SAN JOSE — The Capitals need a break.
A seven-game winless streak, the worst since the disastrous 2013-14 season, has left the defending Stanley Cup champions reeling heading into this weekend’s NHL All-Star break and next week’s schedule bye.
They will not meet again as a group until Jan. 31 for a 2 p.m. practice. Then comes a critical six-game homestand with a game every other day against a mix of division leaders (Calgary), playoff contenders (Boston, Colorado, Vancouver) and also-rans (Florida, Los Angeles).
But who they play matters far less than how they play and right now – after a 6-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday – that is nowhere near good enough for a team that has set a standard for excellence the past four seasons.
“We’ve put ourselves in the playoff race, but it’s a bigger picture,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “If we’re going to focus on getting better we can’t look at those [standings] points, we’ve got to look at our game. If we play like this in the playoffs, we’ll be going home early.”
Holtby included himself with that critique. His numbers since Dec. 31 are poor (.873 save percentage, 4.35 goals-against average). Backup goalie Phoenix Copley isn't much better (.877, 3.84). The defensive play in front of them was concerning enough that the coaching staff switched the top pairs with John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov joining forces and Matt Niskanen playing with Michal Kempny.
The Capitals have gone through every cliché of a struggling team. They held a players’-only meeting on Sunday and a full review with the coaching staff on Monday. After a deflating 7-6 overtime loss to San Jose – a game where the tying goal came with one second left – an angry coach Todd Reirden lit into his players.
“Stand up to the person that you respect and you play with and say that you did something wrong. That’s character to me,” Reirden said. “If it means that we lose these games like this to learn those character lessons at this point in the year…am I happy we lost? Absolutely not. But if that helps us in those last 20, 30 games of the year and pushes us into the playoffs then this was worth it. Because until you reach that accountability in your room from player to player and coaches involved then you’re going to continue to come up short. That I know.”
That didn’t seem to be a problem in public. Alex Ovechkin took the blame for not scoring on an empty-net opportunity before the Sharks tied the game late. Holtby was critical of his own play. T.J. Oshie lamented a penalty he took in the offensive zone that led to a San Jose goal.
But it is also curious why a defending champion would need a character lesson. All but two players are back from last season. It’s a veteran, experienced team up and down the lineup. Yet something is missing and the search for that has become a struggle.
“It seems like in a lot of instances, we’re like 90, 95 percent all-in, and that extra five or 10 percent that we don’t bring, right now they’re ending up in goals-against,” Oshie said. “We’re doing a pretty good job staying in it and staying positive and trying to work through this, but it doesn’t feel that easy right now. We’ve got a great group that I know we’re going to get out of this, but nothing’s really coming too easy for us.”
But a break for everyone except Holtby and defenseman John Carlson, who are in San Jose for the All-Star game this weekend, is no panacea. Multiple Caps players said this week that if they couldn’t win against San Jose and Toronto, their “vacations” would simply leave them stewing on the beach about what’s gone wrong.
They then blew a two-goal lead to the Sharks, giving up that late goal before losing in overtime, and a 2-1 lead in Toronto lasted well into the second period before goals 3:08 apart gave the Maple Leafs a lead they never gave up. Since Dec. 31, their record is 3-7-3 over 13 games.
"I like our mental state right now, if I'm being honest,” Carlson said. “We're a positive group. Practices lately have been some of the best we've had all season. We're trying to work ourselves through it. It's not coming, turning around quick as we would like, obviously. That doesn't mean that you throw that out and try to be someone you're not, try to be a team that you're not.”
That was obvious in Sunday’s 8-5 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks where the Caps were content to trade chances with an inferior team that still has enough top-end skill to make you pay for playing that way. Last year, Washington smothered teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs with forwards helping their defensemen. It’s difficult, in the middle of January, with 32 games to go before the playoffs, to match that intensity. But it’s also no excuse.
The situation is unnerving, but not yet dire. The Caps are still in second place in the Metropolitan Division even after this recent 0-5-2 stretch. The New York Islanders are a Cinderella story in first place, but Washington has yet to get passed by the Columbus Blue Jackets or Pittsburgh Penguins.
Even the unthinkable – slipping out of a playoff spot all together – is six points behind them in the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes. The dog days for any defending champion, which played two full months of extra hockey at the highest level last spring, don’t have to lead to disaster. But the Caps need a break – and then a win. Now.
After eight days off, that begins Feb. 1 against the Calgary Flames at Capital One Arena. The rest won't cure all of their problems and it's unrealistic to think a long homestead will do that right away, either. But they have to stop the bleeding first.
“It doesn’t matter how many meetings we have,” Ovechkin said. “It’s all about us and we know how to play hockey. We know when we play the right way we’re going to get success...There’s no panic.”
MORE CAPS NEWS:
- Prospect Report: No, Samsonov is not the answer
- Streak at Seven: A loss to Toronto leaves a sour taste for Caps
- Where's Ovi: Why Ovi was forced to briefly leave Wednesday's game
- Mailbag: How do you solve a problem like the Caps' skid?