Last night the Capitals began their post-Olympic schedule with a game against the Florida Panthers. Despite racing out to a two-goal lead in the first period, the Caps found themselves tied a mere forty seconds into the second period. Despite having a two-goal lead at the second intermission, the Caps needed Alex Ovechkin to continue his torrid pace, scoring a goal with under five minutes to go, in order to secure the win. Why did the Caps need a late goal to win the game? How did the Panthers manage to erase two separate two-goal deficits? If you've been watching the Caps this season, the answer is not a surprise: horrible defense, especially in front of their own net.
The first goal-against last night is surely the ugliest, but unfortunately for the Caps, it wasn't the last breakdown. What happens when you mix one part physical error with one part mental error, and a dash of revenge, for good measure? Let's take a look:
Dmitry Orlov is going to take a lot of heat for this play. He has the puck, and a decent amount of time to make a play. But he bobbles the biscuit into his own skates and the trouble begins. Panthers forward Jesse Winchester smartly realizes Orlov was under duress, and comes hard at Orlov to prevent an easy recovery. Once Winchester banks the puck off the boards to get around Orlov, he takes a quick look to see where he has help before he has to make a play, another subtle but intelligent play. (That Jesse Winchester is one smart hockey player). He notices a wide-open teammate (Tomas Fleischmann), and puts a nice pass to the slot where Flash is able to one-time the puck past Braden Holtby. Orlov makes a (mostly) physical mistake, Winchester makes a nice play, puck's in the net... it happens, right?
Well, that's not the whole story. Why on earth was Flash so wide open? You'd have to ask Mike Green that question. From the start of the sequence he has no gap control. At first it makes sense because he wants to give himself some room in case Orlov made a D-to-D pass, but once the puck is turned over, Green keeps floating back into his own zone. In fact, he doesn't hit the breaks until he's already on top of the crease, all the while Flash is taking his time coming down the slot. Green is a great skater, but he played this like he was John Erskine, afraid to get beat with speed (more cynically, that take might give him too much credit for thinking it through). He needed to step up and close the gap between himself and Flash, but he didn't. So Flash had all day to find his spot in the slot and convert Winchester's pass:
The Caps still had a one-goal lead, though, and all was not lost. Physical mistakes happen, mental mistakes happen (especially with this squad), it's something you have to learn to live with. Unfortunately, this wasn't the last time a Capitals defensive breakdown would give the Panthers easy looks from in close.
Right out of the gates in the second period, the Panthers tie the game when Sean Bergenheim beats Troy Brouwer out of the corner for an open look off a nice feed from Brad Boyes. Holtby makes a nice pad save, but Orlov loses Boyes in coverage, leading to an easy game-tying rebound goal. If it's starting to feel like Groundhog Day, it's because we've already talked about the perils of getting beaten out of the corner. We've talked about the lax defensive coverage in front of the net all season. It's not getting any better:
The Caps would have a strong showing for the rest of the second period, restoring their two-goal lead heading into the locker room. Twenty minutes to go, a near-must-win game, nothing to worry about, right?
Yeah... so the Caps had one more letdown up their sleeves. The Panthers got a power-play goal to cut the Caps lead to one, and the stage was set for a tight finish. Coming out hard after a goal (scored or surrendered) is a major focus for every team, starting at youth levels. So to say that it was disappointing that the Caps gave up the game-tying goal less than ninety seconds later is an understatement. Watching how they did it is soul-crushing:
Karl Alzner loses a battle on the boards and turns the puck over to Nick Bjugstad. From there, it doesn't appear as though any of the Caps on the ice are prepared to play defense. We've seen open shooters in the slot (including the first goal against of this game), but this is ridiculous. Bjugstad has three different options to pass to! He elects to give the puck to Boyes, who could shoot right away, but instead, it looks like he tries to pass to Bergenheim, who (accidentally or intentionally, we're not sure) passes the puck back to Boyes. We've gotta think that return pass is harder to do if his stick was tied up, but Green decides to cover Bergenheim rear-end-first, with his stick in no position to play the puck or Bergenheim. Boyes slams the puck into the open net as Holtby is scrambling to figure out where the shot is going to come from:
Alex Ovechkin saved the day with yet another one-time shot from the left circle. No harm, no foul, right? Caps got two points and continue on their march to the playoffs.
Wrong. The season is 75% over. These aren't one-off problems, this wasn't just a bad game. This is how the 2013-14 Washington Capitals play defense. It's not good enough. With 22 games left on the schedule (including a well-documented brutal stretch of games in March), the Capitals will not make the playoffs unless something changes drastically in their own end. George McPhee would like to see better goaltending, and he's not always wrong. But another strategy might be to stop giving NHL players open looks from the slot - these guys are pretty good at scoring from there.