Caps Need to Start Getting Defensive

Posted April 20, 2017

Matt Niskanen (Caps Outsider)

Game four is in the books with the Capitals beating the Leafs 5-4 in regulation – the first game of this series not decided in overtime. After losing back-to-back games in overtime, a regulation win for the Capitals is a welcome change in pace as they head back to Washington for game five with the series tied.

But while the win itself is positive, the struggle against the young Leafs team isn’t lost on the score sheet. The Caps can score, whether it’s Alex Ovechkin or the (perhaps less obvious) Tom Wilson, who both lead the team with three goals, and they’re finding chances through the pressure coming from the Leafs skaters. However, the Leafs have found their own chances which is where the issue lies.

In the past, the Capitals have struggled with defensive liabilities. I’ll be the first to admit that despite loving Mike Green and his scoring abilities, he had a tendency to leave the Caps vulnerable at times. This was easily seen by looking at the scoresheet, particularly during losing streaks when scoring hadn’t dropped off but goals against had risen.

It’s easy to fault the goalie any time you see a team letting in as many goals as they’re scoring, but defensemen – and skaters in general – shouldn’t be overlooked. While the system doesn’t exactly mirror the problems from the Green era, they should take the chance to look critically at their weaknesses before going into game five.

It’s not 2007 anymore and it’s fair to say there’s a lot more pressure on the Capitals now, with a history of first and second round losses plaguing the undeniably talented team. A lot has changed in recent years, from coaches to players and even general managers, but their recent performance is leaving behind a familiar taste in the mouths of the most anxious Caps fans.

Though many were optimistic about the idea of facing the rookie squad presented by the Leafs this season, the Leafs are fast, young, and have a sturdy, chippy bunch to even things out defensively. In other words, Toronto’s team has performed better than expected and that puts a new pressure onto the Capitals. That doesn’t mean the Caps can’t take advantage of the Leafs’ lack of experience, but they must work on tightening their defense.

Keeping the puck away from the Leafs and taking fewer penalties should be a main priority for the rest of this series. Though both teams have taken their share of penalties and giveaways, the Caps have to be better with unnecessary penalties if they want to win. This includes Lars Eller, whose game 3 penalty with under a minute in the third led to the Leafs PP goal in OT. Eller isn’t the only player to take a bad penalty either; even Braden Holtby is on the guilty list with an overtime slashing penalty in game 2, which went into double overtime and also ended in a loss.

Apart from wins and losses, the major problem with so many overtime games early on in the playoffs are the extra minutes adding up. Tired players make mistakes, so ending games in 60 minutes is just as important to make sure they can bounce back as the playoffs continue. The good news is that the series hasn’t come down to lucky bounces and the Caps aren’t playing poorly. They do, of course, need to clean things up in order to defend their Presidents’ Trophy title, out-play the Leafs, and hold onto a lead until the end.