WASHINGTON, D.C. — Washington Capitals forward Nic Dowd appears frustrated as he considers the team’s recent situation. It’s a bit of an unknown territory for the veteran center, who admits that he hadn’t experienced a stretch like this since joining the team back in 2018.
Over the last month and a half, the Capitals have experienced a wild roller coaster of inconsistencies, with different problems arising in different places. One night, it’s the man advantage. The next, it’s the penalty kill. After that, it’s sloppy play in the neutral zone, and then goaltending. And in turn, the team has witnessed wins, followed by losses, followed by wins.
And the lack of consistency — even the lack of a common thread — has left the team confused and frustrated.
“Before I even got here, I think they had an identity. It was a well-known identity. Fun team to watch, works really hard. Tough team, great power play, just through the lineup, we definitely had an identity and a consistent team. Since I’ve been here, consistent,” Dowd stressed. “…This is something I haven’t been a part of since I’ve been here.”
Since late November, Washington has been unable to win at least three games in a row. The Capitals opened the new year with a four-game losing skid and then started to trade wins and losses. That pattern continued into February as the team went 1-1 in the final two games before the All-Star Break.
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And though the team hoped that they would come back for the second half with a different result, a 2-0 lead over Columbus in the second turned into a roller coaster run-and-gun game that led to a stunning 5-4 defeat on home ice after Boone Jenner’s game-winner with 42.5 left in regulation.
Another issue has been special teams. Not only have Washington’s struggles on the power play continued — the man advantage is just 6-for-29 in Washington’s last 10 games and ranks as the fourth-worst in the league (15.6 percent) — but the team has started to falter on the penalty kill. Columbus went 2-for-4 on the man advantage, and one of their goals came right as time expired and play went back to even strength.
Those ongoing struggles and more have ultimately moved Washington from atop the Metropolitan Division to a Wild Card spot in the East.
“You look at the games, we’re not disoriented or playing unstructured. We’re not lost. They’re capitalizing on our mistakes. We’re finding ways to lose, unfortunately. A lot of times late in the games,” Lars Eller explained, adding, “You can do 99 percent right and the one pass where you don’t execute or you lose a battle or make a turnover… that’s the difference between losing and winning. I just feel like we’ve been on the wrong side of that a lot lately, and that just shows in the standings.”
For Dowd, the solution comes with the team living up to its expectations on paper, and that means every player elevating their level of play.
“I think we just all individually need to play better as well, I think that falls down to each player, including myself,” Dowd said. “I think we all have to play better and I think that will help us find our identity. Our team is such full of role players that we know what our identities are, and we just need to consistently need to get back to that and continue to work hard. That is the only way it is going to come in my opinion.
“If I do my job here, Alex Ovechkin does his job, Evgeny Kuznetsov does his job, to a man, everyone has things they are very good at it. That is why they are in the NHL, and we all need to be really good at those things, and you add that together. That’s why you look through our lineup and see great player, great player, great player, this guy’s really good at his job, good at his job… that makes up a team that is really hard to play against. You look at all the best NHL teams, they are all built like that. That is how our team is built on paper. But right now, we are just not there.”
Eller agreed and said that the team not only needs to see accountability but more all-around focus and stronger play at both ends of the ice.
“[We’re] not panicking, but at the same time, we have to pick ourselves up to be better. Every single individual,” Eller said. “We just need a little bit more urgency, a little bit more focus, attention to detail. the level of execution has to go up a little bit whether it’s with the puck or without the puck especially at key times.”
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The Capitals will be without Ovechkin when they head up to Montreal to take on the Canadiens (per Canada’s strict COVID-19 protocols). There, they will not only look to rebound but start to get back to playing their style of hockey. And for Nicklas Backstrom, there’s an easy fix for that.
“Everyone’s a little fatigued over playing a lot of games. But it’s real important to get together as a group and really play for each other,” Backstrom explained. “The only one that’s going to turn this around is us players. We’ve just got to keep grinding and come together as a group and find our identity. That’s what we’re here for. We want to be as good as possible. And now is the time to really play as a group.”