TORONTO — Six games into the lockout-shortened NHL schedule, it’s clear that the Washington Capitals’ evolution under new Coach Adam Oates won’t take place instantly.
The 1-4-1 Capitals arrived here ahead of their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday ranked 14th in the Eastern Conference. They showed signs of cohesion against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night, but not even their best performance to date translated into a victory as they gave up a two-goal lead and lost, 3-2.
It was a defeat that left players grappling with conflicting emotions. On one hand, they want to emphasize what they did so well for 38 minutes – force turnovers, dominate puck possession and use a perpetual forecheck to spend shift after shift in the offensive zone. On the other, they want to focus on how to prevent similar outcomes in the future – put another team away with an extra goal, not allow a late momentum-boosting tally and avoid scrambling when an opponent pushes back.
“You want to reinforce the good that we did, but obviously you don’t want to be happy about games like this,” Mike Ribeiro said. “Small things will cost you, and obviously right now they’re costing us. Every little mistake we make feels like [opponents] come back and score on us. You learn from those situations and you don’t want that to repeat.”
There’s no telling how long it will take any team to become fully adjusted under a new coach. The learning curve varies from player to player, from line to line, and within special-teams units. One individual or group might stand out one night only to succumb to bad habits the next.
Take star winger Alex Ovechkin, who in the span of the first six games has been moved to right wing and back to left, and played with seven different linemates, most recently grinders Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb. He struggled with the switch to right wing, drifting often to the left and sabotaging his line’s efforts, and scored just one goal in six games, a power-play tally against Buffalo. But upon moving back to the left side despite muted offensive production, he’s had chances and been an aggressive presence on the forecheck, which Oates insists are encouraging signs.
“He’s one of our marquee guys,” Oates said. “He got the chances because he played well. The more he does, the more he’s going to get those chances and he’s going to get a lot of goals. . . . I’m really not worried about him scoring goals. He’s going to get plenty.”
It hasn’t helped that Ovechkin and his teammates had just six days of training camp to familiarize themselves with Oates’s style and his coaching staff, a challenge several Capitals have likened to undergoing a midseason coaching change.
Most players on Washington’s roster are quite familiar with the team’s growing pains when Dale Hunter took over as coach in late November 2011. It took time — arguably until the playoffs — for the Capitals to fully buckle down and adhere to Hunter’s demands of self-sacrifice and risk aversion.
While they showed flashes of what they could do, particularly in late February and March of 2012, the Capitals struggled to find a dependable formula for success. Often all it took was a five- to 10-minute stretch of errors to cost them a game. That’s precisely what happened against the Senators on Tuesday, where a missed assignment here and a bad pass there cost Washington a chance at two points.
“The guys in this room feel that we’ve learned that lesson in the past. We felt like we went through a lot of that last season,” Matt Hendricks said. “We need to look back in the memory bank and remember those situations, remember what we did, how we played and remember the will and the want of it.”
There’s one main difference from last year, though. Washington doesn’t have 60 regular season games to find its way under Oates like it did Hunter. By Feb. 10 they will have played 12 games, a quarter of this truncated season.
“We don’t have any luxury to tread water; we’ve got to get going,” Jason Chimera said last week. “The start [to the season] is going to be crucial, and if we fall too far behind — it’s not like an 82-game season, you’ve got to get going right away — and if you fall too far behind, quite frankly, you’re not going to catch up.”