Coaches like to say that video doesn’t lie. But what about numbers?
Through 72 games this season the Capitals are 34-5-5 when scoring three or more goals and – get this – 0-22-6 when scoring two or fewer goals.
They’ve also managed just 20 even-strength goals in their 13 games since the Olympic break, and only one coming off the stick of league-leading goal scorer Alex Ovechkin.
So what does it all mean to Capitals coach Adam Oates, whose team is in the midst of a 4-0-1 streak in which it has scored just 14 goals in regulation but has allowed just 10?
“You’ve got to work for every single thing you get,” Oates said. “And if you don’t have that [defense-first] attitude you’re going to get spanked. If we win 1-0, I’m going to be happy the next day. But it’s got to be that [defense-first] mentality. If that affects [goal] production, I’ve got no problem with it.”
Which brings us to Ovechkin, who has two goals in his last nine games after piling up 44 in his first 59. Clearly, Oates’ decision to move fourth-line center Jay Beagle onto the Caps’ top line with Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson has impacted Ovechkin’s offensive production.
But has it also made the Capitals a harder team to play against?
Before he was united with Beagle, Ovechkin was a minus player in nine straight games for a combined minus-14. In his last three games he’s been even on the plus-minus sheet, which means he’s not watching other teams score, a problem evidenced by his minus-31 rating.
“He’s got to realize that more and more this time of year goals are harder to come by,” Oates said, “and to just keep playing well. That’s all I ever really ask of him.”
Oates pointed to the Caps’ 4-2 win over Toronto on March 16 when the Maple Leafs double-teamed Ovechkin on the power play, leading to goals by Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer.
“He was being unselfish,” Oates said. “That’s frustrating for him, not getting off his one-timers. But by him doing that, he contributed to us winning the game.”
Oates also pointed to Ovechkin blocking a shot late in the Capitals’ shootout win over the San Jose Sharks after a breakdown in defensive coverage.
“I don’t think they matter to him as much as they should sometimes,” Oates said of his 20 blocked shots. “But to the rest of the guys and to us, it does.”
Beagle, who was a healthy scratch for much of November, said he’s thankful for getting the chance to play on the Caps’ top line, but he’s not settling for just keeping opponents off the scoreboard.
“Obviously, we’ve got to start scoring 5-on-5,” Beagle said. “We worked on it today, really trying to bear down on our chances. They want the puck, so they’re always talking when they’re open, letting me know where they are.
“And I do the same in the D zone with who’s coming back first and what our responsibilities are.”
Center Eric Fehr said he believes Oates’ new line combinations have helped change the Capitals’ identity from a team that is willing to trade offensive chances to one that is willing to win a hard-fought defensive game.
“I think over the last couple games we’ve been a lot smarter,” Fehr said. “We haven’t taken unnecessary risks and I think that’s the reason we’ve gotten some wins and we’ve been in some really close, low-scoring games. We’ve been more responsible and it’s everybody on the team right now.”
That, Fehr said, is the kind of hockey that will get the Caps into the playoffs.
“You’re not going to get into high-scoring games come playoff time and we understand that,” he said. “We’ve been working on our defense since the Olympic break, shutting teams down. If we can play tight defensively we’re going to find a way to score.”