It Could Be Worse: Caps Still Have Improvements, Yet Ways To Go

Ovechkin and Crosby, who were both held pointless Thursday night. (Tom Turk/THW)

Not that the world is in need of a reminder here, but the Caps have struggled heavily of late and are now on a four-game losing streak after a 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Once again, the theme is much better defense, and Hunter’s influence in their physical play. However, they lacked the offensive presence needed to win against a team like the Penguins.

While Washington went down 1-0 early due to a failure by Jeff Schultz to cover Craig Adams, along a slow lateral recovery by Tomas Vokoun, the Caps otherwise did a fairly good job of keeping shots wide and to the outside of the net — most as a result of the defensive tactics of Hunter and Jim Johnson’s preferred man-to-man coverage.

After the goal, John Erskine instantly dropped the gloves had a bout with Arron Asham, the one whose knockout punch in a fight with Jay Beagle last meeting gave Beagle a concussion. The fight led to a fury of hits by Washington, but the Penguins continued to have control of the flow of the game, assisted by a power play.

The Capitals came back in the second period with a few offensive adjustments, providing them with a solid cycling sequence down low in the Penguins zone by the Chimera-Laich-Ward line. The “Meat and Potatoes” line was rewarded with a goal from Jason Chimera, his 10th of the year. Following the marker, the Caps continued to make things happen in the Penguins’ zone and take advantage of Pittsburgh’s turnovers. By the midway point of the second period, Washington added six more shots from their first period total of four shots and held the Pens to only five shots.

However, after a couple of power plays awarded to the Penguins, Washington’s momentum went down again, trickling into the third period. It certainly didn’t help the Caps that as Chris Kunitz entered the zone alone and took a shot, what would normally to be a routine save by Vokoun somehow found its way behind him.

Caps and Pens get physical — a common scene after Thursday’s game. (Tom Turk/THW)

With the 2-1 lead, Pittsburgh clamped down even more on defense and hindered the Caps from even entering the zone. The most obvious example of this came during Washington’s 6-on-5 where they spent the game’s final 30 seconds stuck in their zone, trying to keep the Penguins from putting a three-spot on them for the game. It worked, but they were unable to even get a chance to tie the game and they lost, 2-1.

After being held to under 20 shots for the second-straight game and stuck to one goal for three straight, it’s apparent Washington’s offense is struggling mightily (which might be putting it nicely). Hunter’s explanation for tonight’s scoring troubles was that the players were worn down because they played the man-to-man defense too much. The energy spent on each player cost them clean exits out of the zone, causing the team to play more defense on Pittsburgh’s strong offensive squad. The Caps played with much emotion and were effective defensively in the first period, but they couldn’t hold up that way throughout the entire game.

Chimera noted that the team needed to get more pucks to the net and said they “kind of waited for perfect plays.” There were many times the offense chose to pass over taking the open shot. They did have more offensive zone time than Tuesday night against the Blues, but they did not do much with it aside from cycling and moving the puck around (on their power play, they were stationary). What might also be an issue for the Caps is that they do not hit with a purpose as often as they should to clear out space.

Despite his mistake on the second goal, Vokoun was more sharp against the Penguins, keeping his team in the game. (Tom Turk/THW)

Their forecheck has also improved since the last game, but they need more hits that open up the ice for them down low, which would probably give them more confidence to take shots. The Capitals are certainly a more physical team than some in their own conference, but what they do with it may matter more than the high number of hits they make.

It was another offensive struggle for Washington with some bounces that didn’t go their way. The defense and physicality were better, the penalty killing was a perfect 3-for-3 and the effort to win is there. With more confidence in their defensive capabilities, the offensive talent will show up. It would be wise to be patient with the team, as they will need to practice more with this style.

The Ottawa Senators come in Saturday night. They aren’t the Blues or the Penguins, but they still are a tough opponent. It might be an opportunity to turn things around.

Notes: Alex Ovechkin had one shot and 10 hits… Sidney Crosby was held pointless as well, with three shots, two giveaways and a -1 rating.