Capitals struggling with slow starts, 5-on-6 ends to games
The Washington Capitals are a second period team. That’s the good news.
The Capitals have scored 86 of their 217 goals this season in the second period, including four in Tuesday night’s 7-2 drubbing of the Ottawa Senators. They’ve allowed just 64 in the middle frame this season, an average of one per game.
It’s the bookends of games where Washington has been lackluster lately: slow starts and, occasionally, protecting one-goal leads at the end of the third period. They’re separate problems, but taken together, it could spell a difficulty to keep up intensity for a full 60 minutes a bigger issue come playoff time.
The Capitals allowed a goal 3:40 into their loss to Buffalo last Saturday, a goal 21 seconds into the game the following day against the New York Rangers and two goals in 7:10 to Ottawa.
Tom Wilson thinks it might be because every team wants to give the defending Stanley Cup champions their 100 percent best.
“Teams definitely want to come out and play hard against us right away. They know that they need to,” Wilson said Wednesday. “We’ve got a good team in this locker room, and it’s our job to weather that and match the intensity, if not take it to them a little bit. It’s definitely something that we need to improve on. It’s too a good league to be trailing, especially against good teams. If they get up, they’re pretty good at playing with a lead.”
Coach Todd Reirden was asked after Sunday’s game, a 6-5 overtime win over New York, what he could do to get players more prepared for puck drop. But Reirden said that was up to the players, which John Carlson echoed after Tuesday’s latest sluggish start.
“You can’t coach getting ready for the game. That’s not a coachable thing,” Carlson said. “So I look at us, I look at our leaders and myself, that gotta get the guys sparked before better. That’ll be crucial going down the stretch I think. You can really have your way with teams and make them change their game when you start off good and get on the board first early.”
“I think we’ve got to come out and set the tone and set the pace. It’s all in our heads,” Lars Eller added. “Just be ready from the get-go. Don’t wait to get angry or don’t wait to see what’s going to happen.”
Then there’s the trickiness of defending a one-goal lead when the opponent pulls its goalie in favor of a sixth skater. When defending that, it’s referred to as a 5-on-6 situation and the Capitals have given up seven goals that way this season, usually leading to overtime.
Most recently, it happened in Sunday’s back-and-forth game with the Rangers, though Washington grinded out the overtime in after that.
The Capitals have yet to settle on a regular personnel group this season for countering that strategy.
“It’s been a little bit of an audition for that position, so we’ve used a number of different players,” Reirden said. “It was an opportunity that was out there for some, and some took advantage of that and some didn’t.”
The final 18 games of the regular season leave little room for these errors, because Washington is not only jockeying to win the Metropolitan Division, but also preparing to face primarily Eastern Conference competition. Eleven of the Capitals’ last 18 games come against Metro rivals, and they still have to play the NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning three times.