ARLINGTON — The Washington Capitals are on their first five-game losing streak since October and November of 2014.
Let that sink in — four years went by without Washington losing five straight games in a league full of parity and a schedule 82 games long.
The Capitals held a players-only meeting after losing 8-5 to the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday. This was followed Monday by a lengthy meeting with the coaches before players took the ice for practice.
Tom Wilson put to bed any visions of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom or other veterans shouting at teammates hanging their heads in front of their lockers.
“This group isn’t guys yelling. We’re close,” Wilson said. “We know how we need to play. We just needed to address it. We needed to talk it out a little bit, get on the same page, and then the same sort of thing today with the coaching staff and the players.”
During the first four games of the losing streak, the Capitals totaled four goals, only one of which came in 5-on-5 action. They rediscovered their ability to score Sunday — ironically, all five of their goals against the Blackhawks were tallied by defensemen and none by forwards.
But neither Braden Holtby nor Pheonix Copley could keep Chicago pucks out of the net as the Blackhawks, last place in their division, rang up eight goals on the defending Stanley Cup champs.
After surrendering the Metropolitan Division lead to the Barry Trotz-coached New York Islanders in their loss last Friday, the Capitals now trail New York by three points in the standings. It’s without a doubt the most adversity Washington has faced this season.
“The main thing is we gotta remember and be honest with ourselves, over the last two years ago, is things haven’t been easy,” Holtby said. “I think that’s something that can be lost in the fact of winning is things weren’t easy last year. We had to grind our way through to get where we were. That’s gonna be what we have to do this year.”
Coach Todd Reirden said it’s been a combination of physical and mental errors, bad mistakes that Reirden said teams can “get away with” while on a winning streak and address later.
“Sometimes as a player in that situation, you’re like, ‘Yeah, well we’re 16-3 in the last 19!’” Reirden said, referencing the Capitals’ record during their best six-week stretch of the season in November and December. “Sometimes you have to go through some tough situations and learn some lessons (in) difficult ways to really grow your group.”
Strategically, Reirden shook up his lineup after the loss to the Islanders and, perhaps most notably, moved Evgeny Kuznetsov down to the third line in favor of Lars Eller. Kuznetsov’s production dipped after a hot start to the season, and he has accounted for only four points this month.
Reirden also shuffled his top four defensemen before the Chicago game, pairing Dmitry Orlov with John Carlson and Michal Kempny with Niskanen. The lines and pairings at Monday’s practice stayed the same, so Washington may stick with them for now.
Predicting Washington’s next win is not an easy task. The next six opponents on the schedule would all make the playoffs if the season ended Monday. The Capitals have a back-to-back the next two days, hosting the San Jose Sharks Tuesday and traveling to play the Toronto Maple Leafs after that.
Then it’s time for the All-Star break and Washington’s bye week, which each NHL team gets once during the season. The Capitals won’t play for eight days, but according to league rules, they also can’t practice again until Jan. 31, the day before their first game following the bye week.
The question will be whether the time away from the ice gives the Capitals a sorely-needed break to regroup or takes away practice time they can really use.
“Personally I feel mentally the break’s coming at a good time for us,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I’m glad we’ve got a couple games here before the break, though, to get this bad taste out of our mouths. We’ll go all-in for two nights here, try to get a win or two, try to see if we can stop the bleeding. Then mentally, just recharge. That’s coming at a perfect time for us in our big picture, looking down the road here.”
Wilson was more to the point.
“We can’t really be thinking about the break yet,” he said. “We’ve got two big games here. When the break comes, we’ll use it for whatever we need.”