Jason Brough

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn (55) knocks the puck away as Washington Capitals left wing Marcus Johansson (90) looks for a shot during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
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Slumping Caps need to turn possession into goals

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The Washington Capitals definitely haven’t lacked for shots in their last three games.

But they have lacked goals, which is why they lost all three — 4-2 to Toronto (35 shots), 3-0 to the Islanders (38 shots), and 2-1 in a shootout to Tampa Bay (35 shots).

And so the Caps have been left searching for solutions.

“I think we need to be a little more gritty, go in front of the net instead of all three guys trying to cycle the puck all the time,” veteran center Nicklas Backstrom said, per CSN Mid-Atlantic. “I mean, we need a least one guy in front of the net. Shots, rebounds—that’s the kind of goals that goes in these days. We have to be able to go in front of the net and go to the dirty areas and create second chances.”

He may be right.

Or, maybe it’s just been bad luck.

Either way, the Capitals have once again been a dominant five-on-five possession team this season, with a score-adjusted Corsi that ranks second to only Boston. But a quarter of the way through the schedule, they only have the NHL’s 19th-best offense (2.52 goals per game).

Last season, when they romped to the Presidents’ Trophy, the offense ranked second (3.02).

It hasn’t helped that Washington’s power play hasn’t been near as dangerous, with only 11 goals through 23 games. Last season, the PP had 19 goals by the 23-game mark. 

Individually, the laggards include Evgeny Kuznetsov, with just three goals; Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Justin Williams, with only two each; and John Carlson, with none.

For the record, Alex Ovechkin has 12, so it’s not on him.

Thanks to solid team defense and goaltending, the Caps have still managed a pretty impressive record (13-7-3).

But in case you haven’t noticed, the Metropolitan Division is starting to emerge as the new power grouping in the NHL, with the Columbus Blue Jackets suddenly a threat to take one of the three automatic playoff spots.

division

The Capitals host Jack Eichel and the Sabres tonight. A loss to Buffalo, combined with a Boston win over Florida, and the Caps would actually find themselves outside the playoff picture.

True, Washington would still hold games in hand on most of its competition, so it’s no time to panic.

But it’s a wake-up call all the same. There’s a lot more competition in the Eastern Conference these days. Nothing is guaranteed.

Surging Flames putting early struggles behind them

Calgary Flames' Sean Monahan, right, celebrates with Johnny Gaudreau after a goal against the Anaheim Ducks during the second period of an NHL game in Calgary, Alberta, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Back in October, they had a new coach, a new system, and a new goalie that wasn’t stopping the puck.

But it’s a different story today for the Calgary Flames. They’re one of the hottest teams in the NHL, and they just blasted the Anaheim Ducks by a score of 8-3.

Of course, the big story yesterday was that Johnny Gaudreau was back. He returned from injury ahead of schedule, then scored just 2:09 into last night’s game.

But the Flames were already on a roll without Johnny Hockey, thanks in large part to the goalie who was supposed to be the backup, Chad Johnson, and also to a system that seems to have become more comfortable to play.

“It’s just experience,” said Johnson, per the Flames’ website. “New group. New systems. I said from Day One we were going to have some struggles the first month.”

   Read more: The Flames are still learning their new system, and it shows

Credit to new coach Glen Gulutzan for getting his charges to believe. They started 5-9-1 in their first 15. They’re now 13-13-2, just barely out of a playoff spot after three straight home wins.

“You don’t get too many games in the NHL where you can breathe,” Gulutzan told reporters after last night’s blowout victory. “When it was 6-1 at the end of the second when you’re like, ‘OK. As long as we play good and solid … we can breathe a little bit.’ It was nice. I thought eight-different goal scorers is good for the whole morale. Good for the whole group.”

Khudobin delivered an encouraging performance for the Bruins

Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) and left wing Brad Marchand (63) celebrate with goalie Anton Khudobin after he blocked a shot by Carolina Hurricanes left wing Jeff Skinner to win the game, 2-1, in a shootout during an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
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Anton Khudobin gave the Boston Bruins a much-needed win last night.

He also gave Tuukka Rask a much-welcomed night off.

The Bruins beat the Hurricanes, 2-1, in a shootout at TD Garden. Khudobin made 29 saves, plus two more in the shootout, including the game-decider on Jeff Skinner.

It was an encouraging performance by Khudobin, who returned to the Bruins net for the second time since a conditioning stint in the AHL. It was the first time this season that a Boston goalie other than Rask was credited with a win.

“Very good,” head coach Claude Julien said of Khudobin’s play. “He deserves a lot of accolades tonight, for the way he played, the way he responded after being out such a long time. I think the fact that he went to Providence and played some games there really helped him get back on track. Tonight, he showed that he was ready to play.”

Julien added, “No doubt, there’s a lot of confidence that grew in that dressing room by watching his play and knowing that we’ve got two goaltenders that can play extremely well for us.”

The Bruins did not feel they had good enough backup goaltending the past two seasons, both of which ended outside the playoff picture. And so they bid adieu to Niklas Svedberg and Jonas Gustavsson, bringing Khudobin back into the fold on a two-year contract.

Granted, one win isn’t enough to conclude that Khudobin will be fine. He’s now 1-3-0 with a .902 save percentage, and those numbers could still be much better.

But he’ll be back in there soon enough. The Bruins have 15 more games in December, and Rask isn’t going to play them all.

Pre-game reading: Some advice for Nolan Patrick

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— Up top, Mike Milbury and Keith Jones discuss the Penguins’ two-goalie situation, which GM Jim Rutherford recently admitted was not working as well as he’d hoped.

Nolan Patrick, the likely first overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft, is currently out with an injury. Tyler Benson, a top draft prospect last year who battled injuries, has some advice for Patrick: “I don’t think he should be worrying about the draft. People know what kind of player he can be. He’s played two years in this league already and he’s dominated. I think he should worry about making sure he’s 100 per cent when he comes back.” Benson was eventually selected 32nd overall by the Oilers. (The Province)

— A couple of weeks ago, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk got mad at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper after an editorial called on him to push for an outdoor game at TD Place. Yada, yada, yada, Melynk is now pushing for an outdoor game at TD Place. (Ottawa Sun)

Hampus Lindholm has been good defensively in his return to the Anaheim Ducks, but with only two assists in his first 11 games, you have to think he’ll want to start contributing more to the offense soon. Lindholm is now the highest-paid defenseman on his team, with a cap hit just over $5 million. And if the Ducks have to trade Cam Fowler at any point, they’ll need Lindholm’s offense even more. That’s just the pressure that comes with a big contract. We’ll see how he fares. (OC Register)

— In 2015-16, no Canadian teams made the NHL playoffs for the first time since 1969-70. So, how are things looking this season? Long story short, quite a bit better. Three of the seven Canadian teams are currently in a playoff spot, and the other four aren’t out of it yet. (TSN)

— What a surprise, the Winnipeg Jets hurt themselves with too many penalties last night against Edmonton. “Those early penalties and how much time we spent in the box early on killed us,” said Bryan Little. “Our PK couldn’t get it done.” This has been a problem for way too long now. Over the last three seasons combined, the Jets have gone shorthanded 686 times, the most in the NHL. Clearly, they aren’t good enough to play with such poor discipline, so perhaps they should figure it out. (Winnipeg Sun)

Enjoy the games!

Desjardins rejects notion the Canucks are playing a ‘passive’ structure

Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Kesler, left, is checked to the ice by Vancouver Canucks' Erik Gudbranson (44) in front of goalie Ryan Miller as Luca Sbisa, right, of Italy, defends during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Vancouver, British Columba. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
AP

The Vancouver Canucks have played 24 games this season. They’ve opened the scoring just six times.

So in 75 percent of their games they’ve trailed 1-0.

In fact, of all 30 teams in the NHL, no team has surrendered the first goal in a higher percentage of its games. Colorado (73%) and Ottawa (71%) are close, but Vancouver leads the way. And “losing 1-0” is not a category any team wants to lead.

So what’s the problem? Why all the slow starts? One theory — beyond the simple explanation that the Canucks just aren’t very good — involves their much-ballyhooed defensive structure. Is it possible it’s too defensive? Too passive? Too much waiting for the other team to make a mistake, and not enough getting after it?

Because in last night’s 3-1 loss to Anaheim, the Canucks didn’t register their first shot until halfway through the first period. The Ducks didn’t open the scoring until the second, but they had their chances. The Canucks had practically none, until they were losing that is.

After the game, head coach Willie Desjardins refused to blame the structure for the slow start.

“There’s nothing passive about our defense,” he said. “I don’t think we moved the puck great. I don’t think we were transitioning it real well. Our team has to be a transition team. We’ve got to turn pucks over, we’ve got to transition, and we’ve got to get to the net.”

The Canucks, to be fair, were missing two of their best defensemen in Alex Edler and Chris Tanev, and that meant bigger minutes for the likes of Luca Sbisa, who was charged with three giveaways on the night.

So Desjardins wasn’t wrong in his assessment. The Canucks did have all sorts of trouble breaking through the Ducks’ forecheck, especially in the first period.

“They took charge of that game. They had segments of the game when they were in our end,” said the coach. “The one thing that will happen if a team’s in your end, they’ll wear you down, so every time you come out you’re changing, and then you’re in a bad cycle.”

For the Canucks, the first period was one long, bad cycle.

Sbisa, for his part, couldn’t say why the Canucks came out of the gates so tentatively, but he did concede it was a “very disappointing” loss.

“I don’t know what it was,” he said. “We didn’t have that jump, that intensity that you need, especially against the Ducks, a big, heavy team. You’ve got to be ready to battle.”

The Canucks better be a lot more ready to battle Saturday when the Toronto Maple Leafs pay a visit to Rogers Arena. The Leafs smoked them, 6-3, in their last meeting on Nov. 5 at Air Canada Centre.

“Our focus is on our effort and it has to be better tomorrow than it was last night,” Desjardins said this morning. “I’m not worried about if we’ll be ready.”

Related: Gudbranson threatened Martin in a ‘fit of rage,’ didn’t really mean what he said