Braden Holtby's eyes immediately raised to the ceiling as he knew Ben Chiarot's one-timer had beaten him. The Montreal Canadiens defenseman scored the overtime winner on Thursday to hand the Capitals a 4-3 loss. Montreal came into Thursday's game with five straight losses including one to the lowly Detroit Red Wings. And yet, it was the Caps, a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, that saw its woes extended for yet another game.
Washington has now lost three games in a row for just the second time all season - and the first time since October. They have lost five of six overall and, since Dec. 23 have gone 11-11-1. Their impressive lead over the Metropolitan Division is now gone as Washington sits tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins with 80 points, but Pittsburgh holds a game in hand.
A Capitals team that does not often suffer through major adversity through the regular season is certainly doing so now. General manager Brian MacLellan knew that even before Thursday's loss.
"I don't think we're playing the right way," MacLellan said Wednesday. "I think there's a little cheat in our game. I think we're playing teams that are very well-structured in the neutral zone and we're not willing to do the right things to counteract that. I think we gotta get more in the mindset of we're willing to play a 1-0 game and we're not there right now. It's a team effort. The forwards contribute to it, defense contributes to it, and we got to get all on the same page here and play a tighter game."
The team acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon in a trade on Tuesday and, though MacLellan was firm that this was a move he would have made anyway, it is fair to wonder just how much the current state of the team forced his hand.
"I think sometimes our defense is getting pinpointed for it where I think team defense should be more the focus of the criticism," MacLellan said. "I think our forwards contribute to the pressure that's put on our D: wall play in our own end, back pressure, lack of a forecheck. I think our team game is off, and that results in poor defensive efforts from basically our team."
With the trade deadline on Monday and the team continuing to struggle in its own zone, will MacLellan's frustration turn into more additions to the roster? Given the team's limited cap space, that seems unlikely. If there are additions to be made, they will likely be depth ones unless MacLellan intends to trade away roster players in a sudden move to shake up the team.
More likely, the solution is going to have to come from within and the onus will fall on both the coaches and the players. Clearly adjustments are needed from the coaches to put the defense in a better position, but the responsibly also falls on the players who are making far too many mistakes on the ice with misreads, poor puck management and no team defense.
"It's frustrating to be where we are at this point," MacLellan said, "But I think it's a work-in-progress and hopefully it's a bit of a wake-up call that we have to (play) that way."
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