PITTSBURGH — It has become common in recent weeks to see the Washington Capitals enter the offensive zone with the best of intentions, yet see them exit the same stretch of ice without so much as hinting at a scoring chance or a shot on goal.
Regardless how the possessions are derailed, whether by turnovers or trying to be too cute in pursuit of a highlight-worthy play, they often end the same — with the Capitals retreating into their own end with little to show for their trip across an opponents’ blue line.
Heading into Sunday’s matinee against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington has failed to crack the 25-shot mark in any of the past seven contests. The Capitals have been outshot in 15 of their past 16 games. For a team and core group of players that was once so identified by its offensive prowess and what appeared to be an ability to score at will, it has been quite a shift.
“We had rushes, three-on-one, two-on-one and they made a play and never got a scoring chance out of it,” Coach Dale Hunter said. “Definitely got to get more pucks to the net and making the proper decision when you do get a chance. We’re blowing some chances, that’s what we’re doing. There’s only so many chances in a game so you’ve got to get it out there.”
To be certain, Hunter emphasizes more of a defensive posture for the Capitals than former coach Bruce Boudreau did when the team was blazing its way to the top of the league in offense. Washington is also coping with the absence of No. 1 center Nicklas Backstrom (concussion) and Mike Green (sports hernia) to injury.
Nevertheless, when Washington cannot escape its own zone to establish puck possession and generate scoring chances it puts additional strain on the defense and the goaltenders. Against a team such as Pittsburgh that is ranked first in the NHL in shots on goal per game (34.5) and has outshot its opponent in 13 consecutive games, that pressure likely will be even greater.
“It’s hard on us D always running around down there . . . it’s a tough job when you play 40-45 minutes in your own zone and can’t get out,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We’re starting to get a little upset about being in our own end and having lots of shots against us, and we’ve got to go out there and fix it. . . . Everyone’s got to do their part and that’s it. I have to do my job in the corner, the winger’s got to do [his] job at the blue line, move it up and keep it there. We’ve just got to put all the pieces together.”
So on Saturday, in a practice that stretched beyond an hour, the Capitals focused on maintaining possession upon entering the offensive zone, manufacturing opportunities and making sure players focused on driving to the net.
Part of the practice was also used to hammer home the idea that the most effective play may not always be the pretty one, and that cycling the puck, without creating a scoring chance, does little good.
“If you don’t have anything but you throw it off a pad for a rebound, that’s just as good as a pretty backdoor pass,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “We’ve just got to make sure that pucks and bodies are going to the net — not just one or the other.”
While the lack of shots and offense is a team-wide problem, there’s no question the Capitals would like to see captain Alex Ovechkin start taking more shots that hit the net. In the past 10 games Ovechkin, who has led the NHL in shots on goal in each of his six seasons, has recorded five or more shots just once and he has only posted five or more twice in the past 14.
Asked about his low shot totals, Ovechkin addressed the Capitals’ collective offensive woes.
“You can find some excuses, but you can’t play like that,” Ovechkin said. “You can’t win the game with 14, 16 shots on net in the game [and having to] give all the attention to our goaltending.”