TAMPA, Fla. — After some games, Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates can see more "holes" in his team's game on film than are obvious from behind the bench. A 5-0 win over the weekend against the Florida Panthers was a good example of the result covering up a plethora of mistakes.
Needing a furious, third-period comeback to beat those same lowly Panthers on Tuesday made it a bit easier to identify the problems. As emotional and necessary as the victory was, falling into that same pattern again could have disastrous results.
"That's a game we're far from happy with," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "[If] we play like that against one of the top teams, it's real ugly."
One of the top teams such as Thursday's opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who clobbered the Caps here in the season opener. The Caps' four wins so far this season have come against opponents with a combined record of 15-21-4, while the Lightning are 5-1-1 at home.
So even though the Caps were loose and relaxed Wednesday during and after practice, they recognized it was a time for refocusing on the task at hand and the problems that must be fixed.
"We need to clean up a lot of areas," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "Even though we were able to battle out a win, it's not exactly a pretty one, it's not exactly how we wanted to do it. Today was making sure we're crisp in our breakouts, making sure we're crisp in our forechecks. Just things like that, trying to clean things up."
That happened in a video session in which the Caps "combed through that game real in-depth," forward Matt Hendricks said.
"We went through our errors and went through some of the positive things," Hendricks said. "There were a lot of things that we got away from that made us successful two games ago against Florida. We kind of allowed them to maintain pressure on us in our zone, we weren't getting pucks out when we needed to, we were trying to make plays that weren't really there."
Knowing that pattern won't fly against the Lightning forced the Caps to deal with those issues in practice. Oates had players working on clearing the defensive zone, something that directly led to two Panthers goals Tuesday night. The purpose, he said, is for players to get used to putting the puck in the right place at the right time.
On too many occasions Tuesday and throughout the first 13 games, Caps players haven't been in the right place, especially in the defensive zone.
"The hard part, I think, is when a team ends up with sustained pressure for 40 seconds, a minute in your zone," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "Everybody wants to be the guy to kind of get the puck out or do whatever you can to stop them from getting to the net, and then we start to get out of position a little bit. And with what we're doing, you can't get out of position because it compromises everybody."
While the Caps have started to play more of what Oates calls "correct hockey," they wander off the path sometimes, especially when they're behind. Straying from the system is the last thing players need when they're trying to find some consistency.
"When we play more positionally sound, when we're communicating instead of going to areas and wasting energy, if we allow our system to do the work for us, it actually benefits us," Hendricks said. "I think when we get away from that, that's when we have breakdowns because our system is all about relying on the guy next to you, having the belief that your partner, whether it be a forward, defenseman or a goaltender, that your teammate's going to be there where you need him to be at that time."
Sometimes, goals are just going to go in. But in spite of forward Eric Fehr's nostalgia that Tuesday night's comeback reminded him of the "old Caps," this isn't the same group that could overcome any deficit without fear. If Saturday's blowout of the Panthers was a blueprint for how to win under Oates, Tuesday was an example of getting two points in the wrong way.
"I think we play good hockey, but we make lots of mistakes in our zone especially when we're losing the puck on the blue line," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "So it's kind of [a] situation when you have to fight through it."
Center Nicklas Backstrom said games like Tuesday knock the Caps "out of normal habits." And Brouwer conceded that they can't get into a "run-and-gun" shootout with the Lightning.
"We can't win like that every night, that's for sure," left wing Jason Chimera said. "I think it's important we play a better overall game. We played good in areas and we had some big mental lapses."
Cutting down on those mental lapses and focusing on "details," Alzner said, has been a prominent theme. Oates said it's easier to correct mistakes after a victory, even if the messages are the same.
That's why, even though there was much to absorb, players weren't tense about the need for improvement.
"We've got to remember that, just like Adam is, everything's got to be calm, and you've got to do it methodically and there's times when you get a little bit too antsy and emotional," Alzner said. "We've got to work at kind of keeping it a little bit more even-keel."
Perhaps at that point, this team will find the consistency that has been lacking in its game.
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