Capitals' Defense Struggling During Horrid Start
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Oct 18, 2013, 08:06
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Horrid starts to the season is a road all teams try to avoid like the plague, yet the Washington Capitals are starting to make it a common occurrence.
One year after struggling to learn head coach Adam Oates’ system with no training camp, the Capitals are again struggling in the early part of the schedule.
The scary part is no one can put a finger on the deciding force as to why they can’t string together consistent results. After picking up a clinical 4-2 victory Monday against Edmonton, the Capitals (2-5-0) hosted the struggling Rangers (2-4-0) who used them as their own ailment.
“One of the reasons you don’t talk to them is because you do want them to think about it,” Oates said following his team’s lackluster 2-0 loss to New York Wednesday night. “You want them to talk amongst themselves. The guys care and they go home and they aren’t happy about it.”
And there is reason to he frustrated with the way the season has gone thus far.
Possessing one of the game’s best offenses in addition to having a year under Oates’ system, no one expected these kind of issues. For all of Washington’s offensive firepower, they have struggled.
Even-strength play has been an issue as Washington’s been outscored by their opponents at a 17-to-8 clip this season. In fact, at times it seems the Capitals are not capable of scoring without a man advantage, scoring just 50 percent of their goals on even-strength.
All of which makes their performance against New York more alarming.
Armed with four separate power play opportunities, Washington could not capitalize, including a lengthy time on a 5-on-3 opportunity, which tired out their own defense.
“Defensively it’s like a fire drill out there ... What’s the old cliche?” Karl Alzner said after a game Washington’s defense was under siege all night. “Defense wins championships? Right now we are trying to win with just offense.”
And it’s not working, especially when a team does not convert on the offensive chances they do have.
On the 5-on-3 power play chance, creative passing left Joel Ward wide open on the near post - much like the goal he drained in the win over the Oilers.
With the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist sprawled across the ice, Ward pulled back with his stick and swung, connecting with mostly ice as the puck slide slowly wide of net. The missed connection could easily be related to the season — the chance is there, but it has not been taken advantage of.
“They’re a shot-blocking team, we know that,” Oates said of a Rangers squad which blocked 22 shots on the night. “We probably wasted a few opportunites and we had a few great chances. Got an empty net on the 5-on-3 and didn’t bury it. It’s a different ballgame if Ward puts that in.”
But Ward could not take advantage, much like his teammates and momentum swung in the other direction. In the deciding second period, New York manhandled Washington. The Rangers had the extra step at all times, beating Capitals’ skaters to the boards and treating even-strength like their own power play.
The inability to clear the puck left the play in their own defensive zone, resulting in tired legs and two Rangers goals, the first of which a lightning quick wrist shot from the point by John Moore. The second came off a lengthy shift by John Carlson — on the ice for both New York goals — as he lost containment on a rushing Ryan Callahan in the middle of the ice for the goal.
And perhaps that’s where the problem lies for the Capitals through the season’s first seven games.
Braden Holtby received little if no help from Washington’s defense, having to stave off an onslaught of New York opportunities. For much of the night, Holtby was on his game, blocking off angles and gloving tough shots in a 34-save effort.
Yet, Holtby knows these efforts will not get the Capitals where they aim to go this season.
“If we play like that we’re not going to win games, simple as that,” Holtby said. “We played alright in the third but that was too late. The preparation in the locker room has to get better.”
Added Capitals second-line forward Brooks Laich:
“The games against the Rangers are always that tight, but I think we’ve got to find more effort. Nobody’s exempt. We need more from everybody.”
But it specifically starts on defense where the Capitals can take some lessons from the Rangers. In fact, they used a play right from their own system — a high-flip of the puck into the neutral zone.
When under siege on the boards, New York defensemen like Marc Staal and Dan Girardi routinely fired the puck up high, crossing the blue line and allowing their teammates to catch their breathes and make line changes.
Far too many times, Washington created their own problems within their zone by thinking rather than reacting. Instead of just focusing on clearing the puck out of the danger area, the Capitals tried to score from 200-feet away, resulting in errant passes and the opportunistic Rangers took advantage in a 21-shot second period.
“You have to get it out first. Every team has five guys in front of you so you have to cross them,” Oates said. “You can’t just be pretty. The ice is lousy and you have to get it out.”
What’s insinuated by Oates is the team’s forwards are leaving the offensive zone early instead of tracking back to help clear the pucks. Both of Washington’s top two lines were on the ice for the Rangers’ two goals, highlighting a key problem.
Another problem is a lackluster start to the season putting more pressure on the team as numbers pile into the wrong side of the won-loss column.
“I don’t think it’s what we expected,” Oates said of his team’s five losses in seven games. “It’s where we are and we have to figure out a way to dig ourselves out.
After a 2-8-1 start last season, Washington caught fire at the end to make the playoffs. Whether this team can do the same will depend on the commitment to defense, not offense as a way to win a championship.