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Capitals’ offensive struggles in preseason are ‘disturbing,’ says Coach Barry Trotz

Lars Eller is knocked off the puck by the Hurricanes’ Noah Hanifin (5) during the second period Friday night. (Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press)

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Washington Capitals might reflect on this preseason a few months from now and chuckle at all of the talk about their struggles in meaningless games. They might not remember anything about these exhibitions, or how they were outscored 21-8 in the first six of them. The fact that just three of those eight goals have been at even strength may not be a sign of anything to come.

But it’s hard to have that foresight now and not wonder if the offensive woes of the preseason are signaling trouble for next week, when the games start to count. There is a hefty grain of salt that comes with these exhibitions: The full lineup isn’t out there, and its hard to manufacture intensity in glorified scrimmages.

But Coach Barry Trotz still found himself using words like “concerning” and “disturbing” after Washington again mustered just one goal in a 3-1 loss against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night. Trotz considered the effort against the Hurricanes a step in the right direction, but the Capitals are 1-5 in preseason games with the final one in St. Louis on Sunday afternoon.

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“We need a little more offense out of our forwards, there’s no question,” Trotz said on Friday night. “We’ve scored three five-on-five goals [in six games]. So, that’s disturbing for the quality of forwards that we have. We’ve got nothing from our top guys to this point in terms of production and points, but I trust that their skill and their pedigree will come out.

“Fortunately, they don’t count right now. But still, you want to start feeling good about yourself.”

Washington will open the regular season in Ottawa on Thursday, and to this point in the preseason, the Capitals have gotten just one goal from a top-six forward — Evgeny Kuznetsov’s power-play goal in Montreal in the second exhibition game. The team’s three even-strength goals have been scored by Devante Smith-Pelly, Tyler Graovac and defenseman Matt Niskanen, who scored the lone goal Friday.

It’s not so surprising considering the top-six forwards don’t have much at stake in these games with all of them locks to make the opening night roster. The Capitals also have a considerable amount of turnover in the lineup with potentially six new faces expected to make the team out of training camp. Washington is coming off a difficult offseason that saw the departures of forwards Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and Daniel Winnik and defensemen Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk. Williams and Johansson alone were responsible for 48 goals last season.

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More concerning than the lack of goal production is that the Capitals haven’t spent much time in their opponents’ zone this preseason. On Friday, they managed just 19 shots against the Hurricanes.

“Looking ahead two, three months from now, is it going to matter if we didn’t have a good preseason wins- and losses-wise? No, but we need to start playing better,” Niskanen said. “… There might be some growing pains with new people coming into the lineup and stuff. We’ve just got to keep working and try to keep a good attitude and be consistent every day in our approach.”

Back at the team’s practice facility on Saturday, Trotz offered another reason for the struggles. Perhaps after the Capitals bowed out of the playoffs in the second round for a third straight year, the disappointment over that has lingered into the start of this season and created a sort of hangover.

“If you talk to players, it’s been a little bit harder to get the energy this year based on how it ended and the summer,” Trotz said. “So in some ways, in lack of another way to say it, we got stuck in last year’s energy or lack of at the end. It took a piece of us and now we’ve got to dust ourselves off here and go ‘Hey you know what? It’s for real. Let’s get going. We’re professional. Let’s quit with the self pity and all that. Whatever’s holding us back, let’s go play because we can play.’”

Trotz called the eight goals in six games “embarrassing” and said that the team is behind its usual standard in its detail and urgency. Washington had the league’s best regular season record last season and averaged 3.18 goals per game, third most in the NHL. Niskanen said players getting more comfortable their new linemates or defense partners will help going forward.

“I think we’ve shown flashes where you can see a lot of potential, but we’re not a polished group yet,” Niskanen said. “It’s a work in progress and we’re going to keep working at it.”

Said Trotz: “I’m not going to lie to you: I’d like to see some offense. You’re not going to get any offense if you’re playing slow and you’re intensity level and all that hasn’t been as high as it needs to be. When that’s not that high, your execution is poor and you’re not going to score. I think that’ll come around, but at the same time, it is concerning.”

More on the Capitals:

With penalty potential high this season, Caps still searching for Jay Beagle’s new PK partner

T.J. Oshie exits preseason game early after slamming into boards

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Defenseman Aaron Ness gets long-awaited audition beside John Carlson

Tom Wilson won’t change his physical play because of suspension