This season’s version of last season’s Washington Capitals will visit Verizon Center on Friday night, sporting Vancouver Canucks jerseys and the best record in hockey. For the Capitals and their fans, it may be a nostalgic look at what once was.
A year ago today, the Caps were 28-12-6, with 62 points, and they had outscored their opponents by 37 goals, excluding shootouts. The Canucks enter Friday night’s game against Washington with a 28-9-6 record, 62 points and a 43-goal advantage.
“They’re a mirror image of what we were doing at this time last year,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said.
But when the Capitals look in the mirror this season, they see a team that is not scoring goals in droves. A year ago today the Capitals had 167 goals; today they have 124 (plus two shootout wins in five tries). Their differential in goals this year: plus-11.
The lack of scoring, and the related lack of scoring first, are major topics of conversation among the Capitals and their increasingly worried fans. After all, just seven points separate Washington, tied for fifth overall in the Eastern Conference, from Carolina, which occupies the dreaded No. 9 spot.
What a perfect time to face the red-hot Canucks, who are 13-6-3 on the road this season after Thursday night’s 1-0 loss to New York. So what’s the game plan Friday night? Mike Green — one of a baker’s dozen Caps on the ice Thursday for an optional practice at Kettler — knew he was singing an old refrain, but sang it anyway.
“To get a good start and score that first goal,” he said with a rueful smile. “We’ve been playing well defensively, holding [opponents] to one or two goals a game, but we need to come out and have better starts and get that goal and hold on to that lead. When we’ve done that, we’ve been very successful.”
Very true — the Caps are 12-1-4 this season when scoring the first goal and 11-0-4 when leading after the first period. It’s getting that first goal or that first-period lead that’s been so problematic — once they have those, the Capitals certainly know what to do with them.
“I think that the goals will come for sure,” said Marcus Johansson, who scored two in the Caps’ rally in a loss to Florida on Tuesday night. “This team has always been a high-scoring team and we’ve been struggling and I think maybe some guys hold on to the sticks a little tight and it gets in your head but if you keep playing good defensively, eventually it’s going to break loose and we’ll score a lot of goals again. . . . To get the first goal is important. I think we’ve got to try to get those.”
It’s no secret that after last season’s ignominious first-round exit from the playoffs, the Caps installed a new system that emphasizes defense. It is less drastic than the Redskins’ switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but the impact on the team has been no less disruptive. One casualty has clearly been scoring; 45 fewer goals is not insignificant. Fewer goals in turn means fewer first goals, which in turn means the Capitals are often playing from behind, needing more offense from a system that emphasizes defense. And there is the rub. Or one of the rubs.
“We concentrate so much on defense that any time you do that, it’s hard to find a balance between keeping the offense and playing strong,” Green said. “Because we haven’t played like that, we’ve just really concentrated on paying attention to detail in the defensive zone, we’ve lacked a little bit offensively.
“I don’t know that it’s a bad thing. I think once we find that balance between offense and defense and get scoring goals again we’ll be a good, dangerous hockey team.”
After going eight games without a win in December, the Capitals are 6-1-3 in their past 10 games, so it’s too early to panic.
Ovechkin averaged nearly 106 points in his first five seasons in the league; he has 45 this season in 44 games. Backstrom has just 39 points — his career average is 86 — and he hasn’t scored a goal in 18 games. Those numbers go deeper than midseason slumps.
There are other culprits, certainly. The Capitals need to take more shots; Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson has two shutouts against the Caps in eight days, but he faced just 23 shots Wednesday night in Tampa, five in the third period.
Lack of power-play scoring is Boudreau’s current bugbear, and it came up again Thursday when he was asked why the Caps were scoring a goal fewer per game than last season.
“If we’d score a goal a game on the power play, then that’s the goal a game,” he said. “You get from a 2.8 to a 3.6 goals for. It’s really incredible, December 2nd of  we were second in the league in the power play. Ever since then, it’s like we fell off the face of the earth. That’s a difference maker. When teams don’t fear your power play, they play a different game. Somehow, by hook or by crook, we’ve got to get a goal on the power play, and maybe that will get us going.”
The Capitals certainly hope Boudreau is right. Because the last thing they want to see in the mirror is a repeat of last year’s postseason performance.