There are a lot of theories — some logical, others lazy — about the Washington Capitals’ recent slide into a three-game losing streak.
There is the “still coming off the bye week” theory, as the Capitals went straight into a back-to-back after five days away from the ice. Then there is the “ups and downs of an 82-game season” theory. And then there is the “not generating enough scoring chances” theory, which is the one that could be seen as both factual and foreboding.
The Capitals, sitting in first place in the Metropolitan Division with the all-star break coming this weekend, still rank last in the league in shots on goal per game at 28.7. While it works against the convention that more shots on net leads to a higher chance of scoring, it has been a fine formula for a team that ranks 12th in goals per game (2.98), has the sixth-most points (61) in the NHL and has been open about its choosy offensive approach. It has been a fine formula, at least, until this head-scratching stretch.
In the Capitals’ overtime loss at the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, they had just 11 shots on goal through two periods. In a loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Friday, they got just 12 total shots on goal from their 12 forwards. They generated more scoring chances in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, finishing with 28 shots on goal thanks to a solid third period, but they still didn’t score an even-strength goal. The Capitals have not scored a five-on-five goal in nearly 125 minutes, going back to when Brett Connolly tied the score in the third period against the Devils.
Washington’s underlying numbers suggest there is a significant gap between the goal differential it has compared to the one metrics would expect. This could be a brief slump, or it could be a sign that the team’s production is regressing after a hot stretch before the bye week.
“We had a lot of chances,” forward T.J. Oshie said after the loss to the Flyers. “It really just comes down to bearing down on those chances and maybe getting a little bit more traffic. But there were a lot of times where we had an uncontested shot that wasn’t necessarily real in tight, and we didn’t get in front of the [goal]tender’s eyes. So that could be the difference-maker in regulation.”
Oshie is speaking to an isolated situation in which he thought the Capitals could have made their chances more dangerous. But that is not necessarily an isolated concept.
According to statistical site Natural Stat Trick, the Capitals rank 21st in the NHL in even-strength, high-danger scoring chances — ones that come in the slot or close to the crease — per 60 minutes. They also rank 21st in the league in even-strength chances per 60 minutes and are giving up more of those than they create themselves. For the first time in four seasons under Coach Barry Trotz, the Capitals are, on average, taking fewer than 50 percent of the even-strength shot attempts. The Capitals have said they would rather look for good scoring opportunities than toss pucks at the net from a distance — a well-reasoned approach — but this speaks to the overall quality of the chances they are generating.
On multiple occasions during this three-game stretch, players have noted that shooting a bit more, and simplifying the offensive approach, could snap their slump. After the loss to the Devils, Nicklas Backstrom said the team may have been “too cute” in some situations, a nod to the Capitals’ tendency to sometimes over-pass in search of the perfect shot. After the Canadiens loss, defenseman John Carlson said, “I don’t know if the shots were that lopsided, in my opinion anyways. We gave up the more grade-A chances.”
“We just have to finish a little more,” Trotz, who has been shifting his lines from game to game in search of offensive rhythm, said after Sunday’s defeat. “We had a couple, if we finished a little bit earlier, we might have put them in a little bit different situation. I thought they tracked well; both teams did for the most part. I just thought we couldn’t find the back of the net. I think if I look at the chances they are probably two to one, but we didn’t get the win.”
The Capitals have yet to score the first goal of a game in January — the last time they did so was Dec. 30 — and their record is 4-2-2 in the new year. Maybe questions about the Capitals’ ability to generate solid scoring chances will be muted in coming weeks. Maybe the team’s issue is lingering rust from the five-day bye week; long layoffs have not been kind to the Capitals across the past two seasons.
But if that latter reason is the correct diagnosis, more pain may lay ahead. The Capitals have one game this week — Thursday at the Florida Panthers — and then will have to wait another five days before they play again.
“We have to find a way to put it back in net,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “The chances are there. We create lots of chances, lots of opportunities. But we can’t give the goalie a too-easy save, and we have to manage the puck better when we have an opportunity.”
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