Matt Niskanen has played 10 NHL seasons and just a month ago had hockey temporarily taken away from him when he was placed on long-term injured reserve because of a left-hand injury.
He played Oct. 13 then sat out until Nov. 14. Niskanen has been back a week now, and what he saw Monday night left him speaking quietly at his locker afterward, repeating a word.
“Blah,” Niskanen said of the Capitals’ performance during a 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames.
Nicklas Backstrom was slightly more expansive.
“If we play like this, we’re not going to win a lot of games,” Backstrom said.
A quarter of the season has gone by, which is enough for trends to be established and believed. What has been defined by the 11-10-1 Capitals is yesterday’s result — good or bad — is no promise of tomorrow’s outcome. November 18, the Capitals handled the Minnesota Wild in a 3-1 home win that temporarily moved aside the bitterness of back-to-back road losses in which they allowed six goals per game.
Then, Monday night rolled around. Calgary, as Capitals coach Barry Trotz would point out afterward, is constructed and situated much like Washington. It has a premier scorer (Johnny Gaudreau) and a team that is trying to establish itself as good, not interlopers to quality. Calgary was 11-8-0 coming into the game before two power-play goals vaulted it forward.
“I think everyone wants to build off the good stuff and learn from the bad stuff and kind of turn it around,” Niskanen said. “Going to be tough sledding for us this year, I think. We’re going to have to work really hard to be consistent. It’s not going to be easy for us. Have to learn some tough lessons along the way — I don’t think we can fall behind in games, like we have in the past. Every play matters. The smallest of plays maybe didn’t make a difference in the past. But, right now, it seems to bite us if you fall asleep for just a split second. We’re going to have to be on our toes.”
His comments, and others afterward, hinted at the room being aware that this Washington roster has a reduced margin for error. Jokes about peaking too soon, the possibility of a franchise record for points and other topics drummed up to pass the time the last two seasons seem unlikely to come in this one.
“I think we got to play with a lot more will, determination and energy,” Lars Eller said. “I think there was energy lacking in our 5-on-5 game [Monday]. I know this team can bring a lot more on that. It’s been a little bit of a theme for us lately. If we continue like that, we’re going to continue hovering around .500. Win a game here and there. We’ve got to play with a lot more determination. The playoff race is tight. It’s November, but the playoff race is right now. It’s… Yeah, we’ve got to get a lot more energy in our game.”
Playoffs? Already? Eller has a point.
Year by year, the Capitals have gone in reverse during the early portion of the season. In 2015-16, when they won their first of back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies, the Capitals won four in a row to reach 16-5-1 after 22 games. They averaged four goals per game in each win. Last season, they were 13-7-2 after a 3-0 loss on Dec. 1. Six weeks later they were 29-9-5, easily the hottest team in the league. This year they are at .500 and jammed up in the middle of the conference standings. They enter Tuesday three points out of last in the Metropolitan Division and four points out of first.
The Capitals are also at the start of a large run of home games. The Nov. 18 win against Minnesota opened a stretch where 10 of the next 12 games were scheduled to be in Capital One Arena. One went well. The next was “blah.” The rest?
“I feel like every year it’s like this,” Backstrom said. “It’s usually this time of year you need to make a push. Yeah. We’ve got to make a push. Simple as that.”