TAMPA, Fla. — Adam Oates knew it would be sloppy, his Washington Capitals jumping into game action after just a six-day training camp and following a long lockout. But even when players got into the flow Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, there was something wrong.
A step slow here, a penalty. A mistake there, a goal given up. A lot of little miscues and eight trips to the penalty box later, the Caps wound up with a 6-3 loss in Oates‘ head coaching debut.
“I think it’s just guys haven’t been back so maybe they’re a step behind. And then it causes you to take a penalty,” defenseman Mike Green said. “But we’ve got to stay away from that. That was the difference in tonight’s game.”
A couple of players wanted to simplify it, that the Caps didn’t win the special teams battle and that was it. But it’s much more than that because what doomed them was a problem that began well before the puck dropped on the 2013 season.
“I think some of the mistakes came from conditioning. We got tired at times, the game went in waves,” Oates said. “They had a couple waves on us and kind of wore us out. I think just the amount of ice time the guys got and being a little bit out of shape eventually took its toll.”
Oates was concerned about his defensemen’s conditioning because none of them played during the lockout. So he dressed seven defensemen, but Jack Hillen left in the second period with an injury.
With six defensemen and 11 forwards left, the Caps couldn’t keep up with the Lightning, who didn’t have the obvious handicap of needing to get used to a new coach during a truncated training camp.
The parade to the penalty box, including two in short succession that gave Tampa Bay a five-on-three power play that it scored on in the third, showed some rust.
“I think everyone’s a little bit off a little bit, players, even referees a little bit. I think everyone’s just [off with] timing a little bit,” said right wing Joel Ward, who scored twice for the Caps. “We made a few mistakes that definitely hurt us a little bit. But obviously we know it’s our doing and there’s no one to blame for it, so it’s something that’s easily corrected.”
The Lightning finished with seven power plays to the Caps’ four. But Washington got three of them in the game’s first 10 minutes.
And that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
“You know what, it’s weird: three power plays to start the game, really not what you really want, just because you want to get all the guys going in the game and get the flow going,” Oates said.
Eventually, the Caps knew the pendulum would swing in the other direction and that they would have to kill off a few penalties. But that doesn’t mean everyone was satisfied with how the game was called.
“They got a couple of, I don’t want to say questionable calls, but kind of soft calls that we didn’t get our way in the later part of the game,” left wing Wojtek Wolski said. “It makes it really tough when you’ve got momentum, you’re in the game and you’re playing hard and then they go on the power play, they go on the five-on-three, it’s really tough.”
It’s tougher when being out of a game routine in little ways causes big problems. Too often, center Mike Ribeiro conceded, Caps players were “swinging away,” continuing to skate instead of stopping their motions.
“In all zones, we can’t swing. And I think that comes from conditioning,” Oates said. “To stop and wait and go again takes way more energy than just continually moving. And I think that was part of the deal. And some of the holes get created because of that.”
The Caps had plenty of holes, exploited by Marty St. Louis (three points) and the Lightning all night. And while Oates said he did not fault goaltender Braden Holtby on any of the six goals he allowed, having that crooked number didn’t make anyone happy.
“The main thing is you cannot give teams five, six goals and expect to win. If you contain them to two, three goals, then your chance of winning increases,” Ribeiro said. “Just details of the game, play well defensively and with the skills we have I don’t think we’ll have a problem finding it.”