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WASHINGTON – Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals are specializing in slow starts — to games and to seasons.
Heading into Saturday against the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington is 2-5, and that includes only one regulation victory. There are various things going wrong, and one that stands out is that the Capitals are being outscored 9-4 in first periods.
"We had higher expectations for ourselves," forward Troy Brouwer said.
After their most recent setback, a 2-0 loss to Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers on Wednesday night, the Capitals have allowed 24 goals, while scoring 16. That's a none-too-terrific combination of poor on defense and so-so on offense.
"If we play like that, we're not going to win games. It's simple as that. We played all right in the third, but that's too late," goalie Braden Holtby said after giving up a pair of goals in less than two minutes against New York during the second period, when Washington was outshot 21-6. "The preparation in this locker room has to get better."
Like Brouwer, Holtby was among those who were so certain Washington would not endure another early stretch of struggling the way it did last season, Adam Oates' first as an NHL head coach.
Following the lockout, Washington won one of its first 11 games, putting itself in a hole that was escaped thanks to a late-season surge led by Ovechkin, who finished with an NHL-high 32 goals and a third league MVP award. He's been scoring regularly so far — six goals in the first six games, and six power-play points in that span, too — but it hasn't translated into consistent results for the team.
While the power play has been performing well — producing eight goals in 22 chances until an 0-for-4 night against the Rangers — Washington has managed a grand total of only eight even-strength goals.
"We have our chances out there and we just, to be honest with you, can't score," Ovechkin said after taking a game-high eight shots against the Rangers. "That's a big difference right now and it's key right now for us."
So why can't the Capitals get the puck in the net during even-strength play?
"We're coming in and we're 1-and-done," Brouwer said. "We're getting a shot off the rush and no second and third opportunities, no puck recoveries, and we're unable to sustain a whole lot of pressure in the offensive zone."
Truth is, there's a litany of issues at the moment, and it's not merely about failing to score.
There's also been sloppy passing, bad organization at the defensive end, and a real inability to simply get the puck out of their own zone. Plus, Holtby has not exactly been helping mask the problems: He has a .899 save percentage and 3.28 goals-against average.
"Defensively, it's like a fire drill in there," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We're not doing a good enough job at our system, what we're supposed to do. And when we don't, we're leaving a guy in front, we're getting beat out of the corner."
A moment later, he described a more far-reaching problem.
"I don't feel like we're a very tough team to play against right now," Alzner said. "I don't feel like we've played very gritty, and that's the key, I think, for every team to be successful."
Last season's difficulties were blamed on the abbreviated training camp and zero exhibition games, limiting the time and opportunities to learn Oates' system.
No such excuse this time around.
"I don't think it's what we expected to start, but it's where we are," Oates said, "and we've got to figure out a way to dig ourselves out."
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