CAPITAL ONE ARENA — A listless first period, a struggling penalty kill and a sudden inability to put pucks in nets has left the Capitals searching for answers before a difficult upcoming road trip.
Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes – a rising young team with some talent, but modest hopes to make the Stanley Cup playoffs – was a missed opportunity.
Washington (7-6-3) went 2-2-1 on a five-game homestand after losing the final two in regulation. It now plays three times in four days against the Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets and Colorado Avalanche starting Tuesday night in St. Paul.
“We’re just a little blah right now,” defenseman John Carlson said. “We’re used to trusting ourselves to make some plays that right now aren’t happening so maybe it’s time to pivot back to a little more simpler game and build up that execution point.”
They tried. Capitals coach Todd Reirden moved T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom to the top line with Alex Ovechkin as five-on-five play has stagnated. Evgeny Kuznetsov, meanwhile, was on the second line with Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana.
Backstrom scored a goal on a pretty pass from Ovechkin to cut the Arizona lead to 2-1 at 12:41 of the second period. That was great. What wasn’t great was allowing an answer just under two minutes later – another power-play goal. This one by Alex Galchenyuk made it 3-1 and, despite 38 shots on Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper, Washington never seriously challenged after that.
And so an Arizona team that had just played 24 hours earlier in Pittsburgh and was playing its third road game in four days, was able to impose its will on the Caps. The defending Stanley Cup champion never really gets a break. Even teams that have every excuse to mail it in when the schedule gets rough play with effort and energy and an intensity that Washington hasn’t matched consistently enough early this season
“Everything is going to be tougher,” Backstrom said. “You need to make sure you have that mentality for every game, not be too loose or too casual coming into games. There’s no easy games in this league. We’ve got to really put our brains on again and make sure we have a different attitude.”
Whether Backstrom was translating a Swedish idiom into English, needing to put their brains back on is an apt description of where the Capitals are right now. There is a casualness to their game that could lead to trouble on this road trip, which also includes a stop in Montreal. Turnovers are common, passes aren’t crisp and good shots are passed up for perfect ones. It’s all too much, too loose.
“Here and there, I think. But I feel like we’re not that kind of team,” Backstrom said. “But sometimes it’s a little casual, managing the puck, passing, stuff like that. That’s just an area we can focus on better.”
Reirden is seeing that, too. Everyone in that room is aware of it. Changing it is the issue. The Capitals look like a team trying to do too much in almost every area.
“Some of the plays that we're attempting to make are plays that probably come a little easier in Game 40 or 50 when you're really at the peak performance in terms of your execution level,” Reirden said. “We're not at that level and not every player can make some of the plays that we're expecting to make. That's something that we have to realize as individual players, what plays that you have that give you the best percentage to have success.”
Washington took three offensive-zone penalties against the Coyotes on Sunday. It gave up two more power-play goals, a total that is now at 17 for the season in 60 chances (71.7 percent). That ranks a dismal 29thin the NHL.
At home, all of this is tough to overcome night in and night out. On the road against teams in a playoff position (Minnesota, Winnipeg) or that ran the Caps out of their building last season (Colorado) or already beat them once in the District (Montreal) these details need to change, fast. With the 20-game mark approaching disturbing trends are appearing like bad omens.
“We didn’t get the results we want to on the homestand. Our play, the way it’s been, it’s been a little up and down,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “But I think it’s good thing going on the road playing some good teams. Sometimes that helps, just go out and simplify and outwork the other teams. Don’t worry about impressing anyone or anything like that, just go out and grind out some wins, and that can do a lot for a group.”
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