PITTSBURGH — Tuesday night, after the Washington Capitals’ fifth loss in the past six games, players shuffled about the visitors’ dressing room at Consol Energy Center in silence. The somber quiet was that of a team that could see its opportunity to reach the postseason slipping away but has done little to reverse its course in the last 10 days.
The Capitals have one win in the last six games, have lost three straight on the road and have been shut out in consecutive road games for the first time since November 2010. With 15 games left in the regular season, Washington sits three points out of a playoff spot but has played more games than all of the teams it is contending with and doesn’t own any tiebreakers.
“We know the situation: We know we can’t lose a game; we can’t give up the points,” Alex Ovechkin said, adding that the Capitals are feeling the weight of trying to make the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.
“It’s something like when you try shoot the puck, it just don’t go in and sometimes you just feel like you have to score. You take pressure, put it on your shoulder and everybody put pressure on their shoulder right now,” Ovechkin said. “We just have to relax and don’t look at the standings and play our game. When you have that kind of situation you always thinking, ‘Oh, one mistake’ and you’re going to be like, ‘Okay here we go again.’ We start [to] play not our game, and it cost us the game.”
But for some time now, the Capitals haven’t played their ideal game: establish a strong forecheck, move the puck cleanly up the ice and try to dominate territory. In their past six contests, during which they are 1-4-1, the Capitals got off to sluggish starts, got pinned in their own zone and heavily outshot for significant portions of the game and couldn’t find their offense until trying to mount a late-game comeback.
Take the Capitals’ latest stretch of road games. They’ve been shut out twice in a row — by Boston and Pittsburgh — and it’s been 130:35 since they last recorded an even-strength goal away from Verizon Center. And even that tally, by Troy Brouwer in Philadelphia, came during four-on-four play. Washington’s last five-on-five road goal came 189:07 ago in the third period March 1 in Boston.
In each of the last three road games, Washington has recorded no more than 12 shots on goal in the first 40 minutes.
“We came out flat at the start,” Brouwer said. “We weren’t able to get much on the forecheck. We were kind of putting the pucks behind their net where [Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre] Fleury could play them and break them out rather than us getting in on the forecheck.”
Washington hasn’t scored first since March 2 against the Flyers, a game it lost 5-4 in overtime after squandering a two-goal lead in the third period. For a team fighting to keep its playoff hopes afloat, falling behind some of the top teams in the NHL such as Pittsburgh and Boston isn’t a high-percentage plan.
Even when the Capitals are able to stabilize themselves and not spend half a game in their own zone, like they did in Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Penguins at Verizon Center, defensive mistakes wind up in the back of their net.
Contributing to the lopsided shots and possession numbers is Washington’s inability to succeed in the faceoff circle. In the past six games, which have featured three of the league’s top 10 faceoff teams (Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Boston), the Capitals have won just 133 of the 333 total draws, a 39.9 percent success rate. Winning that isolated battle won’t become any easier, either. Seven of the Capitals’ final 15 games come against opponents that are among the top eight faceoff teams in the league.
None of the contributing factors — the lost faceoffs, lack of shots and turnovers — matters as much as what they all add up to: wasted opportunities for a team that is running out of time to make a late-season push.
“There’s definitely a higher sense of urgency in the room,” rookie Connor Carrick said. “Guys are saying it: We need to be more desperate, we need to play harder, earn that bounce. That’s the message in the room, but we’ve got to make it happen.”