- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2013

If it wasn’t obvious on opening night, it became painfully clear Tuesday: Adam Oates‘ Washington Capitals are a work in progress. Not what fans yearned to see in the home opener at Verizon Center.

The 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets was perhaps even uglier than their first defeat three days earlier. The announced sellout crowd was hardly ever into it, and, given the play, it was deserved. Defensive breakdowns weren’t just apparent, they were blatant and abundant.

“The grace period is over,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “We have to be playing good hockey now, whether it’s our effort needs to be better, our details need to be better, we need to pick it up.”

The end result of Oates‘ Caps renovation might be a thing of beauty: an attacking team that tilts the ice as the New Jersey Devils did on the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

For now, it’s a mess.

“It is a new system, and that’s going to be hard, and we’ve got to fight through that. But still, I thought we could have had better execution,” Oates said. “We didn’t give ourselves the opportunity to play the team game. We turned it over at the blue line too many times. Just little, subtle things I thought we could have done better to help ourselves.”

At five-on-five, defensemen asked to jump up in the play leave holes behind them that teammates don’t yet know how to plug. Eventually that could turn into a dangerous forecheck, but Tuesday night it resulted in a goal when Evander Kane blew past John Carlson and was able to feed Blake Wheeler on the rush.

When the Caps are in their defensive zone, the shift back to defending a patch of ice instead of a specific man is taking plenty of time to happen.

“I definitely feel like kind of almost like a fish out of water right now,” said defenseman Karl Alzner, who was on the ice for three Jets goals. Too busy trying to be in the right position mentally instead of just being there. I know where to be. I’m overthinking it; I think a lot of guys are probably in the same boat.”

On the penalty kill, guys being caught out of position or not adequately taking away space cost Washington two goals against the Jets.

That Braden Holtby wasn’t on top of his game wasn’t one of the chief problems. He whiffed on Andrew Ladd’s goal but was also the victim of a deflection of Carlson’s skate and a deflection in front by Winnipeg’s Jim Slater.

Oates‘ brand of hockey will undoubtedly yield more goals against than Dale Hunter’s tight-checking, shot-blocking style. But, in time, it could produce plenty more offense.

The forecheck just isn’t there yet.

“We got to make sure that we’re putting pucks away from the goalie, away from where the D-men can get it, in positions that we can put pressure on the puck and try to get a forecheck going. So I think it really starts with that,” Brouwer said. “The other thing too is — it was a big problem for us last year — is turnovers at the blue line. I think we had seven in the first period around the blue line. If you want to win hockey games, and especially in such tight battles like it was tonight, you can’t turn pucks over at the blue line because that just tires you out skating all the way back to your own end.”

Despite getting 34 shots on Ondrej Pavelec, the Caps rarely got quality chances. Matt Hendricks’ opening goal was the product of beautiful, tic-tac-toe passing from Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

That earned Hendricks a promotion on a night that Marcus Johansson played just one 50-second shift in the third period.

“I felt he could play better,” Oates said of Johansson. “You hope every guy uses his strengths and one of Marcus’ strengths is his skating ability and I didn’t think he was skating. I was looking for a spark, something else.”

There was little spark or fight all night aside from what Hendricks did with his stick and his fists.

Not having much attacking-zone time was the culprit, the opposite of what Oates‘ system is designed to do. The idea of having a defenseman pinch is to create pressure on opposing defenses and force turnovers.

When the forecheck doesn’t get the job done, the Caps are caught, as they were a few times Tuesday night. It’s a problem that could be fixed, but the road might be bumpy until that point.

It’s still an unknown how long that will take.

“I don’t know. I wish I knew. Hopefully not one more day. Hopefully it clicks and we can do it all and start playing better,” Alzner said. “There’s system stuff, there’s hard work stuff. Tonight, even if we have breakdowns in the system, we should be able to fix ‘em with hard work. There wasn’t enough of that.”



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