The game of hockey is constantly changing and evolving, but there is one element that has remained constant over the game’s existence: If you don’t score, you can’t win. That’s the story of the Caps’ Thursday night game with the New York Islanders at Capital One Arena, a 3-0 setback for Washington.
The Isles scored on their first shift and first shot of the game, a point shot from Ryan Pulock just 22 seconds after the opening puck drop. That turned out to be all the offense required by veteran New York netminder Semyon Varlamov, who turned aside all 32 shots he faced to record his second shutout of the season – in just three starts – and the 40Th of his NHL career. In 22 career starts against the Capitals – the team that drafted him in the first round in 2006 – Varlamov has eight wins, but three of them have been whitewashes.
“I expect it’s going to be a hard game any time you play against Washington,” says Varlamov. “A skilled team with the best player in the world, you expect it to be a tough game. We came out pretty strong, scored right away, and then we didn’t want to give up a goal in the first 10 minutes.”
The Islanders did quite a bit better than that.
The first period was an odd one. The Caps played the way they wanted to play; they had the better of puck possession and they played with pace, they had two full power plays, and they only allowed two shots on net. But they also went to the room at the first intermission looking up at a 2-0 deficit, as New York scored on each of its two first-period shots on net.
Simon Holmstrom converted a Hudson Fasching feed on a 2-on-1 rush midway through the first frame, doubling the Isles’ lead to 2-0 at 10:41.
Again in the second period, the Caps dominated possession, scoring chances and other positive elements of the game, but the hole got a goal deeper when Brock Nelson pushed a shot through Caps’ goalie Darcy Kuemper at 11:15 of the second.
Washington’s penalty kill was excellent again, the Caps’ youthful bottom six more than held its own, and they did a lot of good things with and without the puck. But we’re into November now, and this script is a bit too familiar. Too many times in the young season, the Caps have failed to provide Kuemper with the offensive support needed to win hockey games. In his seven starts this season, the Caps have scored a total of 10 goals.
Only twice in nine games this season have the Caps managed to score more than two goals in the 60 minutes of regulation, and they needed an empty-netter to pull it off on the second of those occasions. The team’s scoring woes are more pronounced at home, where they’ve been blanked twice in six games this season, and they’ve totaled eight goals – including the aforementioned empty-netter – in half a dozen games.
And for the fourth time in their last five games, the Caps had a goal taken off the board via an opposing coach’s challenge. TJ Oshie briefly appeared to have broken Varlamov’s shutout spell at 9:02 of the third when Hardy Häman Aktell’s shot glanced off the veteran winger and into the net. But the Isles challenged the goal, which was overturned when it was determined that Washington’s TJ Oshie had a significant presence in the crease and made incidental contact with goaltender Semyon Varlamov that impaired his ability to play his position in the crease prior to the goal. (Italics indicate official “war room” explanation.)
“I think we can generate more offense,” says Oshie. “I think there are still a lot of pucks that are just rolling, and saucer passes that are bouncing off the ice. It doesn’t help that we’re at home a lot, but we’ve just got to clean up, focus a little bit more. Take an extra second to gather the puck, things like that.
“We did a lot of good things, so you can’t be mad at our full 60 [minutes] tonight. We’ve got to find a way to keep those first couple out of the net, and then find a way to sneak a couple by the opposing goaltenders.”
For Caps’ coach Spencer Carbery, the shots and chances and looks are all positives. But at this stage of the season, he needs and wants to see much more.
“Obviously it’s difficult to generate scoring chances,” says Carbery. “But I didn’t feel like, ‘Gosh, we can’t get anything going right now.’ I felt like we had a lot going, and again, it just hasn’t clicked for us yet this year. The easy solution is this: ‘Oh, we’re getting good looks. Oh, we’re doing all these things.’ That’s important, absolutely. So let’s continue to look at those things, emphasize those things, talk about those things. But you can’t just keep chalking it up to, ‘Oh, at some point [we’ll score]. We’re in game nine, and we’re not scoring 5-on-5 at all.
“That’s not a small sample size. That’s not two games, that’s not three games, that’s nine games. So other than the New Jersey game [a 6-4 win], you could say we are not finishing, not finding ways to do all those things I described – screen and tips, ugly goals, rebounds, off a guy’s shin pads. The first goal New York scores, I don’t know, I’m trying to recall if we have one of those type of goals this year, in nine games, 27 periods.”
“Those are the things that we have to get to, and we have to understand that we have to do a better job of that. So we have to get to work on that.”
The Caps’ next chance to work on those things comes Saturday night when Columbus makes its first visit of the season.