One of the most glaring contradictions about these Washington Capitals came into focus again during a weekend split.
The Capitals salvaged two points Saturday by rallying to a 4-3 shootout win over the New York Islanders. But the loss, a 2-1 defeat Friday night at New Jersey, was by player consensus the better of their two performances, a more patient and controlled outing with far superior play in their own end. The Capitals played the way they say they aim to every night, but for all the organization’s focus on becoming a better two-way team capable of winning low-scoring games, it has yet to do so even once this season.
The Capitals are 0-25-6 when they score two or fewer goals this season, including games that have gone to shootouts. In two seasons under Coach Adam Oates the team is 1-41-8 in those contests, the worst record in the league under those circumstances.
“It’s a pretty scary stat that we’re having trouble winning games where we don’t outscore teams,” Troy Brouwer said. “We’ve worked consistently on trying to improve our defense — team defense, individual players’ defense — just so as a whole we can try to win those games, and it goes even further than that. We’ve had a lot of games where we’ve given up a few goal leads and as a result have to try and outscore teams. That’s not the team. That’s not the identity that we want to have.”
The reasons why the Capitals (35-30-13, 83 points), whose playoff hopes remain faint with four games left, need three or more goals to triumph vary from game to game. But the root causes can be traced to fundamental problems that have plagued them the entire season: a lack of even-strength goals and an unreliable defense.
Washington has been outscored 159-133 at even strength this season. Isolating five-on-five goals, the Capitals average 2.05 goals and allow 2.46 per 60 minutes, according to ExtraSkater.com. Simply put, when the Capitals aren’t able to light up the scoresheet on the power play, they can’t be counted on to produce enough to win.
“I don’t think we’ve scored enough five-on-five goals, but in our situation with teams that are playing us it’s a dogfight sometimes,” John Carlson said. “They know what kind of offense that we can bring. On those nights that they’re stingy on us, I think we get a little bit frustrated at certain times.”
By becoming so reliant on the power play, which entered Sunday’s games ranked second in the league at 23 percent but has been held silent in four of the past five games and six of the past eight, Washington has turned one of its greatest strengths into a vulnerability. Strong defensive teams like the Devils can focus on suffocating the power play and bet on their ability to tilt the contest at even strength.
While the lack of even-strength goals has been a persistent concern, Oates maintains the Capitals’ first priority must be preventing goals.
“You just focus on doing the job defensively first. Every play that you make in your own end that you take care of maybe gives you one more opportunity down the other end or kills the clock or at least puts the puck down in their end,” Oates said. “It’s always our end first, and a night like [Friday against New Jersey] I can’t complain. We had a lot of chances; we didn’t score. As a coach I don’t put them in, right? So you find every single way to create one more chance.”
But the defense and goaltending haven’t shown the ability to endure a tight, low scoring contest and smother an opponent’s chances when they must.
Washington averages 31.3 shots allowed in five-on-five play — sixth most in the league prior to Sunday’s games — and spends more time without the puck than with it as evidenced by its 48.3 Corsi percentage, which measures puck possession by the total number of shots on net, shots that miss the net and blocked shots in a game. Even though Braden Holtby and Jaroslav Halak possess solid five-on-five save percentages at .926 and .921, respectively, the volume of shots they face takes a toll.
Mix a one-dimensional offense with defensive play that yields a significant amount of possession, and it results in a team that is trying to mask deficiencies at both ends.
“You have to win those low-scoring games. You have to be able to control leads and make it so that if you’re in tight games you have the confidence to win those games — 1-0, 2-1 or whatever it may be,” Brouwer said. “We haven’t been good at that, and as a result we’re not in the playoffs with [four] games left in the season.”