The Capitals have played a lot of overtime hockey since their bye week ended last Thursday. Sort of.
Two games of their current three-game losing streak were tied after regulation, but neither lasted much longer than that. In a 4-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, Taylor Hall scored the game-winner just 34 seconds into the five-minute extra period. In a 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, Travis Konecny ended it just 27 seconds into overtime. While the poor three-on-three results seem like an isolated problem — Washington has been sharp in overtime across most of the season — the Capitals have required an extra session in nine of their last 15 games.
That has allowed them to snag at least nine points in that span, as teams get one point in the standings for reaching overtime. But it also illustrates the team’s recent inability to close out games in 60 minutes or use late comebacks as a springboard to earning two points in regulation. The Capitals, who still sit in first place in the Metropolitan Division with 61 points, are 5-0-4 in those nine overtime games. They won four in the extra period and the other in a shootout. It is likely that even more tight games await in the back half of their schedule, as the playoff race heats up and teams start scrapping for a point here and a point there. In the 25 games before these last 15, the Capitals went to overtime just two times.
The Metropolitan Division is packed beneath the Capitals, with the Devils, Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins all in the thick of playoff contention, and New York Rangers and New York Islanders not far behind. Thirteen of the Capitals’ final 34 games are against divisional opponents, and regulation wins will only become harder to come by. Each one, especially in the division, could help the Capitals distance themselves from that competitive cluster and finish atop the group.
“You don’t want to make a habit of going to overtime because you always want those regulation wins,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said after the Capitals practiced Tuesday. “But, then again, a point is a point and sometimes you are coming back and stealing that point. At this time of year, with teams chasing, you want to get as many points as you can but also keep them from getting points. It’s two-sided, for sure.”
Carlson is right about the Capitals stealing some points throughout this 15-game stretch. Of the nine overtime games, the Capitals scored the tying goal in six of them, twice blew a late lead, and wrestled the Rangers in an eventual 1-0 shootout loss in late December. This leads to a more troubling trend: The Capitals have not scored the first goal in any of their past six games.
The last time they did so was Jan. 7, a 4-3 win over the St. Louis Blues, which means the Capitals have spent a lot of time chasing instead of controlling play. That, compounded by the team’s five-on-five scoring drought that has nearly reached 125 minutes, makes gaining a point for overtime in recent games seem like a bright spot instead of merely a silver lining. But it’s not a formula to which the team wants to grow accustomed.
“This time of year is such a fight for every single point, the third periods can get a little weird sometimes,” Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly said Tuesday. “Teams will maybe pack it in [defensively] for some stretches if they are feeling pressure. The ice can shrink a bit. The push for the playoffs starts to feel like the actual playoffs in some ways.”
After the loss to the Flyers, in which the Capitals peppered Philadelphia goaltender Brian Elliott with a flurry of third-period chances that were all turned aside, a few Capitals pointed to a playoff feel. The Flyers, appearing content to give up deep, odd-angled chances, clogged the middle of the ice with shot-blocking bodies and outstretched sticks. And once the ice opened up in overtime, Konecny took advantage of a two-on-one rush and beat goaltender Braden Holtby with a wrist shot.
Capitals center Lars Eller said he does not necessarily think teams sit back on defense to force overtime and earn a point. But he added that he wouldn’t be surprised if that started to happen in the coming weeks, as teams try to improve their position in the division standings and wild-card race. The Capitals want to avoid overtime and win games outright, sure, but they can also avoid any noise atop the division by rekindling their three-on-three success from earlier in the season.
“We’re going to work through that. We got one game in nine days,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said of fine-tuning his team’s three-on-three play. “We touched on it early in the year. You take out the last two games and our three-on-three play is pretty outstanding. It’s just the last two, and the last two were individual plays.”
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