There’s nothing like a tight loss to put things into perspective for the Washington Capitals following a three-game winning streak. Things came crashing down against the New York Rangers on Sunday, exposing a laundry list of problems.
The defensive zone needs work. The offense struggles to come up with timely goals. Discipline remains an issue.
Just about everything except goaltending showed through as something the Caps can work on in the coming days as they languish at the bottom of the NHL standings.
“We’ll watch the tape and we’ll figure out which way we want to go with it, positive or negative, what we want to show,” coach Adam Oates said. “But the bottom line is we have to perfect our system and that’s always the goal. You want to get better at doing every little thing you can, so we’ll figure out which ones we want to work on.”
A plethora of problems were masked by victories against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. While Braden Holtby dominated in goal at Madison Square Garden, a lack of discipline and defensive miscues came back to the surface.
The Caps committed five minor penalties in the 2-1 loss to the Rangers, which wasn’t close to their season high but served as a reminder that a team with no margin for error can’t hurt itself.
“We took too many penalties and it ended up costing us,” said Oates, alluding to Derek Stepan’s power-play winner. “Our penalty killing’s been better, but it ended up still costing us.”
It looked like defenseman John Carlson left his man open on Stepan’s goal, and better positioning on the penalty kill is something the Caps could address with two practice days before Thursday’s game against the defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils.
“I think it’s good for us to rest a little bit and practice good, and I guess we haven’t been able to practice much lately,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “So I think that’s going to be good for us.”
This three-day break, one of only two all season, comes at a good time for a Caps team still looking for some consistency.
“We need it,” Oates said.
Chaos in the defensive zone is something that needs to be addressed, too, especially after Holtby had to make 38 saves Sunday just to keep the Caps in the game.
“Just have to play better as a five-man unit,” defenseman Tom Poti said. “I think we have to play a little bit tighter in the zone and keep their guys to the outside.”
That’s what worked so well for Holtby during last year’s playoff run. It’s a matter of debate whether the Caps were able to do that against New York. Oates was satisfied with his team not surrendering a lot of “Grade-A chances,” but he acknowledged plenty of mistakes.
And those mistakes aren’t limited to one end of the ice. After scoring 15 goals during the three-game streak, the Caps struggled when faced with a tight-checking, hardworking Rangers group.
“We definitely wanted to be better offensively,” forward Eric Fehr said. “They’re a strong defensive team, and they’ve got some of the best defensemen in the league, so it made it a little bit difficult.”
But the Caps won’t face anemic defenses too often in their remaining 33 games, so they have to adjust to playing low-scoring games. Defenseman Karl Alzner said he and his teammates were “OK playing that way” against the Rangers.
“We’re disappointed that we lost, but I think we’ve been playing well,” left wing Wojtek Wolski said. “We’ve definitely been moving in the right direction. We’ve been doing the right things, and we’ve got to … look at some video and move past it.”
Players seem to subscribe to Oates’ methodology that includes film as such a major part of the learning process. So as they take a much-needed break before a tough stretch, it’s no surprise that the Caps want to see evidence of what needs improvement.
“We just got to go home and watch what we did wrong,” Backstrom said. “We’ve got to regroup and make sure we’re ready on Thursday.”