If the Washington Capitals had a potentially fatal flaw at the beginning of this season, it was discipline -- or specifically their lack of it at key times.
The Caps have done a better job of late avoiding senseless minor penalties, but there remains a lingering reason to nitpick despite the overwhelming success of the first half of the 2009-10 campaign. As dominant as the club has been at times -- particularly in the first period -- their lack of dominance in the final 40 minutes and overtime could be reason for long-term concern.
Washington has outscored its opponents 47-18 in the first 20 minutes this season, which is the largest advantage for any team in the league in any of the three periods. After the first intermission is another story -- the Caps have scored 85 goals and allowed 82.
"It might be a bad thing when we get up 2-0 or 3-0 because then we start to improvise and get away from our system," Tom Poti said. "We don't want to do it, but for whatever reason we do it and it has hurt us in a few games.
"It seems like we get up one or two goals and then we have some really good scoring chances to put it to like 3- or 4-0 and really bury a team, but for whatever reason we don't get those goals and we get down on ourselves. Then we give up one and we're in a struggle."
The Caps deserve plenty of credit for their work in the opening periods of games. Washington boasts the most explosive offense in the league, and the Caps rarely waste any time proving it.
Their 47 first-period goals are six more than the closest competitor (Vancouver) and nearly 25 percent more than any other club. The Caps have scored at least one goal in the opening 20 minutes in all but eight of their games this season, and Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL by netting the first tally of a contest eight times.
"It is one of our goals to come out strong," captain Chris Clark said. "For most teams, their mission is to come out strong and so it is ours to match that and beat it. It is something we talk about in the room, trying to come out and get a couple right away."
Added David Steckel: "We're ready to play. We stick to the game plan in the first period. We come out and we do that in the first period. I don't know what happens exactly, but we kind of get away from our game."
The Caps have proven to be one of the league's elite when properly motivated. Several members of the team pointed out that motivation after the team secures an early lead has been the biggest culprit for the second- and third-period letdowns.
Obviously, the opponent is going to increase its effort after the Caps have one of their now-vintage, dominant first periods. Their first 20 minutes against Buffalo was a perfect example -- Washington held a 15-4 shot advantage and a 2-0 lead.
But back came the Sabres, and 20 minutes later the lead stood at 3-2 and the visitors at Verizon Center were emboldened by putting 20 shots on net against rookie goalie Michal Neuvirth.
"I think it is a combination of the other team and us relaxing a bit," Steckel said. "If you get up by a couple of goals and we're playing well in the first period, then we let up and start playing individually. That combined with the team across in the other locker room -- I am sure they are getting chewed out between periods. We know they are going to come out harder and we just don't meet their push."
While the Caps have scuffled through the second period in each of their past two games, the third-period revival in each could offer some hope for the problem. Washington poured in four unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes against Edmonton and netted the only two tallies of the third against Buffalo.
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau often talks about the ebbs and flows in a hockey game, and how it is typically impossible to ask an NHL team to control the play for all 60 minutes. Fast starts and bad finishes haven't kept the Caps from challenging for the top spot in the NHL standings, but it could be another story in the postseason.
"When it is time for the playoffs, every goal is magnified by 10 times," Steckel said. "If we're going to have a two-goal lead and all of a sudden we're 2-2 going into the third period, there is no reason for that to happen and it is going to cost us. It is something we're getting better at, playing a full 60 minutes and avoiding letdowns, but it is still not where we need it to be."
Added Poti: "It seemed like last year we were always coming from behind. We would have bad starts, but we had great finishes. This year it seems like it is the opposite, but it is definitely something we need to rectify coming down the stretch here."