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Caps' win streak clipped by Canadiens in narrow loss

Caps' win streak clipped by Canadiens in narrow loss

The Washington Capitals fell to the Montreal Canadiens in a narrow 2-1 loss on Saturday.

How it happened: Artturi Lehkonen got inside positioning on Matt Niskanen in the corner to take possession of the puck. Seeing a clear lane behind the net, Lehkkonen called his own number and caught Braden Holtby by surprise with the quick wraparound that went five-hole to put Montreal up 1-0. The Caps took advantage of a two-man advantage in the second period as Justin Williams found Nicklas Backstrom for the sharp angle shot on the wide open net, but Montreal responded just 2:23 later.

With Max Pacioretty driving into the Caps' zone, Karl Alzner called for Marcus Johansson to cover the trailing Jeff Petry, but Johansson lost his man and Petry was all alone in front of the net for the easy tip in.

What it means:  The loss snaps what was a six-game win streak and a seven-game point streak. The Caps are now 5-3-0 against Canadian teams this season and 7-2-1 against teams from the Atlantic Division. The loss is also the first regulation loss of Braden Holtby's career against Montreal. His career record coming into Saturday's game was 8-0-2.

RELATED: Sanford shows flashes in loss to Montreal

Turning point: The game was close for much of the game, but trailing 2-1 heading into the third period, Washington did not register a shot on goal until there was less than seven minutes remaining in the game. Washington put on a good push at the end of the period, but goalie Carey Price was up to the task. Had the Caps been able to generate that kind of pressure throughout the period, perhaps it would have had a different outcome.

Slow start: Saturday’s game was the third straight in which the Caps gave up the first goal. Starting strong was a focus of the Caps coming into the season and, for the most part, they have done well, scoring first in 20 of their 30 games so far. The difference in win percentage is significant. When scoring first, the Caps are 15-3-2. After Saturday's loss, Washington is 4-5-1 when yielding the first goal.

Weber scare: Montreal's workhorse defenseman, Shea Weber, left the game in the second period after taking a puck to the knee on a blocked shot. Weber played nearly half of the first period with 9:38 of ice time. Luckily for Montreal, he returned for the start of the third period.

Staying special: When you get a two-man advantage against Carey Price, considering how tough an opponent he is, you have to score. The Caps did just that in the second period. With the goal, Washington has now scored a power play goal in seven of its last eight games and has 14 power play goals in its last 15 games.

We're going streaking: Backstrom's second-period goal gives him six points in his last six games (2 goals, four assists) and 18 in his last 16 games (8 goals, 10 assists). Williams and Alex Ovechkin picked up assists on the play. The assist extends Williams' point streak to four games. He now has seven points (5 goals, 2 assists) in his last seven. Ovechkin, meanwhile, has four points in his last four games. He now sits just 11 points shy of 1,000.

Look ahead: The Capitals get a few days off before they return to action on Wednesday against the Philadelphia Flyers who just saw their 10-game win streak snapped on Saturday. Washington then returns home to host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday in the last game before the NHL’s winter break.

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Why the Capitals' new penalty kill strategy isn't working

Why the Capitals' new penalty kill strategy isn't working

After the first day of training camp in September under new head coach Todd Reirden, he made clear one of the changes he wanted to see this season.

“I think you look at certain areas that you like to improve on,” Reirden said. “You look at where things settled out for us last year in the regular season statistically and then particularly as we went through the playoffs areas you can get better. There is always room to get better, and those were some spots I thought we could make some adjustments to in the penalty kill and some other things that you’ll maybe see as we move forward. I would say that would be the biggest difference there.”

Washington’s new-look power play, however, has gotten off to a rocky start and cost the team two losses in their last four games, despite giving up only two goals at five-on-five. 

The Capitals penalty kill is down to 71.7-percent, which ranks 29th in the NHL. During the last four games, Washington gave up six power-play goals, including two against an Arizona Coyotes team -- which handed the Caps their most recent loss, 4-1, Sunday -- that ranks in the lower half of the league in its power play efficiency and was playing on the second leg of a back-to-back. 

“Obviously, we’re struggling there, and it’s something that we’ve got to be better at,” Nicklas Backstrom said.

The addition of players like Evgeny Kuznetsov (1:16 of penalty kill time on Sunday) signaled a more aggressive style of penalty killing, one in which teams have to account for Washington’s offensive threat even while on the power play. You can see that more aggressive style at work as the Caps clearly try to push the puck into the offensive zone more so than in years past.

Thus far, however, the team has struggled to find a balance between pushing the offense while not leaving themselves vulnerable defensively. That was evident Sunday on Arizona’s first goal.

While on the penalty kill, three Caps players joined the rush for an offensive opportunity that ended with Darcy Kuemper saving a shot from John Carlson. The Coyotes turned a big rebound into a rush in the other direction, and the Caps were caught completely out of position. While the penalty killers nearly got back in time, they had no time at all to set up the penalty kill, and Arizona capitalized with a few quick passes.

“It’s just a bad read by us,” Backstrom said. “Too many guys attacking there instead of maybe playing it out and waiting for it to be five-on-five. We saw an opportunity. It’s easy to say that after, too. But, yeah, there’s absolutely an area that we can be better at.”

If the Caps want to find a way to be offensively dangerous and also defensively sound on the penalty kill, they need look no further than their opponent on Sunday. Not only do the Coyotes boast the top penalty kill in the league with a success rate of 91.8-percent, but they have also tallied an incredible nine shorthanded goals already this season. They have found a formula that works for them in both ends of the ice, something that clearly has proven elusive for the Caps.

It should be noted that Washington is also missing Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik from the lineup, three players who were major contributors to the penalty kill last season. While Beagle has moved on to the Vancouver Canucks, they will be getting Wilson and Orpik back at some point. Their addition will provide a boast, but for now, the Caps need to find a solution and fast because the penalty kill is clearly costing them points in the standings.

“I think there's some ways of evaluating it that it's getting better, but it's not getting it done,” Reirden said after Sunday’s game. “You can continue to look at it different ways. We have some different personnel in that situation, a different way of going about things on the penalty kill, but right now it's costing us games. We can't expect to win when you're giving up penalty kill goals like we are at the rate we are right now.”

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NHL Power Rankings: Caps finish off a sluggish home stand

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NHL Power Rankings: Caps finish off a sluggish home stand

One of the major talking points of the offseason was whether or not the Caps could avoid the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover. Well despite all the planning by the team on how to avoid it and all the talk about how they would avoid it, guess what? At 7-6-3, they find themselves right smack dab in the middle of it.

Washington’s title defense has gotten off to a sluggish start and the team now finds itself tied for fifth in the Metropolitan Division with 17 points.

SEE THIS WEEKS’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE 

Here are a few observations from the past week:

  •  People won’t want to hear it, but the Caps did show improvement in the two areas that were the biggest question marks heading into their five-game home stand, goaltending and five-on-five defense. Braden Holtby looks much improved from the start of the season giving credence to his claim that he plays better when he can get into a rhythm of playing frequently. As for the defense, Washington has allowed two five-on-five goals in their past four games. Any team would take that, but the Caps walked away with only two wins in those four games. That leads me to my next point…
  •  The penalty kill is atrocious right now. While the defense has allowed two five-on-five goals in the past four games, they also allowed six power play goals over that same stretch. When Todd Reirden said in training camp that he wanted the penalty kill to be more aggressive offensively, I think he envisioned something like what we see from Arizona right now. The Coyotes have the best penalty kill in the NHL (91.8-percent) and also have scored an absurd nine shorthanded goals already this season. The Caps have not figured out how to be aggressive offensively while not leaving themselves vulnerable defensively and that directly led to Arizona’s third goal on Sunday. Reirden and assistant coach Scott Arniel may need to study the Coyotes’ PK a little bit to figure out how they have been so dominant on both ends.
  •  Another issue the Caps face is on offense as they can’t score without the power play. In their last three games, they have scored only twice at five-on-five. For the season, Washington is 0-4-1 in games in which they have not scored at least one shorthanded goal.
  • If you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s this: the Metropolitan Division may be bad this year. The Metro division has won the Stanley Cup in each of the past three seasons, but the division as a whole looks like it’s taken a step back. Pittsburgh just snapped a five-game losing streak, you or I could play goalie for Philadelphia right now (and we’d probably be an upgrade), it’s only a matter of time before both the Islanders and Rangers bottom out, Columbus has been wildly inconsistent, Carolina can’t score and New Jersey has lost nine of its last 11 after starting 4-0. So don’t despair Caps fans, there’s still plenty of time for Washington to turn things around.
  • After a sluggish week at home, where do the Caps stand among the rest of the NHL? 

FIND OUT HERE IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS

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