Between the Washington Capitals’ 5-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils and Alexander Ovechkin’s hat trick, fans in D.C. have a lot to celebrate. Even so, the game highlights the team’s struggle with consistency this season.
The Caps went 2-8-1 through their first 11 games before mounting a three-game winning streak—all against divisional opponents. In that stretch, the Caps scored 15 goals and allowed eight.
After having their streak snapped in Madison Square Garden by the New York Rangers, Ovechkin and company were hoping to bounce back during two consecutive home games against the Devils.
Looking at those games is like watching two completely different teams play in red sweaters. They were about as black and white as it comes.
Discipline comes to mind first.
The Caps’ lack of discipline cost them the first of their two consecutive games against the Devils. After going into the third period with a 2-1 lead, they took five minors in the first 10 minutes of the period and lost 3-2.
Their penalty-killing squad and netminder Braden Holtby bailed them out time and time again, but it was only a matter of time until their lack of discipline caught up with them. Ilya Kovalchuk ended up scoring the game-winning goal for the Devils on the power play.
General manager George McPhee has recognized penalties as one of his team’s most glaring weaknesses (nhl.com):
"The issue with our club right now, in my mind, is all these penalties that we're taking. It's too much. We're playing a good game and then we start taking penalties and we take them in bunches. No system, no coach, no team can survive that. We've given up the most shorthanded goals in the League and for good reason -- we're taking too many. It's too hard on the goaltenders and it's too hard on the team."
McPhee said that about two weeks prior to the Caps’ collapse against the Devils on Feb. 21.
Washington turned it around during their second contest with New Jersey. They only took three penalties and didn’t allow any power-play goals.
Another obvious inconsistency between the two games versus the Devils is defense.
In their first match, the ice was tilted in the Devils’ favor even before the Caps gave away the game with all the late penalties. They were being outshot by such a wide margin that it was only a matter of time before Holtby allowed a few pucks through.
The Caps defense did its job in the second game by holding the Devils to 22 shots on goal—the same number of shots they had in the first two periods of the first game.
They did a great job of shutting down New Jersey’s scorers. Kovalchuk took 10 shots in Thursday’s game, seven of which found their way to Holtby. In Saturday’s game, Kovalchuk was held to five shots on goal.
The Caps also did a better job of controlling the puck. Not spending so much time playing a man down helped, but the Caps also played much better at even strength.
The Devils outshot the Caps 30-12 at even strength in the first game. Two days later, the Caps won the shooting battle by outshooting the Devils 22-17 at even play.
Neil Greenberg notes that many of the Caps’ infractions in their first match with the Devils were characteristic of a team playing catch up.
Majoriy of penalties #Caps are racking up are hook/hold/interference, which usually means they are playing catch up due to lack of posession— Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg) February 22, 2013
Joey Crabb was the only one to take one of these penalties for the Caps in their 5-1 win over the Devils. Two days prior, the Caps took five penalties for holding, tripping, hooking or interference.
Consistency can be found in a few facets of the Caps’ game, though. Their special teams have been on-point as of late.
The Caps power play has converted on four of the seven opportunities it got between the two games against the Devils. Despite sitting at the bottom of the standings, the Caps have the third-best power play in the league.
While their penalty kill is ranked 24th in the league, it shined against the Devils. They only allowed the Devils to score on one of their nine man-advantages between the two games and even managed to kill a handful of 5-on-3 power plays.
Saturday’s huge win could spark something. The last time the Caps had such an explosive night at home was when they shut out the Florida Panthers 5-0 on Feb. 9. That game was the start of their last string of wins.
While they’re celebrating their win and Ovechkin’s first hat trick in over two years, the Caps will surely be looking towards Tuesday’s contest against the Carolina Hurricanes. This divisional matchup will show whether or not the Caps have the capability to play top-tier hockey on a consistent basis.
Hopefully the momentum from Saturday’s win will be enough to help the Caps start to work their way back into playoff contention.