Capitals Are Overly Dependent on Scoring First Goal

The Washington Capitals had won five straight on the road heading into their one-week break, but their success came to an abrupt end with a pair of ugly losses at Madison Square Garden and Wells Fargo Center this past week.

What was the big difference in the setback to the Metropolitan Division rivals New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers? One of the major reasons is that they did not get off to the good start as they had in previous road games, yielding the first goal in both. They then fell behind 4-0 at MSG before lighting the lamp late and then dropping behind just 11 seconds in South Philadelphia en route to a 2-1 loss.

Head coach Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals
Peter Laviolette’s Capitals are much more effective with the first goal than not. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One of the more illuminating stats this season is how the Capitals thrive with the early lead and how they struggle when they don’t get the first goal. This season, they have scored first in 35 of 54 games – nearly 65 percent of games this season – with a 22-9-4 record and a .629 points percentage. In the 35 percent of games when the opponent has lit the lamp first, Washington is a very pedestrian 6-8-5, a .316 points percentage.

The last game the Capitals won after allowing the first goal was on Jan. 22 against the Ottawa Senators, and their last regulation win under the same circumstances was on New Year’s Eve against the Detroit Red Wings, nearly two months ago. In their previous five wins away from home, the Capitals had scored at least one goal in the first period and held the lead after 20 minutes in all but one of those games.

In their five regulation home losses – the longest such streak for the franchise since a skid ended Glen Hanlon’s time behind the bench on Thanksgiving Day 2007 – Washington only held a lead after 20 minutes in one game and scored a total of two goals in the first period, being outscored 6-2.

Why Capitals Need to Score First

One of the reasons for this strange disconnect in play goes back to the Capitals’ ability to protect the goaltender with the lead rather than having to open the game up to try and chase the equalizer. With the lead, the team sits back defensively, and, as a result, they limit chances on their netminder and try to cash in when their opponent opens up their game to try and create offense. When the Caps don’t have the lead, however, they are the ones trying to open up their game, and it’s leading to bad breakdowns and pucks in the back of their net.

Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek was recalled from a rehab assignment in Hershey on Monday. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This style of play has also skewed the Capitals’ strong play at home, and while they have been effective away from home this season, their home record has left fans grumbling. They have a 12-10-5 record at Capital One Arena — including the five straight regulation losses — and rank 18th in the NHL in points collected at home. They also have a 3-6-3 record when allowing the first goal. They are outscoring opponents just 83-81 at home, averaging just over three goals a game per contest, and allowing three.

Away from home, they are 16-7-4, fourth in the league in points, and 13-5-2 when they score the first goal. They are also outscoring their opponent 88-68 away from home, averaging 3.3 goals-for and 2.5 against, meaning they are both more potent offensively and better defensively away from home.

Breakdown in Against the Flyers

Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia was one of the Capitals’ uglier efforts this season in a calendar year filled with subpar performances. After Ilya Samsonov left warmup early with what appeared to be an injury, he came back to start but allowed a goal 11 seconds in.

“It feels like the battle is even harder from the get-go, and I think it’s more of a mental thing starting down 1-0 that early,” John Carlson told the media after the game. “We had 59 and a half minutes left to score one goal to even it up.”

John Carlson Washington Capitals
John Carlson showed frustration after allowing an early goal to the Flyers. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Capitals controlled play to a point in the last two periods, limiting the Flyers to just eight shots but also allowed the eventual game-winner as an unsuccessful power play expired in the second period for a 2-0 lead. While T.J. Oshie pulled the Capitals within one, they didn’t get any closer.

While part of the Capitals’ strong play over the final 40 minutes was because the home squad sat back, particularly in the final 10 minutes, they still seemed reluctant to open up the offense, even though they were successful in erasing a late one-goal deficit against the same team in the same building just nine days earlier.

Capitals Need More Home Cooking

Washington returns home on Monday to face the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that put 10 goals on the board against the Red Wings despite almost losing a 6-1 lead, and will be looking to snap a five-game skid on Capital One Arena ice where they’ve been outscored 19-9 during this slump.

Quite simply, they will need to bring some of that style that has brought them success on the road, as while they have played a more disciplined game on the road, they have been looser at home, and those early deficits have allowed their opponents to do what they themselves like to do, tighten up defensively to limit chances, to the tune of fewer than two goals per game scored during the home skid.

Most of the Capitals’ play this month has been with Samsonov in net, but Vitek Vanecek completed a rehab stint with the Hershey Bears and was recalled to the Capitals on Monday; the team seems to play with a bit more confidence with Vanecek in goal.

The Capitals are 17-9-3 with Samsonov in net – but just 4-7 since New Year’s Day – and 10-6-5 with Vanecek or 6-3-1 since Dec. 1 until h left in the first period of a win against the Pittsburgh Penguins to open February. While both goalies are seeing just under 30 shots per 60 minutes this season (Samsonov’s stat rounded up to 30, Vanecek is over 28), Vanecek’s goals-against average is nearly half a goal less than Samsonov’s.

So, while Washington’s strange February comes to an end against a potent Maple Leafs’ team, a month of changes in March could loom in the Capitals’ net. But the one constant is they seem to be much more comfortable playing responsibly with the lead than when they need to rally from an early goal against.

Related: Washington Capitals’ Trade Deadline History

It would do a lot for the Capitals to light the lamp first tonight and get a bit of confidence in a familiar location where they’ve struggled mightily as of late.

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