Breaks can be useful for hockey teams.
An 82-game NHL season with travel and back-to-backs is grueling.
However, the amount of time the Washington Capitals have been off the past month is almost counterproductive. Their current four-day layoff is on the heels of the team’s worst defeat of the season, and the last thing the players want is time to let the loss fester.
Suddenly, the Capitals — winless in 2022 and losers of four straight— are in a rut.
“Everybody hates losing. The players hate losing, so nobody is in a great mood,” coach Peter Laviolette said after practice Tuesday. “Everybody’s probably grumpy.”
Since the ball dropped in Times Square, the Capitals are 0-2-2 — with overtime losses to New Jersey and Minnesota and regulation blowouts versus St. Louis and Boston. The 5-1 loss to the Blues Friday was the team’s worst loss of the season. That is, until Washington took on Boston Monday, losing 7-3 and allowing the Bruins to score six consecutive goals.
Before the calendar turned, Washington was near the top of the Eastern Conference standings for almost the entire season with one of the best goal differentials in the NHL. Now, the Capitals (20-8-9) are in third in the Metropolitan Division, and after being outscored 18-9 in the past four games, their goal differential ranks fifth in the conference, as of Wednesday afternoon.
“We’re going through a rough stretch right now,” third-line center Lars Eller said. “Every team goes through these stretches where things are going against them a little bit, and some games you’re not playing to the level you should. Then, all of a sudden, you lose three or four in a row.”
Fourth-line center Nic Dowd bemoaned the team’s awkward schedule after the loss to the Bruins Monday. While too much time off is far from an excuse for the team’s performance Monday, Dowd does have a point. Since Dec. 20, the Capitals have played just six games with 19 days off.
“We’ve had too many breaks. I’ve had too many breaks. Guys have had too many breaks,” Dowd said. “Guys want to play hockey. We’re sick of these breaks.”
The first hiatus — nine days off and three postponements — was due to COVID-19, when the NHL extended its holiday pause in response to multiple outbreaks across the league. Then, last week, the Capitals had four days without a game due to another COVID-19-related postponement.
The current four-day layoff — combined with the previous breaks — poses an obstacle toward getting into a rhythm. Making it even harder for some players is that they’ve also dealt with injuries or bouts with COVID-19, meaning they’ve missed additional time on top of the scheduled rest. Dowd and winger Garnet Hathaway, for example, have played only nine games since Dec. 1. Center Nicklas Backstrom, who returned in mid-December from the hip injury that kept him out for the first two months of the season, has since played only four games.
“It is what it is, whether we want it or we don’t,” Laviolette said of the team’s four-day break, which ends Saturday when the Capitals play the Islanders. “Sometimes you play a lot of games in a short period of time and sometimes there are stretches where you don’t play that much. This is where we’re at right now, so we’ve got to do our best to make the most of it.”
While there are plenty of negatives to focus on during the losing streak, including the team’s poor goaltending and abysmal power player, it’s not all bad.
The two overtime losses still netted Washington a point each in the standings. Even in the two blowouts, the Capitals played well in the first period to take early leads. The team is also getting healthier, as Backstrom and T.J. Oshie recently returned from a non-COVID-19 illness. In fact, Monday’s game was only the second contest this season in which the Capitals dressed their top four centers — and the entirety of its No. 1 power-play unit.
“Going through adversity midway through the season happens to almost every team every year,” Eller said. “We’ve got to make something good come of it because I know we’re better.”