Earlier this season, Carlson said, if the team had a poor game as it did against the Flyers, it was able to sort of “sweep it under the rug.” The Capitals had held the top spot in the standings for the majority of the season, and there was no feeling that one lopsided loss would spiral into a larger problem. Yes, the team had issues — and still does — but those concerns were heightened Saturday night.
“Definitely not panicked, but we would really like to see a better, consistent game,” Carlson said.
The Capitals (36-14-5) have lost their grip at the top, with the Boston Bruins now in first place in the NHL and the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues surging. Starting with a 7-3 loss at the Bruins on Dec. 23, the Capitals have gone 10-8-0, and they have allowed four or more goals in nine of those games.
More recently, since the all-star break, the Capitals are 3-3-0, alternating wins and losses. So where do they go from here?
“I don’t think we’ve had enough dominating efforts from our team like we’re capable or used to,” Carlson said. “We’re clawing back, we’re showing a lot of fight, a lot of resiliency making some great plays and putting together some great stretches of hockey, but I just don’t think we’re where we need to be in terms of a full effort.”
Carlson said the team has held meetings to figure out how to turn change that but the players have to find ways to keep themselves “accountable and figure it out.” The accountability started in the dressing room Saturday night; Carlson in particular owned up to his poor defensive showing.
“I’m just speaking from the players’ standpoint: I think if I make a bad pass, I should be able to execute and don’t do anything different other than just execute the pass that you’re capable of, and I think I battled with that a lot,” Carlson said.
Coach Todd Reirden, who perhaps was as displeased as he has been all season during a game, has stressed multiple times that he feels the team hasn’t played up to its potential. Saturday was just another example of how and why the Capitals aren’t where they need to be.
This loss, against a Metropolitan Division opponent and on a night when captain Alex Ovechkin was gunning for his 699th and 700th career goals, felt different. The turnovers and defensive breakdowns came from far and wide. And it wasn’t just one player who made an egregious error; multiple players did.
“From top to bottom, we didn’t have it,” Reirden said. “We weren’t sharp, and it’s up to us to respond in a meaningful game on Monday [against the New York Islanders].”
For a squad that has made comebacks a key component of its identity this season, Saturday showed the flip side: The Capitals looked worse as the game went on. Plays that began with promise quickly spiraled and led to turnovers, and the Flyers scored on quick strikes. The Capitals just “didn’t play smart,” defenseman Radko Gudas said, at the start of the second period, and giveaways cost them almost instantly.
As Gudas lamented, the mistakes came right after each other, shift after shift. The Capitals gave up the puck in the slot and, when the Flyers gained control, Washington couldn’t find its defensive structure. The players weren’t able to simplify their game, and they faltered.
“I think it was just too much not executing well what we’re capable of doing,” Carlson said. “I think when it seems like that, that’s pretty deflating, and sometimes trying to change things up is counterintuitive as well. So I think we’re all good players and [need to] stick to our guns a little bit more.”
While the two did not directly correlate, the team also went with altered personnel for Saturday’s matchup. Nick Jensen was a healthy scratch for the first time this season, and rookie defenseman Martin Fehervary played his second straight game. He teamed with Dmitry Orlov on the second pairing, with Orlov playing mainly on his off side. The Capitals have not indicated how long Fehervary will be with the big club, but they wanted to take stock of their inventory as the trade deadline looms Feb. 24.
“We were feeling pretty confident right now,” Gudas said Saturday. “I think we maybe lost it tonight at times, and it’s costing us. Instead of knowing that we can make the play, maybe [we were] afraid of making our play and trying to force some plays that are not necessarily there [while trying to] show our fans something more that we feel like they deserve at this time of the season. Simple hockey is usually the key to success.”
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