28 Goals in the first pe­riod this sea­son for the Cap­i­tals, tied with con­fer­ence-worst New Jersey and Ed­mon­ton for the fewest in the NHL.

Washington has scored first in only five of its last 20 games

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY KATIE CAR­RERA car­rerak@wash­post.com

The Ot­tawa Sen­a­tors visit the Washington Cap­i­tals on Sun­day des­per­ate to win af­ter drop­ping seven of their pre­vi­ous eight con­tests. The home team, owner of a three-game los­ing streak, is not in­clined to of­fer much sym­pa­thy.

For the Cap­i­tals, the key to end­ing their own strug­gles and stay­ing afloat inthe tight East­ern Con­fer­ence stand­ings may lie in how well they start the game.

Over the past six weeks, a stretch dat­ing back to a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 1, the Cap­i­tal shave de­vel­oped a dan­ger­ous habit of fall­ing be­hind early. They’ve scored first in only five of their past 20 games and have looked un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally ten­ta­tive of­ten, most re­cently in the three con­sec­u­tive losses head­ing into this meet­ing with Ot­tawa.

“For what­ever rea­son, we’re wait­ing for the other team to dic­tate what we have to do in­stead of ini­ti­at­ing the game plan,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Ob­vi­ously [get­ting off to bet­ter starts is] what we have to start do­ing. It’s a lot eas­ier said than done.”

In a 4-2 loss to league-lead­ing Van­cou­ver Fri­day, de­spite scor­ing the first goal for the first time in six games, Washington sub­mit­ted to the Canucks’ style of play for the ma­jor­ity of two pe­ri­ods be­fore re­spond­ing with a rally that fell short. The Cap­i­tals pres­sured con­stantly through­out the third pe­riod, play­ing with an en­ergy and emo­tion they have lacked for en­tire games.

Washington is tied with New Jersey and Ed­mon­ton, which own the worst record in the East­ern and Western con­fer­ences, re­spec­tively, for the fewest first-pe­riod goals (28). The Cap­i­tals have given up the first goal in more than half of their games this sea­son (27) and are 12-12-3 when do­ing so. That has trans­lated into 21 games where they’ve trailed at the end of the first pe­riod, go­ing 10-9-2 on those oc­ca­sions.

“You can’t wait un­til you’re down 3-1 ev­ery game un­til you start play­ing, start at­tack­ing. You have to have that at­tack mode, that men­tal­ity, right out of the gate and try to put teams on their heels. That’s what we used to do,” left wing Brooks Laich said. “Now we’re get­ting be­hind a goal or two and we have to play catch-up — be­ing be­hind is sort of kick-start­ing our team. We have to have that en­ergy right off the drop of the puck in the first pe­riod.”

Dur­ing the 2009-10 reg­u­lar sea­son, the Cap­i­tals led the NHL in goals for in the first pe­riod and outscored op­po­nents 92-67 in the open­ing frame. Washington trailed head­ing into the sec­ond pe­riod 15 times last sea­son.

The slug­gish start alone is not re­spon­si­ble for all ofWash­ing­ton’s in­con­sis­ten­cies, whether dur­ing this three-game stretch or go­ing back to the eight-game los­ing streak in De­cem­ber. Com­bined with the Cap­i­tals’ lower goal-scor­ing to­tals, how­ever, it makes com­ing from be­hind a much larger feat than it might have been in the past. When asked how to make sure the team plays with gusto from the drop of the puck, the Cap­i­tals said it’s up to each in­di­vid­ual to hold him­self ac­count­able.

“It’s been go­ing on for maybe a month or six weeks, it’s some­thing that needs to be ad­dressed and it only comes down to the in­di­vid­ual,” Laich said. “The in­di­vid­ual needs to be ready to play when the puck drops. It’s noth­ing the coach­ing staff can do, it’s noth­ing other play­ers can do. You as a pro­fes­sional have to be ready to play at the start of a hockey game.”

Boudreau hopes that af­ter catch­ing a look against Van­cou­ver at how they per­form when fired up late, the Cap­i­tals will be able to build off that. If Washington can take that en­ergy into Sun­day’s con­test against the Sen­a­tors, it may be the step­ping stone nec­es­sary to re­ju­ve­nate the Cap­i­tals as they head into a week on the road.

“It’s some­thing that has to be there,” Boudreau said. “You have to have the pas­sion and the want to come to the rink ev­ery day and re­al­ize what a great op­por­tu­nity we have to be do­ing what we’re do­ing.”

Cap­i­tals note: Eric Fehr in­jured his right shoul­der in a col­li­sion with David Steckel in the neu­tral zone dur­ing Washington’s 4-2 loss to Van­cou­ver and had his arm in a sling on Satur­day at Ket­tler Cap­i­tals Ice­plex. Boudreau said the right wing will miss three to four weeks.

JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST

Goal­tender Se­myon Var­lamov, above, was in net Fri­day against the Canucks, a rare game of late in which the Cap­i­tals struck first.

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