Had you told the Washington Capitals in advance that coming out of the Olympic break they would capture five of six points available in their first three games, they would have viewed it as a step forward in their quest to reach the playoffs for a seventh straight season.
But lurking below the surface of those results is one of the Capitals’ most self-destructive patterns: their tendency to blow two-goal leads.
They’ve done it three times in the three games since resuming their schedule, and on Sunday it cost them a chance to surpass the Philadelphia Flyers, another team vying for a postseason berth, in the standings.
“It hurts because we blew a lead. It’s the wrong way,” Coach Adam Oates said. “At this point in time, you’re supposed to be better than that.”
All told, the Capitals have squandered two-goal leads 11 times in 10 different games this season. They’re 4-3-3 in those contests, meaning the lapses have cost them nine standings points — a quantifiable and significant amount of failed potential for a team that is currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference’s playoff picture and doesn’t own any tiebreakers.
That this latest blunder came against the Flyers only added to the ugliness of the trend. Washington established a 4-2 lead with 3 minutes 37 seconds to go in the second period of the matinee game, but after that would be outshot 19-4 by the time Vincent Lecavalier scored the game-winner for the Flyers in overtime. Over that same span, Philadelphia recorded 43 total shot attempts (shots, blocks and misses combined) to the Capitals’ 11.
Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov’s retaliatory hit and resulting five-minute major penalty for boarding in the third period certainly played a major role in creating the discrepancy. The Capitals were outshot 13-0 and out-attempted 28-3 from when he was penalized with 10:27 left in regulation. But Washington had little response to the Flyers’ push before that infraction or after the penalty expired.
“It was embarrassing,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “I don’t know what it is. We didn’t play a game today that we should have won. We were lucky to get to overtime. When a game’s on the line like that, when we have a lead, we need to lock down and play defensive hockey and we’re not doing that.”
Players acknowledge that they’re susceptible to lulls in their game once they’ve established a multi-goal lead. They inherently want to protect the lead, but retreating into a defensive shell only works if the defense can hold up to that pressure. Washington’s play in its own end has been suspect most games this season, but that hasn’t prevented the team from trying to protect the lead rather than build on it .
“There’s a very fine line once you’re up two,” forward Jay Beagle said. “You have a two-goal lead, so you want to play a little bit more defensive. But in the other sense, in doing that you spend most of the time in your D zone, which is going to result in some goals. So I think we’ve just got to keep our foot on the gas and keep charging at them and keep pushing the pace to them.”
Yet that rarely occurs. The Capitals take only 44.1 percent of the shots at even strength when they’re leading by two or more goals this season according to ExtraSkater.com, a Web site than analyzes NHL statistics. That means that when they’re up by two or more goals, the Capitals allow their opponents to fire more than 55 percent of the shots.
Saturday, in their 4-2 win over the Bruins, the Capitals hung on to their lead but attempted only five shots to Boston’s 10 in the final 9:07 after going up by two. In the first game out of the break, at Florida on Thursday, the Capitals gave up a pair of two-goal advantages before winning, 5-4.
After Washington went up 2-0, the Panthers outshot the visitors 10-5 and out-attempted them 16-5 over the next 12:30 of play until they tied the game. The Capitals re-established a two-goal lead, at 4-2, late in the second period but then let Florida control the pace again. The Panthers outshot them 7-4 and out-attempted them 13-5 over 11:24 of play as they worked to knot the game at 4.
“It’s not good enough. We’re up two goals,” forward Marcus Johansson said. “There’s no reason to change anything when you’re up two goals. I think you should play the same way. It doesn’t call for anything else.”
Following the wins in Florida and Boston, the Capitals talked about learning to stay on the offensive when they have a lead. All that chatter didn’t prevent a letdown from happening again against the Flyers, though, and this time it resulted in a damaging defeat.
“We’ve done it too many times. We almost don’t want two-goal leads the way we’re playing with them right now,” forward Eric Fehr said. “I don’t know what it is, if we shut our brains off for a little bit or think the game’s over. In this league, we should have learned by now the games are far from over.”
Capitals note: Orlov has been suspended two games for boarding Flyers forward Brayden Schenn in Sunday’s game, leaving the Capitals without one of their top-four defensemen for a key set of back-to-back games this week.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety deemed Orlov’s hit a “violent check” and continued a season-long trend of penalizing those who choose to drive players into the boards from behind.
Orlov, 22, will forfeit $7,076.92 in pay and is eligible to return to the lineup on Saturday against Phoenix. It is the first suspension in the defenseman’s career, which spans 101 regular season games over the past three seasons.