When the Washington Capitals won back-to-back games last week, ending a four-game losing streak, it seemed to signal the possibility that the team could string together wins despite this hectic stretch in their schedule.
But those victories over Tampa Bay and Toronto were little more than a mirage, exposed by the Capitals’ listless and uninspired performance in a 2-1 shootout loss Sunday to the league-worst Buffalo Sabres.
Regardless of how the defeat is dissected, the unforgiving reality is that Washington frittered away a winnable game against a team that had lost 11 consecutive road games prior to visiting Verizon Center.
After 45 games, the Capitals are every bit the inconsistent and flawed team their 22-16-7 record suggests. They’ve lost eight of their last 12 games and despite residing in second place in the Metropolitan Division, with 51 points they are only five removed from seventh.
That’s not the description of a team that can afford to squander points, or an opportunity to create just its fifth three-game winning streak of the season, against a last-place opponent. Especially not with eight of its next 10 games on the road and back-to-back games against two of the top five teams in the league — San Jose and Pittsburgh — looming Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.
“Obviously you want to win every game,” top center Nicklas Backstrom said. “Shame on us players. We had the chance to win the game [against Buffalo]. It was tied after two — our fault.”
Players were quick to acknowledge that they didn’t have the energy required to triumph over any team, even the lowly Sabres, and fell into their opponent’s mercurial style of play. But Coach Adam Oates took a different stance on the sluggishness, stating that after two emotional victories against Tampa Bay and Toronto, the Capitals looked tired.
“Those last two games we won [against] Toronto late, beat Tampa late. I think mentally you get a little tired, physically as well,” Oates said. “Our execution — we ice the puck four feet from center five times tonight — that turns into disaster for us. Guys are yelling at each other; it just wears you down.”
There’s no doubt that the difficulty of a full NHL season begins to wear on teams and players in January, when the optimism of a fresh start has waned and the true race for the postseason has yet to begin. But the Capitals had four days off before they claimed those wins against the Lightning and Maple Leafs. If Washington is ever going to generate the kind of sustained success players speak of in revered tones, fatigue can’t be an acceptable excuse for an ugly loss.
Defenseman Karl Alzner, who offers candid and honest assessments regardless of the situation, suggested that the lack of a morning skate ahead of an afternoon game disrupted the Capitals’ routine.
“We weren’t sharp enough, and that’s where sometimes we complain about having to do the morning skates, but that’s the part of the morning skate that helps is it gets you a little bit in a better frame of mind, a little sharper,” Alzner said. “We could have benefited from one of those. We didn’t have that luxury and we’ve got to find a way to do a better job of playing better and getting ready to play better.”
But that too takes the team off the hook for continuing to succumb to errors stemming from a lack of focus, no matter the type or time of a contest.
As Oates mentioned, they iced the puck despite having easy, better plays available, coughed up turnovers frequently in the neutral zone and played into Buffalo’s hands by shooting the puck into blocks and deflections rather than focusing on working the puck deep in the offensive zone for sustained pressure.
Even one of Washington’s biggest sources of strength this season — a power play tied for first in the league at 25.2 percent — was bizarrely ineffective. The Capitals couldn’t set up in the zone consistently or maintain any type of rhythm in their passing and recorded only one shot on goal in four minutes on the man-advantage. The Sabres recorded two shorthanded shots in that same span.
“I hate those mistakes from guys that you count on,” Oates said. “Most power-play guys are veterans, they’ve been there before, have been tired before, have been mentally tired before. You still expect execution.”
The Capitals play 14 more games before the NHL takes a 16-day break for the Sochi Olympics. They will have played 59 games, or 72 percent of the season, by that juncture and, one way or another, shown whether they’re able to do more than tread water in the Eastern Conference. While that may be enough to get them back to the playoffs for a seventh straight year, it certainly doesn't guarantee much more.