Washington slide started when the team returned from its five-day bye week last month. The Capitals were 17-2-1 going into the break, and are now 5-6-1 since the bye week. Washington was averaging 4.65 goals per game during that stretch, but the team has been held to fewer than four goals in 10 of the past 12 games. In the three games during the California trip, the Capitals have taken 16 minor penalties in three games, and they’ve allowed four power-play goals.
“We have to kill so many penalties, it takes the life out of a lot of guys,” Carlson said. “It makes it a lot harder to be chasing them down when it seems like every couple minutes, we’re killing something off.”
After the game, Coach Barry Trotz said “adversity is a great teacher,” acknowledging that Washington hasn’t had much of it during his three-year tenure with the team. Does this losing streak have him concerned?
“I don’t want it to go too much longer, but as long as we learn from this trip and not sort of blow it off,” Trotz said. “Our guys aren’t happy that we didn’t have a good trip. We weren’t happy that we didn’t get our last game at home. But we haven’t been as good in a lot of parts of our game. I think it identifies a lot of stuff we can work on.”