Five games in eight nights is a fairly grueling stretch for any National Hockey League team. Having just finished their second set of five games in seven nights this season, the Caps took Wednesday off and practiced Thursday in preparation for tonight’s critical home contest against the Vancouver Canucks.
Both of those two runs of five games in seven nights ended in Pittsburgh. Back on Jan. 15, the Caps took one-goal leads over the Pens in each period, but fell 4-3 when rookie blueliner Olli Maatta scored with 1:54 left in the third. The Caps had to settle for a respectable 2-1-2 record during that stretch, but they went on to lose four more in a row after that – part of a season high seven-game losing streak (0-5-2) – that put them outside the playoff chase.
This last span of five games in seven nights (in four cities) went much worse for Washington. The Caps went 1-4 in the five games, and they needed a sudden outburst of three goals in about five minutes to scrape out that lone victory.
Plenty has gone wrong for the Capitals in their last half dozen games to result in a 1-4-1 record for the team during that span.
The Capitals’ power play has been good of late; they’ve gone 9-for-26 (34.6%) with the extra man since the Olympic break. But conversely, they’ve struggled in five-on-five play. Washington has been outscored 13-4 at even strength in its last five games, and the Caps have gone nearly 190 minutes without scoring a 5-on-5 goal on the road.
“It’s something that we’ve talked about all year,” says Caps center Jay Beagle. “The power play has been hot, but we can’t rely on our power play. If for some reason they don’t get too many looks or if the other team doesn’t take any penalties, we need to score 5-on-5.
“It’s something that I’ve talked about with my line quite a bit, as a fourth line chipping in and trying to score goals. Usually when your fourth line scores your team has a good chance to win the game. It’s something that we’ve been taking upon ourselves and we’ve been getting some good chances, but we just haven’t been putting the puck into the net. We’ve got to make sure we bear down and finish the job.”
Falling behind in games has also been an issue. The team that has scored the game’s first goal has gone on to win 17 of Washington’s last 20 games. The Caps have surrendered the game’s first goal in four of the last five games, and they’re 1-4 in those games. Washington has a potentially potent attack, but it knows it can’t expect to come back from a deficit every night.
The Capitals have owned a lead for only 5:13 of the last 300 minutes of hockey they’ve played.
“I think everyone is aware that we can’t keep doing this,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera. “If you constantly get behind in games, you’re not always going to score and you’re not always going to catch up. You just can’t expend that much energy.
“The urgency has got to be a lot higher, that’s for sure. I think a lot of guys have got to do more and take it upon themselves. It sounds like a stupid saying, but you’ve always got to look in the mirror and do more yourself. I know a lot of guys do that, but collectively we’ve got to do a better job together. This team always believes it can catch up in the third period no matter how far we are behind. But it’s not going to happen all the time. Teams are too good defensively and the goalies are too good.
“Case in point is in Pittsburgh [on Tuesday night]. We played a great third period, but [Pens’ goalie Marc-Andre] Fleury shut the door. You can’t do that to yourselves. Arguably, we could have had two or three points out of the [home-and-home with Pittsburgh] but we got zero. So it’s one of those things that you’ve got to take advantage of it when it’s here. Otherwise come April 15 you’ll be saying, ‘Holy [crap], I’m pretty bored now. I wish I would have tried harder in some of those games.’ It will be pretty bad if that happens.”
Finally, the face-off circle has been a particularly sore spot of late for the Capitals. Washington has won only 39.9% of the 396 face-offs it has taken in the last seven games.
“Face-offs are huge,” says Beagle, “and the last four or five games we’ve just been struggling in the face-off circle. I don’t know what it is. Sometimes it goes that way and sometimes it’s just not bouncing the right way.
“It’s something that I’ve always tried to take pride in and to bear down on, because it means you have puck possession and you’re not chasing. You lose five or six draws in a row in a game, let’s say in the first period, and all of a sudden it feels like on the bench, ‘Man, we’re chasing the puck. How can we get possession?’ It could from a simple thing like face-offs.
“People don’t really think they’re that important. But face-offs are very important. They give you puck possession and let you take your game to the opponent instead of sitting on your heels, being hemmed in or chasing the puck. It’s not a good feeling as a player to be chasing the puck. Face-offs are huge and we’ve got to be better in the circle.”
As they head into a pair of crucial games this weekend – the Caps also host Toronto on Sunday afternoon – before heading out on a three-game West Coast trip, the Capitals have a lot to work on. How well they manage to address some of those issues could go a long way to determining whether they can stay in the chase for a playoff spot with just 15 games remaining.
“We find ourselves continually making the same mistakes whether it’s slow starts, giving up leads, or having untimely turnovers,” laments Caps’ forward Eric Fehr. “We’re not learning from mistakes they way we need to. And in this league, if you don’t learn from your mistakes it’s going to end up costing you. There are too many good teams and we are in too good of a division for that.
“We knew what we were up against this month. We knew it was going to be difficult. And I think we’ve really dug ourselves a hole here once again. I think these two home games are must wins for us, especially going out west and playing some really good teams that we’ve struggled a little bit against. We understand that we’ve got to be good these next two games and we’ve got to give it our best effort.”