Through the first 14 games of the Washington Capitals season, effort was a problem on many of the nights when the Caps were on the wrong end of the score.
This past weekend, against two very good Western Conference clubs, the Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche, effort was not the problem. The Caps played hard both nights but lost both games, although the Coyotes defeat was in the gimmick. When the Capitals feel a challenge, they typically bring the effort. Make no mistake, the Capitals wanted to show that they could compete with the elite of the West on this past weekend’s road trip.
But they fell short, painfully squandering a two goal lead late in Arizona on Saturday night when they should have definitely had two points. In Colorado, they got down early on a goal that should not have counted then after tying the game, gave up a goal just 28 seconds later before eventually losing 4-1.
What were the major causes of defeat over the weekend? The power play, poor defensive zone play, and shoddy goaltending.
Let’s start with the power play. Washington has been deadly this season with the 5 on 4 man advantage and have won many games because of it. But on Saturday and Sunday, they had some golden opportunities on 5 on 3′s to tie the game or expand their lead and in Saturday’s loss to Phoenix, they failed to score on a two minute 4 on 3 in overtime. Statistically teams do better on 5 on 3 or 4 on 3 power plays, but the Caps are 0 for their last 11 with a two man advantage and their 4 on 3 power play isn’t clicking either.
It seems to me that what is working so well on 5 on 4 isn’t going to work in the other situations because of one reason: the passing lanes are different. When the opponent only has three players on the ice, they shrink down to a tight triangle making the lanes for cross ice passes that the Caps love so much in the 5 on 4 disappear. You simply can’t spread out the penalty kill the way Washington does so effectively five on four when the other team only has three skaters. So the solution seems to be for Coach Adam Oates and assistant Blaine Forsythe to come up with a different configuration and practice it (Troy Brouwer was quoted after Saturday’s loss as saying the team doesn’t work on those situations a lot). My advice, go to a set up that puts a body or two in front of the net and blast away from the point. With the defense backing up in tight, the guys on top can come in closer and if you put traffic in front, the goalie has a tougher time of seeing the puck, and if you use big bodies like Brouwer or perhaps Tom Wilson, you have strong guys in front who can pot the rebounds. It isn’t fancy, like Washington’s 5 on 4 setup, but it’s likely the best way to score with a packed in defense.
As for the defensive zone, the Caps continue to have too many breakdowns. There are lots of turnovers and poor coverage. Yes, they are undermanned back there with Jack Hillen and John Erskine out with injuries but a quick check of many of the recent goals against has the John Carlson and Karl Alzner duo on the ice for several of them. Two of the goals against on Sunday in Colorado were on plays from behind the net where Washington was caught watching the puck carrier and didn’t pay attention to the gaps around them, which allowed the Avs players to find holes and get quick looks that Braden Holtby had no chance on. This has happened on far too many occasions this season. The forwards, on many of those goals, are just as guilty of puck watching. The Caps have to learn better positioning in their own end and pay attention to their surroundings. A guy with the puck behind the net is not a threat to score so why is everyone staring him down and not anticipating where he is going to pass the puck? The coaches need to work with the defense and forwards to correct this problem. Washington would be better off collapsing down and allowing a pass up the boards to the point rather than the ones that keep going into the low slot and ending up in the back of the Capitals net.
As for the goaltending, well it was great for a 10+ game stretch heading into last weekend. Michal Neuvirth needed to have the second Coyotes goal and Carlson screened him on the third one. #74 needed to either go down and block the shot there or move out of the way. That was a stoppable shot if #30 saw it sooner. As for Holtby, it was tough to blame him on the first three Avs goals and even Gabriel Landeskog’s tally was a breakaway after #92 went right around Alexander Ovechkin. Still, Braden probably should have had that one.
The good news is that a lot of these things are very correctable. The defense is in need of an upgrade at some point on the left side, but when some of the Caps top guys are making the mistakes, a trade isn’t going to help.
Overall the talent and effort is there for the Capitals right now, despite the hole on the left side of the defense. But this is the salary cap era and every team has a weakness area that needs to be addressed at some point.
Washington has enough talent and the effort has been consistent over the last couple of weeks. Now they have to execute better by playing smarter in key situations.
They’ll get a chance to turn it around against Columbus on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.