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The Curse of the Slow Start

The Sabres' four-goal first period Monday night was a disturbing thing to watch for anyone who has followed this Caps' team. Not just because of how quickly or efficiently it happened, or because it resulted in a previously hot goaltender being sent to the bench or a previously effective penalty kill being dinged for two goals. It was troubling, first and foremost, because we’ve seen it all before. The goals-against may fluctuate, the circumstances surrounding the deficit may differ, but slow starts have plagued this team – and unfortunately have become the norm.

There’s no question that the Caps have plenty of talent on their roster; say what you will about the guys on this team, and we can say a lot, but the talent is there. What they often lack isn’t skill but focus and mental fortitude, the desire to come out of the gate playing hard and to maintain that energy level through sixty minutes.

The frustrating thing about this ongoing trend, as is the case with so many aspects of this team, is that we know what they’re capable of when they do start a game with energy. Just last week, playing host to the defensively-stingy Nashville Predators, the Caps came out with what was easily their best period since Dale Hunter took over as bench boss – if not the entire season. They jumped on the Predators early and simply dominated in every way, outshooting, outhitting and outscoring them. It set the tone for the rest of the game, enabled them to head off a Nashville surge in the second and catapulted them to a much-needed two points.

It was a great win, and should have been a performance to build on; instead, just days later, they resumed their sluggish first period ways against a Devils team every bit as desperate for points as the Caps and by the end of the second period found themselves in a three-goal hole. That they came back in the third speaks to the talent they have (and to Jason Chimera’s role as Martin Brodeur’s personal demon), that they forced overtime and earned a point a promising sign that they could overcome a deficit - but they shouldn’t have been in the position then, and they shouldn’t have been in the position Monday night when they found themselves down 4-0 after just twenty minutes.

So how bad is it really? A quick look at the numbers tells us just how bad...

The Caps have given up the first goal in nineteen of their thirty-four games this season; that's the fourth-most in the NHL. On the flip side, the fifteen games in which they have scored first is the second-lowest number in the League, behind teams who have already played two or three more games. They've also gone into the locker room trailing after one period a third-highest fourteen times, held the lead after twenty minutes just nine times (tied for fourth-lowest).

The picture doesn't get much prettier in terms of pure goal-scoring, either, as the twenty-six goals they've scored in the first period puts them in the bottom third of the League while the thirty-four goals they've allowed is the third-most. And as if that wasn't enough, it only gets worse in the second period (28 goals-for, 37 goals-against).

It even translates down to a player level, as we can see from the breakdown of the team's top ten scorers below:

1G 1A 2G 2A 3G 3A OTG OTA
Nicklas Backstrom 4 7 2 3 5 11 1 2
Alex Ovechkin 4 4 2 2 6 6 0 1
Dennis Wideman 2 1 2 5 0 10 1 2
Brooks Laich 1 3 0 4 6 6 1 0
John Carlson 0 6 3 4 2 6 0 0
Jason Chimera 2 3 3 1 7 1 1 1
Marcus Johansson 4 2 1 4 1 5 0 1
Troy Brouwer 1 2 3 2 5 4 0 0
Alexander Semin 3 2 2 2 2 4 0 0
Joel Ward 1 0 1 3 2 4 0 0
TOTAL 22 30 19 30 36 57 4 7

If you want to find a silver lining, it's in the third period and overtime, where the Caps have been one of the League's best teams and their best players are producing the most. They're tied for sixth-best when it comes to third period goals with forty, and have given up the eighth-fewest; in overtime they lead the NHL with five game-winners, and have yet to give up a goal in the extra frame.

But even that silver lining isn't that bright, when you consider that being in a hole by the time the third period rolls around often requires better effort and better production in that final frame just to keep pace with the rest of the League (not to mention the fact that teams with a healthy lead tend to let off the gas pedal a bit, allowing for a comeback). The Caps are top-ten in winning percentage when giving up the first goal and trailing after one, in large part because of a strong finish.

In other words, that they can come back and pile on the offense while holding off the opponent: good. That they've had to do so as frequently as they have? Bad.

We know that in today's NHL, no lead is safe - leads are blown night in and night out, around the League, with momentum swinging back and forth like some whacked out pendulum. But there's still something to be said for setting the tone early, for taking the other team (and their fans, when applicable) out of the game as soon as possible. We saw it in Buffalo, a slumping Sabres team able to gain momentum - and confidence - before the game was a minute old; the Caps may have chipped away at the lead and improved as the game went on, but they were never really in it, not after giving up four goals in twenty minutes.

It's simply much easier to be in the driver's seat - and right now the Caps are letting themselves be chauffeured around far too often.