Gillis: Capitals have much to fix in rapidly shrinking window


The final 40 minutes of the Capitals’ game in Philadelphia were, as far as isolated events go, promising. 

They outshot the Flyers 15-8 at five-on-five and 19-8 at all strengths. They created scoring chances, both in quantity and quality, on the offensive end of the ice to keep the pressure on Philadelphia’s defense. Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov made a few strong saves to keep the team in the game for the duration, thwarting whatever chances the Flyers had at a counter-attack. 

But the Capitals’ recent stretch isn’t an isolated event, nor can it be summed up in one frantic 40-minute surge to try and tie a game. The time for process over results is quickly nearing its end. 

They lost 2-1 to the Flyers on Saturday in what might be the low point during a stretch of poor play that has slowly become the norm rather than the exception. They are 8-11-2 in their 21 games since Jan. 1, which places them 23rd in the NHL in that timeframe. And the team that just beat them is ranked dead last (3-14-4) in the same stretch.

The first 20 minutes were a downright disaster for the Capitals, as they fell behind 1-0 just 11 seconds into the game. They were dominated in that period from start to finish, as the Flyers added another (eventual game-winning) goal in the final two minutes of the period to finish the job. All the Capitals got offensively from there was a power play goal by T.J. Oshie to make the score 2-1. 


The loss was emblematic, in a few ways, of what the Capitals have had slip in the last 25 or so games. Since the new year, it seems a new hole in the wall has emerged just as the Capitals thought they’d plugged the leak.

The offense, which has scored 2.71 goals per game since Jan 1 (22nd in the league), wasn’t able to get an even strength goal in 52 minutes of game action. At five-on-five in that timeframe per Natural Stat Trick, they rank 15th in shot attempts (50.18%), 16th in shots percentage (50%), 17th in expected goals (49.41%) and 17th in high-danger chances (49.86%). 

Washington has been without Oshie for large stretches of the season — Saturday was just his 20th game of the year. Considering the talent on the roster, though, that doesn’t tell the whole story of a power play unit and five-on-five offense that hasn’t played up to snuff in months. 

The offense, though, hasn’t been the only issue in this recent stretch.

There were a few breakdowns defensively Saturday, namely the odd-man rush that the Flyers turned into a goal late in the first. And in recent weeks, there have been moments where they’ve struggled to get the puck out of their own end that have cost them on the scoreboard. 

But, perhaps most notably, their concerns in goal are very real entering the homestretch of the season. 

While Vitek Vanecek has been on the shelf with an injury since the beginning of February, Samsonov has taken the starting reins in the last few weeks. And while there’s a lot to like about the upside he brings to a team that desperately needs it, his play has fluctuated far too often in net for him to build any sort of consistency. 

A stellar performance like the one against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 1 has often preceded a game where he isn’t his best, like the following night against the Edmonton Oilers when he was pulled minutes into the game after allowing three goals on four shots.

And should the Capitals roll with Vanecek and Samsonov as their goaltenders come playoff time, they’ll be doing so with a tandem that has recorded zero combined playoff wins.

Those issues in the last few weeks and months have accumulated to make the Capitals the scariest thing imaginable for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations: Mediocre. 

There are still flickering signs of optimism, as Anthony Mantha is once again skating and will give the team a top six winger when he returns to the lineup. The trade deadline is still on the horizon and the Capitals have some money available to improve their lineup in more spots than one. And for a veteran team, especially one with some cushion in the standings, a lull during this point of the season isn’t exactly uncommon.


But at the moment, they’re not the team they could or want to be — and they know it. If the Capitals want to make a run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, playing as they have lately won’t get them much more than vacation plans on the beach for Memorial Day. 

In recent weeks, there have naturally been comparisons to the 2017-18 Capitals team that struggled mightily around this point of the season and later went on to win the Cup. But this iteration of the Capitals has a corps that has aged four years since then and, more importantly, doesn’t have a goaltender with a then-.931 playoff save percentage waiting in the wings.

They are still safely in a playoff spot with 10 points between them and the Columbus Blue Jackets. But Columbus has two games in hand and could make the final few weeks of the season mighty interesting if Washington isn’t careful. In those final few weeks of the season, there’ll be a lot to fix on the ice whether the answer(s) come from inside or outside the organization. 

Now, though, the Capitals are starting to run out of time to stop the bleeding.