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What's wrong with the Caps' defense?

What's wrong with the Caps' defense?

ARLINGTON, Va. -- You don’t have to be an expert analyst to realize the Capitals are not playing very well. Since returning from the all-star break, the team is just 3-4-0 and just wrapped up a four-game homestand in which it lost three times. The biggest culprit is obvious, the defense.

In the last two games, the Caps have lost each by a combined score of 12-5. Braden Holtby and Ilya Samsonov each started one game and both were pulled.

Defense has been the weakness of this team this season, but not to this degree. So why has the defense suddenly deteriorated so rapidly?

“We are making lot of mistakes,” Michal Kempny said after practice on Tuesday. “Team like this can't give up that too much goals every game.”

“I think we just got to play as a five-man unit,” Nick Jensen. “I think we just get a little too spread out and that creates holes in our defense and teams are exploiting that a little bit.”

If those seem like rather simplistic explanations, that’s because they are. But they’re not wrong. Bad turnovers, bad puck management, defending the rush, net-front presence, missed assignments, all of these were major issues in the team’s recent losses.

“There's a number of reasons that go into why your team struggles defending,” Todd Reirden said. “Some of it's your management with the puck, some of it's the detail that you have in your game and we're working through that process right now.”

One detail that seems to be particularly egregious right now is defending the rush.

As Jensen mentioned the team is getting spread out, which often happens on turnovers that lead to rushes for the opposing team. Suddenly, teams are coming in on an odd-man rush in between the Caps' offense and defense. The defense misplays the rush and the offense can’t recover on the backcheck.

“Defense starts from offense, you know?” Dmitry Orlov said. “When you lose a puck sometimes in offensive zone, it's quick transition. We need to just be better in all three zones, don't make a lot of turnover, try to play smart with the puck.”

One example was the New York Islanders’ first goal on Monday. Kempny and John Carlson defended a 3-on-2 and Carlson went after Josh Bailey along the boards. That forced Bailey to pass to Brock Nelson. Kempny took the blame for the play on Tuesday saying he was too slow to react to come over and cover Nelson allowing him to drop the puck back off to Bailey.

“Two goals was mine last night,” Kempny said. “I was late with the squeeze first goal. If I'd done those two situations differently, we might win the game.”

Kempny alone was not at fault, however, because once he did come over to challenge, the backcheck has to cover Kempny’s side. But Anthony Beauvillier was left wide-open thanks to the late backcheck and New York scored.

When a team is making too many mistakes, things can quickly spiral and that was evident in the rest of Monday’s game. Defensive structure was seemingly abandoned as the defense chased after every puck, allowing themselves to be drawn out of position and easily exploited by quick passes.

Orlov admitted frustration from Saturday’s 7-2 loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers played a factor in Monday’s game.

“We was not happy with our game,” he said. “Maybe we kind of try to do a little bit too much [on Monday].”

But the team’s defensive struggles have hardly been limited to just the past two games. Reirden said he saw play deteriorating long before the current skid.

“Our team defense needs to improve,” he said. “That's something that has been something we've discussed. I think it's pretty clear to see that in the last 15 games, it's certainly is not where it needed to be.”

“Before we were getting away with some wins," he added, "And when I answered these same questions I said we weren't a finished product despite our record and knew we weren't. And that's why it's important to properly evaluate every game after, win or lose.”

The early success this season gets to the heart of why the team suddenly seems to be struggling so badly.

There is no question that Washington’s strength is its offense. While the Caps rank 17th in the league in goals against per game with 3.04, they rank second in goals for per game with 3.55. Winning is always preferable to losing, but sometimes too much success can breed bad habits.

The Caps, and in recent games Alex Ovechkin specifically, have been outscoring their problems for much of the season allowing the defensive structure to continue to decline. You can’t always rely on Ovechkin to get a hat trick in the final six minutes of a game to win, but when you get used to those kinds of things happening, suddenly you are not as careful with the puck or with your play in the defensive zone.

But there is a silver lining.

Bad turnovers, bad puck management, defending the rush, net-front presence, missed assignments are all correctable issues. In that sense, it is good to go through these struggles now and recognize them as issues than in say, April in the playoffs when those mistakes lead to the end of the season.

“Maybe it's good just happen now,” Orlov said. “We can refocus and try to play simpler and I think it's going to help us in the future.”

“It's not time to hit the panic button or anything,” Jensen said.

As with every team, the Caps are not as bad as this current slump, nor are they as good as they were when they were dominating the league in the first half of the season. The answer lies somewhere in between.

The ultimate question that Reirden and general manager Brian MacLellan have to answer is whether or not the defense is good enough to win once it does rebound from this current slump.

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Backstrom backs away from previous comment that Ovechkin is always yelling for the puck

Backstrom backs away from previous comment that Ovechkin is always yelling for the puck

With no live sports to watch, people have to find ways to pass the time. A fun way to do it is with NBC Sports Washington's NHL 20 simulations of the Capitals' scheduled games. Some of the players have even gotten involved joining the broadcast or reacting to the game results. So now, we have Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin providing commentary plus actual players reacting to a video game simulation. What a time to be alive.

Nicklas Backstrom was the star of the first game that was broadcast on NBC Sports Washington -- a 5-3 win over the St. Louis Blues on March 24 -- with a hat trick performance. The real Backstrom gave a FaceTime interview afterward and said, "I don't do hat tricks that often, so it was nice to seal it off with a hat trick. You see what happens when you can't hear Ovi scream all the time for the puck."

On Wednesday, Backstrom joined the media for a Zoom video conference and was asked about that very answer. He quickly clarified that it was meant as a joke.

"You know what?" he said. "I felt so awkward doing that interview to be honest. I'm like, I've got to try to make this funny as possible. I don't know how to answer questions about simulation games. That was obviously a joke."

When you think about a real person having to do an interview about their digital player's performance, you can see how things could get awkward pretty quickly. Then again, if Ovechkin were always calling for the puck it would not be that surprising. He is, after all, one of the greatest goal scorers of all time. He could be forgiven for wanting the puck on his stick as often as possible.

Backstrom, however, said of Ovechkin that he doesn't need to call for the puck. Part of what makes him great is his ability to find the best place to be to score at all times.

"I think looking at it, [Ovechkin's] never yelling for the puck," Bacsktrom said. "He's just that good of a goal-scorer and I'm happy to give him the puck every time too. I was just trying to make that funny interview."

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Hath's Heroes is keeping Garnet Hathaway busy during the quarantine

Hath's Heroes is keeping Garnet Hathaway busy during the quarantine

Like the rest of us, Capitals' winger Garnet Hathaway is just trying to stay sane and helping out where he can.

His charity, Hath's Heroes, which provides meals to first responders, is especially important in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Hath's Heroes started working with Capitals' Chef Robert "Robbie" Wood to provide even more meals to first responders, which Wood is matching, plus an additional meal to a high-risk individual in need.

“Chef Robbie has been serving the Caps for a long time and makes unbelievable food, I can attest to it, and they also have a great initiative with Kid Power and DC Central Kitchen," Hathaway said on the Capitals Talk Podcast.

While many are fortunate to be able to work from home or be with family during the pandemic, first responders are out on the front lines.

“It’s the social responsibility of staying safe, keeping your distance and trying to stay healthy and protecting those around you," Hathaway said. "So I feel that’s where we can all feel great about helping somebody, by taking responsibility for your actions and helping out if you can."

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Doing one's part is important to flatten the curve and Hathaway says donations of any amount are appreciated.

“For donations, if you can, if you have the opportunity to and you’re capable of, any amount really does make a difference.”

When he's not working with Hath's Heroes, Hathaway has been spending time with his fianceé and dog and trying to learn the Harmonica he got for Christmas. "Silent Night" was the first song he learned to play.

“Months away from the Christmas season, but I think I’ll be ready by then," Hathaway said.

Aside from downtime, Hathaway has taken solace in finding structure in his day.

“I think the biggest thing is trying to find a structure that works, that I can stay physically healthy and mentally healthy." 

“For everyone that’s feeling cooped up in their house, they gotta stay active and they gotta get some fresh air and they gotta stay healthy," Hathaway said.

While everyone has been binge-watching Netflix's hit documentary "Tiger King," Hathaway says he hasn't had the opportunity to watch yet.

“I might be the only person in America not watching Tiger King, but that’s not to say that I won’t get there at some point."

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