The season is young, but the Washington Capitals have already developed a bad habit: Each of the team’s first six games this season has featured sloppy, lackluster first periods.
Passes that lack crispness, disjointed breakouts, failed attempts to enter the offensive zone and a general disorganization have become constant features of the Capitals’ starts. The difficulty of playing catch-up, both on the scoreboard and in momentum, is underscored by Washington’s 2-4 record.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to just be focused earlier,” Coach Adam Oates said. “The biggest thing that’s frustrating is the passing for me. You’re passing it to your buddy, you put it in his feet and you put him in a difficult situation. We’ve got to conquer that, and we will.”
Washington has allowed nine goals in the first period this season, which entering Tuesday was tied with the Buffalo Sabres (1-6-1) for second most in the league, while only recording four of its own. Those lopsided goal totals result in the Capitals spending a combined 47 minutes 23 seconds trailing in first periods and leading only 18:02.
A strong opening period could be key at Verizon Center on Wednesday night, when the Capitals host the struggling New York Rangers, who are off to a 1-4-0 start under new Coach Alain Vigneault while allowing a league-high five goals per game. The Capitals know how tough it can be to assimilate to a new coach and new system — after all, they did it under Oates last year — and they want to take advantage of New York’s insecurities.
“We know what that’s like. It’s very frustrating, and teams are fragile,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “For us, it’s all about getting on them quick.”
Washington spent much of the opening 10 to 12 minutes of its eventual 4-2 win over the Oilers on Monday night trapped deep in its own zone, unable to sustain possession or even venture into Edmonton’s end.
Every time it looked like the Capitals might gain the red line, they coughed up the puck. Players also tried to carry the puck over the offensive blue line at times, when the smarter decision may have been to send it deep and then establish a forecheck.
There were so many turnovers against Edmonton, in fact, that the Capitals spent a portion of Tuesday’s practice simulating the neutral-zone gaffes so they could learn how to better avoid them and recover in the event that they do lose possession.
“We’re trying to protect the puck and hold on to it a little bit longer so we don’t have to dump it as much, but I think sometimes we’re losing sight of when there is nothing else to do and it just needs to get in deep,” Alzner said. “You can manage your shifts better, too. There have been a few times where guys have been caught out way too long because we try and do a bit too much. We’ve got to find a good balance.”
The Capitals’ early problems are more self-inflicted than brought about by the performance of an opponent. Given the way Washington has struggled to create consistent offense, especially at even strength, players admit they’ve been trying to force complex plays.
“I was guilty of it [against Edmonton], and we talked about it after the first,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We had numerous guys that turned guys over at the offensive blueline trying to make something happen when the play isn’t there. I think we were guilty of that [Monday] night.
“If we can have a couple games where guys are getting some goals, getting on a little bit of a roll, I think it’s going to let us relax at the start of the game more.”