The Washington Capitals’ season-opening, four-game road trip was certainly a mixed bag, at times showing why the Caps are in the mix for the Eastern Division title in this shortened season, and at other times putting on display the problems that plagued in the second half of last season.
Six out of eight points on a four-game trip through the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins isn’t a bad result as the Capitals are tied for first with the Philadelphia Flyers through one week of play in the East. However, the team’s effort level seemed to slip each contest, punctuated with the team blowing a 4-2 lead in Pittsburgh Tuesday night and winding up with a 5-4 overtime loss where the team left a standings point on the table.
New Washington coach Peter Laviolette saw first-hand what his predecessor Todd Reirden saw numerous times last season — when the Capitals are skating with a lead, they simply don’t press their opponent and instead allow them to dictate the pace of the game.
“After things started to happen in the second period where it felt like we were shooting ourselves in the foot, we couldn’t get in motion, we couldn’t get going and they came back, and in the third I was looking for a better response than what we got,” Laviolette told reporters afterwards according to NBC Sports Washington.
There were times in the four games where Washington dominated the pace of the contests, and certainly had both the Sabres and Penguins on the ropes at times in the four contests. But the inconsistency across the entire lineup was evident at times, and something the coaching staff will need to address.
Young Goalies Deliver Mixed Results
The Capitals’ big question mark before the season was the performance of their two young goaltenders, and the results were definitely mixed.
Ilya Samsonov, who begins the season in the starting role, allowed seven goals in two games, with a sub-par .868 save percentage (SV%) for his efforts. He had some nice saves in his two games, but also seemed to allow some goals that should have been stopped.
Samsonov was afforded a lead in his two contests, being able to hold the Sabres off on Thursday, but not the Penguins on Sunday and ended up the wrong end of a shootout decision.
Vitek Vanecek was very good in his NHL debut in Buffalo Friday, helping the Capitals earn a 2-1 win, but was not as solid against the Penguins Tuesday. While Vanecek made some good saves against Pittsburgh, he also allowed some soft goals and ended up with the hard-luck overtime loss after the team squandered a 4-2 lead and provided him little offensive support in the third period.
Vanecek slightly outperformed Samsonov against the same opponents, posting a .902 SV% and allowing one less tally, with both going 1-0-1 for their efforts.
Washington gambled on the two young goaltenders with little NHL experience this year, and while the two didn’t do anything to lose the contests in Pittsburgh, they also didn’t do anything to hold off the Penguins either.
Special Teams a Factor in Pittsburgh
Another concern emerging from the opening road trip is special teams, which had a complete meltdown in the road trip finale in Pittsburgh.
Tuesday’s game turned when the Capitals had a five-on-three man advantage in the second and were looking to take a 5-2 lead to try and deliver a knockout blow to the Penguins.
Instead, after Evgeny Kuznetsov’s dump in to the Penguins zone was stopped by goaltender Casey DeSmith, he flipped a pass to Teddy Blueger, who had snuck behind all five Washington skaters and converted on a rare, two-man-short, breakway goal.
Given the opportunity to close out the contest, Washington found itself back in a close game and it wasn’t able to protect the two points seemingly in the bank.
Kuznetsov took blame for the strange decision to dump in despite the man advantage. “That was a bad dump for me, so just keep that,” he told reporters afterwards, according to the Washington Post. (from ‘Capitals lose a two-goal lead and fall to the Penguins in overtime on Sidney Crosby’s winner,’ Washington Post, 01/19/2021)
Pittsburgh then tied the game on another special team’s goal late in the second. T.J. Oshie took a ill-advised interference penalty on Marcus Pettersson, and the Caps promptly yielded a power-play goal on an Evgeni Malkin shot that sailed past Vanecek.
The Penguins went 2-for-3 on the night with the extra man — thanks to the Malkin tally and a Jake Guentzel 5-on-3 goal earlier in the frame — while the Capitals were scoreless with their own two-man advantage despite yielding a goal.
Through four games, the Capitals have an 81.3 percent success rate on the penalty kill, good for just 16th league-wide. Their power play is clicking at a 25 percent clip, ninth overall, despite having no opportunities at all Friday in Buffalo.
Fatigue, Effort a Factor on Trip
Fortunately for Washington, they have an extra day off to rest and practice before they resume the schedule Friday night against Buffalo, and they have a chance to work on some of these issues that popped up after four games in six days.
Clearly, as one of the NHL’s oldest teams, fatigue showed in Sunday afternoon’s game — Washington’s third contest in less than 72 hours — but the inconsistency is something the team will have to work on.
When the Capitals were skating hard, they were able to push the pace and kept both the Sabres and Penguins on their heels, and at times were simply dominant. But when they stopped working and sat back and let their opponent carry the play, the defense and goaltending weren’t good enough to protect their leads.
Washington held leads in all four contests, three times allowing the opponent to pull even in the game. They started out strong, but the effort level generally waned as the games progressed. The Capitals scored a combined seven goals in the first period, then five in the second period, but just three in the third, one of which was an empty-netter in the season opener. The only strong, third-period effort was Friday night’s win in Buffalo, where Vanecek was able to shut the door and Tom Wilson delivered the game-winner.
The Caps showed flashes of why they can be a contender as long as they push the pace and force the opposition to defend. However, when they allow their opponents to control the play, they also showed why they bowed out meekly in the first round to the New York Islanders.
Laviolette got his first chance to see this inconsistency up close, and with the Capitals not pressing the pace in the third period Tuesday despite the Penguins having a short bench, he wasn’t happy with the result.
“It just seemed like we turned it over a lot and it came back the other way and it was difficult to establish zone time and to start to get some rhythm back to what we were doing,” Laviolette said according to NBC. “So it’s frustrating.”
Capitals Look for Home Cooking
On the bright side for Washington is despite the very uneven effort, the team gets to play six games on home ice after taking six out of eight points on a difficult road trip. And, despite the frustrating two losses to their rivals from Pittsburgh, there are signs that this is a team that compete for a championship — when they dictate the pace.
Washington plays its first home game since March 4 when the Sabres come to town, then the Islanders come in for their first meeting with the Capitals since last year’s playoff series. The Boston Bruins wrap up the six-game homestand, and then after a one-game visit to Madison Square Garden and the New York Rangers, Washington gets another two at Capital One Arena as the Philadelphia Flyers come to town.
So, with eight of nine on home ice, Washington has a good opportunity ahead to try and bank some important points against other teams expected to compete for the four Eastern Division playoff spots, and give themselves some cushion in what figures to be a tough fight to reach the postseason.
But Washington also needs to turn in a more consistent effort nightly, and less of the hit-or-miss performance that grew more prevalent as the road trip wore on.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.