TORONTO — Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin stood in the dressing room in his usual postgame attire, a red towel around his waist and another around his shoulders, and he had little interest in discussing a losing streak so long it’s been five years since his team experienced one like it. Minutes earlier, center Nicklas Backstrom momentarily forgot exactly how many games the Capitals have lost in a row. It’s seven.
“It’s done,” Ovechkin said abruptly to reporters' first question about it. He and his teammates have dissected what’s been going wrong often over the past two weeks, and there just wasn’t much left to say about it after Washington’s 6-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night.
Over the past four-plus seasons, the Capitals have rarely lost two games in a row, much less seven. They struggled at times, but they developed a trend of responding before a skid got too bad — and that helped them consistently maintain a strong position in the standings. But as Washington now enters a break for the All-Star Game and then the team’s bye week, it’s the defensive struggles that have prevented the Capitals from stopping the bleeding, a concern for a team that won a Stanley Cup seven months ago with its stingy play.
During the past five games, Washington has allowed a whopping 30 goals, including two seven spots and one game yielding eight. The Capitals' even-strength save percentage over the past 10 games is .871, second worst in the NHL.
It feels like February of last season, when the team wasn’t playing well in front of goaltender Braden Holtby just as his own game was suffering, too. A trade-deadline acquisition of defenseman Michal Kempny and some late-season systematic changes helped turn things around, but Kempny is still on the roster and those changes are still in place.
“I think [we] make too much mistakes, all of us,” Ovechkin said. “We know the system, it works.”
It was a system that Coach Todd Reirden, then the Capitals' associate head coach, helped put in place when the team had a meeting last March to go over its defensive zone play. One issue was that Washington had gotten away from defending as a five-man unit.
Here’s how forward T.J. Oshie explained it in April: “Kind of in the middle of the season, it felt like there was times where it seemed like guys were just man-on-man and guys were going everywhere; a defenseman would just take his forward and follow him all over the ice."
It sounded similar to a point Holtby made Wednesday night.
“It’s just being off that little bit with our timing and being on the same page,” he said. “When you’re at your best defensively, you do your job and you trust your teammate to do his. We’re trying to make up for one another, and that’s when it gets confusing. That’s when you start spending a lot of long shifts in your end and wearing down. We’ve just got to get back to trusting each other and get on the same page.”
While Washington’s five-on-five play has deteriorated, penalties and a struggling penalty kill have compounded some of the miscues. The Capitals have allowed 40 power-play goals through 50 games, second only to the Colorado Avalanche’s 41, and that’s in large part because of Washington being called for 185 minor infractions. That’s the most in the league, and lately the penalties have come at inopportune times, sometimes right after the Capitals score a goal. In the past three games, Washington has allowed a goal within two minutes of its own four times.
“Our execution in the [defensive] zone hasn’t been our best, so we need to get back to that,” Backstrom said. “I feel like we’re making it harder on ourselves in the [defensive] zone. Instead of just making the easy play and get going north, we’re sticking around there, so that’s something we’ve got to be better at.”
The Capitals can take solace that their struggles aren’t unique for a defending champion. This downturn is potentially just the result of a long playoff run and a short offseason catching up to them, which the week-long break should help. They were a porous defensive team at this time last year, too, and weathering that ultimately helped get them hot just before the postseason, setting up their path to a franchise-first Stanley Cup. At least for now, there hasn’t been so much damage done to their standings position that it can’t be repaired. Going into the all-star break, Washington is still second in the division.
“We understand there’s a lot of work to be done when we get back,” Reirden said. “I have a lot of confidence in our leadership group and the group in that room that have been through adversity and have shown their true colors when push comes to shove.”
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