Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson believes it wasn’t only last season’s Stanley Cup success, but also years of failing, that gives his team a reasonable shot at being repeat champions.
With the Capitals sputtering lately, Carlson has a collection of bad playoff memories to remind him what the team needs to do to return to the playing level they were at last spring.
“When you have that swagger you can get over stuff a lot quicker,” Carlson, a first-time All-Star, told USA TODAY Sports last week. “In a playoff series, it seems like you really need to shelve whatever happened in the game before and start fresh.”
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What the Capitals, who are 27-17-6 and second in the Metropolitan Division, have to get over are some bad defensive habits that have led to a seven-game losing streak heading into the All-Star break.
How poorly have the Capitals played of late?
►They’ve given up six or more goals four times in the last five games.
►They’ve scored one or no goals in three of the seven losses.
►Forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, a force in last season’s playoffs, has two goals in the past 24 games.
►Goalie Braden Holtby has a 3.04 goals-against average. He has given up 16 goals on the last 90 shots he has faced.
More columns: Read more commentary from columnist Kevin Allen
The Capitals don’t seem to have the same attention to detail they had last spring when won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
The question people are asking is whether the team’s struggles reflect a case of Stanley Cup hangover or the loss of coach Barry Trotz, the architect of last year’s successful playoff run. With his contract expiring, Trotz left the team last summer and agreed to coach the New York Islanders. They have the NHL’s sixth-best record.
The Capitals’ recent problems can’t be blamed on an adjustment to a new coach because Todd Reirden was an associate coach under Trotz. This isn’t a case of a coach dramatically changing the way the Capitals do business on the ice. The players know what must be done. They just aren’t executing.
The recent swoon can’t be blamed on Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who has scored 37 goals. At 33, he is on pace for more than 60 goals. He has eight goals and 12 points in Washington’s 12 January games.
According to Carlson, the key is simply rediscovering their push-back. He says “mental strength” is paramount.
“In (past years) it seemed like one bad thing wouldn’t go our way and we’d pile on with the next game,” Carlson said. “I remember a lot of being up 3-1 (in a series), being up 3-2 and lose one game and I didn’t like our responses the following game. I think last year we put an end to that.”
Trotz changed the Capitals’ attitude even more than their defensive scheme.
“It was more about being aggressive,” Carlson said. “When things were going our way, we would play ourselves into a good position in the game, a good position in the series.”
The Caps, who have advanced to the playoffs in 10 of the past 11 seasons, came to realize they were trying not to lose, more than they were trying to win.
“We were a lot more aggressive last year than we were in year’s past,” Carlson said. That carried us through those scenarios that we used to get stumped on.”
This is on the players. They won’t have Ovechkin for a game when they come from the All-Star break and bye week because he has chosen to sit out the All-Star Game. The penalty is sitting out one regular-season game directly before or after the break.
“We’d like to be playing a lot better right now,” Carlson admits, adding “(But) I think the confidence is there and that’s what carries you through tough times toward the end of the season and playoffs.”