BALLSTON, VA - Deciphering the make up of the Washington Capitals has been no easy task this season. Losing streaks, scoring droughts, and a higher commitment on the defensive end have all combined to give onlookers a completely different feel for a team that, at one point, offered them the NHL's most exciting brand of hockey.
Now with their offensive numbers on the decline, Washington has been searching for a way to grind out close games for much of the year. In fact, the Caps have lost eight straight in overtime, and of their last 15 games, eight were decided by one goal. Their record in those games? An unimpressive 2-6.
I'm no expert, but I know a losing record in one goal games isn't a recipe for success in the playoffs. For a reversal of fortunes, the Capitals will have to dig deep to find some of that mental fortitude which has so often eluded them in crucial situations and learn to score timely goals against tough opponents. That's the only way they can revert to the form that won them 54 games last year.
After that dominant regular season performance, the Capitals are playing with an Alex Ovechkin-sized target on their backs. Every team is bringing their A-game into the Verizon Center, and as a result, the Caps have experienced some much-needed futility. They clinched the Eastern Conference by late March last season, but this time around trail the resurgent Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division by three points and are currently the fifth seed in the East.
"There's pressure that comes with winning and everybody wants to beat you," head coach Bruce Boudreau said after a recent skate at the team's practice facility. "The first half of the year we were the ones being chased, and now we've got to be the chasers. We've been in this position before so it's not totally new to [us], but it makes every game a little more vital."
The goals are harder to come by and so are the wins, but it's nothing Boudreau didn't expect following a season in which the Caps cruised through the regular season before bowing out early in the playoffs. Special teams were a big problem in key situations last year and Washington has worked hard all season to cultivate what is now the NHL's second best penalty killing unit.
Now they will work to restore a surprisingly dormant power play.
In a town that's no stranger to political power plays, I can't think of any more important than the one on ice. Consistent scoring with the man advantage makes a world of difference in games like the nail biters the Caps so often play. Washington managed only three power play goals in January and in their seven games decided by a single goal during that month, they scored just once on the power play.
"Last year I think we had 90 power play goals, and so far this year we're only at 30-something so it has fallen off from last year," forward Brooks Laich said.
Extra goals only heighten the pressure on opposing teams, especially when they have to find a way to score on a defense giving up just 2.39 goals per game. Laich earnestly described just how essential it would be to rejuvenate the power play in order to make a difference in the brutal battles the team has recently found themselves playing.
"The power play is the game changer, that's the game breaker," he said. "If you can get one or two power plays and go 1-2 or you can go 2-4 or something, that makes an entire difference in a hockey game, especially in tight hockey games. So I think that's the one area of our game that we have to improve."
Last year, the Capitals' power play had a 25.2-percent success rate, which was the best in the league. The unit is converting 17.2 percent of the time and stands at 19th in the NHL this season. It hasn't posted a multi-goal performance since November 26, leaving many shocked at the dismal drop-off.
"We had goals [against Montreal and Tampa Bay], but hopefully we can work even better on it and create more chances and more traffic and more shots," said center Nicklas Backstrom, coming off a four-point effort in Tampa Bay last week. "So hopefully we can get back on track and get more goals offensively."
"I think we're making improvements in our power play," Laich added. "We [have] worked on it [at practice] so now we have our system. Other than that, it's just working together. I think we've been too individual on our power play, myself included.
"Work with your teammates, work together, trust in each other that they're going to do their job," he continued. "After that just simplify, shoot pucks and just be desperate to score."
Though it wasn't on the power play, Laich showed some of that desperation with a gritty goal against Pittsburgh on Super Bowl Sunday. Towards the end of the first period, defenseman John Erskine cranked a slap shot on net from the blue line. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury gave up a juicy rebound in front and Laich was able to locate the puck and stuff it five-hole on the flailing goaltender.
With Washington looking up in the standings, a retuned power play could put them over the hump and ensure they have a little staying power in the playoffs. Scoring is contagious and a few goals with the man advantage could lead to a long awaited offensive outburst. That's something no one else in the league wants to see.
"The power play is usually the catalyst to our offense overall," Laich said. "We score on the power play, generally we score more five on five so it gives the team a boost, puts the other team down a little bit and obviously makes a change on the scoreboard. Last year the power play for us was a lethal weapon, and we have to get it back to that point."