Capitals’ Defensive Play Is Starting to Let the Team Down

The Washington Capitals continued their point streak to start the season with an overtime loss against the Detroit Red Wings Wednesday night. A loss is still a loss, and they haven’t won in overtime yet. Leading up to the game, the focus was on their sudden lack of defense. The Capitals started the season holding their opponents to seven goals in their first four contests. They’ve given up 12 in the last three.

John Carlson Washington Capitals
John Carlson, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The defense’s hot start has certainly simmered…as has the penalty kill…as has the goaltending. The preseason questions were seemingly answered in the first four games, but now head coach Peter Laviolette must figure out how to get his skaters back to playing well, which they’ve already proven they can.

Capitals Defense Suddenly Struggling

The last three games, Washington has faced off against the Calgary Flames, Ottawa Senators, and Red Wings. Giving up four goals to Calgary is explainable, considering the Flames are in the top 10 in goals per game (3.50). The Red Wings aren’t far behind, ranked 12th at 3.29. However, allowing five by the lowly Senators is where the concern lies. Ottawa is 23rd in goals per game (2.50), only scoring 15 so far on the season. Easy math tells us a third of their tallies came against the Capitals.

Opponent2021-22 GF/GPNHL RankGoals AllowedOpp. Power PlayShots
NY Rangers2.1421st11/524
Tampa Bay3.0016th2 (OT Loss)0/124
New Jersey2.8819th11/126
Calgary3.509th4 (OT Loss)1/327
Detroit3.2912th3 (OT Loss)0/225
Capitals’ Opponents so far in 2021-22

Every team will have lapses at some point, and they’re more excusable when they happen against good offenses. Perhaps Washington’s defensive performances against the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Nathan McKinnon-less Colorado Avalanche, and New Jersey Devils aren’t as impressive as they were on the surface. Currently, none of those teams rank in the top 15 of the league (almost half) in goals per game.

Blue Line Pairings

Laviolette has kept the blue line pairings the same for each game thus far. The truth is, despite the theme of this article, they’re working. Ten of the 19 goals scored against Washington this season have come in non-5-on-5 situations. John Carlson has especially had a tough go. The veteran has been on the ice for eight goals against, and five of them have come on the penalty kill, shorthanded, or overtime.

One skater that has become a common denominator is Trevor van Riemsdyk. The 30-year-old has allowed seven goals while on the ice, and he was paired with three different blueliners during gameplay. He and Justin Schultz have given up three goals together, another two with Nick Jensen on the second penalty kill unit, and the last coming while on the ice with Martin Fehervary.   

Penalty Kill, Forwards, and Goalies

The Capitals have allowed a power-play goal in five out of seven games. Last season, they finished fifth in the NHL when it came to killing off penalties (84 percent). This season, they have declined substantially, dropping to 73.7 percent, which has them ranked 25th in the league.

Considering many of these breakdowns are situational, the blue line isn’t entirely to blame. Each skater is required to play defense in some fashion. For example, T.J. Oshie, though earning six points on the season, has a rating of minus-4. Even Alex Ovechkin, with his league-leading eight goals and second-best 13 points, has a rating of just plus-6 despite his scorching start.

The goaltending needs to get better as well. Vitek Vanecek was pulled against Calgary, and on the season, has a save percentage of .911 and a goals against average of 2.26, which rank 26th and 17th among NHL goalies. Ilya Samsonov has been worse, recording a line of .885 and 3.32, which place him at 30th and 50th in the league.   

With all that in mind, the Capitals still haven’t lost a game in regulation, so they’re getting by. That won’t last forever, though.

Capitals Have Plenty of Time (Kind of)

The Capitals need to somehow stabilize these pockets of inconsistency. It’s almost November already, so the season is going quickly. The Metropolitan Division is stacked, and it will only get tougher as 2021-22 moves along. This includes potent offenses such as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes. Both squads are in the top six for goals per game. In addition, Carolina has held their opponents to the least amount of goals per game (1.60) in the league. The Penguins (2.67) and Capitals (2.71) are 11th and 12th, respectively.

Related: Capitals & Penguins Fans Must Accept That Rivalry is About to Change

Also, keep in mind, they need to start figuring out how to win in overtime. Come the playoffs, though a ways away, teams don’t get a point for an overtime loss; they just get a loss, and it could end their season.

Washington does have options. Michal Kempny and Alex Alexeyev are playing fine for the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Once Kempny gets back to form after his two years of injuries and a sub-par preseason, then he should receive a call-up. They shouldn’t rush Alexeyev, but giving him some opportunities early may not be the worst idea.

There’s no need to panic yet; Washington has time to figure out their defensive lapses. But, hopefully, it doesn’t take too long.

Sign up for our free ‘Capitals Substack Newsletter‘ for all the latest.