NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Lars Eller stood in front of his dressing room stall at Bridgestone Arena after the Washington Capitals’ third straight loss Thursday night and laid out the team’s shortcomings. It was fairly simple, Eller began, as his frustrated yet matter-of-fact tone cut through a silent room.
“When you have a lead going into the third, you have to expect the other team to push, and I think we failed to match the intensity,” Eller said following the 6-5 loss to the Nashville Predators. “It’s just we’re slowing down a little bit, and it’s just costing us. We talked about it going out to the period. It’s not like we aren’t unaware. We just aren’t doing it.”
For the third straight game, the Capitals have wasted a lead entering the third period. In two of the three, Washington has let two-goal leads slip away — once Thursday night and the other in the team’s home opener in a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina.
Eller put the third-period collapses on a physical edge the team is losing.
“Physically we are just a step behind, a step too slow,” Eller said. “That’s how I see it ... It’s a couple of percent, and then it just snowballs.”
Nicklas Backstrom, who played his 900th NHL game Thursday, said the problem is execution within the Capitals’ system, which underwent tweaks in the offseason. Forward T.J. Oshie also said the system takes all five players on the ice to work and can falter rapidly otherwise. The team is missing reads and assignments in the third, and for Oshie, each blown lead the past three games has come with different difficulties.
Against Dallas, Oshie said the mistakes were very offensive-driven, trying plays the Capitals “shouldn’t have been trying,” with players trying to hold onto the puck a little bit more and believing they could get it done by themselves.
“It’s our own mistakes ... it’s all about execution I think,” Backstrom said. “That is what it comes down to. I think all of us in here know we can play better, know we can help each other out a little more. Obviously not the best scenario to lose three games in a row having the lead going into the third.”
Backstrom said the Capitals were too complacent and too passive, waiting for their opponents to come back and strike at them instead of continuing to stay aggressive and win the battles. Eller said the team has talked about it repeatedly, including during Thursday night’s second intermission.
“It’s extremely frustrating, Eller said. “We feel like the last three games we probably should have had in the bag, playing well for the majority of those games.”
Capitals coach Todd Reirden said it hasn’t been the same players making the mistakes, but rather a variety of players making small but costly errors.,
Reirden once again emphasized the team is still trying to find line combinations that work. On Thursday night, offseason pickup Brendan Leipsictook some shifts on the second line. The forward lines shuffled again in the third period, when Tom Wilson had to leave the game to be evaluated.
“We’re learning how to win and learning how to lose with the players in our room,” Reirden said.
The absence of defenseman Michal Kempny (hamstring) Thursday night was noticeable. While John Carlson has held his own on the top pairing, scoring one goal and tallying seven assists over five games, the six-man unit has struggled. There is no update on Kempny’s status, but he has not been ruled out for Saturday’s contest against Dallas.
“That’s the people that settle and control and are in charge of puck management and control in the game late in it and we have quite a different look than last year or even two years ago so it’s part of growth as a team,” Reirden said of the blue line.
So what now? The Capitals are headed to Dallas to play their sixth game of the season with a 2-1-2 record, with three games players are adamant they let slip away. For captain Alex Ovechkin, it’s all about looking ahead.
“Just move on,” Ovechkin said. “Obviously it is a hard loss, but I think we deserve at least a point, but like I said, we have to manage the puck right; we have to figure out how to play more safe. We got two-goal lead, and we blow it away. It’s hard, but nothing we can do right now, just learn and move forward.”