The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Capitals are struggling to score first. How much of a problem is that?

The Capitals have failed to score first in 10 of their last 11 games. (John McDonnell / The Washington Post)

Once they started chasing against the Pittsburgh Penguins last week, Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz thought his team never regained its footing.

Chasing is the term NHL players and coaches used to describe playing from behind, but there is some subtext. In hockey, chasing means taking chances a team may otherwise forgo, breaking from a game plan that doesn’t always account for trailing by a goal or two. So when the Penguins scored first last Friday, the Capitals chased. Then they chased some more when the Penguins continued to edge in front, and even found themselves chasing after they tied the game early in the third period.

The final result: Penguins 7, Capitals 4.

“We chased that whole game, and when you’re chasing you have to take some chances and sometimes you get a little too loose,” Trotz said after the Capitals practiced Thursday. “When we got it tied up, we never got it tightened up again, it stayed loose. I just think that’s where we fell off the rails a bit. It’s hard to chase in this league.”

And the Capitals have been doing it a lot lately. They have failed to score first in 10 of their last 11 games, and in 14 of the last 17. Their record is 5-4-1 in those 10 games, showing that the first goal of the game does not always decide the result. But there can be, as Trotz pointed to, residual effects of trailing at the start of games, and the Capitals are hoping to snap this trend as the stretch run of the regular season turns into the playoffs.

In the 22 games the Capitals have scored first this season, they are 17-3-2. In the 31 games their opponent has scored first, they are 14-14-3. That brings them to 31-17-5 overall, good for first place in the Metropolitan Division heading into a 7 p.m. matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets at Capital One Arena Friday night.

“You obviously want to set up games in the right way and when you are trailing, it gets harder,” Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said Thursday. “It gets a lot easier when you are up since you can set up your own game. So, playing from behind isn’t ideal, but I thought we’ve handled it pretty well. It almost wakes us up and gets us going, which has saved us. We definitely have to get better at it to sustain success.”

Holtby attributes slow starts to the Capitals’ youth, and noted that he and other veterans need to take more accountability for it. But he and teammates also don’t worry too much about falling behind because they feel they can recover from any early misstep. Capitals winger T.J. Oshie specifically said that the team can quickly score the game-timing goal and erase the early deficit.

And that, for the most part, has been true in this recent stretch. On average, the Capitals have needed just 5:02 to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 1-1 tie. That is not counting an outlying game against the Philadelphia Flyers, in which the Capitals didn’t tie the score for 13:32 before falling 2-1 in overtime. There have also been two games in the last 11 in which the Capitals gave up a second goal before they could knot the score (one of those ended in a 5-3 win over the Flyers).

“If you get the tying goal, all of a sudden you feel on top of the game and you got all the momentum and mental advantage even though it is 1-1,” Capitals center Lars Eller said. “But a lead is only good if you protect it.”

The Capitals always want to score first, that much they are sure of. But how detrimental it is to allow the first goal will only become more apparent if this trend continues. Right now, they are struggling at the start of games, left chasing in the first period and then charged with regaining their form as the second and third periods unfold.

There are many games in which that is doable. Then then are games like that three-goal loss in Pittsburgh when the Capitals chase and chase and, before they can figure out how to stop chasing, are already buried in a hole from which they can’t escape. That is what they want to avoid as each passing game brings them closer to the playoffs, and the best way to do it is to scratch a “1” onto the scoreboard before their opponent does.

“Obviously letting the first goal in sucks, but if we are playing well, you know we aren’t too worried being down 1-0 early,” Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly said. “Obviously in the playoffs we don’t want to be down chasing or down a goal at any point, so we will be looking to tighten that up.”

Read more Capitals coverage: 

Signature style: Young NHL players aim to develop awesome autographs

Chandler Stephenson is making a play for a permanent spot in the Capitals’ shifting lineup

The Capitals’ plan to make Dmitry Orlov one of the NHL’s top defensemen

Nicklas Backstrom bails out Capitals with late game-winner at Columbus