Through three months and 41 games, all that is certain about the Washington Capitals at the midway point of the NHL season is that they’ve yet to find a true identity.
There are the diligent, disciplined Capitals who work as a cohesive unit to break the puck out of their own end and work it up the ice, creating offense through solid decision-making. And then there are the disorganized Capitals, who turn over the puck in the neutral zone and commit errors that stem from a lack of focus.
“We have too many highs and too many lows with our team,” veteran winger Eric Fehr said. “At times we show we’re one of the best teams in the league, and we show times where we break down, we’re not good defensively and we’re not smart. It will be important for us to try and put everything together. I don’t think you’ve seen a really good offensive game and a really good defensive game in the same game.”
Even amid the inconsistencies, Washington sits in second place in the Metropolitan Division with 46 points and a 20-15-6 record. It’s hardly a secure spot, though, seeing as just six points separates the Capitals from seventh-place Columbus.
As the Capitals kick off the second half of the season Saturday night at the Minnesota Wild, here’s what has defined their campaign so far.
An inability to win in regulation: Washington has just 10 regulation wins through the first 41 games, and only four of those came against teams that had winning records. While the Capitals boast the league’s most shootout wins (eight), it’s also evidence of their inability to close out opponents within a 60-minute game.
Regulation and overtime wins are generally considered to be a more accurate indicator of a team’s strength, which is why that is the first tiebreaker in the standings. The Capitals entered Friday night with the sixth-fewest regulation and overtime wins in the NHL with 12, and only the four worst teams in the league — Edmonton (nine), New York Islanders (nine), Calgary (seven) and Buffalo (four) — had fewer regulation victories.
“We’ve left a lot of points on the table in the first half this season,” Troy Brouwer said. “I know we’re happy with being in [a playoff position] right now, but I feel like we could be pushing for first in our division if we would have been able to get all the points that I feel we’ve left out there.”
Cleaning up the defense: Coach Adam Oates said earlier this week he’s been pleased with gradual improvements in the Capitals’ defensive game but is quick to point out that they’re still not quite automatic in their own end — especially when under duress. Clean zone exits are far from a given for the Capitals, whose forwards are still inconsistent at coming back to provide proper support and whose defensemen sometimes grapple with frequent turnovers and unnecessary icing plays.
Oates wants to see the most improvement in those difficult moments when an opponent is surging.
“How we handle those waves. We all feel that they’re in your end, they’re all over us, the world’s just about to come to an end. Do we stand tall?” Oates said. “We show them success when they execute and what it means to be successful there. . . . It’s every little thing — get the puck out on the wall, all the stuff we talk about all the time — but we’ve got to become better at it and understand those responsibilities.”
Goaltending carousel: Philipp Grubauer, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth are all homegrown prospects looking to show they should be the Capitals’ long-term starter. Grubauer, the latest to join the group at the NHL level, has started nine of the past 12 games, posting a 5-2-3 record this season with a .932 save percentage and 2.20 goals-against average. Then there’s Holtby, the playoff starter from the past two seasons, who appeared in 27 games before Grubauer took the reins. Neuvirth has requested a trade after sitting as a healthy scratch for the past nine games.
“Right now with how many starts Grubi’s getting you’ve got to consider him our number one at the moment. Guys are comfortable with that,” Brouwer said. “When Holts is in net, he’s strong. Guys are confident with him back there as well, so we’re really not concerned about who’s starting. I’m assuming at some point they’re going to make a clear-cut decision whose net it is going forward into the playoffs here.”
A lack of consistency: There is arguably no greater evidence of Washington’s staccato-like focus than how it continues to give up goals in the first 150 seconds after scoring itself.
After allowing two such goals in a 4-3 overtime loss to Carolina on Thursday night, the Capitals have now given up such momentum-destroying goals 22 times.
It’s a symptom of the larger swings in performance that Washington suffers from on a game-to-game basis. The Capitals, whose longest winning streak was four in early November, have won consecutive games in regulation only once.
“It’s almost like sometimes we find ways to lose games, and that’s very frustrating,” Karl Alzner said. “We’re still in a pretty good position, but the big roller coaster is frustrating for us and we don’t want to have that happen. When it comes down to it in playoffs, you can’t lose three games in a row and can’t expect to make it past any series.”