RUSSELL: Five reasons why the Caps are struggling

Chris Russell
February 05, 2019 - 9:44 am

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports


January was unkind to the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. They ended the month — which led into the NHL All-Star Break and the team's bye week — with a seven-game losing streak. 

Overall in the first month of 2019, they were 3-7-2. 

February offered a bit of promise after a last-minute win without Alex Ovechkin Friday night against the Calgary Flames, the best team in the Western Conference. 

However, Super Bowl Sunday featured a matinee loss to a Bruins team the Capitals had beaten 14 consecutive times and had not lost to since Adam Oates was their head coach almost five years ago. 

So what's wrong with the Caps? The list is lengthy. 

1. Penalties: The Caps lead the NHL in minor penalties as of Monday's action with 191. 

"The penalty issues continue to go on and it keeps setting us back," Caps general manager Brian MacLellan told reporters Monday. "We're not happy about that. Some guys keep continually taking minor penalties in the offensive zone."

On Sunday, during the mostly listless 1-0 loss to the Bruins, Dimitrij Jaskin was called for hooking in the Bruins zone during the first period. Evgeny Kuznetsov was called for slashing in the neutral zone soon after the Caps had killed off Jaskin's infraction. It was a soft call much like Jaskin's, and even though the Caps killed it off, Boston dominated zone time. 

Soon after, Kuznetsov and Jaskin were both benched for almost the entire remainder of the period. T.J. Oshie also took a penalty, this one in the offensive zone, while the Caps were on a power play late in the third period. 

First-year head coach Todd Reirden had a larger problem with the penalties at 5-on-5 (Jaskin, Kuznetsov) as opposed to Oshie's infraction, even though a strong argument can be made that Oshie's was more costly.  

"The ramification of what happened 5-on-5 — we can't have it ruin our power play after. That's just my belief and how you do it," Reirden told reporters Monday. "You game plan a certain way for special teams situations, and that was why the situation was dealt with, like it was with Kuznetsov. Every situation's a little bit different. That's just how I chose to deal with the first ones."

2. Penalty Kill: Because the Caps are always in the box, they've had plenty of chances to kill penalties. Sometimes they do it pretty well. Then there's all the other times, which put them at only a 77.9% penalty kill percentage, 24th in the league. 

The only teams that are worse? The New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Colorado Avalanche, Philadelphia Flyers, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks. 

3. Face-offs: The Capitals are dead last in the NHL in face-offs won at 46%. The top team is the Flyers at 56.3% and they are not a good team, so success in this area doesn't guarantee wins, but it sure does help. 

Why? Puck possession in both zones, which leads to or helps control scoring chances. 

Last year, during the regular season, the Caps were at 50.4%, 13th in the NHL. During the Stanley Cup run, they were only at 49.1 %, which is what the Caps can point to as a measure of defense. 

It's ironic that the Caps are statistically as bad as they are with Jay Beagle returning to Capital One Arena with his new team, the Vancouver Canucks, on Tuesday. 

Last year, Beagle won 58.52% of his face-offs in the regular season. In the playoffs, he won 60.13% on the way to a championship.  In his first year in Vancouver, Beagle is at 52.37%. 

4. Turnovers: The Capitals have been extremely sloppy with the puck, especially in the offensive zone during this stretch. Alex Ovechkin had a few mistakes Sunday in his first game in nearly two weeks. It's been both defensemen and forwards, which has led to scoring chances and too many easy goals for opponents in the new year. 

Entering Tuesday, the Capitals are credited officially with 616 giveaways by the NHL, which is ninth highest in the league. That official statistic does not count instances where the puck is misplayed, so the problem is more egregious than that. 

5. Todd Reirden: The jury is still out, as it should be, on Reirden as a head coach after replacing Barry Trotz following the Stanley Cup run. 

Surely the Caps and MacLellan had to know there would be growing pains. It's easy to blame Reirden for everything, and perhaps he is a bit over-matched at this point, but he will ultimately be judged just like Trotz was. It's what you do from April to June that matters the most. 

Can he get the job done? "I don't know. We'll find out," MacLellan told the Washington Post's Barry Svrluga on Monday. 

The truth is this: Nobody knows. It was a risk at the time, and remains as such. 

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