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Capital Moments that Mattered: Lack of Defensive Urgency Erases the Advantage

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The Caps have been winning the possession battle and losing games of late, Saturday night's defensive coverage against the Lightning demonstrates why they can't keep pucks out of the net.

Photo by Scott Iskowitz/NHLI via Getty Images

Starting with the annual trip to western Canada, the Washington Capitals have been generally winning the possession battle, and losing on the scoreboard lately. Of the four losses in the last five games, the Caps have out-shot their opponents at even-strength in three of the losses (against the Oilers, Red Wings, and Lightning). The commonly accepted conclusion is that the Caps will start winning games if they continue to win the possession battle, and they've probably been bitten by some bad puck luck.

But watching how the Caps are giving up their goals, it's a little more difficult to expect the results to change simply as a result of winning the possession battle. Simply stated, they need to be much better in their own end. As great as it is to limit opponents' shots and win the possession battle, NHL players are too good to be given easy looks... and the Caps are giving up lots of easy looks, with Ondrej Palat's game-tying goal last night providing another perfect example of lax defensive coverage.

Midway through the second period, the Caps had a 2-1 lead and a strong set of skaters on the ice. Alex Ovechkin, Joel Ward, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Karl Alzner, and Matt Niskanen were on against Tampa's second line of Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov - all good players, but not a line that should dominate that group of Capitals. Unfortunately for the Caps, the Lightning did dominate the shift, and the Capitals' lead was erased; they would never regain it. First, the video:

The problems start in the neutral zone as poor gap control and a general lack of hustle, evidenced by the looping "rink turns" you can see all three forwards taking rather than starting and stopping to put pressure on the Lightning. The Lightning use the free space to pick up speed through neutral, with Johnson hitting full stride skating right at Kuznetsov. It's a tough spot for Kuznetsov to be in - it's never easy to stop a forward skating right at you at full speed - but Kuznetsov needs to give a better effort than an a half-hearted sweeping stick check (something you'd barely get away with in men's league hockey):

palat goal 1

Johnson's speed continues to cause problems as he drives Alzner to the corner and then pulls a quick escape turn back up the half-wall. The quick move leads to confusion in the defensive coverage by Alzner and Kuznetsov and both players move toward Johnson, allowing Kucherov to move behind the net, unmarked:

palat goal 2

Johnson reads the play and gets the puck to Kucherov, but the Caps should still be in decent shape. Kucherov can't score from his position, and the entire line is back in the defensive zone in position to theoretically cover the three Lightning forwards. Theoretically.

Instead, the team went to sleep. The eventual goal scorer, Palat, skates right down the middle of the zone in between Oveckin and Ward. Neither of them bothers to check Palat:

palat goal 3

Niskanen is in good defensive position, standing right on top of the crease, but he doesn't read Palat cutting toward the net and isn't in position to cover him when Kucherov passes the puck from behind the net. Even if Niskanen were aware of Palat, he has to respect Kucherov coming around the net for a potential wrap around. Braden Holtby is expecting Kucherov the wrap around and gets caught off guard by the pass back out front, so even though Palat hits Holtby in the glove, the puck still gets over the goal line and the game is tied:

It was a nice passing play by the Lightning, but it couldn't have succeeded if the Caps were attentive in their own zone. To his credit, Holtby accepted the blame for the loss to the Lightning:

"That’s really the frustration," Holtby said. "I think we’re giving up too many goals and that’s a big, big part of me. I’m a big part of that. I think our team is very close to going on a run and to be one of the top teams in the league. I’ve got to get a little better at my job to make sure I’m doing my part."

He's not all wrong, some of the goals have been savable, and so far in the (young) season, only Kari Lehtonen has a worse save percentage with his team leading by one goal. Coming up with those crucial saves to hold a lead is what separates the great goalies from the league-average 'tenders.

He's also not all right, either. If this were an isolated incident then the Caps would have a few more points on the season. But it's not an isolated incident. This could have been the goal Justin Schultz scored in Edmonton (getting Ward demoted in the process). This could have been the goal Gustav Nyquist scored. Or the goal Justin Abdelkader scored. Or the other goal Justin Abdelkader scored. Or the goal Ryan Callahan scored. Or the goal Kucherov scored.

When teams continue to let opposing players stand wide open near their own net and/or turn the puck over in their own zone, they tend to let in goals. Winning the possession battle is great, but without attention to defensive detail the opposition will score easy goals, and it's hard to overcome that. Still, they are winning the possession battle, and they've either won or had the lead in every game this season, except the San Jose game (in which they got a point for the shootout loss). This team is not that far away from being a very good team, they just need to correct the defensive lapses. With new personnel and new coaches, some of this could be part of the adjustment period. If it's not, we're going to continue to see the frustrating losses mount.