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Better defense not equaling wins for Capitals yet

by Adam Vingan

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz hasn't sacrificed his offensive talent for stouter defense through 12 games, as he promised when hired in May.

Washington is averaging 3.08 goals per game and allowing 25.2 shots. Seven times this season, the Capitals have held an opponent to 25 or fewer shots, something they did 12 times in two seasons under former coach Adam Oates. The Capitals are also surrendering about 10 fewer 5-on-5 shot attempts per 60 minutes than they did last season, according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com.

That vast defensive improvement, though, hasn't led to early-season success.

The Capitals enter a preview of the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic against the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday (8:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US) embroiled in a five-game losing streak.

"The only thing that really matters in the game, in pro hockey, are the numbers on the scoreboard, and we're not winning those," Trotz said. "But the numbers tell you that if you have the puck more … it's not rocket science, but it is mathematical odds. And if you go by the mathematical odds, if we're doing all those things better, then we should have better results.

"There's times where the math doesn't add up, and this is one of those stretches where the math is not adding up."

Washington's 1-5-1 stretch, which began with a 3-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 22, presents an interesting case study in the marriage between the eye test and advanced statistics.

In their past seven games, the Capitals' 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage in close situations, defined as instances when the score is within one goal in the first and second periods or tied in the third period or overtime, is 55.06, according to war-on-ice.com. Such strong puck possession suggests an eventual turnaround.

Meanwhile, the Capitals defensive-zone coverage lately has featured breakdowns and turnovers that have contributed to 26 goals-against in the past seven games. An .854 overall save percentage over that span hasn't helped either.

"We're playing the right way, we're doing the right things, and then there's one or two mistakes I think every game that cost us goals," Capitals forward Marcus Johansson said. "There's always going to be mistakes, but right now, it's just going against us. Every time we make a mistake, it feels like it ends up in the back of our net."

Some of it has simply been rotten luck, exemplified by Calgary Flames forward Markus Granlund's game-tying goal in the Capitals' 4-3 overtime loss to the Flames on Tuesday. Johansson intercepted Granlund's centering pass from behind the net, but his clearing attempt struck Troy Brouwer's right skate and caromed past Braden Holtby.

There's also an ongoing acclimation to a more aggressive mindset in the defensive zone that leaves the Capitals vulnerable if something breaks down.

"I think we're pressuring more than a lot of guys here are used to," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "While we're having the puck more, other teams feel like they don't have as much space and we spend less time in our own zone, we give up fewer shots, we are more aggressive. Sometimes a bounce happens or sometimes they make a good play and then they get a better look, a better scoring chance. Maybe that could have something to do with it.

"Until guys get just more and more comfortable with how we're going to pressure and how we're going to play more aggressive, we might go through some growing pains like this."

Understandably frustrated, the Capitals have attempted to find solace in their overall effort, knowing that things have a way of evening out eventually.

"We're in a process of building a team and we're going to go through some rough patches, and how we react through those rough patches will say a lot about us," Trotz said. "We go through a rough patch, we get stronger and stay with it, and on the other hand we'll be a lot better. I think that's how you deal with adversity."

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