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Caps at the Midway Mark: Half Full and Half Empty

January 4, 2014

They’ve lost more games than they’ve won.


They’re in second place in their division.


On 19 occasions they’ve allowed a goal within two minutes or less after scoring one of their own.


They’ve won five games in which they’ve trailed after 40 minutes, tied for the most in the NHL.


They’ve won three of their last 10 games.


They’ve collected points in seven of their last 10 games.


They’ve lost each of their last three games, but those three games might be the three best games they’ve put together consecutively this season.


All of the above statements are true about the Washington Capitals, but it’s really difficult to discern exactly what is true about this hockey team as it reaches the midway point of the 2013-14 season.


The Caps are in the top 10 in the NHL in average goals scored per game and their power play ranks second in the circuit. The team’s penalty-killing outfit is a respectable 16th after a fast start in that regard. But Washington is 24th in the league in goals against and 29th in slots allowed.


“We have to do a better job in our end,” declared Caps coach Adam Oates recently. “There are so many little things, like an icing. An icing when you have the puck is a face-off in your end. And we do three or four a game that we shouldn’t. A lot of teams do.


“The new offside rules are difficult. But you’ve got the puck on your tape, it’s got to be a good pass. Four plays a night. It affects your match-ups, it affects fatigue; it affects rhythm. And then another team gets to put their fresh troops on, they hem you in, and before you know it there’s a penalty. And then they score and you forget that three minutes ago you iced the puck, stupidly. That’s a huge thing.


“When we’re in the zone, there’s no one particular thing on a given night that we’ve done consistently wrong. Some nights it’s our tracking, some nights we lose battles, some nights we don’t take guys in front for rebounds. We could get a block once in a while. It’s a little bit of everything.”


The Caps believe they’re making progress in addressing some of those issues in their own end, especially in their last handful of games.


“I personally am proud of the progress we’ve made from the beginning of the season to now with breakouts,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “We were really cut and dried at the beginning of the season; just chip it out or just rim it out. The forwards would always chirp us for that. They’d go through all of our rules and our top five were like, ‘flip it out, dump it out, chip it out or throw it over the glass.’ And now I think we get a little bit more respect in terms of what we’ve been doing with breaking the puck out.


“I think we need to tighten up the PK a little bit here. We’ve shown flashes of greatness at times but we need to tighten it up. And I think we need to tighten up our accountability, making sure you’re doing your job so that other guys can do their jobs. Just making sure guys are doing their jobs needs to be worked on a little bit.”


If the season ended today, the Caps would have a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And that is something to be proud of, something to be happy about. It’s hard to make the Stanley Cup playoffs in this salary cap era and Washington is one of just five teams who have done so in each of the last six seasons.


On the other hand, if the season ended today and the playoffs were to start tomorrow, the Capitals as currently constituted aren’t likely to strike much fear in the hearts of any potential Stanley Cup playoff opponent. Teams wouldn’t be hoping to avoid drawing the Caps in the first round; rather, they might even be eager to play them.


“There are a lot of games where we should have played better and I think we all feel that way,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. “We’re still in a playoff spot but we can still do better. The second half we’ve really got to step up. Points are really important right now and we’ve got to make sure you’re aware of that.”


“Our urgency has to be a little bit more intact,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward. “It’s not really an Xs and Os thing, it’s an individual thing. We’ve got to be ready individually after a big shift or a big goal or a big power play. There have been times when we’ve let off the gas a little bit and I think we can do a better job of putting teams away at certain times. I think that’s something we need to focus on.”


That, in a nutshell, is what has to change about this team over the season’s final 41 games. Washington has left way too many points on the table in the first half of the season and on to many nights it has been too easy to play against. Perhaps the clearest indicator of that is the number of goals they’ve surrendered within two minutes of scoring one of their own.


“To be honest, it’s sort of embarrassing,” said Caps center Brooks Laich after the Jan. 2 Carolina game in which the Caps dropped a 4-3 shootout decision after allowing two more goals within a minute of one of their own. “Especially that we’re aware of it. You score a goal, you stick to your rules that next shift. You get the puck and you get it in deep. That way, [the opposition’s] bench is in some disarray; their coach is on them saying we’re outworking them. And then your decisions with and without the puck, you have to be sharp in that instance. It’s not acceptable.


“You go on the ice after a goal, your responsibility is to keep that momentum for us. That’s every line, the defensemen. We’re aware of it; it’s talked about on the bench. For whatever reason, we’re not executing. I’m sick and tired of talking about it, to be honest. It’s something that is causing us to lose hockey games, costing us wins.”


Only 10 of the Capitals’ 20 wins have been recorded within 60 minutes of play, and only once all season have the Caps managed to piece together consecutive regulation victories.


Washington has lost 21 of its first 41 games this season, but in 16 of those 21 setbacks the Capitals have been no worse than a goal down midway through the third period. Too often they’ve had to settle for a point, or they’ve needed overtime or worse – the dreaded shootout – to achieve what might have been achieved in 60 minutes.


Like most teams, the Caps have had stretches where they’ve played well and stretches where they’ve struggled.


“I’ve liked the way this team has battled,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “I’ve liked the way we’ve come back in a few games, down three goals or down two goals and we’ve been able to find ways to get points. But on the other end, we’ve had a couple games where we’ve been up two goals or up a goal late in games and not even come out with a point or we’ve only come out with one where it definitely should have been two.


“Those are things we really like in our room with our character and our ability to come back, but we really need to work on closing out games and making sure we get points when we have the opportunity to do so. Every night there are ties and teams are beating top teams. Everyone is winning games and everyone is getting points every night. We’re kind of in a pack right now and we’ve got to find a way to separate ourselves.”


Every team leaves points on the table every season, but the Caps might be guiltier than most in that regard.


“Absolutely,” answers Brouwer, when asked if he thinks the Caps have left too many points on the table in the first half. “Off the top of my head I can think of at least 10 that should have been ours or maybe we give the other team a point that we shouldn’t have. I feel like those are points that are left on the table as well.”


“Definitely,” echoes Chimera. “You can almost say you’ve left 10 points on the table for sure. We should be up there closer to Pittsburgh than we are right now. We should be up around 56 or 57 points, I believe. We are one of those teams that should be dictating the pace every night with the personnel that we have. But when we chase the puck, we’re in trouble. When we dictate the pace and control puck possession, we’re pretty good. We’ve just got to keep doing that.”


The Caps closed out the first half playing three strong games, but going 0-1-2 in the process. Still, they know that they need to carry that play into the second half of the season and display a strong territorial, puck possession game more often than not if they expect to retain their second-place spot in the Metropolitan Division standings.


“I’m not happy we lost,” said Oates, after the third of those three successive setbacks. “But in the games, we did a lot of good things and we played better. Yeah, we’re not happy about the mistakes. Some of the goals, they are mistakes that we’ll fix. There aren’t breakdowns where we say, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to fix this?’ That’s not how I feel in the last three games. We have certain statistics we go by. We’re not happy we lost games but we’ve talked a lot about how over the course of the season, if you play the correct way, you’re going to win more than you lose.”


“I think our [defensemen] have been doing great job of gapping up in the neutral zone more in the last three games than they have all season,” says Chimera, “which has been a big factor that leads to turnovers and more shots on net. It’s frustrating, but when you look at the film and you see you’re playing pretty good hockey and outchancing teams, you know you have to stick with it. It’s just one of those things. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you’re not going to go far. You’ve got to stick with it and keep on moving forward. Hopefully those close games start to turn into wins for us.”


The players take them one at a time, but we in the media have the luxury of taking the long view sometimes. Washington plays 10 of its next 14 games on the road, where it is 7-7-4 thus far this season. And in the month of March, Washington faces one of the toughest stretches of schedule it has seen in recent years, in terms of quality of opposition.


The Capitals play 15 games in March, and each of the first 14 are against teams that would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today. Included are three games against Boston, two each against Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Los Angeles and single games against Phoenix, Vancouver, Toronto, Anaheim and San Jose. Among Washington’s March opponents, only Nashville is currently on the outside looking in as far as playoff positioning goes.


Over the next 41 games, Washington will aim to be more consistent and to ensure that those points left on the table in the first half don’t loom large as the days come off the calendar. They believe they are capable of playing better in the second half than they did in the first.


“I definitely think we are,” says Caps forward Eric Fehr. “I would never count our team out of anything. You’ve seen what this team is capable of offensively. When things are going well we can be one of the best scoring teams in the league. And we’ve learned a lot this year about playing defense and I think we’re playing better. If we can get those two things going in the same week or the same month I think it would be deadly.”