The Washington Capitals have played with fire in the past, and Sunday night, they finally got burned. Going into the final period with a two goal lead, the team allowed the Philadelphia Flyers to score three unanswered goals to steal the win. Washington gave up the game-tying goal with just over a minute remaining in the game, then allowed Vincent Lecavalier to score the game-winner in overtime. The result serves as just another example of a problem that the Capitals have struggled with for years: They lack the killer instinct needed to put games away.
Now that seems like an odd thing to say about a team that, until this year, has generally been at or near the top of their conference for the past half a decade. The team often finishes with over 100 points in the standings, easily making the playoffs most years. But those results can be misleading, usually the result of a good team taking advantage of a bad division, while struggling to compete with the good teams on the schedule. And Washington’s results in the playoffs speak for themselves. Never making it past the second round, and often time losing to lower-ranked teams in seven game series.
A two-goal lead has been called “the most dangerous lead” in hockey. It presents a false sense of security in the game, often times causing the leading team to relax their play. That relaxed play, combined with a desperate opponent, usually allows the opponent to find their way back into a game that, for all intents and purposes, should have been over. Lately, no team has experienced the hard truth to that statement than the Capitals. In addition to the blown lead against the Flyers, the team also lost a two-goal lead in the third period to the Florida Panthers just a few days before. Washington won that game, but it required heroics by Alexander Ovechkin to get it done. Washington also had a 3-0 lead over the Boston Bruins on Saturday, a lead that Boston reduced to one goal before they were able to right the ship.
The results are starting to affect the mindset of the Capitals players. When a pattern begins to repeat itself in this manner, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy: The players lose a lead because they have lost similar leads in the past and have no confidence in their ability to prevent it from happening again. Forward Eric Fehr said after the Flyers game that the team “almost doesn’t want a two-goal lead with the way we’re playing.” He added that, in this league, games are never over when you think they are and his team should have learned that by now. Forward Joel Ward concurred, saying that even when his team is up, they should play desperate, “just wanting to finish them off.” It is a killer instinct needed in the National Hockey League (NHL), and one that the Capitals struggle to find.
Washington’s self-destruction in Sunday night’s game was helped along by a hit from young defenseman, Dmitry Orlov. Orlov had a productive night, scoring the first goal of the game and the goal that put the Capitals up 4-2. However, this made him a target for the Flyers in the third period, and after the defenseman was laid out by a massive, clean check, he lost his cool. As seen above, Orlov checked Flyers forward Brayden Schenn facefirst into the boards, making no attempt to let up on the hit or play the puck. Players, from a very young age, are taught to instinctively let up on hits where the opposing player’s jersey numbers are facing them, but it was one lesson that Orlov forgot in the heat of the moment. He was given a five-minute major penalty, allowing the Flyers to score a goal that helped them eventually overcome the two goal deficit. Orlov also faces a hearing with the NHL’s Disciplinary Committee, where it is expected that he will receive a multi-game suspension for the hit.
Orlov’s hit was just one incident of many where the Capitals have lost games due to unintentionally shooting themselves in the foot. In the past, the team was talented enough to overcome these games and still make the playoffs with ease. But this year, they find themselves in a dogfight with multiple other teams for a playoff spot. The Philadelphia Flyers are one of those teams. The Capitals missed their chance to put away the Flyers on Sunday, but when the two teams meet again on Wednesday night, Washington is hoping the results will be different. If they continue to struggle to find their killer instinct, however, the results will remain the same.
This article is one in a series, provided daily, which provides coverage, analysis and predictions for NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner