Through the first month of the season, chief among the Washington Capitals' struggles is their inability to start games with the same focus that, in some cases, they find as those games progress.
Washington has allowed six more goals than it has scored in the first period, tied for the fourth-largest discrepancy behind Florida (seven), Phoenix (nine) and Buffalo (17). In 12 games, the Capitals have scored the opening goal of the game only five times, with just three coming within the first 20 minutes.
The problems that have routinely plagued the Capitals at the outset of games and throughout them -- turnovers, missed defensive assignments, failed clearing attempts and breakout passes that have allowed the opposition to hem them in their own zone for lengthy periods of time -- persisted during their recent four-game road trip through Western Canada, which they wrapped up Monday with a 2-2-0 record after a 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
Following a 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames Saturday, one in which the Capitals fell behind 2-0 less than eight minutes into the contest and 3-1 with just over seven minutes left in the opening period, goaltender Braden Holtby told reporters that they are "[not] doing a good enough job in here" preparing themselves for games, deficiencies temporarily masked by a three-game winning streak prior to the defeat.
That may have been frustration talking; coach Adam Oates pulled Holtby following Calgary's third first-period goal as a motivational technique. But his comments after Wednesday's practice once again put the onus on pregame preparation.
"I don't know exactly what it is, and who knows what preparation means in here, but it's the fact that we're not coming out hard enough to play," Holtby said. "We're not wanting to get the lead, we're not hungry enough to get that first one and keep pushing. We're kind of sitting back waiting for a hockey game [to come] to us and you don't win many games doing that."
Last season, Holtby singled out the Capitals' back-to-back set against the Winnipeg Jets in late March as the team's turning point. Seven points out of a playoff spot in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, Washington defeated Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg twice in as many days by a combined score of 10-1.
Those two wins began the Capitals' 15-2-2 stretch run that ended with their fifth division title in six years.
Then, Holtby remembered walking into the visitors' dressing room to find a focus that he had not seen before from his teammates. According to Holtby, that same concentration is lacking so far this season.
"The preparation at the start of last year is the same as it was here," Holtby said, referring to Washington's 2-8-1 record through its first 11 games last season. "In my mindset, two hours before puck drop, that's when it's business time and focus. You see too much of guys joking around and listening to music and just looking really loose, like it's a practice. We're paid to prepare, [not to] have a dance party before the game.
"I don't know what it is, but yeah, you go back to Winnipeg last year, it's a changed team. It started in the dressing room and we have to get back to that. ... Maybe we need a little bit of a wake-up call to get back to where we were last year at the end."
Of course, not all players are the same, and as defenseman Steve Oleksy put it, it is up to the Capitals "to find the happy medium."
"Everybody prepares different," he said. "I think everybody at this level knows what they need to do to prepare, so I think it's on everybody individually. Some guys like to be loose before games and have fun joking around; you don't want to think too much, you don't want to overthink the game. And then other guys do need it serious and buttoned down or they don't like music or joking around and they're ultra serious. I think that's kind of on everybody individually. Everybody knows what they need to do at this level to be ready to go right off the gate.
"At the end of the day, you're a professional hockey player, you've got to find a way to be motivated and if you feel that somebody else isn't focused or ready, you've got to find a way as a teammate to pick him up and make sure they're there."
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