NASHVILLE — One by one, the Washington Capitals exited a quiet locker room, stoic expressions as they walked down the hall for their post-game workout before a sullen flight home. In the aftermath of one of their most humiliating losses of the season, falling 7-2 against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday night, the Capitals looked like a team appropriately disappointed and frustrated.
But their message in the minutes after the game wasn’t negative. Coach Todd Reirden told his players that he was “very proud” of how they hadn’t quit late in the game, still blocking shots and finishing checks in the third period even as the deficit was insurmountable. “That’s the resilience that we’ve got to have,” Reirden said. Captain Alex Ovechkin spoke of how Wednesday’s day away from the ice would be good for the Capitals to move past this result quickly.
Though Washington is on a second three-game losing skid of the calendar year, the picture of a team that looks flat halfway through the season, the Capitals aren’t voicing any concern yet. Center Lars Eller pointed to how they’re still in good position atop the Metropolitan Division, tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets with 59 points, despite having lost six of the past nine games.
“If you want to look at the last nine games, you’re looking for the negatives,” Eller said. “You can choose to do that or you can look at the season as a whole. ... I’m just not going to put too much into tonight.”
Reirden repeatedly called Tuesday’s game a “difficult situation,” that along with the challenge of playing on the road in a second game of a back-to-back set against a talented, rested team, Washington was forced to start goaltender Pheonix Copley for a second straight night because Braden Holtby wasn’t ready to play after suffering an eye injury Saturday night.
The defending Stanley Cup champions, who had a handful of games like this last season, too, clung to perspective.
“It’s easy to get frustrated, and you want to get frustrated because guys are competitive,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “But there was some games like this last year that you can kind of look back on, and amazingly, you can kind of draw some things from them. Hopefully, at the end of the year, you look back and laugh at them.”
Even before the puck dropped Tuesday night, Reirden acknowledged that players' natural fatigue this time of year, more than 40 games into a long season, could be compounded for the Capitals, even more worn down physically and mentally after playing into June last year. The hangover was expected at the start of the season, but it appears to have come later, oddly as the team is at its healthiest. After some recent losses, players have acknowledged that the opposition played with more desperation than Washington did.
“For every team, it’s a little bit different in how it shows its face, and obviously, we’re dealing with definitely a separate entity with the success we had last year, how long we played into the summer," Reirden said. "Sometimes it happens at different points. … For us, it’s about trying to get better and get back to our game and not necessarily use that as an excuse, but more as something that can challenge us to be as consistent as we’ve been.”
Despite the positives for Washington’s season as a whole, the negatives during this recent stretch have been apparent. Most concerning for the Capitals is their diminished five-on-five offense — Washington has just one even-strength goal in the past three games, and it came in the final four minutes of Tuesday’s blowout.
Scoring while skating five aside had been the team’s strength, even as the power play fell into prolonged slump. Though Washington’s scored just four power-play goals in the past 15 games, three have come in the past five games. It’s turning a corner, but now the Capitals have another source of scoring to worry about. On the season, Washington has scored among the most five-on-five goals in the league, an encouraging sign this is just a lull.
“I think we’re a little bit on the perimeter for me,” Reirden said of his team’s play Tuesday. “That’s limited our opportunities against some teams, so we’ve got to spend more time in the offensive zone and be less on the perimeter. I think that’s something that is doable with our group and something we’ve just got to commit to.”
When General Manager Brian MacLellan met with reporters for a wide-ranging interview last week, he said the team’s positive play to that point had reassured him that the Capitals didn’t have any pressing needs to address ahead of the Feb. 25 trade deadline. Tuesday’s result, or even the recent string of lackluster losses, won’t change that viewpoint, but for a team that has the goal of repeating as Stanley Cup champions, how it responds in the coming weeks could dictate MacLellan’s course of action.
At least in the locker room Tuesday night, players didn’t view that loss as a symptom of a bigger issue.
“We just have to regroup, forget this game and bounce back next one,” Ovechkin said. “We just have to move forward. I know it’s a [expletive] feeling right now, but what can you do? Let it go. We still have lots of games to bounce back, and it’s nice it happened in the middle of the year and not at the end of the year.”