Around this time a year ago, there was a nervous feeling around the Washington Capitals’ dressing room. The team had scuffled out of the gate, going 6-6-1 through the first 13 games, and while Washington had shown flashes of the talented team it could be, it also exhibited some glaring defensive deficiencies.
“There was maybe a little bit of doubt last year, I think,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We all saw the potential, but it wasn’t happening, so sometimes it’s hard to see yourself bursting through.”
These Capitals have gotten off to a similar start. After Monday’s 4-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers, they’re 6-4-3 through 13 games, with sloppy play and uneven goaltending on display in all of the losses. But what last year’s Stanley Cup-winning season taught the Capitals is that some early adversity can be a good thing, and building a champion is a process. That’s why, even as the Capitals have yet to win two games in a row, they’ve remained cool and confident.
“We would love to be playing better and doing better, but when we turn this thing around, is anyone going to care about this time in March or April? No,” Niskanen said. “The main thing is we need to keep working and get better.
“Winning a pile of games in October maybe feels good at the time, but it’s not going to guarantee us success throughout the year or when it really matters. … We need to play better, but keep the big picture in mind, too, before we start second-guessing how we play or second-guessing our potential. We know we can do it, and we believe in the way that this group needs to play. And there’s going to be some finer details that change along the way, depending on what’s happening, but you just keep working at it.”
Even in the Capitals’ past three games, there has been gradual improvement. In Montreal on Thursday, Washington overcame an early two-goal deficit to go into the third period with the lead, but the Capitals mismanaged the puck, trading chances with the Canadiens rather than clamping down defensively. The result was allowing three goals in the last three-plus minutes to leave Montreal with a regulation loss. Washington played better against visiting Dallas on Saturday, but the Capitals were doomed to an overtime loss when they ceded all four goals off turnovers. Two nights later, the Capitals limited a talented Edmonton top-six forward corps to one power-play goal and another tally that came just seconds after a man advantage expired.
“We really talked about some team defense and getting the things that have given us success in the past, away from the puck and at times with the puck, back in our game,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “So, that’s everyone coming back and stopping … in front of the net there defensively and then branching out from there. And offensively, making good puck decisions, realizing at big moments in the game and at certain moments in the game, you just have to get the puck in — after we score or after they score or maybe after a momentum shift.”
Washington has three games left in this homestand, and the next two will be tests: The Capitals face Metropolitan Division foes Pittsburgh and Columbus, teams they ousted this past postseason. Braden Holtby is expected to be back in net for both games, but in his first 10 games, he’s 4-3-2 with a 3.62 goals against average and an .888 save percentage. Just like his teammates, he has had moments of brilliance and also some costly blunders. His play took a dive in February last season, but the Capitals had an experienced understudy in Philipp Grubauer to spell Holtby as he got his game back on track for the postseason. There’s less margin for error this season with Pheonix Copley as the backup; he has played in just six NHL games in his career.
Last year provided a lesson for Holtby’s struggles, too. They came in large part because Washington was bleeding high-danger scoring chances, and then he thrived in the playoffs when the team defense improved. Niskanen said there wasn’t one “aha moment;” the team made adjustments throughout the season that added up. The Capitals acquired defenseman Michal Kempny before the trade deadline and then had a team meeting in March to reinforce the team’s defensive-zone coverage, and both moves worked wonders.
Better play in front of Holtby should similarly help his statistics recover, and while the Capitals have had stretches when they’ve rediscovered the tight-checking, suffocating style they mastered in the postseason, they’ve also had moments when they’ve regressed to the leaky play that made them one of the league’s worst defensive teams for the majority of last season. Monday’s game against the Oilers was more of the former.
“There are moments of our games where that old feeling kind of comes back, so we just want to find a way to sustain those,” Oshie said.
“As much as you try to plan it out, every year’s a little bit different in how it’s going to work itself out,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “Sometimes you have to learn lessons the hard way, especially when you’ve been the best in the league the prior year. It’s not always going to be that easy, and no one definitely has thought it’s going to be easy. Sometimes . . . until you really learn a lesson the hard way and lose two points and see them vanish in front of your face, do you really learn. That’s part of the process. Hopefully we’re starting to gain some traction here.”
Although Washington knows from experience that it’s way too soon to panic, it’s also wary of falling too far behind in the standings. Through Monday’s games, the Capitals are in fine position, tied with the Penguins for the second-best record in the division. (The New York Islanders, led by former Washington coach Barry Trotz, are in first place.) The next step for Washington is to string wins together.
“You’ve got to get in,” Niskanen said. “You can’t be sitting here at the end of January and saying, ‘Oh, we’re still learning.’ Points add up, and they’re a lot harder to make up than they are to just put in the bank now. I think there are two sides of this. After the game, you reflect on, individually and as a group, what you did well. During the game, you compete like hell and try to win, then reflect after it but keep the big picture in mind for your overall outlook.”
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