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Time for Patience or Panic?

Photo courtesy of the Washington Capitals

Just three games into the 2023-24 season, and things are looking a little…not great for the Washington Capitals.

But with a new coaching staff, a ton of turnover from last season, a few injuries, and a weird schedule, it’s hard to get a read on exactly what’s going on with this team, and what we should – and shouldn’t – be worried about.

So what early trends have us hitting the panic button?

Power-less play

Through three games, the Capitals have gone on the power play eight times, and have scored on exactly zero of those opportunities. Not ideal for a team that now boasts the face of Toronto’s vaunted power play behind the bench.

Panic level: Low.

Putting up a goose egg with the extra man isn’t ideal, and the Caps are in some elite company in that department, one of just three teams (along with St. Louis and Anaheim) to have yet to pick up a power-play goal this season. But it’s worth noting that the Caps have also not had a ton of chances to get that elusive power-play goal – their 2.67 power play opportunities per game ranks dead last in the NHL; hard to score a man up when you rarely get a chance to be a man up.

And once they do get their shot, they’re taking it…it’s just going high. Or wide. Or being blocked. It hasn’t always been pretty, but they’re getting chances, and they’ve got the third-best xGF% in the league right now. Basically, they’ve been super unlucky:

The power play will hit pay dirt eventually, because they’re doing everything right other than actually putting the puck in the net (albeit a key component of a successful power play). Give the guys some time to get up to speed.

Falling behind

The Capitals have scored just one first-period goal so far, and in each of their three games, have trailed 2-0 at one point or another.

They’ve also never held a lead at any point in those three games; they’re one of five teams that has yet to have scored the game’s first goal, and have been tied just once, when they came back to erase a 2-2 deficit en route to their shootout win over Calgary.

Panic level: Medium.

We’ve seen this movie before, with the Caps falling behind time and time again, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. Granted, strong starts don’t necessarily equal wins, but with an older team, you’d like to see them not have to chase the game so much as time ticks away and the legs get heavier.

Lack of offense

“We’re struggling right now, we’re not executing well offensively, we’re not clicking like a well-oiled machine offensively – the power play, finishing chances, 2-on-1s, odd man chances – it’s not clicking.”

That was Coach Carbery after Wednesday night’s debacle in Ottawa, when the Caps managed just a single goal – a John Carlson tally off a net-front scramble late in the first period – to bring their grand total for the season up to three. In three games. Not what you’d expect from a team that boasts a fair number of perennial 20+ goal scorers and, of course, Alex Ovechkin.

So what’s going on? It might be as simple as Carbery’s own words: they’re just not clicking. The coaching staff seems to have yet to find the right mix in their forward lines to get everyone going at the same time. In the first two games, it was definitely the trio of Sonny Milano, Dylan Strome and Matthew Phillips driving the bus; that line was split up for Game 3 in Ottawa in search of a different flavor, and while it resulted in better chances for guys like T.J. Oshie (who had a strong game and has actually been pretty decent this season), Phillips and friends struggled to regain their magic on their new lines.

It’s not even just that they’re not scoring. They’re not generating chances to score, even when trailing (where are those magical score effects, people??). Per Natural Stat Trick, the Caps have the fifth-lowest xGF% in the league. Check out this filthy thing:

Panic level: Medium-high.

The Caps probably aren’t going to be among the league’s top-scoring teams this year – gone are the heady days of averaging close to four goals a game. But the lines are still getting adjusted, the players are still getting up to speed, and a new system is still being learned by all. Perhaps patience is key.

That said, the offense has been really bad – and while Carbery tinkers with his lines, there’s no guarantee that the right combination of these particular players will result in better…well, results. Can an offense that has long relied on players who are now aging veterans be expected to produce, regardless of what combinations you put them in? Time will tell, but three goals through two games is Ugly, a lack of general sustained offensive pressure or puck possession of any kind is Uglier, and so far they haven’t given us much reason not to panic.

Alex Ovechkin’s slow start

Alex Ovechkin is and has long been the face and backbone of the Washington Capitals. Often, how he goes is how the rest of the team goes – and right now, both of them are going in the wrong direction.

Ovechkin has yet to light the lamp this season, picking up his lone point of the season with an assist on Carlson’s goal Wednesday night. He also failed to register a shot on goal in Ottawa, one game after being held without a shot against Calgary – the first time he’s ever gone back-to-back games without a single shot on goal.

Panic level: Medium.

Look, this is Alex Ovechkin. And when it comes to Alex Ovechkin, there is no such thing as toning down rhetoric or narrative when it comes to the Caps’ captain. So yeah, the panic meter is going to be on the higher side and likely stay there until – yes, until – he starts scoring goals again.

Set of Speedometer. Isolated Vector Illustration

Just remember that Ovechkin is 38 years old. He’s played a lot of hockey over the last 19 years. It might take him a little time to warm up and find his groove – perhaps more than we’re used to, especially when we see him going consecutive games, not without a goal, but without a shot on goal. He hasn’t looked great to start the season, but he’s hardly the only one on the team who fits that description – and while a lot has been made of those consecutive shotless games, he’s still managed plenty of attempts, and leads his team (as usual) in shot attempts at all strengths with 18 so far.

He also went goalless through his first three games last season, and finished the year with 42.

Feel free to panic a little. Time comes for us all, and Ovechkin is no spring chicken…but we wouldn’t count him out of the Gretzky chase just yet.

Images by DrawingMyDiary on Freepik

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