The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Slow starts, especially on the road, have kept the Caps chasing the game

Following Saturday’s 5-1 loss at New Jersey, John Carlson’s Capitals continue a six-game trip Tuesday at Vancouver. (Adam Hunger/AP)

VANCOUVER — The struggling Washington Capitals have been chasing the game most of the season, and they haven’t found a way to snap out of that troublesome habit. The latest example came Saturday night in Newark, where the New Jersey Devils opened the scoring in the first period and ultimately built a four-goal lead that yielded a dismal 5-1 loss for Washington.

It has become the norm for the Capitals to get stuck playing from behind, regardless of how well they fare in the opening 20 minutes — especially when they’re away from home. Washington has lost six straight on the road (0-4-2) and scored first in just one of those games, a 3-1 loss to Detroit on Nov. 3. In their past four road losses, the Capitals did not lead at any point.

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“It has just felt like we’ve been coming from behind almost every game,” center Nic Dowd said. “When we do get out to a lead, we play well and our team functions better because we don’t have to lean on our top guys to play heavy minutes.”

As its six-game trip continues Tuesday, Washington (9-11-3) has a chance to find its footing against Vancouver (9-10-3) — and it has positives from Saturday’s lopsided loss that it can draw from. The Capitals played one of their best first periods of the season against the Devils, controlling the puck in the offensive zone and regularly testing goaltender Vitek Vanecek. But the former Washington netminder turned in a standout performance, and the Devils grabbed the early lead when the Capitals’ penalty kill couldn’t get the job done.

“That’s the key — to get those leads and get out in front and not feel like you are chasing the game,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “We’ve had a few good first periods where we don’t get rewarded and it feels like you earned one, but you just got to stick with it and tides will change.”

Dowd liked the Capitals’ effort on offense in the first period Saturday, especially following a convincing home win over Calgary the day before. But once a second and third goal are on the board, the wheels can fall off. Coach Peter Laviolette has pointed to ill-timed giveaways and miscues in the neutral zone that have led to high-danger scoring chances for the opposition.

“You just start to do things that individuals [shouldn’t] do because we are pressing for goals or, as a team, you got to play certain guys more,” Dowd said. “It is also just tough on a back-to-back — and it gets tougher as the season goes on.”

Those first-period woes highlight injury-ravaged Washington’s inability to play a 60-minute game. Often, the Capitals rebound in the second and third, but they can’t fully make up for their early mistakes. The players and coaches have offered various explanations for the first-period struggles; some chalked them up to a lack of effort, while others were frustrated that the puck simply hasn’t gone in.

Regardless of the reason, the Capitals need to improve in the first period.

“I think you just got to simplify the game early on,” winger Conor Sheary said. “If you’re high-risk and giving up odd-man rushes and stuff like that, I think that gives teams opportunities to jump ahead. Discipline is a huge thing in the first period.”

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