After back to back dismal efforts against mediocore teams that saw the Caps fortuitously pull out three of a possible four points last weekend, Washington was back in action on Monday night against the number one team in the NHL: Bruce Boudreau’s Anaheim Ducks, who came in with an eight game winning streak.
The Capitals played much harder in this one and actually had a 2-0 early lead, but defensive mistakes at critical times ultimately did them in once again, and they were defeated, 3-2, to drop their record to 19-14-4 heading into the Christmas break.
This was a very close game, as evidenced by the shot attempt totals, which were 57-54 in favor of the Ducks. Washington was much better than last weekend in the puck possession department but Anaheim did a superior job of getting their attempts on net, winning that battle 29-19. The Caps did a lot of good things in this game and both Marcus Johansson and Alex Ovechkin hit iron in the third frame in what is a tough loss to a very good hockey team.
After Saturday’s overtime loss to the Devils I blogged that things needed to change and it was on Coach Adam Oates and GM George McPhee to figure out whether it was the players or the system that were causing the issues. Following tonight’s game, it appears to me that effort and also focus, on the part of the players, and not the system, is the major problem. Washington was motivated on Monday and brought a passion to get and own the puck. But the Ducks are a veteran and skilled team, and going against number one isn’t all about effort and passion, it’s about playing the right way and paying attention to detail.
That is where this Capitals team is falling down, attention to detail, especially in their own end. The Caps gave up the tying tally with just 27 seconds remaining in period two. Then they gave up the game winner with 5:36 left in regulation. Both goals were the result of poor reads that led to bad defensive zone coverage. Oates confirmed that after the game. On the game winner, the forwards all got caught too low on the back check allowing defenseman Hampus Lindholm to fire a shot through a maze of bodies past Philipp Grubauer. There was a lack of communication on the part of the Washington forwards on the ice and it resulted in a lot of space and time for the Ducks defenseman to shoot and score.
Anaheim’s second tally, however, is the one that is the most upsetting and disappointing. The five guys on the ice were out for a long shift and each one can shoulder their share of the blame. We won’t point out the names, but let’s just say there were a lot of contract dollars on the ice for the home club. The initial rush by Ben Lovejoy wasn’t played properly by the Capitals defensemen, who simply stopped moving his feet. But even still, Lovejoy was just looking to center the puck and if the other defenseman and the three forwards don’t puck watch and instead cover Anaheim players, there is no quality chance or goal. That did not happen as the Caps d-man went to the wrong post and the forwards allowed Saku Koivu and Andrew Cogliano to have a clear and uncovered path to the front of the cage. The result was an easy goal for Koivu that Grubauer had no chance on.
Simply put, it was a lack of effort at the end of a long shift and poor communication, as well. In his post game presser Oates said that communication should be going on at all times on the ice and he also said that at this point in the season, the reads and positioning should be automatic. It was not on the tying tally, as well as the game winner.
Those type of mistakes not only cost a squad points in the standings, but in the bigger picture, those are the type of errors that prevent a hockey team from being one of the better clubs in the league. Washington is in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference for this exact reason, they have too many breakdowns in their own end that are costing them hockey games.
Reading Oates’ answers, expression and demeanor afterwards, I got the feeling that he’s been pointing out these things over and over to his players. These aren’t hard hockey concepts but they require a mental toughness to continue to execute when you are tired or not in a position to score a goal. Everyone loves offense, but playing proper defense is the key to winning hockey games and a Stanley Cup. The Cup winner each season knows how to do the things that allow a club to transition from offense to defense. They play their positions well, they communicate on defense, and they focus even when they are tired at the end of a shift.
It’s the things you need to do to win hockey games and ultimately a championship.
Until this Caps team is ready to commit to that, they’ll do exactly what I said after Saturday’s loss to New Jersey: they will qualify for the playoffs and then find themselves out in either round one or two.
The talent is mostly there for the Caps to go where the players say they want to go, but saying it and then doing it requires a whole different level of focus and commitment.
Right now, I question that level of commitment from several of the players on this team.
Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 43-25…the Caps were 1 for 5 on the power play while the Ducks went 0 for 4 with the man advantage…Brooks Laich returned to the lineup and played 13:23…Mikhail Grabovski and Nicklas Backstrom had the two goals for Washington…next up, on Friday night at the Verizon Center, for the Caps is an improving Rangers team that has won two games in a row.