Earlier this season, Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich recalled a message conveyed by former coach Bruce Boudreau. The NHL's best teams, Boudreau would say, enjoyed at least three seven-game winning streaks per season, asserting their dominance and solidifying their position.
The Capitals prepared for the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday while in possession of their sixth winning streak of three games, and for the sixth time they failed to extend it to four. In a spiritless 3-1 loss that coach Barry Trotz described as "un-Capital-like," Washington sputtered offensively, mustering a season-low 14 shots, its fewest in nearly four years.
“I think that’s a consistency thing," Laich said. "I think that’s execution and consistency. Teams that can put together eight or nine games means they're doing things right every night. I think if you win three, you probably play well in two of those and maybe one of those you sneak by and then your bad habits creep back into your game.
"Tonight we were in the hockey game even though we didn’t play our best, we’re in the hockey game at 40 minutes. Chance to close a team out, really stomp on them, and it’s disappointing not to rise above and come out with a win.”
There were few signs of erosion during Washington's latest three-game run, which started with a 4-0 whupping of the Los Angeles Kings last Tuesday, arguably its most thorough performance of the season. A 2-1 win against the Ottawa Senators followed Thursday, the Capitals' second win and first since Nov. 7 when allowing the first goal. They then neutralized the NHL-leading Anaheim Ducks on Friday in an impromptu start from goaltender Philipp Grubauer.
Against the Flyers, it took 12 minutes for the Capitals to attempt their first shot of the game, a harmless backhander by Nicklas Backstrom from the blue line. The power play malfunctioned, scoring once on three shots in six total opportunities. Philadelphia's penalty-killing unit, by comparison, took two shots. According to Japers' Rink, Washington had not lost a game with at least a plus-5 power-play differential since Oct. 5, 2006.
“You can’t get shots if you miss the net, and you can’t get shots if you don’t get pucks to the next level,” Trotz said. “We turned a lot of pucks over in the neutral zone, and you’re not going to get any shots. There wasn’t enough urgency in our dressing room tonight. Very disappointing.”
A much-needed practice is scheduled for Monday before the Capitals embark on a four-game road trip that will take them and their fathers to California, where one of the league's most daunting gauntlets awaits against the San Jose Sharks, Kings and Ducks.
Since Dec. 1, the Capitals, one of five teams without at least a four-game winning streak this season, have earned points in 24 of their 31 games, including a 14-1-4 stretch that entrenched them in the Stanley Cup Playoff race.
Even without the benefit of a lengthy run, a potential Metropolitan Division title is certainly within reach.
"Obviously, you want to have as many wins in a row as possible," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It’s just kind of a weird coincidence that we can’t get past that. If we can keep going 3-1, 3-1, 3-1, I don’t think anybody would be upset with that. We’ve just got to take advantage of the opportunities we have."
Some, though, see the lack of a extended winning streak as something to overcome.
"Maybe we get a little bit, without even knowing it, just mentally relaxed," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "We win a couple games, we start feeling good and maybe we just kind of ease up a little bit. That's a challenge for us."
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