Capitals Preaching Patience On Even-Strength Play

The Philadelphia Flyers grabbed NHL headlines Monday when they fired head coach Peter Laviolette after following an uninspiring 2012-13 season with an equally-uninspiring 0-3-0 start, the earliest dismissal to start a season in League history.

The Flyers, who under Laviolette utilized a system that was (or was meant to be) aggressive, up-tempo and forecheck-heavy, slogged through the first week of the schedule, scoring just three combined goals on 73 shots. Only one of those goals came at even strength, and Philadelphia's 2.4% shooting percentage at 5-on-5 is the worst in the NHL among teams that have played more than one game. 

"It just came to that point," general manager Paul Holmgren told reporters, "where I had a gut feeling on my part where I felt we needed a change."

That predicament sounds vaguely familar. The Washington Capitals, who under head coach Adam Oates also happen to utilize a system that is aggressive, up-tempo and forecheck-heavy, are struggling to score at even strength through three games as well. While Washington has picked up where it left off on the power play last season with a League-high six goals, even-strength scoring is lagging behind as the Capitals only have three 5-on-5 goals on 64 shots so far.

That is where the similarities end, though. While panic ultimately set in in Philadelphia, the Capitals returned to practice Monday in Arlington skating on the same lines as they have been. While Oates would not be blamed -- and perhaps even lauded by some portions of the fan base -- for having a Holmgren-esque gut feeling in regards to his forward combinations, he is preaching patience as his team prepares for a five-game homestand beginning Thursday.

"Obviously, we're making mistakes at times in certain areas," Oates said. "I thought the other night [a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars Saturday], there were moments where we turned it over too many times, trying to get cute instead of making the obvious play and get it deep and try to wear them out, which is part of the plan. But then we did it at times, and we looked like a pretty good team and we had some good chances.

“Five-on-five hockey’s tough to score. You’ve got to wait for your turns. I think once everyone gets a couple goals, things will seem a little easier. I think every team is playing better and better D, the goaltending’s better, and [on five-on-five] the ice seems so clogged up. It’s very difficult.”

As Oates alluded to, the Capitals have been turnover-prone early, and their lack of even-strength cohesion starts in their defensive zone, where failed breakout passes and clearing attempts are stunting forward momentum before it can even be gained. 

"We're not making smart plays," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "I think we're just panicking. We want to get the puck out right away and because of that, we're chasing pucks in the neutral zone. We spend half the game skating after the puck rather than possessing the puck, which is what our team should be doing as a puck-possession team. That's what we want to be doing. We've got to get a little bit more comfortable in our D-zone, be able to make those outlet passes. It starts with our D-men, it finishes with our forwards being able to handle passes and being able to make the second pass and get out of our zone cleanly."

With three days of practice between games, likely their longest such stretch until January, Oates plans to use the time to "set up structurally what we're trying to do and confirm our habits," analyzing video and talking to players individually. Oates said Monday that "nothing's glaring" in regards to any particular areas that need improvement, but his players know that they cannot simply rely on their lethal power play to carry them throughout the season.

“We can’t wait for the power play all the time, that’s what we’ve been talking about and we just have to make changes in the five-on-five game,” right wing Alex Ovechkin said. “Of course we still have chances to score goals, but we have to use it, we have to score.”

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