The Washington Capitals’ starts, all things considered, have been very good this season. However, the finishes have become a concern as of late.
While the Capitals have a bit of a cushion atop the Metropolitan Division despite the continued absences of several key players, the last couple of games have shown the team still has room for improvement in other areas of the game – especially in the third period.
The Caps have gotten a pretty consistent effort level so far this season to make up the gap for some of the missing personnel and overcoming an issue that has crept into their game at times over the years. But the last three games have been marked with a return to inconsistent efforts, with the result being three blown leads in the third period and a 1-1-1 mark in that stretch which easily could have been a perfect 3-0-0.
Capitals Thwart Comeback in Carolina
Sunday afternoon in Raleigh, the Capitals played a very strong 40 minutes. They built a 2-0 lead over the Carolina Hurricanes in an impressive showing, as they were able to control the Canes’ speed and offensive chances for the first two periods.
However, Washington sat back in the third and allowed Carolina to use that speed to generate several good scoring chances. The lead had evaporated by the 13:32 mark of the third period – and frankly, it probably was fortunate they held on that long with the flow in play.
Fortunately for the Capitals, once the Hurricanes netted the equalizer, the push in their game returned, and thanks to a Nick Jensen breakaway attempt which resulted in a power play with five minutes remaining – which quickly became a 5-on-3 after another infraction – Washington was able to cash in and collect two points despite a third which they were substantially outplayed outside the two-man advantage.
Flop Against the Panthers
Two nights later, Washington wasn’t as fortunate in Sunrise against the Florida Panthers.
The Capitals played another strong 40 minutes to start the contest and built a 4-1 lead over a Panthers team that has lost just once at home all season long, controlling play and again frustrating one of the league’s top teams.
But the third period was one of the worst efforts the Capitals have produced in recent seasons, if not franchise history. Washington allowed the three-goal lead to evaporate in the third period, not even getting a single point for their efforts as Florida won with just 14.4 left in regulation on a power play to cap a 5-4 win.
The Panthers outshot the Caps 27-2 in the period – a rare combination of Washington allowing the second-highest shot total in one period in franchise history and one shy of the record of 28 and recording just one above the record low production in one period.
“We stopped playing,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said after Tuesday’s collapse in Florida (Capitals’ Peter Laviolette rips his team’s effort after an ugly 5-4 loss to the Panthers,” The Washington Post, Nov. 30, 2021). “That is two games in a row that we’ve stopped playing in the third period. If you don’t punch back, the only thing you are going to do is get punched, and we got punched for 20 minutes. It’s on us.”
Perhaps even more frustrating against Florida is Washington dictated the pace for 40 minutes of play and seemed ready to hand the Panthers a rare loss. But a passive third allowed Florida to gain momentum in the period, and once they allowed a short-handed goal midway through the frame, it seemed inevitable they would allow the equalizer. And, once they did so, a period that they entered up by three seemed to be fortunate even to try and escape with one point – which they didn’t.
And, unlike the game against Carolina where the push returned once the Canes pulled even, there was no pushback once Florida tied the game with just under eight minutes left in regulation. At that point, it seemed inevitable Washington would allow the deciding fifth goal at some point, either before the end of regulation or in the extra session – and for the Caps, it came just before they could even collect a single point for their efforts.
Capitals’ Overtime Woes Continue
Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, while the Capitals took the lead in the first minute of the third, they again couldn’t hold on to that edge allowing the equalizer with just over eight minutes left in regulation. This time, while they did get a point for their efforts, they fell to 0-6 in games decided after regulation with a 4-3 shootout loss.
It was the first time Washington got to a shootout this season, having lost the previous five in the 3-on-3 session.
The Capitals were a bit better in the third against Chicago than the previous two games, but then again, they also weren’t playing against one of the top teams in the league either.
Laviolette, for one, was more encouraged by the team’s finish compared to the first two.
“I don’t have a problem with the third,” Laviolette said (“Capitals stymied at home by Blackhawks in shootout,” The Washington Post, Dec. 2, 2021). “I don’t like losing. I don’t think we gave up very much. We will go back and look at it. Gave up two chances in the third period, and that was it.”
Third Period Fizzles
The primary issue in the three-game stretch has been a sizeable drop in play in the third period, as Washington was outshot in every third period of the three by a combined margin of 48-16. On the road in Carolina and Florida, Washington had turned in a solid first 40 minutes, only to have it spoiled as the Capitals sat back and allowed the home team to dictate the pace.
The Capitals were able to counter that push once when the Hurricanes got the equalizer, but the Panthers game was quite another story. Still, the blown leads in the final frame are becoming a concern because with the team already leaving points on the table with the overtime losses, they are in danger of now losing some points late in games with poor finishes.
Washington in recent years has had issues with inconsistent effort, but one of the reasons they overcame the loss to key personnel so far this season has been a stronger work ethic. Now that the inconsistency has returned, it also has led to mixed results.
In a season where the Capitals are third overall despite missing key personnel, the effort hadn’t been an issue. Still, certainly, the last few games, it has crept into their play. In an uncertain season with injuries, COVID protocol, and perhaps rescheduling issues, it’s important to bank as many points as possible in case of issues. Especially with an issue hitting close to home with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, forcing the postponement of four games so far, including this weekend’s contests.
Clearly, Washington has been playing above its current playing roster this season. But it will also be important for the Capitals to bank points as with an uncertain season ahead for the entire league, a team doesn’t want to be in a situation where they have to make up a significant gap in the standings.
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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.