After Chicago’s penalty shootout win over Washington on Thursday, Blackhawks goalie Marc-Andre Fleury started skating away as he normally would.
Then he remembered he forgot something — rather, two things — to thank.
Fleury skated back and tapped both goal posts with his stick to acknowledge their part in Chicago’s overtime victory, as each of Washington’s first two shots of the shootout deflected off the posts.
“It’s a game of inches,” said Washington coach Peter Laviolette after the loss.
If the loss were a normal one, no one would’ve blinked twice.
After all, the Capitals are one of the best teams in the NHL — first in the Metropolitan Division, tied for second in the league in points with 36 and tied for second in the NHL in goal differential at plus-26, as of Sunday afternoon.
The defeat, though, was too normal. It was Washington’s sixth overtime loss in as many tries.
Six overtimes. Six losses. No other team in the NHL has more than five defeats in extra time.
Washington’s overtime problem isn’t one with simple solutions or explanations.
The issue with assessing overtime hockey is similar to the reason why the league adopted the 3-on-3 format in 2015 — variance. Take away four players from the ice — two from each team — and each individual action becomes more dire. One mistake — an error that can be bailed out during 5-on-5 — is more likely to end the game.
However, it’s not all about bad luck.
There’s one obvious reason Washington (15-4-6) hasn’t done well in overtime, and his name is Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom, the team’s best center, has yet to play this season, and Washington has also been without wingers T.J. Oshie and Anthony Mantha for chunks of the season. All three players, with Backstrom most important among them, would see the ice in overtime if healthy.
The 15-year veteran is recovering from a hip injury he sustained last season, and his skills as a passer and on faceoffs are extra valuable in extra time.
Another reason could be the team’s old roster and the significant minutes Laviolette is playing his older stars. While the team has seen a youth infusion this season due to injuries, the roster is still one of the oldest in the NHL. That fact, combined with Laviolette putting Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov on the ice for over 21 minutes a game, the poor performance in extra time could be explained by fatigue.
In the overtime loss to Detroit in October, the Red Wings scored after Kuznetsov, who had been on the ice for 90 seconds, ran out of gas trying to catch up on defense. Detroit had possession for over a minute before the game-winning score, and Kuznetsov was on the ice for all 1:37 of overtime.
“Once guys get caught out there for over a minute, now you get tired,” said center Lars Eller after the loss. “Every second that goes after that, the more tired you are the more inclined you are to make a mistake or be a second late. Everybody’s figured out at this point it’s easy to keep the puck if you wear the other team down. … Eventually, the other team gets tired.”
The issue in overtime isn’t about scoring chances. The Capitals have 12 shots on goal across the six overtime periods, while the opponents have 11 — five of which were game-winners.
“We’ve gotten a few chances, but we haven’t created enough,” said defenseman John Carlson on Thursday. “But when we have, we haven’t been as deadly as we expect ourselves to be.”
Between bad luck, Backstrom’s injury and any other reason for the overtime struggles, none of them are as salient as the true way to prevent overtime losses: win in regulation.
In the loss to Chicago, Washington held a one-goal lead early in the final period. But in the second straight game — Washington allowed four third-period goals to lose 5-4 to Florida two days prior — the Capitals blew a lead in the final 20 minutes.
Washington has led in the third period in three of their six overtime defeats.
“We just need to tighten that up,” said center Nic Dowd on Thursday. “We have to learn how to be precise the entire game and finish.”
However, it’s still important when looking at overtime losses to see the glass half full.
“A point is a point. It’s better than zero,” said winger Garnet Hathaway. “But we’re a good enough team that we need to fight for two points every night.”