Barry Trotz is tired of talking to his players about the Washington Capitals’ poor starts.
That’s why he’s going to keep doing it.
The Capitals reconvened for practice on Monday morning for the first time since ending their four-game road trip — a stretch in which they won two games but never led.
Washington (49-14-5) has not led in a game since March 2, when it took a two-goal lead and then held on to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-2. All told, the Capitals have surrendered the first goal in 16 of their 21 games dating to the end of the all-star break on Feb. 2.
The starts aren’t their only concern — they’ve won 11 of those 16 games — but it’s the general inconsistency and carelessness that has begun gnawing at them. Careless passing, sloppy turnovers and an overall inability to control the puck at key moments have set opponents up for too many quality scoring chances.
Players acknowledge it can be difficult to be critical when things are going so swimmingly; only after a loss to the San Jose Sharks on Saturday did their chances of surpassing the Montreal Canadiens’ record of 132 points in the standings in 1976-77 finally evaporate.
That doesn’t mean lessons can’t be learned from the way the team has played as of late.
“I think 15 games ago, maybe we were nitpicking,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “I think the last little bit, we’ve had some issues that we definitely have to talk about.”
The starts and the turnovers are among them. So, too, is the scoring: The Capitals have scored an average of just over two goals in each of their last five games, down from their 3.22 goals-per-game pace over the course of the season and enough to marginally drop them behind the Dallas Stars.
Alex Ovechkin, who entered Monday leading the league with 41 goals, hasn’t scored in those last five games — his longest drought of the year. He had scored 13 goals in his previous 15 games, including a hat trick at the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 11, and had scored 33 goals in 45 games since a four-game famine ended on Nov. 19.
“I just have to find the puck, find the rebounds,” Ovechkin said. “All, like, this stuff happens with everybody. I’m pretty sure, similarly, it goes away.”
In an attempt to invigorate Ovechkin and the Capitals’ top line, Trotz moved up Jay Beagle, who has been the fourth-line right wing since returning from a broken left hand on Feb. 28. Beagle has held that role sparingly in recent years and, should it hold for Tuesday’s home game against the Carolina Hurricanes, could give Washington a grittier look on that first unit.
“We don’t like our record, we don’t like losing two in a row, so when a change happens it’s usually Coach trying to spark something or get something going,” Beagle said. “He’s the boss, and you go out and play the position he tells you to play and in the spot he tells you to play. He usually knows best.”
Washington has only lost three out of five games on two other occasions this season, and after both, it embarked upon six- and five-game winning streaks.
Each of their last five opponents have been playoff teams, and the upcoming stretch will see the Capitals play four of 10 games against opponents outside the postseason picture.
That should offer some measure of relief — and if it doesn’t, Trotz’s lectures are sure to continue.
“I’m bringing it up every day until it’s fixed,” Trotz said. “There’s only one way to get us to stop talking about it, right? Fix it. So, let’s fix it.”
Carlson back on ice
Defenseman John Carlson skated for the first time since undergoing what the team would only say was a “procedure” to address the unspecified lower-body injury that has cost him 21 games this season.
Carlson was injured on Dec. 26 and missed 12 games, returned on Jan. 27, and then was shut down again after a game against the Montreal Canadiens on Feb. 24. On long-term injured reserve, he’s not eligible to return until March 22, when the Capitals visit the Ottawa Senators.
“Hopefully, I can get it out of the way and get back as soon as possible and play in some games to get ready for the postseason,” Carlson said. “It’s tough to explain right now. It’s just one of those things [where] it probably should have went a different way but didn’t really turn around like anyone would hope, so that’s where I am.”