Capitals Need to Pick It up Defensively

The Washington Capitals have spent much of the 2019-20 season atop the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference standings. However, a recent stretch of mediocre play has allowed both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins to work past Washington in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy. The Pittsburgh Penguins are hot on the Caps’ trail in the division, while the New York Islanders also remain within striking distance.

Despite owning the third-best record in the league, the Capitals are just 11-9 over their past 20 games. They have allowed over 3.5 goals against per game in that stretch and have seen an 11-point lead over Pittsburgh shrink to just five. The main reason for this sudden change in fortune has been Washington’s inability to keep the puck out of their own net.

While much of the recent focus surrounding the Caps has been centered around Alexander Ovechkin’s latest goal-scoring surge, a lack of focus in the defensive end has the team struggling to pick up wins as we enter the stretch drive of the season. 

Second Half Slump

Washington is just 4-4 since returning from the All-Star break. In those games, the Capitals have allowed an eye-opening 30 goals while scoring 28 of their own. Offense has not been the problem for a team that ranks third in the NHL in goals scored. Rather, Washington’s lack of consistent play in their own zone is leading to a less than impressive start to the month of February. While the Capitals certainly have the firepower to survive a shootout with most teams in the league, that strategy will only take you so far once the games tighten up and the playoffs get closer.

Tampa Bay Lightning Victor Hedman Washington Capitals Braden Holtby
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman scores in overtime against Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

After spending most of the season in the top 10, Washington has slipped to 13th overall in goals against. They have been turning pucks over and allowing more odd-man rushes and high quality scoring chances than they were early in the season. In recent losses to the Flyers and Islanders, the Capitals fell behind early and attempted to cheat for offense only to get burned and blown out in the process. This is a trend head coach Todd Reirden has noticed for a while now and one the team will have to correct if they want to lock down a fifth straight division title. 

Holtby’s Tough Season

In addition to some sub-par defending, Braden Holtby has largely struggled in the Washington net this season. On Thursday night, Holtby put in a vintage performance against Colorado, swatting aside 32 shots to allow his team to come back and pick up the win. Nights like that have been few and far between for Holtby, however. The Capitals starting netminder has allowed three or more goals in all but three of his starts since Christmas and is sporting an ugly .896 save percentage on the season.

Braden Holtby Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Ilya Samsonov has emerged as a viable option going forward but ideally, the Caps would prefer if their former Vezina Trophy winner rediscovered his game in time for the playoffs. It’s easier said than done to hand the keys of the ship over to a 22-year old rookie and, as we’ve seen around the league, you need two goalies going strong if you want to consistently win games. Holtby has struggled in the past before turning it on in the playoffs and the team would love nothing more than for that scenario to play out once again this season. He still has the support of the organization and, in a contract year, Holtby has plenty of incentive to pick things up.

Salary Cap Crunch

Another thing influencing the Capitals’ defensive struggles is the lack of alternatives on the roster. Washington is right up against the cap and is currently carrying just 19 players on the active roster. That includes injured forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, meaning the team has no spare forwards and no extra defensemen ready to be inserted into the lineup. If any player is showing signs of fatigue or in need of a night off to reset, the Caps don’t have anyone to replace them with. It obviously isn’t an ideal situation.

A call up from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears is always an option, as is a tweak to the roster before the trade deadline. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan will have some decisions to make in that regard, but one way or another the team will need a few extra bodies to come in and contribute down the stretch.

Todd Reirden Washington Capitals
Todd Reirden, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Regardless of the limitations on the current roster, the Capitals need to be better in their own end. The team took a nice step forward on Thursday, bouncing back from an early 2-0 deficit to beat the Avalanche 3-2 on the road. The win was a much-needed performance that followed two ugly defeats on home ice. It was also a game that reminded the team what it’s capable of. Washington will need more nights like that going forward if they hope to keep up with the red-hot Bolts and B’s for the top record in the league.