Last season the Washington Capitals seemed to buy was coach Adam Oates was selling.
After a rough start, they embraced his offensive and defensive philosophies and became a serious Eastern Conference threat. Expectations were high for this season, especially after skilled forward Mikhail Grabovski arrived as a free agent.
But this season they lost focus again. Goaltender Braden Holtby struggled mightily, winger Alex Ovechkin quit checking again and winger Martin Erat lost interest altogether.
“Look what’s happening, look at our results. It’s the same mistakes mostly by veteran guys we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot,” Oates told reporters after a 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. “You play a decent game, it was a hard fought game, but we got behind and we couldn’t catch up.”
Injuries only made things worse. Ovechkin suffered a strained groin muscle and Grabovski suffered a leg injury after colliding with Devils captain defenseman Bryce Salvador.
Here are some specifics of Washington's deepening slump:
Their loss at New Jersey was their seventh in a row. They were 0-5-2 in that span. This is their worst streak since 2010.
They went recently went 149 minutes and 11 seconds without scoring a goal.
Opponents have outscored them 17-6 in their last five games.
Their penalty-killing ranks 21st in the league. The Capitals were shorthanded at least four times in each of their last four games.
They have four games remaining on this tough five-game road trip.
Jason Chimera wonders when his team will draw the line and stop losing.
“It’s one of those things that you should come to the game and play with that desperation and throw everything at [the net], get a 50-shot night or a 55-shot night and hopefully two or three will go in,” he told NHL.com. “If desperation doesn’t set in, then we’re in trouble that’s for sure.”
News flash for Jason: The Capitals are already in trouble.
Let’s face it, this whole Adam Oates this is not working out for the Washington Capitals.
The rookie NHL head coach is off to a 1-5-1 start. He is playing superstar Alex Ovechkin on a line with two muckers.
He buried 2012 playoff hero Braden Holtby after two starts in goal, starting Michal Neuvirth in the nets for the next five games. (Holtby will start tonight’s game against Philadelphia.)
The Capitals are struggling to master his offensive and defensive systems. They are awful at even strength and they earn far too many penalties.
Washington has already sunk to the Eastern Conference cellar, five points out of the No. 8 playoff spot. Pittsburgh looms next on its schedule after the Flyers game.
How long will general manager George McPhee let this slide? And how much longer will owner Ted Leonsis allow McPhee to oversee the team?
In Thursday night’s 3-2 loss at Toronto, the Capitals were outshot 41-22. They took eight minor penalties, all of them bad. They have taken five or more penalties in six of their seven games.
“You spend so much energy trying to kill those penalties that maybe you run out of a little bit of juice,” Oates told reporters after the game. “For some of the plays, guys have got to be maybe a little bit more focused on their sticks.”
Somehow they took a 2-1 lead into the third period, but once again they wasted that margin and failed to gain any points.
“Discipline’s been probably what’s costing us since the beginning of the year,” center Mike Ribeiro told the Washington Post. “If you don’t change that, then it’s just going to keep snowballing like that. You have to be disciplined on everything: on your shifts, how we play, how you chip the puck, how you take penalties, discipline in your game plan.”
Braden Holtby gets his another crack at establishing himself as the lead goaltender for the Washington Capitals.
Will he stand tall or muck it up?
Holtby allowed six goals on 34 shots during Washington’s season-ending opening 6-3 loss at Tampa Bay. First-year coach Adam Oates vowed to give his other goaltender, Michal Neuvirth, plenty of work this season.
So some observers wondered if that work could come in Washington’s the home opener against the Winnipeg Jets. Alas, Oates decided to come back with Holtby after attributing the Game 1 fiasco to miserable team play.
But Holtby knows he wasn’t as good as he needed to be at Tampa. Some of those goals allowed were clearly his fault.
“I think the first and the fifth were ones that I felt I could have played better,” Holtby told the Washington Post. “I don’t know if they would have went in still, but I felt that my positioning could have been better and reading the play. As a whole it was just one of those nights the puck went in.”
Last season Holtby spent most of the season in the American Hockey League. But he excelled in the playoffs, posting a 1.95 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in 14 appearances.
That earned him the initial nod over Neuvirth, who slipped last season after a strong 2010-11 showing: 27-12-4 with a 2.45 GAA and .914 save percentage. With back-to-back games looming Thursday and Friday, Oates won’t have to wait long to give Neuvirth his first look.
He had six days to implement a new system with his Washington Capitals. He envisions a hybrid between Bruce Boudreau’s go-go style and Dale Hunter’s defensive-minded theme.
The result in Game 1 was resounding 6-3 loss at Tampa Bay.
Let’s look at what went wrong:
The Capitals played terrible team defense. Miscommunication and poor positioning left lots of open lanes for the talented Lightning forwards to skate, pass and shoot.
Poor discipline led to eight Capitals penalties and three power-play goals (in seven attempts) for Tampa Bay. Giving the Lightning an opportunity to operate 5 on 3 is never a good idea.
Washington failed to connect on two early power-play opportunities. That allowed the Lightning to settle in and tilt the ice against the visitors.
Conditioning was problematic for those Capitals who haven’t been playing. “Some of the mistakes came from conditioning. We got tired at times, the game went in waves,” Oates told the Washington Post. “They had a couple waves on us and wore us out. Just the amount of ice time the guys got and being a little bit out of shape took its toll.”
The extensive penalty killing kept Oates from rolling his lines and defensive pairings. He started 11 forwards and seven defensemen, in part because most of his D-men were idle during the lockout. Defenseman Jack Hillen departed with a shoulder injury midway through the game.
Veteran defenseman Tom Poti returned from a two-year NHL absence. He was rusty and it showed. He earned an assist, but also a minus-2 rating.
Goaltender Braden Holtby allowed six goals, but Oates defended the lad’s work. “You know what, I don't fault Holts at all on the goals,” he said. “I think it was more all of us. And he played hard. Once again I'll talk to the goalie coach and we'll evaluate that on Monday.”
The most effective Capitals forward was mucker Joel Ward, who scored twice by attacking the net. That is great for Ward, but where were his more talented teammates?
The Washington Capitals goaltender-go-round has implication far beyond the playoff race.
With veteran Tomas Vokoun still hobbled by a groin muscle strain, prospect Braden Holtby gets to start a key game against the Buffalo Sabres. He is 2-0-1 with a .955 save percentage and a 1.29 goals-against average during his latest recall.
“Pretty excited for it,” Holtby told the Washington Post. “It’s a big game but at the same time, it’s just another one. It counts as two points just the same as all the others do. Got to go into it with that mindset but there will be a little extra motivation to have the team going and get a win.”
If Holtby wins, odds are he will continue to start. That is the way coach Dale Hunter operates.
And if Holtby keeps starting, the impact could extend to future seasons:
Holtby, 22, has a chance to surpass Michal Neuvirth as the Next One in goal for the Capitals. In his limited exposure to the NHL, he has flashed star qualities. “He’s come up here and has played well. It’s a big game for him,” Hunter told reporters. “Going into Detroit, going into Philly, those are tough situations. He’s been good under pressure; he’s always been good under pressure, people tell me. He’s a kid that wants to rise to the occasion.”
Vokoun signed a one-year deal as a free agent hoping to bolster his value for his next contract. At times he has looked worthy of a big-dollar commitment. But at times Vokoun has struggled – and when the Caps needed him the most this season, he pulled up lame.
If the Capitals believe Holtby and Neuvirth can be a low-cost goaltending answer for next season and beyond, the team will be able to allocate more money toward keeping the core lineup intact.
How Russians sell hockey tickets
The Hot List
Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche, Boston Bruins, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Getzlaf, Alexander Semin.
The Cold List
Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers,John Tavares, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Vancouver Canucks,