No D vs. Big D – For the last two-thirds of the 2010-11 season, the Washington Capitals were the league’s stingiest defensive team. And they were the stingiest team the league had seen in a decade or so.
Now, a baker’s dozen’s worth of games into the following season, they’re a team that has surrendered four or more goals in four of their last five games.
And a team that has lost four of its last six games.
The Dallas Stars triumphed over the Capitals on Tuesday by a 5-2 count. The Stars were quicker and more opportunistic than the Caps for most of the night, yet the Caps hung with the upstart Stars for 40 minutes. John Carlson’s second goal of the season drew the Caps even with Dallas late in the second.
Washington defenseman Dennis Wideman drew a minor penalty for delay of game (puck over glass) late in the second, but the Caps managed to kill more than three-quarters of that penalty before the third period started.
The scoresheet says the Caps killed that penalty, but the reality is that the Stars’ Adam Burish scored what would prove to be the game-winner just as Wideman’s minor expired, 24 seconds into the final 20 minutes.
“You’re thinking ahead,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble, of the team’s mindset heading into the third. “You’re thinking, ‘Let’s have a great third period. Let’s get past this penalty and let’s go have a great third.’
“All of a sudden you give one up, and then we just didn’t recover. We’re on our heels and we give up a couple more.”
“We were fortunate to be tied at the end of the first two periods,” admits Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “We talked about playing one good period in the third period. In the first 15 or 20 seconds [of the third], they scored a goal. We lost a lot of battles in the third periods of the last two games. The compete level wasn’t as great as we’d like it to be.”
The Caps weren’t sharp for most of the night, but the third period again proved problematic. For the second straight game, the Caps headed into the third all even at 2-2. And for the second straight game, they allowed three goals in the third on their way to a loss.
“It befuddles you because this group can be so good and so complete,” laments Knuble. “And then we come out and play an incomplete game.
“Bottom line, we turned it into a 20-minute game, again. We’re in a good spot at home and we’re outclassed at in the third. That’s a couple of times it’s happened; it happened at Vancouver, it happened here. It’s kind of a mystery. We’re a veteran group. It shouldn’t happen to this group.”
Three times now in their last five games the Caps have gone into the third all even, only to surrender three goals and lose.
“Obviously when you give up five goals you’re not doing something right,” says Wideman. “I think we were a little loose in our coverage in our own zone. We didn’t have a whole lot of established o-zone time and then when we did get in our own zone, we weren’t snuffing their cycle out quick enough. We were giving them some chances and losing some battles.”
“We’re sloppy as a group,” says Knuble. “The penalty-killing has suffered. We’ve given up even-strength goals our last five, six games. It’s uncharacteristic. We were so good the first five and then the last six have been a mirror image. Didn’t give up great chances, no goals against and now, four, five or six [goals against] repeatedly a night.
“It’s a tough way to win. I don’t care who you are. We’re just not bearing down in the third as much as we should.
“I anticipate we’ll work pretty hard [in practice on Wednesday], and get some frustration out I’m sure.”
Are the 2011-12 Caps the team that won seven straight at season’s start, or the team that is 2-4 since? Or are they somewhere in between?
The next 69 games will determine the answer to those questions, but Washington’s home winning streak of six straight to start the season is over, and now the Caps play four of their next five on the road, where they are 3-3 thus far this season.
Why do the Caps look so good at times, and so lackluster at others?
“It’s a good question but I don’t have the answer for this,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “I think everybody tries and everybody wants to win and everybody wants to play how we can. Maybe tonight it was not our night.”
“I’m not sure,” says Wideman. “We’re getting a little casual, I think. We’re trying to force some plays. When things aren’t going exactly how we want it to, and we’re not scoring a lot of goals we start to push the envelope maybe and that’s when we turn the puck over and play right into their game and let them come back at us.”
So what’s the fix?
“I just think we have to look back at the way we were playing at the start of the year and the things that we did,” says Wideman. “We constantly got the puck in deep and we constantly went after them. We were winning battles in our own zone; we were hitting forwards with good breakout passes and we were winning hockey games. Right now, we’re turning pucks over, we’re missing assignments and we’re just not sharp enough.”
Evening Out – For much of the early part of this season, the Caps were one of the best even-strength teams in the league. But in their last two games, the Caps have been on the short end of the even-strength score.
During a six-game stretch from Oct. 12-27, the Caps surrendered just four even-strength goals while scoring 15 even-strength goals of their own.
In their last two games, the Caps have been outscored 9-3 at even-strength.
Tough Thirds – Over that same six-game stretch in which they allowed just four even-strength goals, the Caps allowed just two third-period tallies. In the five games since, they’ve allowed a combined total of 10 goals in the game’s final frame.
The 400 Club – Caps defenseman John Erskine played in his 400th career NHL game on Tuesday night, doing so against the team that drafted him back in 1998. Erskine skated a season-high 18:11 on the night, registered two hits and led the Capitals with four blocked shots.
Tough Foe – The Caps are now 4-14-2 in their last 20 meetings with the Stars, dating back to the start of the 1996-97 season. Only one of Washington’s four wins during that span was of the regulation variety; it was a 4-3 win over the Stars on Nov. 30, 2006. The Stars’ record in those same 20 games is 15-1-4.
Swift Start – Caps rookie Cody Eakin picked up an assist on the Carlson goal and he now has three points (one goal, two assists) in as many games.
Aw, Shoot – The Stars have been outshot in nine of their 14 games this season, but they’re 8-1 in those games.
Dallas netminder Kari Lehtonen has faced 32 or more shots in 10 of his 12 starts this season, including tonight’s game. He is 10-0 in those games.
Five Spot – Either the Caps or their opponents or both has scored five or more goals in each of the team’s last five games. The last time Washington played as many as five consecutive games in which one or both teams scored five or more goals was Feb. 4-11, 2010, at the end and just after Washington’s franchise record 14-game winning streak.
Benn There – Dallas forward Jamie Benn is the lone member of the Stars who played in the AHL Calder Cup final between the Texas Stars and the Hershey Bears. Heading into that final series between the Stars and the Bears, Benn was the AHL’s leading playoff scorer with 14 goals and 24 points in just 18 games.
One of the obvious keys for the Bears in that series was to shut Benn down, and Hershey did so with aplomb. He managed just two assists in the six-game series and dropped to third in playoff scoring as a result.
Tonight, Benn matched his 2010 playoff output in the first period alone, when he notched a pair of helpers. He exceeded it with a third period power play goal, finishing the night with three points.
Shining Stars – For Dallas, tonight’s win was their fourth in succession. The Stars have scored 17 goals in their last three games.
By The Numbers – Wideman was the lone Caps skater to draw as much as 20 minutes in ice time. He skated 22:50. Wideman also led the Caps with five shots on goal … Washington dominated the face-off circle, winning 41 of 67 (61%) face-offs on the night. Matt Hendricks led the way, winning 6 of 7 (86%) … Ovechkin, Roman Hamrlik and Troy Brouwer led the way with three hits each … Michael Ryder scored twice, and he led the Stars with seven shots on goal.