There have been plenty of question marks surrounding the Washington Capitals over the last several years, but finishing off games hasn't been one of them.
Well, until now.
Entering this lockout-shortened season, the Capitals hadn't lost a game in regulation in which they led after 40 minutes in three years, compiling an impressive 86-0-8 record between 2009-12. Through 16 games this season, they have lost three such games, coincidentally all by 3-2 scores after entering the third period up 2-1: Jan. 29 against the Ottawa Senators, Jan. 31 against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Thursday against the New Jersey Devils.
The consensus among the Capitals in the locker room after practice Friday as to why they have struggled to hold onto leads entering the third period can be boiled down to one word.
"Penalties," Alex Ovechkin said.
"If you look at all of the games, what has cost us most of the time is discipline," Mike Ribeiro added.
Heeding Ribeiro's suggestion, a look at the aforementioned games proves his point. In two of the three games, the game-winning goal scored against Washington has been a power-play goal (Sergei Gonchar for Ottawa, Ilya Kovalchuk for New Jersey). Thursday, the Capitals committed six minor penalties in the third period, which eclipsed the previous season-high of three set during the first two games of the season, both losses to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets.
Also, Washington took five consecutive minors in a span of 7:56, which gave New Jersey two two-man advantages, the second of which Kovalchuk indeed took advantage of.
"It's quite obvious," Joel Ward said. "We're giving up a lot of 5-on-3s. You're not gonna win too many games like that."
Discipline has been a common theme and recurring problem for the Capitals this season and it is costing them in the standings. Hypothetically, if the Capitals would have won the three games in question, they would be 8-7-1 and tied for first place in the Southeast Division. Instead, they are 5-10-1 and the worst team in the NHL.
"It’s very hard [to look at the standings]," head coach Adam Oates admitted Friday. "We knew that we had more power plays than them and I talked about it between periods [Thursday]. 'You know that they’re going to try to even it up, it’s just kind of human nature in the game that the referees like to make it pretty even if possible, so let’s be smart as we go out for the third.' And we made mistakes."
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamVingan and e-mail your story ideas to adamvingan (at) gmail.com.