When Adam Oates was hired to replace Dale Hunter as head coach of the Capitals two summers ago, two of his goals were to turn Alex Ovechkin back into a scoring machine and convince his team to be responsible defensively.
With 48 goals Ovechkin is on pace to win his second straight Rocket Richard trophy, but he is also an NHL-worst minus-36 on a team that has been outscored 149-126 in 5-on-5 play.
As a result, the Capitals may finish the season with the league’s leading goal scorer but out of the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
The biggest reason? Their team defense.
The Caps rank 12th in the NHL in goals scored this season  and 25th in goals allowed . Their minus-14 goal differential ranks 20th in the league.
So are the Caps any better defensively today than they were two years ago?
“I think you have to ask him that question,” Caps defenseman Mike Green said, referring to Oates. “As players we just try to get better each day.
“As an individual you can be your hardest critic, but you really have to take a look outside the box and see the bigger picture. I think we’ve definitely improved. Where the bar is at, who knows?”
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In Tuesday night’s humiliating 5-0 loss to the Dallas Stars the Capitals’ defensive blunders were abundant. On the Stars’ first goal, Nicklas Backstrom, who is now a career-worst minus-21, tried backhanding the puck out of the defensive corner and into the slot, where Jamie Benn intercepted and found Tyler Seguin for a goal.
On the Stars’ second goal, Dmitry Orlov tried a stretch pass for Mikhail Grabovski, then went off for a line change. When Orlov’s 70-foot pass kicked off the skate of Grabovski and onto the stick of Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen, the Stars executed their own home run pass, catching Green napping and John Erskine too late off the bench to catch Ray Whitney and Alex Chiasson on a 2-on-none against Jaroslav Halak.
“I honestly didn’t know there wasn’t somebody beside me,” Green said. “I’m accountable for that. I should have looked over. If I had, the pass probably wouldn’t have been made.
“I was just hanging back and thought it was going to be a chip-in and I’d go back to retrieve it, but it wasn’t.”
On the Stars’ fourth goal Chiasson beat a flat-footed Ovechkin up the ice to set up a goal by Dustin Jeffrey, and on their fifth Green allowed Ryan Garbutt to beat him in a footrace to the puck and stepped around him instead of separating him from the puck.
“I would say the biggest thing that frustrates me as a coach is that when we have simple plays we don’t pass the puck on our buddy’s stick and that ends up imploding us,” Oates said.
“You give them second waves, you give them third waves. We ice it four times a game on Hail Mary plays. That’s something we have to try and conquer. When you have no pressure on, you make the right play because every one of those you don’t it’s going to come back.”
Why, Oates was asked, does his team have so much difficulty completing tape-to-tape passes? Is it the constant shuffling of defense pairs? Is it a lack of focus at practice? Does it fall on the players or the coaches?
“We work on it every single day,” Oates said. “It’s me, it’s them, it’s focus, it’s accountability, it’s practice.”
If the Capitals don’t turn this around in the next six games their season will be over, leaving everyone wondering if Oates had the wrong plan for the right players, or the wrong players for the right plan.
“He’s done a good job with the guys that are here and I think we obviously haven’t had the success we wanted,” Green said.
“But we’re still in the race here and we’re going to make sure we do our best and that we will make it to the playoffs. At the end, that’s all that matters and that’s what we’re focused on.”
Asked if the Capitals have the core group of players that can get it done, Green said, “Absolutely. We’ve been here a long time and the core guys have been the ones who have been here through thick and thin. I believe in every single player in this dressing room and staff and I wouldn’t change a thing."