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Neutral Zone Play, Consistency And Keys To Capitals Snapping 4-Game Skid

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NHL and Capitals forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin

The Washington Capitals are in a slump that they haven’t seen in a long time: a four-game losing skid that, in all honesty, hasn’t been filled with too many poor all-around showings — aside from a tough 7-3 loss on Monday.

Of course, adversity is something that happens in a season, and the Capitals don’t feel overly concerned or ready to panic. However, they do see several areas where they need to improve and are confident they can turn things around.

“Every team goes through these stretches where things are going against them a little bit,” Lars Eller explained. “Some games you’re not playing to the level you should and all of the sudden you lose three, four in a row…

“It happens almost to every team every year at some point and we got to make something good come of it,” Eller added. “Yeah, that’s all. Because I know we’re better and we should I mean, last game it felt awful. leaving the rink felt awful in the third period, it was embarrassing. it shouldn’t happen to us at home. Same thing in St. Louis; left that game with a really bad feeling… so now we got to respond again next game and we got to get the good emotions and good feelings rolling again and we’ll start piling up wins again.”

Here are the keys to breaking out of the slide:

Capitals Need To Tighten Things Up

One issue that head coach Peter Laviolette cited in the team’s loss to Boston was a habit of playing “loose.” There has also been a lack of speed and push in the offensive zone, and it cost them.

Against the B’s, Washington’s players were very spread out. In turn, the Bruins capitalized several scoring chances, quite a few turnovers and odd-man rushes the other way. It’s also something that contributed to the team again allowing four-plus goals, something that has happened in three of their last four tilts.

“We were loose. We gave up too much… I thought we slowed it down in the neutral zone too much, so we are going to have to play a faster game,” Laviolette said after Monday’s loss.

“I think we got too far stretched out from each other, standing around, you know, 100 feet apart from each other,” Laviolette added at practice the following day.

It all starts with maintaining speed, but also, playing a tighter game and tracking the puck well. Maintaining good puck control and not getting lazy in the middle of the ice will be a key, especially given the arsenal of talent on Long Island on Saturday.

Playing A Full 60

To state the obvious, Washington has seen a number of collapses to start 2022, especially when it comes to the second period. The Capitals will come out of the gate and play at a quick pace, and then find themselves stepping off the gas. This was evident in St. Louis in a 5-1 loss to the Blues, and again against Boston.

“We started really well… almost to the point where it felt like maybe we thought it was going to be a little easier than it was going to,” Eller explained, adding, “We just sort of, we got sloppy and our game dropped with and without the puck. Everything. Execution, not working for each other to get open, wanting the puck, all those little things. So the games just kind of fell apart for us.”

The Minnesota game told a different story, with Washington tightening things up but falling victim to adversity and ultimately falling in the shootout. Still, a full effort is something that the team wants to see night in and night out.

As Nic Dowd mentioned earlier in the season, the team needs to avoid getting bored.

“The biggest thing is we have to play with jam throughout the whole game,” Dowd said back in November.

Special Teams

Washington’s power play has not been on point. It’s been a pattern over the course of the season, and it has cost the Capitals in the form of missed opportunities to change the tempo. The team finally has its entire PP1 unit healthy and dressed, and in turn, the team needs to start executing on the man advantage.

This starts with zone time and puck possession, and a change in set-up. Washington can’t fall back on familiar set-ups, which have become widely known and recognized and, in turn, quickly shut down by the opposition. This has also led to the team sporting the third-worst PP% in the league (14.6 percent).

There needs to be motion. Alex Ovechkin has been solid when it comes to movement, often moving up and down on the left side and even interchanging on the point with John Carlson.

For the Capitals, though, there are too many top-tier players in their arsenal to have a lack of success. Ovechkin is the greatest power-play scorer in the history of the show and Evgeny Kuznetsov can carry the puck on a string. Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie haven’t seen too much action, so there is a valid adjustment period. However, things need to improve at 5-on-4 if the team is going to find success.

Consistency Between The Pipes

Washington also needs more consistency in net from both Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. The Capitals have faith in their young tandem, and the starting spot is very much still up for grabs with both netminders needing to heat up, then stay hot.

Granted, it’s easier said than done, especially with the adversity the team has seen this season. And considering Vanecek has been on the shelf, first dealing with COVID and subsequently a nasty bout with the flu, it’s hard to say too much about where he stands right now. Still, he had a strong statement game in Winnipeg back in early December and said he felt he was getting into a rhythm before falling ill.

“You have to get back to that somehow… it’s a new day,” Vanecek said of getting back into the swing of things after a long layoff.

Now that he’s back, Washington needs one of their young goaltenders to hit their stride and take over the crease.

“I think that’s what we’re looking for. There’s been games when they’ve been really good and games where you’re just looking for a little bit more consistency,” Laviolette said. “They’re young players. I think that happens with young players, but you’re looking for that consistency in somebody.”

Capitals Need More Success In The Face-Off Dot

Now that the team finally has all four centers healthy to boot, it needs to improve in the face-off dot. Washington has the lowest FO% in the NHL, winning just 45.6 percent of their draws. Since Backstrom’s return, the Capitals have seen some improvement, but when it comes to special teams and defensive zone starts, face-off wins can make or break pressure.

Overtime Woes Need To End

Extra time has not been kind to Washington this season, with the team going 0-7 in OT this season and falling twice after regulation time over the last four games. It’s something that the Capitals got to work on on Tuesday, and if they can step up their 3-on-3 play, it’ll make a world of a difference.

Carlson had stressed that puck possession has become more of a key with the recent changes to the overtime structure, and though it’s less fun for the fans, it allows the Capitals to not fall victim to longer shifts or extended zone time. However, with so much open space, the team needs to improve when it comes to generating scoring chances and getting pucks on net.

There’s no need to overemphasize fanciness, but instead, quick passes, solid movement and pressure on the forecheck will help the team finally capture a win in overtime this season.

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