It took roughly 60 games last season for the Washington Capitals to get so fed up with their leaky defensive play that they clarified their structure and philosophy in a team meeting. What followed was a progression through the playoffs in which the Capitals played with more detail and commitment in each round, and that suffocating, tight-checking style ultimately delivered the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title.
And while Washington hoped it could carry that over to the start of this season, the Capitals' defensive play, considered their strength just five months ago, has been a weakness through the first month. The team has yet to win two games in a row and is allowing 3.82 goals per game, which is tied for third-most in the league. Washington has been able to win five of its 11 games with its high-powered offense averaging 3.82 goals, which ranks second in the NHL.
“It’s obviously good that we score goals, but at the same time, we have to find ways to get wins and maybe play a little better defensively,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.
After playing just 10 games in October with a spread-out schedule that had three breaks of at least three days between games, the Capitals will have a packed November with 15 games. Their five-game homestand, which opens Saturday night against Dallas, represents an opportunity to move up the standings by Thanksgiving, which historically provides a good indication of what the playoff picture will be. For Washington, snapping out of a style of play that has it trading high-quality chances with the opposition is a priority.
“High-powered offensive teams are coming in, and if you don’t want to manage the puck against them, it’s going to turn into another four, five, six goals against,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “And that’s not winning hockey.”
While Washington’s team defense is certainly improved from where it was for the majority of last season, it could certainly be sharper at this juncture after it retained its top seven defensemen and the vast majority of the forwards. Reirden said the defensive structure is “very close and similar” to what the Capitals did in the playoffs, but 11 games into the regular season, players aren’t blocking as many shots, and they’re losing more battles along the boards and yielding position in front of the net.
“That’s the five-man commitment that you need and was the premise behind the structural change that we made last year,” Reirden said. “That structural change is in place right now, and now we need to do a better job of it individually and as a group, and that involves . . . paying the price to get in the shot lanes or doing a better job boxing out players at the net front, picking up sticks. That’s where teams are able to get some of their higher-danger opportunities; a lot of it is coming off pucks that get by our first layer of defensive-zone coverage. It’s complicating things, and then it turns into battles that are closer to the net. And at this point, we’re losing some of those battles.”
At issue, too, is that the Capitals' opponents want to prove themselves against the defending Stanley Cup champions. Meanwhile, Washington’s players might still be recovering from a deep playoff run that led to a shortened summer.
“If you look at our season and how long it went, you look at past teams that have won, too — Pittsburgh, for an example — I think they kind of went through the same things we’re going through right now,” forward Brett Connolly said. “There’s a belief in our group that we know we’re better than what we’re showing, and it was the exact same thing last year, too, at the start of the year, so we’re confident that we can kind of fix that and play to our level. We’re just a step behind in a lot of areas right now, and little details, that determination in our game, we’re not having it for a full 60 minutes right now.”
After the Capitals blew a one-goal lead in the last three minutes against the Canadiens on Thursday, leaving Montreal with a regulation loss, Reirden had intended for the team to practice Friday. But then there was a delay getting through customs and, by the time the Capitals arrived in Washington, it was after 2 a.m. Reirden instead opted for an optional afternoon skate and pulled up video for the team to see how it looks when it keeps to its defensive structure, as opposed to some of the mistake-prone hockey the Capitals have flashed of late.
“You go home for the summer and you get two months off and you kind of get out of those habits a little bit,” Connolly said. “I think we just need to realize that we know we haven’t played our best. We know that there’s little details lacking in our team and as individuals. We’ve just got to get it back here and find that good vibe again, but we know we can do it. It’s only a matter of time.”
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