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In a sport where pugilism is expected, the Washington Capitals are about to find out what they’re made of.
The Caps won the Stanley Cup as the NHL’s champion in 2018, bringing the franchise its first title in its 44-year existence, the city of Washington its first major championship in a quarter of a century, and one very big, very slayed dragon to drop like a sack of told-you-so on every naysayer’s doorstep.
But halfway through the 2018-19 campaign, the Capitals have been punched in the mouth.
They have lost seven straight games heading into the NHL All-Star break, and have dropped 10 of their last 13 like a dirty baker’s dozen. The coup de grâce uppercut came Wednesday night in Toronto against the Maple Leafs, a 6-3 raking that brought Washington’s total defensive perforation during the past seven games to a porous 36 goals allowed.
For their part, the Capitals know something needs to change, and fast.
“That was not Washington Capital hockey,” first-year head coach Todd Reirden fumed to reporters after a 7-6 home loss to the San Jose Sharks, a high-flying, fast-and-loose shootout that has come to typify Washington’s careless play during this skid. “Going chance-for-chance against a team that has that type of firepower. That’s not going to win in the long run.”
Veteran Capitals players agree, and the team held two closed-door meetings for players and coaches only, one after their 8-5 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on January 20th at United Center, and another before practice at MedStar Capitals IcePlex in Arlington the next morning. The latter delayed the start of practice by several minutes.
“We had a little chat last night, had a bigger chat this morning,” 32-year-old defenseman Matt Niskanen said after practice. “Trying to get crystal clear on a few things that need to improve. We’ll try to keep a good attitude and an honest attitude about where we’re at and where we want to get to, and keep working towards it.”
Niskanen demurred when asked for specifics: “I’m not going to get into what was said, but we cleared the air of some things, and guys had some different ideas of what needs to change.”
Capitals forward Tom Wilson, himself a six-year veteran, downplayed the swirling tableaus of doom that tend to accompany the phrase “players-only meeting.”
“As long as I can remember, there’s been one or two a year. It’s a long season, so sometimes you need to kind of re-focus, talk it out, [and] hold each other accountable,” the 24-year-old right winger said.
“We’ve played some pretty good hockey the past six months,” Wilson added with a smirk. “We know when we’re not playing well.”
But therein lies the problem for the defending champs. When you’ve spent 44 years playing the underdog, how do you adapt when every other team now sees you as the Cerberus guarding the Stanley Cup?
When every team is giving you their best punch every night, how do you protect your mouth?
If you’re the Capitals, you keep your guard up. And that means a more serious commitment to preparation, effort, and focus – a surprising admission from a proud hockey team.
“We’re just not all the way there right now. It seems like in a lot of instances, we’re 90, 95 percent all-in,” 32-year-old Capitals forward T.J. Oshie tells City Paper. “And that extra five or 10 percent that we don’t bring, they’re ending up as goals against [us].”
Capitals forward and alternate captain Nicklas Backstrom had similar thoughts after a 2-0 home loss to the New York Islanders on January 18th. “If you look at 60 minutes here, it looked like they wanted it more than us. They worked harder, they outcompeted us,” Backstrom said. “We need better from all of us. They outworked us.“
So where can the Capitals look to improve immediately?
A good place to start would be the special teams. Power play goals in each of their past two games have woken up the Capitals’ once-sleepy man-advantage unit, and returns to scoring form by Oshie and fellow forward Evgeny Kuznetsov have shocked the Capitals’ 1-3-1 formation back to life.
But Washington’s penalty kill continues to struggle in Sisyphean futility.
Over the course of this seven-game losing streak, the Capitals have put themselves shorthanded 21 different times. Hockey is much harder to play with one fewer player than your opponent. Which is why Washington playing a full 10 percent of this losing streak with just five players on the ice is significant.
Over that stretch, the Capitals’ penalty kill has managed to stop just 71 percent of its opponents’ power plays. That clip is good for last place in the entire NHL, and well below the league average of 80 percent and the team’s own rate of 77 percent this season.
There’s only so much seawater you can bail out with a bucket before the ship starts to sink. And that’s exactly why the Capitals need all hands on deck right now.
“We’re capable of playing with anyone, shutting down anyone,” Niskanen said earlier this week, before pausing and adding, “…If we all do our jobs.”
The 2019 NHL All-Star game is this Saturday, Jan. 26 in San Jose. The Capitals will get their next chance to right the ship when they return to practice on Jan. 31.
The Capitals have been knocked down. The referee is counting.
The city of Washington is waiting to see Plan B.
Photo by clyde on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.