Boyd Gordon celebrates his first period goal on Monday. (Photo credit: Patrick McDermott)
The Washington Capitals got their first hockey (non-shootout) win of the season on Monday, beating the Edmonton Oilers 4-2. The game, though, was a bit of a mirage. While the power play got back on track with two goals, their struggles at early in the game– especially at even strength– are a massive problem for the team. The Caps were outshot 10-3 in the first period despite playing against arguably the worst defensive team in the league. While the Washington media corps overlooked this in their post-game questions, Adam Oates understands the trend is glaring hole for the team.
“I’m taking suggestions right now,” Oates joked when I asked him how he thought the team could fix its liability. “We addressed it, we talk about it, and hopefully we’ll conquer it. We gotta find a way to just keep focused earlier.”
The team has been outscored 9-4 by their opponents in the first 20 minutes. If you ignore the first period, the Caps’ goal differential is just -1. Some of the opening frames have been mesmerizingly awful, like the home opener versus the Flames. Interestingly, the team’s biggest structural problem, defensive depth, isn’t necessarily the cause for this. Sure, they give up goals, but the team can’t score any either. Instead, sloppy passes doom the Capitals as they try to break out of the defensive and neutral zones. Those easily turn into odd-man rushes going the other way.
“The biggest thing that’s frustrating is the passing for me,” Oates said, still talking about the team’s poor starts. “You pass it to your buddy and you put it at his feet, you put him in a difficult situation.”
“Every team has good players on their team that want capitalize on mistakes,” he added. “You know what, there are on certain areas of the ice you just can’t do that. It’s a recipe for disaster. That’s probably the only time I get frustrated in a game.”
Troy Brouwer, often the man to call out his team for mistakes, agreed.
“We’re a high-speed team,” the forward told me. “We like to create off the rush a lot, but sometimes we got to understand if a play’s not there, a play’s not there.”
Despite Monday’s win, there’s still a lot to worry about. While there are individual highlights (Ovechkin’s nine points, Backstrom’s eight), the vast majority of that has come on the power play. If not for their excellent man-advantage unit, the Caps could be 0-5. Nevertheless, the early sloppiness at 5-on-5 is correctable — now the Caps have to find out how to do just that.