Though the Washington Capitals have won games more often than they have lost them recently, especially on home ice, the victories have not come without nerves. In four of the Capitals' last five games, they have scored the first goal, an act that often breeds success for Washington.
Three of those four games, the Capitals have won, which, obviously, is the desired result. What has not been desired, however, is the fashion in which they have won those games; Washington has established a lead before waiting back and playing defense instead of attacking with the same vigor than they do at the start.
Predictably, this has allowed other teams to gain momentum and generate a large number of scoring chances. During Friday night's win against Tampa Bay, this recent trend came to a head, as after falling behind 3-0 in the game's opening 25 minutes, took advantage of the Capitals' passive play to score three of the next four goals, including two in the final three and a half minutes, and almost steal a win.
"We miss how many goals in the last five minutes?," asked Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher following that game. "You outshoot your opponent 32-20 in their barn? Can't do much more than that."
For a team that has sky-high expectations, both within the organization and in the fan base, that is not the desired way to win hockey games. In the short-term, the two points is what matters, but allowing teams to fight back into the game is a disturbing trend that the Capitals themselves are eager to buck, because Stanley Cup playoff games are not won like the Caps have won their last two contests.
"When we have the lead there, we sit back a little bit," said Matt Hendricks after the Tampa game. "We shouldn't." Dale Hunter ageed, saying: "You always like to close them out, be sound defensively. When they score late, nobody's going to be happy. It's a win, but everybody wants to be sound."
That is, of course, the long term goal. Because the Capitals are still working into their new defensive system under Hunter, it's been difficult for them to put together full, 60-minute games. The Capitals want to just play sound defensive hockey and keep control of the game, instead of allowing the other team to attack them while attempting to achieve that goal.
"You need to limit those chances," said Karl Alzner. "But in doing that, you allow them to come at you a little bit. It's hard to keep going with that aggressive style, because it can bite you in the end, you have to find a good mix. We've done it in a couple games, but it's tough to do all the time."
Brooks Laich concurred. "It's a very tough thing to do, in today's game, to hold leads," he said. Even two and three goal leads, like we had last night (against Tampa). There are a lot of factors that have to do with it, but we need to just keep getting the lead. I think that's when we play our best."
With two home games coming up against teams below them in the standings before a tough road swing begins, the Capitals need to work out the kinks in their consistency and ability to keep the other team from dominating long stretches of play late.
Because although they may be getting wins out of teams like Tampa and a decimated Pittsburgh group, that won't fly when the Bruins come to town or the Capitals travel to Philadelphia later in the year.
They have the talent to do it. The question is, when?
Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Caps for RtR. Follow him here for all your game and practice update needs.