Earlier this season, Bruce Boudreau was unhappy with his players because they seemed more interested in scoring goals than protecting the lead.
After losing leads time and time again, it appears the Washington Capitals have swung to the other end of the pendulum. Before they were playing too loose with the lead, and now the Caps are playing too tight. That was their coach’s observation Tuesday, a day after the Caps blew a third-period lead and lost for the sixth time this season.
“We stopped playing and are hoping to play solid defense - you’re going to get beat,” Boudreau said. “You have to be proactive and keep going at them. Prevent defense prevents you from winning. That is all it does. We want to continue playing - just understand your responsibilities.”
Added defenseman Mike Green: “I think anytime you’re in a situation and it keeps happening, it can get in your head. Maybe as a team it is in our heads going into the third period and we get nervous or we sit back or we just try to hang on to our lead instead of pushing forward and trying to score more goals.”
With 32 points, the Caps remain tied atop the Eastern Conference with Pittsburgh, and they are on pace for 109 points, which would be a team record. Yet how this team has played in the third period and overtime has gone from a little disconcerting to a lot.
Two areas of concern are playing a huge part in Washington’s late stumbles: lack of discipline and the inability to cover for it. Eight times in 24 games the Caps have yielded a power-play goal that tied the score or put their opponent ahead.
That might look bad, but the overall penalty-killing numbers in the final period and overtime are worse. The Caps have been short-handed 42 times after the second intermission and have given up 13 power-play goals, a kill rate of 69.0 percent.
“We’re taking too many penalties at the wrong times,” defenseman John Erskine said. “When you take penalties in the third period when you’re up, they’re going to come back and take the momentum.”
Added forward Brooks Laich: “It gives the other team life. We know when teams take high-sticking or tripping or hooking penalties on us, we say, ‘Let’s pressure them. They are bending - let’s break them right now.’ Other teams do that to us, too.”
Washington has been short-handed 94 times this season, tied for the ninth most in the NHL. Nearly 45 percent of those penalty-killing situations have included time in the third period or overtime, which speaks to the “taking penalties at bad times” theory.
Of the players polled at practice Tuesday, none said strategic changes were needed. Everyone said it was about effort and sticking to the system on the penalty kill.
“Dean Evason has done a great job, and [Bob Woods] and Bruce do a great job showing us the video so we know what to expect,” forward David Steckel said. “Look at mine and Green’s clearing attempts [Monday] night that should have been out; if that had happened, this conversation would probably be mute. It’s not the system; it is the execution right now.”
Washington’s overall penalty-killing efficiency is 77.7 percent, ranking 23rd in the league. Doing a better job of clearing pucks out of the zone and blocking shots would help that number improve, but nothing would be a better elixir than keeping the other team’s power-play unit off the ice.
“I think we have to have a little bit better composure,” Boudreau said. “The other team, when we’re getting the penalty, is usually losing, so they’re pushing a little harder. We have to learn to [deal] with that if we want to stay in the position we’re in.”