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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