ARLINGTON, V.A. — Going into the 2022-23 campaign, the Washington Capitals couldn’t envision a start like they’ve had. They have dropped three of five games to open the season. In the Metropolitan Division alone, they share the worst record to kick off October with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are also 2-3-0.
Thursday’s disappointing 5-2 loss saw the wind knocked out of the Capitals, who couldn’t keep up with the Ottawa Senators‘ youth and play with the same speed and intensity after a strong 2-0 start. The defeat raised some eyebrows, as well as several concerns surrounding the state of the team.
Still, is it too early to worry? And how will the team stop the bleeding?
To answer the first part: yes, it is too early. While captain Alex Ovechkin pointed out on Monday that “every point matters” and that getting off to a good start is the right step toward being in playoff position come Thanksgiving, it’s only five games in, and not every team is off to the start it envisioned.
Washington and numerous teams have been at low points before, only to prevail later down the road. The Capitals haven’t seen a disappointing start in a long time, but the last time they did, which dates back to the lockout, they bounced back and were still in a solid position to end that season. There are ups and downs, peaks and valleys that happen with every season. Last year, it was January-February when Washington struggled, unable to win more than two games in a row and seeing its share of inconsistencies. The club still made the postseason.
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Not to mention, D.C. is adapting to yet another shorthanded situation as injuries continue to plague the lineup. The Capitals are now without three top-6 guys and top penalty killers in Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Connor Brown and Carl Hagelin. Evgeny Kuznetsov also missed one game due to a suspension. With regard to injuries, Wilson is the only player expected back in the near future, as he is “ahead of schedule” and primed for a return at some point in December. For everyone else, though, the injuries are long-term, with no certain timetables for a return.
Taking all of that into account, though, there are fixes — ones that aren’t so complex — to put Washington back on track. As head coach Peter Laviolette pointed out on Thursday, the team knows what it takes to be successful. And it involves changes.
Where Do The Washington Capitals Have To Improve?
First off, there needs to be more effort on the forecheck. The power play has heated up, as adding Marcus Johansson to that top unit and other tweaks, as well as more movement, has helped the PP find its footing. However, at 5-on-5, the team needs to play a full 60. In the first 20 minutes of action against the Senators, the Capitals were dominating in the offensive zone, maintaining possession, passing, supporting one another and generating quality chances while piling on the pressure with plenty of zone time.
However, a lack of discipline led to more 5-on-4 play, and that strong start evaporated, as the team was no longer going hard in the 5-on-5 battles. Washington appeared deflated and flat-footed against Ottawa, who upped the ante, won the neutral zone battles and didn’t allow any space or time to get things going the other way. The Capitals need to play a full 60, keep the pressure high and stay disciplined. That means avoiding bad penalties, engaging in puck battles, using the size and physicality that they have up front and controlling the tempo of the game.
Washington’s forward lines also haven’t had too much chemistry as Conor Sheary and Anthony Mantha have been helping carry the offense. There will likely be more experimentation with lines, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who picked up the pressure on Monday, returning for Saturday could help as he, Ovechkin and Sheary did a lot of damage against the Canucks.
Also, the blue line needs to improve. The pairs, which have stayed consistent over the last year and a half, finally got a shakeup prior to Thursday’s game against Ottawa. However, there are still issues. Poor coverage and missed assignments have led to Grade-A chances for the opposition, and while Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren have stood tall, goals against are going to happen if there are one too many chances allowed.
There needs to be better communication and play in front of the goaltender, and that also means making sure no one is going uncovered. John Carlson, who has been on the ice for multiple goals against and is a minus-3, also needs to work to turn things around as that No. 1 guy. In addition, the penalty kill needs more battle and grit; standing still and waiting for passes won’t work, as there needs to be more aggression when shorthanded.
Looking at the big picture though, it’s only been nine days — and that’s way too early to press the panic button. The Capitals have time to turn it around. However, time flies in this league, and if things continue to go downhill, it will be harder to come back from than it is right now.