Highlights: Capitals fall to Canes at Verizon Center
The Capitals are at the halfway mark of their season and if the Stanley Cup playoffs started today they’d have home-ice advantage against the Flyers in the first round.
There are plenty of things the Caps can be happy with at the midway mark. They are in second place in the Metropolitan Division with a record of 20-15-6.
They are second in the Eastern Conference in goals scored  and first in the NHL in power-play goals .
But there is also some cause for concern.
Through 41 games the Caps have just 10 regulation wins. They rank 13th in the conference and 24th in the NHL in goals allowed . And they have allowed teams to score within 2:30 of scoring themselves 22 times this season.
So, when head coach Adam Oates was asked to assess how his team has played in the first half of his second season behind the bench, his first response was, “OK.”
“There’s obviously a lot of things we can improve,” Oates said. “There have been signs of it. The last month has been a lot better to me. I think chemistry’s a tough thing. We still haven’t found our chemistry.”
That lack of chemistry can be attributed to a number of things -- Brooks Laich missing 14 of 15 games over the past five weeks; the agents for Marty Erat, Dmitry Orlov and Michal Neuvirth asking for trades; 12 different defensemen suiting up in the first 30 games; Philipp Grubauer replacing Braden Holtby as the Caps’ starting goalie.
In October the Caps followed an early three-game losing streak with a three-game winning streak. They won six out of eight in early November, then lost four in a row. They went 4-0-1 in early December, but have gone 2-3-3 in their last eight.
“If you look at all the games, the start of the season was kind of not the kind of start we want,” said Caps captain Alex Ovechkin, who leads the NHL with 31 goals but is a team-worst minus-15. “Right now everybody knows how we can play and I think we don’t show our best hockey yet. Hopefully, that will come later, but right now we have to build.”
If there is one area Oates would like to see improved in the second half it is the way the Caps handle pressure in their defensive zone. In 5-on-5 play this season the Caps have been outscored 79-72.
“We’ve done a better job, but we have to become automatic in our end and we’re not,” Oates said. “You’ve got to give other teams credit. They have their moments where they’re in your zone and how you handle that pressure is what comes next.
“Whether it’s [making] a save, [winning] a faceoff, poise with the puck so you don’t ice it. Don’t leave the zone too soon. Make a good pass. All of the above.
“When they’re in our end and they’re all over us and the world’s about to end, do we stand tall? We might need a shot block. Maybe it’s a D-man in front of the net winning a battle. Maybe it’s getting the puck out off the wall. We have to become better at it. You’ve got to teach poise.”
But can a coach teach poise?
“You can teach a guy to get in the shooting lane and suck it up. You can’t flamingo it; you’ve got to block that shot. But when the puck comes around the boards and the D is pinching in, it’s not that easy to get it our without icing it or exposing it to the middle. That’s what we’ve got to understand, where to put the puck.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Since the arrival of Ovechkin, the Caps hae always been able to score goals. It’s keeping them out of their own net that has kept their coaches up at night.
Oates says unnecessary icings are one bad habit he’s trying to correct.
“There are three or four icings a game that shouldn’t happen,” he said. “That affects matchups, it affects fatigue, it affects rhythm. The other team gets to put their fresh troops out, and they hem you in and before you know it you take a penalty and they score because a few minutes ago you iced the puck stupidly.”
Brooks Laich, who has been elevated from fourth-line left wing to third-line center, said that if the Caps can play better defensively they’ll climb their way up the standings and be a tougher team to face in the playoffs.
“I think in the second half our defense will allow us to go on a long winning streak,” Laich said. “We haven’t put an eight-game or nine-game streak together and defense does that. When we get air-tight in our zone and we can automatically get out in 5, 6, 7 seconds, then we’ll put together a winning streak.”
Troy Brouwer said he believes the Caps are closer to becoming a more predictable team, but there is work to be done.
“I think our consistency is something that definitely needs to be worked on,” he said. “Make sure we’re playing the same game every night and not being a different team depending on who we’re playing against.”