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Are the Capitals turning the corner?

Are the Capitals turning the corner?

During the first seven weeks of this season, Barry Trotz often lamented the fact that the Capitals were unable to get all facets of their game going at the same time.

But now, with his team riding a four-game winning streak, including 60-minute efforts against Buffalo and Vancouver, there have been subtle signs that things are finally coming together for last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner.

“That’s a good way to describe it—more in concert,” Trotz said after Monday's practice. “I would say that we’re trending that way. More pieces are falling into place.”

RELATED: Vrana's play continues to impress everyone but himself

“Contribution through the lineup is starting to spread out a little bit,” he added, “not only in five-on-five play but in specific areas, be it special teams, three-on-three, all those special situations.”

Indeed, important contributions are starting to come from different sources. Consider:

  • The power play has scored four times during the winning streak (11 opportunities). It's also scored at least one goal in seven of the past 10 games and 10 times in the past 12 contests. If you just look at that 12-game segment, the power play has the eighth best success rate in the NHL during that span (at 21.7-percent). Last season, the unit was ranked 5th (at 21.9-percent).
  • The penalty kill has also steady improved its ranking. In fact, after snuffing out 14 of 16 short-handed opportunities during the winning streak, the unit has improved to 11th overall at 83.3-percent. A year ago, the penalty kill was ranked second at 85.2-percent.
  • Just as critical as the improving special teams, the Caps are now getting points from some key players who had been ice cold to start the year. John Carlson ended his season-long goal drought against the Sabres and now has four points in four games (goal, three assists). Evgeny Kuznetsov, meantime, has five points (all assists) during the winning streak, while Justin Williams has four points, including three goals, over the past four games.
  • The Caps have been strong defensively and in goal all season, but even those areas have been a bit better in recent games. Including the shootout loss in Tampa, the Caps have yielded only seven goals in the past five games, including Braden Holtby's 20-save shutout against the Canucks.

Winger T.J. Oshie agreed that the Caps' play across the board is on the upswing. He also says the collective confidence within the dressing room is growing as a result.

“Our five-on-five game we’re starting to play more direct,” Oshie said. “We’re getting more pucks in deep and with our speed, our work ethic and our talent following that, it presents a lot of O-zone time. Special teams has kind of got to our standard of play. Obviously, the PP, it was struggling for a while there. But we’re getting more shots, we’re getting more goals, we’re not missing the net as much. Our PK, I don’t think it was doing terrible; I think we were doing good. But from the standard we set last year, I think we’ve gotten back to that. It’s made some huge, huge stops, especially [against Vancouver] when we had a lot of penalty kills.”

Defenseman Karl Alzner said he’s isn’t sure what precipitated the turnaround, but he’s sure of this much: there are unmistaken signs that the Caps’ mojo is back. Or, at the very least, on its way.

“The exact reason, I don’t know,” Alzner said. “But we’re playing with more urgency, but under-control urgency. …Every team goes through their low point. Hopefully, that was ours that we just had and we don’t have anything like that again, and somebody else goes through it in January or February and we’ll make up some ground.”

MORE CAPITALS: NHL Power Rankings: Keeping up with the Metropolitan

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Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Did the Capitals solve their depth scoring issues in Friday's loss?

Friday’s loss to the Florida Panthers was disappointing in a number of ways for the Capitals, but some good may yet come from it with the emergence of the third line.

A poor performance in the opening frame led to Todd Reirden switching up his lines to start the second. No change had a greater effect than the addition of Jakub Vrana to the third line in place of Andre Burakovsky to play with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly.

The move yielded instant results.

Connolly scored his first goal of the season less than two minutes into the period and added an assist. Vrana also recorded a goal and an assist, while Eller had a three-point night with three assists.

“It was just to make something happen,” Eller said, “Not that [Burakovsky] did something wrong, but just to make something happen and it worked. We kept riding the wave from there on and got two in that period. That seemed to work so that was positive.”

Vrana, Eller and Connolly were three players who had been playing well for the Caps, but were just not producing.

Heading into Friday’s game, Vrana and Eller both had only one point apiece on the season. Connolly had four, but three of those points came earlier in the season while he was skating on the team’s top line.

Friday was his first goal of the season.

“It’s good to get a goal,” Connolly said. “Getting some assists and all that and being a factor on some goals, but it’s nice to see one go in. I’ve had a lot of chances to start the year, thought I’ve been playing well. Lot more shots, lot more chances than I had last year and throughout the last two seasons per game. So I feel I’m ahead of the game right now in terms of that.”

Depth scoring has been a major weakness for the Caps so far in the early season. Washington had gotten only two bottom six goals prior to Friday’s game, and both came in the team’s blowout win over Boston in the opener.

They needed a spark to get offense from the bottom six, and they just may have found it on Friday with that third line combination.

Don’t be surprised to see that Vrana-Eller-Connolly trio stick together in Vancouver for the Caps’ next game against the Canucks.


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Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

Capitals have been their own worst enemy, and they were again on Friday

The Capitals managed to earn a point on Friday in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers, but the game felt like a missed opportunity for Washington. After giving up four goals in the first period, seven power plays including two 5-on-3s, and two power play goals, the Caps knew they had no one to blame but themselves for the loss.

“We were still not quite there maybe emotionally,” Lars Eller said.

At least not for the first period. The Caps allowed four goals in the opening 20 minutes to dig themselves into a 4-1 hole. Each goal came from the slot as the Caps had no control over the front of their own net.

“Just tough to start that way, to kind of dig ourselves a big hole,” Brett Connolly said. “Obviously, it’s good to come back and get a point but we don’t need to do that to ourselves. It takes a lot of energy to get back in that game.”

Washington battled back to tie the game at 4, but penalties ultimately derailed their momentum, allowing Florida to retake the lead.

After scoring three straight goals, the Caps took three minor penalties in the final three minutes of the second period.

Alex Ovechkin was called for interference on Aaron Ekblad as he made no attempt to play a loose puck that trickled past the Florida defenseman. He was clearly focused on delivering the hit and nothing else.

Less than a minute later, Eller was caught on the ice a tad early, and Washington was called for too many men.

“I see Backy coming for a change, they had full possession,” Eller said. “I don't see behind my back, I think the guys are telling me he has one skate over so I think it was an unnecessary call, but what am I going to say? It's a tough one.”

With 1:15 of a two-man advantage to work with, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the go-ahead goal late in the period.

Even after a furious comeback, the Caps could not escape the second with the score tied because of the penalties.

Just 43 seconds after Huberdeau’s goal, Washington went right back to 5-on-3. Evgeny Kuznetsov was tossed from a faceoff by the linesman and argued the call, eventually earning himself an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He said something he shouldn't have said to the referee,” Reirden said of the call.

The Caps' penalty problems were exacerbated by the continued problems of the penalty kill.

Heading into Friday's game, Washington was only killing off 72.2 percent of the power plays they faced. They allowed another two power play goals Friday as they continued to struggle when facing the extra man.

“We have room for improvement for sure,” Reirden said of his penalty kill. “It’s a new system, new with the way we’re killing, its new personnel. We’re learning. We’re missing a key guy in Tom on that as well. It’s not easy, either, when you’re 5-on-3 when they’ve got talented players that can convert in that spot. It’s definitely a work in progress and I didn't expect it to go smoothly to start with. That’s one of the areas that we knew was gonna be new to our team this year and it’s gonna continue to take some work. It’s something that definitely is a work in progress.”

Mistakes put the Caps down 4-1, they put them down 5-4, they cost them a valuable point against a previously winless Panthers team before a four-game road trip through Canada, and they are ultimately why the defending Stanley Cup champions are only 3-2-2 to start the season.

And they know it.

“We’re still trying to find our game,” Connolly said. “Would we have liked to have picked up where we left off? Yes. But it’s not easy. We played a lot of hockey last year and a short summer and you come in here and there’s a lot of distractions, a lot of that kind of stuff. We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some not so good things.

"I think if you look at last season we weren't very good either at the start. We weren't at our best. Just take the positives and know that we can overcome that. It hasn’t been disastrous. We’re still getting points, we’re still above .500 right now with a tough couple back-to-backs to start the year. So not the worst start, but obviously we have another level.”