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The Capitals and Their First Period Woes

Digging into the slow starts the Caps have been experiencing of late

Washington Capitals v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Capitals have been mediocre at best since returning from the All-Star break at the end of January. It could be argued that their troubles started even before that, but heading into the break they were just one point behind Boston for the NHL lead and had a top-third xGF% of 51.85% — hardly dominant, but respectable considering their tough schedule to that point.

Since the break, though, the Capitals are 4-6-0, giving up 3.60 goals per game (third-most in the League over that span) and rocking a bad 47.03 xGF%.

There are a handful of factors that have gone into this stretch of poor play overall, but one big one is an abundance of poor starts. In the 10 games since returning from break, the Caps have been outscored 15-10 in the first period. They’ve given up the first goal of the game in seven of those 10 games, and only twice have gotten out of the first period without ceding a goal — and that was against teams struggling to score in general (Ottawa and Arizona).

It wasn’t something that was immediately bad in the first few games out of the break; in the first four games the Caps actually won the expected goals battle in the first period, with a score of 3.9 compared to their opponents’ 2.2... but then things flipped in dramatic fashion, the Caps’ score dropping to 2.9 and expected goals-against rising to 5.0. Not great.

A lot of blame for the overall slide has been put on the coaching, but while one one could argue that the system itself has some flaws, a lot of this comes down to the players putting in the effort. It’s not entirely up to a coach to get a veteran team of grown men to wake up for games — and the players know it.

In their most recent loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Capitals allowed a goal in the first five minutes and two goals over all the first period. After the game, T.J. Oshie noted that “you can’t say one word or write something on the board that will kind of get that going. That has got to be the guys in the room here: me, myself, O, Nick, John, Holts, all the leaders. It’s on us to have the boys ready and prepared to go.”

Again, could coaching be better? Could Todd Reirden and friends maybe help in getting the boys in red to start games on time? Certainly. But if this team of very talented players put in a full 60 minutes, no matter the coach, they will win way more games than lose.

Coaching and readiness aside, and despite the fact that the team has been playing fairly sloppily of late, they’ve also been pretty unlucky:

Since the All-Star break the Capitals have a 0.979 PDO, 27th worst in the league and a sign that their record of 4-6 could be better. As a comparison, the Penguins are 6-1-1 coming out of the All Star break despite having a very poor xGF% of 45.03 over that stretch. So why are they winning so much? Luck, in the form of a second-best PDO of 103.2.

While things look bleak for the Caps, and their poor starts need to be fixed, this rough stretch could ultimately end up being a good thing for them. Picking up wins that aren’t earned can lead a team to think they don’t need to change their ways even if they’re playing poorly — because the results are there. If you believe that nothing really matters in the regular season (aside from establishing a decent standings position) until the last 20 or so games, this slump — and the awareness that it needs to be addressed — comes at the perfect time to set up that final 20-game push into the postseason.

And they have a history of doing this, as recently as 2018. Prior to the deadline, they looked a lot like they do now, slow starts and all — but a key trade deadline acquisition on the blueline and a strong finish to the season set up an eventual run to the Cup. Maybe Brendan Dillon could be the new Kempny (but that’s an article for a later time).

For now, of course, it’s all talk. We’ve seen how the Caps have the ability to turn it on when it counts. As Lars Eller said after the Vegas loss, “I know we can play a lot better and I think that is just the bottom line. I know we can play a lot better. We’ll find it, we’ll find it.”

It’s up to everyone, from the players to the coaching staff, to start showing up to games on time or they’ll continue to find themselves digging out of holes they created.