Caps Know What Needs to be Done

By Scott Lowe

Over the past three seasons the Washington Capitals have developed into one of the rare professional teams that seems to really care just about every night out. Sure there have been times in which maybe they have become a bit too enamored with their talent – overpassing, trying to make the perfect play, making low-percentage choices in the neutral zone – but the effort always seems to be there.

Some might point to their recent 0-2-1 “skid” and first-period struggles as evidence that the Caps are becoming complacent, having already locked up the top seed in the East and with a six-point edge over San Jose in the race for the President’s Trophy. But upon further review, the answers seem a bit more complex than that.

“Everyone we are playing is fighting for something,” head coach Bruce Boudreau said after the Caps rallied from a 3-1 first-period deficit last night to take the lead against Ottawa only to fall in overtime. “That was a hard-fought game tonight, not just teams going through the motions wanting to get the season over with. That was two teams wanting it.”

Certainly the Caps’ last two first periods have been two of their worst 20-minute showings of the year. In the opening 10 minutes of the last two contests they have been outshot 16-3, which has led to an overall first-period deficit of 7-1 on the scoresheet. Yes, Jose Theodore has given up some soft and fluky goals – raising additional concerns – but the common team-related themes have been a lack of possession and scoring chances in the offensive end, bad turnovers at the offensive blueline and in the neutral zone, lackluster backchecking and a lack of physical play and poor positioning in the defensive end.

“We weren’t picking up the loose guys in front,” said defensemen Tom Poti, who was a bright spot vs. Ottawa, setting up Mike Green’s game-tying goal in the third with a nifty pass. “None of those goals were {Jose’s} fault. They were our fault – defensive reads and things like that.”

Added Quintin Laing: “For our team to manage only four shots {in the first period} is unacceptable. We have to look back and get some answers and fix it. We’ve got to help {Jose} out by playing in the offensive zone a little more and give him a break back there.”

The comments of Nicklas Backstrom, who had an uncharacteristically difficult outing last night with multiple turnovers and the overtime penalty that led to Alex Kovalev’s game-winner, may have offered the best perspective: “Maybe we’re not ready for the first period. But we have to get ready, because I remember last year in the playoffs we weren’t ready for the first two games. We have to get ready now. Maybe play a good 60 minutes. We haven’t played a good 60 minutes for a while.”

Let’s see. Last year’s playoff losses to the Rangers in Games 1 and 2 were characterized by too much show and not enough go. Too much flash and not enough dash. In other words, a lack of possession and scoring chances in the offensive end, bad turnovers at the offensive blueline and in the neutral zone, lackluster backchecking and a lack of physical play and poor positioning in the defensive end. Sound familiar? See paragraph four above.

The bottom line was that the Caps didn’t play teams that were competitive down the stretch and got away from the type of hockey that made them successful, falling into bad habits at the wrong time. Then, when the playoffs began, they weren’t prepared for playoff-style hockey. “Last year we were playing teams that were out of the playoffs {down the stretch}, so our level of play came way down …” Boudreau said “I don’t think our level of play will be dropping like it did last year.”

One thing Washington has learned the past two years is exactly what it takes to win in the playoffs. Two years ago the Caps fell behind Philly 3-1 before putting their heads down and grinding out two playoff-style wins and forcing an overtime in Game 7. In 2009 they battled back from a two-game deficit to upend the Rangers in seven before falling to a Pittsburgh team that decided to ditch the flash, muck it up and win a Cup.

Clearly the team sees the writing on the wall now. The Caps must get back to playoff hockey, and they have six games to do just that – plenty of time to get it together and make a serious run. Oh, and don’t forget that potential key players such as Brendan Morrison, Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon and Scott Walker have been resting/healing over the past several games. And the time bomb that is Alex Ovechkin is ticking and ready to explode after scoring just four goals in his past 14 outings.

While a few folks in the D.C. area seem to be ready to press the panic button, this even-keeled group doesn’t appear flustered. Instead they seem focused on getting to work and doing what needs to be done to improve on last year’s showing. A streak like this two years ago would have knocked the Caps out of the playoffs. Instead, this year people are worrying about San Jose pulling to within six points in the race for first place – in the league, not the Southeast.

Not a bad place to be if you ask me.