Caps' Work in Progress: Will it be a Masterpiece?
By Scott Lowe
There seems to be a lot of concern throughout the D.C. area and around the NHL – at least among the so-called experts and alarmist fans – about the Washington Capitals’ offensive “woes.”
If memory serves, it was about this time last year that pundits and rival fans said that a Caps team on the way to near record-breaking offensive numbers and their first President’s Trophy was not committed enough to a grind-it-out, two-way style to make a deep run in the playoffs.
We can’t have it both ways can we?
Tonight the Caps reached an interesting crossroads as they faced a Philadelphia club that has replaced them atop the Eastern Conference standings. The end result was a gritty point for Washington, which continued its troubling trend of falling behind early before rallying for two third-period goals and then suffering an eventual overtime loss.
Despite numerous injuries that have limited key players such as Alexander Semin, Matt Bradley, Eric Fehr, Mike Green, Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, both goalies and rookie Marcus Johansson, Washington now finds itself in the thick of a heated race with Tampa Bay for the top spot in the Southeast Division, which happens to be the NHL’s most improved, and within a few points of the conference lead.
Washington has played with its full lineup intact for only a handful of games this season and endured an eight-game losing skid, yet the Caps still have performed at a level that places them among the league’s elite. A victory tonight would have left them just four points behind the Flyers.
Along the way Washington coach Bruce Boudreau has been able to take a look at up-and-coming depth forwards Matthieu Perreault, Jay Beagle and Andrew Gordon, see young defenseman John Carlson (plus-14 before tonight) emerge as a budding superstar, implement a more defensive style of play and watch his team overcome adversity to right the ship and stay near the top of the standings.
Clearly there have been ups and downs, struggles and inconsistent play, but as the Caps continue to see their goal production drop from last year and their once-potent power play scuffle, their goals against (121) ranked sixth best in the East prior to tonight and ninth overall, while their penalty killing has gone from the league’s bottom half to No. 6 overall. Upon further review it seems that the Caps are doing exactly what everyone said they couldn’t and still have almost half the season to hone that so-called “playoff” style of play.
“It seems to me that they’ve pulled it back a little in the neutral zone,” Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette said. “People like to focus on two zones, the offensive and defensive, but teams that can move the puck through the neutral zone and defend the neutral zone tend to be successful. For the most part they still have the same players and the same team from last year. They are good off the rush and they’ve got skilled one-on-one players. They are big, fast and present a lot of challenges.”
Last season Washington put the pedal to the metal all year long, flaunting an exciting, free-wheeling style that led to 14 consecutive wins at one point and eventually allowed them to lap the field en route to regular-season supremacy. The Caps’ historic season included many amazing third-period comebacks and high-scoring victories, but throughout the impressive campaign there were whispers that the team wasn’t disciplined enough defensively to win when it counted. Those whispers were heard, and Boudreau openly admitted that the team worked on a more conservative, defensive-minded style during the final few weeks of the season.
Then came the unthinkable: a seven-game defeat at the hand of a disciplined, defense-first, counter-punching Montreal Canadiens team. The Caps were stymied by upstart goaltender Jaroslav Halak and seemed to have trouble adjusting to Montreal’s pack-it-in, clog-it-up, shot-blocking style of play. Washington’s league-leading power play went AWOL, and the Caps pressed to score goals. Skilled players such as Mike Green and Tomas Fleischmann appeared lost playing a new more conservative style, and the “experts” were proven correct. Or were they?
Clearly Boudreau has bought in to the media hype, preaching a more conservative and defense-conscious system. Fleischmann was moved out in a deal for of puck-moving, stay-at-home defenseman Scott Hannan. The Caps are trapping more and have played in a ridiculous number of low-scoring, one-goal games. Their offensive superstars’ numbers are down across the board. The team is scoring less, while also giving up far fewer goals.
But instead of sitting pretty atop the league standings, Washington is struggling to hang on to first place in its own division. Now the “experts” are wondering what’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and why the team isn’t winning as consistently as in the past. Well, implementing a new system takes time. The superstars are sacrificing and buying in for the good of the team. In reality, the fact that the Caps are still near the top of the standings is remarkable.
But, does this style really give Washington the best chance of reaching the only goal that seems acceptable this year – a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals? There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer to that. Right this minute with skilled players such as Semin and Fehr absent because of injuries, heart-and-soul grinders such as Gordon and Bradley on the shelf and d-man Poti, arguably their best blueliner in the playoffs last year, out, the defensive style might be the best way to go.
But the Caps didn’t fall to Montreal in the playoffs because they gave up a bunch of goals. They lost because they didn’t score enough goals in attempting to execute more of a “playoff” style. The year before Washington took eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh to seven games in the second round before falling. Last season the Caps took the team that eliminated the defending champs to seven games. A break here or there either year and Washington goes a long way. There’s a reason that the Stanley Cup is considered the most difficult trophy to win in all of sports.
Someone somewhere should be making the argument that teams should play a style that gives them the best chance to win every time out, no matter if it’s the regular season or playoffs. The Edmonton dynasty of the 80s went out every night determined to outscore the opponent. They didn’t let anyone dictate their style of play, doing what they did best on a nightly basis and asking their goalies not to make every save, only the big ones. We all know how that story played out.
When at full strength, the Caps have as much or more offensive firepower than anyone in the league. They also have possibly the deepest group of forwards, including a highly respected fourth-line group and solid two-way players. With the emergence of youngsters Karl Alzner and Carlson and the addition of Hannan on the blueline, once Poti returns to full strength, Washington will be able to match up their top six d-men against almost anybody’s.
There seems to be enough evidence that with their improved defensive corps and the continuing maturation of two emerging young netminders, the Caps might be able to crank up the offensive juggernaut and make a playoff run. But until they do that there will be doubters – possibly inside as well as outside of their own locker room.
No matter what, though, the team is good enough and has enough organizational depth to experiment with this defensive style of play and attempt to perfect it. If that happens Washington should have a unique ability to take advantage of almost any playoff matchup and play whatever style is necessary in a given series to have the best chance of succeeding.
So, while everyone in D.C. keeps riding the emotional roller coaster, living and dying with each loss, maybe those folks should take a step back and look in the rearview mirror. It all came so easy last season and ended in the worst possible way.
Rarely in professional sports do teams cruise through a season and the playoffs to a title. Two years ago the Penguins fired their coach midstream and won the Cup. Last year the Flyers did the same and made a memorable run to the Finals.
Adversity builds character and forces teams to push beyond what they thought were their emotional and physical limits. It creates a bunker mentality that brings teams together and creates the bond and trust within the dressing room – better known as chemistry – that transcends what any coaching mastermind can draw up on a chalkboard. The Caps certainly have faced their fair share of adversity already and have proven to be a resilient group.
If the end result is the only thing that matters and nothing less than a championship will be satisfactory for the Washington Capitals, people should just reserve judgment until the dust settles in April, May or June. After all, last year nobody minded telling Caps fans that their 14-game winning streak and President’s Trophy would be meaningless if the team didn’t perform in the postseason, right?
As those of us in the D.C. area found out last year, you don’t win the Cup in January, February or March. When training camp opens next September no one is going to remember what the standings were on Jan. 19, 2011. Rome wasn’t built in a day. This Capitals team is a work in progress, and the canvas still has a lot of space left before we will have a finished product.