SAN JOSE — Most NHL teams would kill for what could be considered a slight slump for the Washington Capitals.
They still haven’t lost back-to-back games in regulation all season, but with the postseason a month away, the Capitals are in a lackluster stretch for their standards. They have played without a lead in their past five games — though all five came against playoff-bound teams, and they still managed to win two. While their opponents are jockeying for postseason position, Washington is secure, so naturally, the Capitals are weathering a more desperate effort from opponents.
But as the Capitals return home after their California swing, a question persists: Can Washington snap out of its bad habits before the playoffs?
“We believe we have a chance every night to get points,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “We’ve had some big holes this year that we’ve climbed out of in this league, where even the smallest hole, teams don’t have great records. We’ve been pretty fortunate, but that says a lot about our group.
“Going forward, you get into the playoffs, you don’t want to leave those type of things to chance, to be in a hole and try to dig yourself out. The good thing is that we don’t panic when we get scored on. I think there’s a low panic level in our group. Those are all positives. There’s probably about 50 positives to one negative, but as we do it, we know it’s a different animal when you get to the playoffs.”
Poor starts have been the most glaring deficiency, what Justin Williams recently called the team’s Achilles’ heel. The Capitals have given up the first goal of the game in five straight games and in 13 of their past 15. Sometimes, the scoring chances after the first period are fairly even, but Washington still finds itself trailing after 20 minutes, and the Capitals are now minus-6 in the first period this season.
In the second period, the Capitals have a goal differential of plus-28, and they are plus-33 in third periods this season, which is tops in the league. That explains why Washington is the only team that has a winning record in situations in which it allows the first goal of the game.
The Capitals win 93.5 percent of their games when they score first. Their two wins in the past five games came when Washington had tied the game in regulation and then won it in overtime or a shootout.
How much easier is the game to manage with a lead?
“I don’t know. We haven’t had it for five games, so I couldn’t tell you,” Trotz said. “We went 2-2-1 in the last five games when we haven’t had the lead at all, so that’s not bad. But at the same time, we’d like to play with the lead.”
Said right winger T.J. Oshie: “It definitely hurts us. It’s hard playing from behind all of the time. We don’t get down on ourselves when it happens. We almost get up and play a little bit better, but it’d be nice to start with the first one.”
Another issue is that the Capitals, a team that thrived on offensive contributions from its top three lines, haven’t seen as much balance lately. The third line hasn’t scored a goal in six games, and midway through Saturday’s game in San Jose, Trotz broke it up by moving Marcus Johansson back to the wing and making Mike Richards the center on that line. Tom Wilson got bumped down to the fourth line.
Trotz hasn’t shielded his first line of Oshie, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom from matchups against opponents’ top lines, and the line’s point production at even strength has dipped. Ovechkin is enduring his longest goal drought since he went six games without scoring in October of last season.
In his past eight games, Ovechkin has one goal, four assists and is a minus-5. It has been six games since he has scored a goal. He’s still the league leader in goals (41) and has 62 points this season.
When Trotz was asked whether there’s more to Ovechkin’s drought, he said no.
“Everybody that we’re playing is in playoff mode,” Trotz added. “They’re fighting for playoff position. They’re marking us, using us as a little bit of a yardstick based on our record, so every game is hard. You’ve got to fight for inches. Right now, we’ve got some guys that are playing hard, but we’re not fighting for enough inches. You’re going to have to fight for the inches in the playoffs, and you’ve got to prepare that way and expect that.”