The Washington Capitals took on the worst team in the Metropolitan Division, the New Jersey Devils. Unexpectedly, the Capitals took a big loss. Where are the areas of improvement?
After having two nights off following a back to back, it isn’t far fetched to expect a hungry Washington Capitals.
Especially considering the tough match up against the Flyers in the second of the back to back.
Also when the best team in the Metro Division, the Capitals, take on the worst team in the Metro Division, the Devils, nine times out of 10 you would expect the best team to prevail.
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The Devils had other plans as they came ready to play and left with the decisive win by way of a 5-1 score in enemy territory at Capital One Arena. This on a night where the Capitals welcomed TJ Oshie to the All-Star Game roster as the last man in for the division.
For my part, this my first game I have gotten to see live in over a year, I hoped I would have seen better results. From my perspective I feel there are a few areas where the Capitals could stand to improve to maintain their hold on the division.
Neutral Zone Effectiveness
The Washington Capitals main issue came from their inability to enter the Neutral zone and get the puck up ice. Every time the Capitals tried to push the puck into the zone their pass was met by a Devils stick and the action was immediately redirected into the Capitals defensive zone.
Even in those moments the Capitals were able to gain entry into the Neutral zone they had to seriously work for the offensive zone entry after that. While the Capitals managed more shots than the Devils, 34 to 22, they could have produced more opportunities with better movement through the zone.
Too many times the Capitals ended up with defending odd man rushes by ending up with most of the team out of position from the bad Neutral zone effectiveness. The Capitals will need to find new ways to gain the entry, especially if other teams follow the Devils model of clogging the Neutral zone with 4 bodies to keep the passing lanes to a minimum.
Offensive Zone Time
Another area of concern directly related to the issues found in getting into and out of the Neutral zone was the amount of time the Capitals spent in the offensive zone. Due to the issues in gaining the offensive zone, they ended up in the zone most of the time with the puck carrier and all his passing lanes being blocked by the bodies that were clogging the neutral zone just a matter of seconds earlier.
With the ability of the Devils to keep the obvious areas of attack covered it kept the Capitals from mounting a great scoring opportunity. This kept the Capitals to the exterior and looking for long range low danger area shots. These shots mostly were met by the front net presence of the Devils team defense. The usually fix to offset the ineffective zone entries, is a dump and chase dependency on the forecheck.
This brings us to the next area the Capitals didn’t have working against the Devils. Once the Capitals were down 3-1, they realized the need to change their approach in entering the offensive zone. But the fore check they were trying to instill on the Devils deep in the zone was unable to take affect as the Devils would just react and push the puck up ice with minimal pressure coming from the Capitals.
This to me is where the mindset the team came in with showed the most, it appeared the Capitals came in flat as you would expect in the latter of a back to back schedule. I’m not discounting the Capitals heart and effort, but it seemed as one person on the line was taking the necessary push they were not followed up well enough to make their efforts count.
The team will need to make sure each line is on the same page when taking the ice. This might need to be addressed with a shake up of the line structure. Although some of the effort was also negated by the speed shown by the more youthful speed driven Devils.
An area the Capitals struggled with that showed the most when observing the speed the Devils brought to their offensive zone, was the Capitals bad positioning when playing the puck in the defensive zone.
This was more a byproduct of smart dump and chase by the Devils as they would usually wait until the Capitals defenseman would move their momentum one direction and dump on their opposite side. Where the Capitals typically handle themselves well is the awareness in the soft zones that get created in these instances, in this game they fell into allowing these soft zones too frequently.
These soft areas in the defense produced some high speed high danger scoring chances by the Devils, none more evident than the first goal by Nico Hischier who beat Braden Holtby glove side. The Capitals will need to pick their moments for the defense to attack better so these soft areas aren’t produced so easily.
Power Play Efficiency
Lastly comes an area that has mostly been a strength for the Washington Capitals all year. Although this part of their game has been slipping in the last few weeks. Earlier in the year the Capitals held one of the best power play units, ranking in the top five. But they now sit 12th overall with a conversion percentage of 20.98%.
While that is still pretty high, you need the 12th ranked PP unit to deliver when given the opportunity. Especially when they were fighting from behind most of the game. Even though their one score came from the power play they had a chance to get back into the game late with a 2 man advantage and failed to convert.
Not to mention their PP allowed one short handed goal while also allowing a few other chances for the Devils to score short handed. In these moments it is expected that a top flight unit will be the one producing scoring chances instead of allowing them. It could be the power play needs a shake up as the league appears to be figuring out the best way to defend against it as the ranking of the unit has been going in the wrong direction.
Bonus Wake up Call
As a bonus observation, the Washington Capitals owe so much to Braden Holtby for his contributions to the team in all the time he has been their starting goaltender. But with the manner he has been handling his duties it might be time to really see what they have in back up Ilya Samsonov.
While also giving Holtby a wake up call, to see his job is on the line both this season and for future seasons. Braden Holtby has been a rock, but this year is looking very reminiscent to the later half of 2018 where the Capitals appeared to hand off the starting gig to Philipp Grubauer.
They gave him the first few starts in the playoffs before going back to Holtby to take it home and win the cup. It might take another wake up call on that level to really get Holtby going on the level we have grown to expect. Or this might just let the Washington Capitals know it is time to move on and delegate their upcoming salary cap to other areas in need of improvement.
While the Washington Capitals still hold the top spot in the league there are a number of teams streaking that are right on their heels. Most would be concerned at this prospect but I hope the Capitals are pushed instead of walking away with the top team title.
We have seen in the past how that has fared for the Capitals and even more recently how the Lightning were unceremoniously eliminated from the playoffs after entering as odds on favorites. Better the Capitals have to fight to get there, but they will need to put in the work to constantly improve. Hopefully these areas can be improved by the playoffs.