Now, two and a half months later, the Capitals entered an off day Sunday coming off their worst defeat of the season, a 7-2 drubbing by the Philadelphia Flyers. Capitals head coach Todd Reirden blasted his team in his postgame news conference after Saturday’s loss.
“If you’re going to break down the game in a number of different areas, you’re not going to find something that was a positive for us,” Reirden said. “That’s not winning any hockey games. That’s not playing to our identity. That’s not who we are. The score showed what we deserved tonight.”
Five minutes after the game ended, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan walked past reporters and entered the frosted glass doors to the locker room, an unusual sight. Five minutes later, reporters were allowed in, a long wait compared to most games.
Washington had just been humiliated in front of their fans at Capital One Arena. The shameful defeat was compounded because hockey fans around the world were waiting for Alex Ovechkin to hit 700 goals.
The Capitals are now 10-8 since the Christmas break and have allowed 3.50 goals per game, third-worst in the NHL during that span. Their record is tied for 20th in the league — but thanks to some sloppy wins, they’re still clinging to second place overall.
“We’re where we are in the standings, but I’ve said it a number of times, we’re not where we need to be,” Reirden said before he repeated himself: the game’s result was warranted. “Tonight was a really good example of it. If you’re going to lose in all areas of the game, then you’re not going to pull out wins. We didn’t deserve that win. We deserved what we got tonight.”
In 2020, the story has been consistent: the team is still scoring goals at a good pace, but the defense has been porous. The team’s penalty kill, previously elite this season, is now at a mediocre 80.3 percent. Their power play is 29th in the league since the beginning of December, clicking at just 15.2 percent, and they’ve given up an NHL-worst seven shorthanded goals.
Against the Flyers, the team compounded these issues with sloppy mistakes by all, including many of their top blueliners. Norris Trophy candidate John Carlson glided down the ice on a successful breakaway attempt. Dmitry Orlov never attempted to protect goaltender Braden Holtby’s crease, which allowed an easy tip-in goal. Radko Gudas made terrible turnover before getting completely embarrassed as the Flyers entered the zone, calmly skated past him and scored.
“We couldn’t get back in the game,” Reirden said of the result of Gudas’s mistake.
The theme of the last couple of months, in addition to indigent defense, is Reirden’s loss of patience with his team. After the Capitals allowed their fourth goal of the game, the coach called a timeout and yelled at his side. That has not been unusual lately. Even in the games the Capitals have pulled out, Reirden has been displeased with much of his team’s play.
The losses have led to soul-searching for the club which has thus far been fruitless.
After Braden Holtby made an inexplicable turnover against the Nashville Predators in a game in late January that cost the Capitals the lead and ultimately the game, Reirden took several seconds to compose himself before talking about the play after the game. It was their second game back from the bye week and All-Star break, but Reirden was more concerned with the overall picture of the season than a single contest or play.
“We’re trying to build our game,” Reirden said after that January 29 loss, referring to the team’s propensity to turn the puck over and their weak defense in recent weeks. “Those are the same things we saw before the break. This is a situation where it shows its face again right here right away way after the break. It’s a great chance to readdress it. We’ve got to get back to work and fix them.”
Reirden added: “We need to learn lessons from it. It’s a work in progress.”
The team, however, has not done that.
Washington is now three points behind the Boston Bruins for the league’s top spot. The red hot Tampa Bay Lightning and division rival Pittsburgh Penguins are lying in wait behind the Capitals. Less than a win separates the Bolts from Caps while the Pens trail the Caps by four points but have a game in hand and three games left against Washington.
Though the Capitals are still high in the league standings, a promising season now has become unsettled.
“It’s an 82-game season,” Reirden said after Saturday’s loss. “That is unacceptable.”
“It’s now what does our team do as a response,” he added. “We’ll see how it goes.”