ARLINGTON, Va. — The first month of the NHL season taught the Washington Capitals that they can’t simply repeat their success of the past two seasons.
Depleted of their depth by offseason departures and injuries, the Capitals stayed afloat by going 5-6-1 while playing eight of their first 12 games on the road. But as they return home to begin a stretch of 13 of 18 games in Washington, the Capitals are still looking to find out what kind of team they are.
Last year they were a talented team that could win games in various ways.
No longer a juggernaut with four lines and three defensive pairs that can play against any opponent, the Capitals also can’t rely on Alex Ovechkin scoring 10 goals a month or Braden Holtby making almost 30 saves a game. Their expected lineup Thursday night against the New York Islanders includes eight players who weren’t with them in the playoffs last year, so the growing pains are an ongoing process.
“The group has to sort of create its own identity to see what works for them,” coach Barry Trotz said. “You have to create an identity and you’ve got to have success. I think it’s inching its way over there to where our team will be a little bit more consistent.”
Without the depth and the skill of previous squads, once health this group may find its identity on defense.
Consistency hasn’t been a hallmark of Washington’s game so far. It’s taking the second-fewest shots on goal in the league, allowing the seventh-most and struggling on the penalty kill. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ovechkin are in the top 10 in points and Holtby has been solid in net, keeping the team out of a deep hole to start the year.
Even staring at a 1-3 home record, now’s the chance to make up some ground in a still-uncertain Eastern Conference.
“It’ll be a good opportunity,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “We haven’t had more than one game in a row here at home, so it’s kind of a weird schedule to start off. It’s tough to generate any kind of momentum or rhythm at home. Hopefully we can take advantage of that.”
Injuries to defenseman Matt Niskanen and forward Andre Burakovsky continue to test the Capitals’ youth and unproven players. But even the veterans who were part of back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winning seasons haven’t been sharp.
The result has been the Capitals chasing games. They’ve played from behind for almost 178 minutes in their past five — more than half the game.
“Just mentally it’s draining because you have no comfort,” Trotz said. “It works on you mentally, and then you’re trying to force things and the other team can just sort of wait and be patient and we’re not a really patient team. At times we will try to force things that aren’t there.”
Another result is committing the fourth-most penalties in the league and having the sixth-fewest power-play opportunities. Because the Capitals have been on the wrong side of five-on-five possession, they’re struggling to keep up with opponents and are ending up in the penalty box.
“We’ve taken too many penalties because you get beat one-on-one or something and then you have to reach out and grab the guy,” right winger Tom Wilson said. “We need to get the puck in the offensive zone and use our bodies to kind of draw penalties.”
Over the past two-plus seasons, Washington has scored on 22.4 percent of its power plays, best in the NHL. Right now it’s ranked ninth but has the firepower to produce.
“I think it’s just mentally-wise,” Ovechkin said. “We know what we have to do out there. It’s just a situation when it’s just the work ethic, I think.”
Work ethic shouldn’t be a problem for the Capitals as they sit 11th in the East. In previous years perhaps the regular season could be brushed off because of their playoff failures, but now they need to care because the margin for error isn’t there to just qualify for the postseason.
As Ovechkin acknowledged, “Every point is needed.” That’s a message that the coaching staff has tried to get across.
“We’ve got to go on a little bit of a run,” Trotz said.” And when I say run, it’s not winning six in a row or anything like that. We’ve just got to be consistent in collecting points every night. And that’s what we’ve done very well the last three years and we’ve got to get that mentality of collecting a point.”
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