After a week between games for the Capitals, the defense seemed to pick up right where it left off Sunday and that's not a good thing. Washington gave up four goals to the Pittsburgh Penguins and an additional two empty netters in a 6-3 loss, the team's fourth straight.
When looking at those four losses, the goals allowed are really starting to pile up. The Caps gave up six on Sunday, seven to the Philadelphia Flyers, four to the New York Rangers and five to the Boston Bruins. They also gave up three goals in each of the two games prior to the four-game losing streak. Out of 13 games, Washington has allowed at least three goals in 11 of them.
For the season, the Caps are now allowing 3.77 goals per game which ranks 30th in the league. Only Ottawa allows more.
And yet, the feeling from the team is that the defense is actually improving.
"I feel like a lot of parts of our game are really solid right now and I think in the last couple games we haven't really had too many long bouts of the game coming down our throat too much," John Carlson said.
Considering how many goals the team is giving up, that seems hard to believe, but this feeling stems from how the team is playing its system better overall as a whole.
The Caps entered the season with a new coach and a new system with a short training camp and no preseason. Compared to the start of the season, the feeling is that this team is much improved from where it was even if you can't see the results on the scoreboard.
Just like earlier in the season when Washington was winning with a depleted roster and we all knew it was unsustainable, head coach Peter Laviolette feels that the defense has improved from the beginning of the year "when we were giving up I think more numbers, more quality, more zone time."
So if the team is playing so much better...why are they still giving up so many goals?
To the Caps, even if they play a strong game overall, they are still making too many mistakes that continue to end up in the back of the net.
"We are trying to play hard and trying to do the right things but it seems like we are doing the same mistakes over and over again and got these easy goals against us and it is an area we need to get better on, defensive zone," Nicklas Backstrom said. "That is where the game is decided."
Pittsburgh's first goal on Sunday was set up by an unnecessary turnover from Dmitry Orlov who tried a long stretch pass from the defensive zone off the wall in the neutral zone. It had zero chance of reaching its target, was picked off and Pittsburgh maintained possession until they scored.
The second goal came off a faceoff win for the Penguins. Pittsburgh won 62-percent of the faceoffs for the game.
Kris Letang found Bryan Rust with a seam pass on the power play who was alone in a scoring position for goal No. 3, and a puck was redirected to the front of the net to Jake Guentzel for goal No. 4.
If there was a theme in these goals, it was the Caps getting beat to the puck in front of the net. They were not dominated in terms of possession and these goals did not come from sustained offensive pressure, it was just a few moments of lax defensive play in dangerous areas.
"I don't think there was a ton. I don't think that we were overwhelmed offensively," Laviolette said, "But the ones we gave up we can do a better job."
Another factor is the goaltending. If the defense is walking away satisfied that it is limiting the other team's opportunities, then the goaltending needs to be able to clean up the rest. Unfortunately for Washington, it was another tough day for goalie Vitek Vanecek.
Rebound control and puck tracking have been issues for Vanecek and both played a factor in Sunday's loss. Vanecek fumbled an innocent-looking floater from Cody Ceci and gave up a rebound right to Brandon Tanev for a goal.
In the second period with the game tied, Vanecek was far too slow getting over to the post on Bryan Rust's second goal of the game. It again appeared that Vanecek lost the puck in traffic as Kris Letang made a great pass to Rust. With Rust in a position to score, Vanecek went down first and exposed everything from his right to the post. He then tried to slide his body over to close down the post, but he was far too slow to react and it was too late.
Pittsburgh made it 4-2 off a broken play as a shot going wide hit off of Zdeno Chara and back in front of the net. That would have been dangerous for any goalie, but Vanecek was never able to reset and Jake Guentzel swooped in and scored.
Does the defense need to account for Tanev on the doorstep and Rust in scoring position? Yes. Does it need to get to loose pucks before Guentzel in the slot? Yes, but Vanecek also has to do a better job as well and make some of those saves to keep his team in it, or at least put himself in a position to make those saves.
The bottom line is that the Caps know they are not playing well enough defensively right now, but they feel they are on the right track. The issue is not with the system or some fundamental flaw with the roster, it's just those correctable mistakes. The important thing now is to clean up those mistakes.
"I think our game is getting better," Carlson said. "Feels like we are going longer stretches of going the right way and denying them the right way and it seems like those little parts of our game right now, whether it is attention to detail or whatever it is, I think those lapses that we constantly talk about, we need to get better at."
Said Laviolette, "There's going to be things that we can do better and will continue to work at it to be better defensively."