In a perfect world, the Washington Capitals would be north of the border Tuesday night to take on the Montreal Canadiens, but with the COVID restrictions put in place in Quebec, the team’s visit to Bell Centre will have to wait. Instead, the break will allow the Capitals a bit of a reset after a strange loss Sunday to the New Jersey Devils when both Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie were late scratches due to a non-COVID-related illness. While Washington rallied late to earn a point, the Caps were clearly out of sync most of the night and suffered a rare defeat against the Devils.
Through 34 games, the Capitals have put together an impressive record despite numerous injuries – particularly to the forward corps – not to mention several rounds in COVID protocol that have left the team short-handed on most nights. Even Sunday, while it appeared the team would be close to full strength for the first time in a long time, the two late scratches left the Caps scrambling, and it took a while to get on the same page.
But this has been a resilient team, and despite the issues, they are tied atop the NHL standings with the New York Rangers and were 15 points clear of a playoff spot on Jan. 3 – not an easy feat with so many teams going hot-and-cold this campaign. So, with a couple of extra days off to work in practice, what should the Capitals do to improve before they return to the ice on Friday night in St. Louis against the Blues?
Capitals’ Power Play Woes
If there is one aspect of Washington’s game that has struggled this season, it’s the power play. They have a 2-for-30 record in their last dozen games with the extra man, and Alex Ovechkin scored both goals, tying and breaking Dave Andreychuk’s NHL record for most power-play goals in the process.
The last time a Capital not wearing No. 8 scored with the extra man was Dmitry Orlov, who did the trick the weekend after Thanksgiving. While Ovechkin’s success is welcome, the lack of production from everyone else is concerning since other teams no longer have to worry when Washington’s captain doesn’t have the puck.
“Certainly some things we can do better with regard to puck battles and breakouts and that sort of thing,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said Sunday, following the team’s loss. “I think if we can ever get to a point where we get guys back, and we can work on some things on the ice and get some rhythm back, some timing back, that will help as well.”
Simply put, the power play looks stale in general. The five-man unit doesn’t keep the four defenders moving and relies too much on passing rather than moving their feet to create opportunities. They generated just a single shot against the Devils in one power-play opportunity.
The Capitals are the third-most potent team in the league with 119 goals, yet only have a 15 percent success rate with the extra man, ranked 28th. Washington also only has 15 power-play goals this season – less than 10 percent of their total output – and also have allowed four short-handed goals, tied for fourth-most in the NHL.
They have to change their power play philosophy, as opponents are well prepared to defend against it aside from the unpredictability of Ovechkin’s shot – he has six of the Capitals’ power-play goals this season while the rest of his teammates have nine combined.
Capitals’ Overtime Outage
Another problem with Washington’s game is three-on-three overtime, where the Capitals are now 0-7. Again, with such a potent lineup, the fact that the Capitals are one of just four teams that have yet to record a win in overtime this season – the Colorado Avalanche, Montreal Canadiens, and Seattle Kraken are the others – while allowing the most overtime goals in the NHL is a mystery.
Washington is 2-1 when they manage to get to the shootout, but they have allowed some good looks with the wide-open ice, which have ended up in the back of their net. Sunday, Washington had a chance early they couldn’t convert on. But the Devils’ Nico Hischier buried his chance, extending Washington’s overtime woes to nearly seven months – their last 3-on-3 win was on May 8 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the second-to-last game of the 2020-21 regular season.
“[Sunday] was not a clean game for us, and I feel like we were chasing,” Laviolette told reporters Sunday. “A lot of credit to the guys in the third period for continuing to push and stay positive and look for chances and look to create, and we end up … getting a tie, but we had the first look in overtime to put it away, and it just didn’t drop.”
Washington’s overtime attack is disjointed at the moment, and like the power play, doesn’t catch opponents by surprise, and teams are taking advantage. While Washington has had success this season, allowing extra points to vanish could hurt their chances at home-ice in a very tough Metropolitan Division race and from banking needed points in case of another extended rash of injuries.
Cohesion Is King for Laviolette
Washington can use this break to practice with the bulk of their players back, especially since Washington’s disjointed play has been partly a result of players shuffling in and out of the lineup.
“It’s another crazy day for the Caps, I think,” Tom Wilson told reporters Sunday. “You wake up, and it’s a lot of news these days, and you’re just adjusting on the fly.”
Washington has already matched the 1974-75 Capitals by dressing 11 rookies in the first 40 games of the season – and that team won eight games in their first season in the NHL. They have also done a good adapting throughout the campaign to avoid the fate of several other teams that were hit with COVID and injuries and will now have to make up ground in the second half.
So, while the schedule shuffling has left many teams with some extra practice time in the past few weeks, Laviolette hoped it would allow Washington to work on their trouble spots after an otherwise solid start to the season. “The time for the guys that are coming back is really good,” Laviolette told reporters. “[Just] trying to use it as almost a mini-training camp, go over things to fine-tune and try to get better.”
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.