The Washington Capitals knew all along that the task laid out for them in this lockout-shortened season was nothing less than daunting. Their disjointed performance against Tampa Bay in Saturday night’s season opener reinforced that reality and offered a pointed reminder that while training camp is over, there’s plenty of work still to do.
The Capitals are one of four teams in the NHL facing the disadvantage of breaking in a new head coach on the accelerated timeline. While the other 26 teams also struggle with getting back into condition after the long layoff, they can review familiar game plans and fall back on their instincts. Washington, meanwhile, must build on-ice habits and patterns from the ground up.
Learning a new system takes time, a luxury the Capitals don’t have in this schedule. In case that wasn’t enough, the players must also find ways to ramp up their endurance to handle an NHL workload.
With precious little practice time available, they must find a way to adapt on the fly and improve with every game.
“It’s tough,” Coach Adam Oates said of the challenges to get up to speed with a new system. “It’s going to take the guys awhile and we’ve talked about that. Hopefully we can win enough games until it becomes automatic.”
The 6-3 loss to the Lightning on Saturday exposed the lack of cohesiveness. The Capitals often were caught scrambling to find their defensive assignments. Defensemen would jump into the rush on offense, getting caught up ice and allowing odd-man rushes against them just as frequently as they aided in the creation of scoring chances.
Tampa Bay’s fifth goal of the night, by rookie Cory Conacher, was a prime example. Tom Poti, playing his first NHL game in more than two years, was caught up ice, leaving room for a three-on-one and making it far too easy for the Lightning to cash in.
“Any time you learn a new system it’s hard for everyone to get comfortable with it. You’re thinking a little bit first before you’re just kind of doing,” Poti said. “Definitely we had some breakdowns out there and they were pretty apparent. I think the only way we can go is up.”
The abundance of time spent on special teams, thanks to eight minor penalties against the Capitals and 11 total power plays in the game, made for lopsided ice time and jumbled combinations. Offensively, it prevented forward lines from establishing a rhythm.
Joel Ward said it “deflated” the Capitals, who spent the bulk of training camp focusing on developing chemistry within their individual units.
It’s impossible to know whether the offense would have been less hesitant if everyone had been involved in the game early.
Not even those who played a lot in the first period contributed consistently. After taking four shots in 9 minutes 11 seconds in the first period, Alex Ovechkin was all but unnoticeable. He and linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson finished without a point among them.
Center Mike Ribeiro, who recorded a primary assist in his first game with the team, believes the Capitals must find its bearings defensively and trust that the offense will follow.
“I think we need to focus defensively and go from there, from our zone and go up. We’ll create our offense with the skill we have,” Ribeiro said. “I find that we came back in our zone a lot of times and [were] swinging away. Once we play a little bit more guys will come back and stop in position.”
Oates attributed the swinging — reaching with a stick rather than being able to stop and go to correctly defend an opponent — to the players’ conditioning levels. Improving endurance will likely have to come from additional game action, Oates said, because there’s not enough recovery time for the coaching staff to tire out players with conditioning drills in practice.
“Getting a couple games under your belt will certainly help, but we play four games in a week,” Oates said when asked if he would approach practice differently to help bring the Capitals up to speed. “When do you try and catch up? It’s tough.”
Time is of the essence for the Capitals as any slump in a 48-game season can spell trouble for playoff hopes. The good part about this compact schedule, however, is they will have four games over the next seven days to clean up their schemes, beginning with the home opener Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.
“We have to figure out. We gonna watch the video, it’s not a panic or nothing,” Ovechkin said. “Just the first game, everybody gets excited. So everybody right now calm. Somebody have to win, somebody have to lose.”