The Washington Capitals’ losing streak should be over.
In the final seconds of Tuesday’s game against the San Jose Sharks, the Capitals had all but ended their slide. But in a single second that all-too-familiar here-we-go-again feeling sunk in. Clinging to a one-goal lead late, all it took was one Evander Kane flick of the wrist with less than two ticks on the clock for the Capitals to watch their second two-goal lead of the night vanish into thin air. Poof. Overtime, it felt, was merely a formality, and credence was given to the Capitals' concerns when Tomas Hertl delivered the dagger to Washington.
Now, as the defending Stanley Cup champions awake Wednesday morning, they find themselves mired in their worst losing streak since Adam Oates patrolled Washington’s bench during the 2013-14 campaign. The six-game slide is the longest active losing streak in the NHL. Suffice to say, this isn’t the position the Capitals had hoped to be in entering the all-star break. Yet, here they are.
What we know about Washington’s slide is that offense certainly hasn’t been the issue. The Capitals enter their final game before the all-star break boasting the eighth-best goal total in the NHL, and likewise rank eighth in goals per game. The Alex Ovechkin-led attack is among the league’s most potent, and the offensive output can’t be faulted for the continued losing streak. Maybe the first four games of the slide, when Washington scored four combined goals, that could have been the case. But in the past two games, the Capitals have registered a combined 11 goals. On most nights, a five-goal game should be more than enough offensive output to pick up two points. Tuesday’s six goals should have snapped the drought, no questions asked.
Absolving the offense, however, points the finger squarely back at the defensive play of the Capitals over their past six outings, and not without reason. Including the nail-biting 2-1 overtime loss at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets that kicked off the six-game slide, Washington has allowed an average of five goals against per game during this stretch. And while that’s above average for Washington this season, it’s not as though it’s all that surprising for a club that ranks in the bottom-third of the NHL with an average of 3.16 goals against per game.
The poor defensive play isn’t simply a characteristic that’s been displayed over the two-week span that encapsulates this losing streak, though. It’s been a running theme throughout the Capitals’ campaign, albeit an issue they’ve been able to outpace with their attack to this point. In fact, measuring their play since the beginning of the season, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to call Washington one of the weaker defensive units in the entire league and a club that has done little to help their own cause with their own-zone play.
One need only look at the Capitals’ 5-on-5 play for an indication of how porous Washington’s defensive play has been. Per 60 minutes at five-a-side, the Capitals have allowed the fifth-most shot attempts against (59.7), 10th-most shots against (31.5), sixth-most scoring chances against (28.2) and a near-league worst 12.8 high-danger chances against, according to NaturalStatTrick. The only team worse in the latter category are the Chicago Blackhawks, who seem destined for a top-three pick as one of the NHL’s lowliest outfits.
Even when measured in season-long percentages, Washington’s underlying numbers aren't all that favorable. At 5-on-5, the Capitals rank 23rd in Corsi percentage (48.3), 23rd in shot percentage (48), 19th in scoring chance percentage (49.5) and 28th in high-danger chance percentage (44.9). Truth be told, though, the only reason Washington doesn’t find itself among the bottom feeders in each metric is the offensive output. The Capitals’ shot and chance generation numbers sit somewhere in the middle-third of the league. Otherwise, the percentages would be an even bigger mess than they appear.
What poor underlying numbers can create, too, is a ripple effect that reflects poorly on the netminders. And while the substandard defensive play in no way acquits Braden Holtby — and to a lesser extent Pheonix Copley — of his faults this season, it’s somewhat understandable why the Capitals netminder is on his way to posting the worst numbers of his career. With a .906 save percentage and 3.04 goals-against average, Holtby’s performance this season has been worse than last season’s when he was the second-choice starter entering the playoffs for the Capitals. But he’s under immense pressure on a nightly basis. Among the 34 goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played at 5-on-5 this season, only three have seen more rubber per 60 minutes. However, no goaltender has seen more high-danger shots against per 60 minutes than the Washington netminder.
The difficulty the Capitals face now, though, is addressing the processes that lead to poor underlying numbers, and that isn’t the kind of thing that has a quick fix. There’s no one trade Washington can swing to transform from an often out-possessed club that wins on the strength of its offense to a Tampa Bay Lightning or Calgary Flames-esque top-to-bottom contender that supplements a high-powered attack with similar defending strength. So, while the Capitals can add a piece here or there, chances are the same issues that permeate throughout the team defense will continue even after Washington completes its pre-deadline movement in preparation for the post-season.
Does that mean the Capitals have no chance at the repeat? Not quite. Washington boasted similar underlying numbers last season before finding a spark at the right time. But the longer these issues persist, and the more they’re exposed, the less likely the defending Stanley Cup champions are to enter the post-season with a favorable draw and the less likely it becomes that Washington makes it out of the Eastern Conference alive.