Friday, February 1, 2013

What the Hell is Wrong with the Capitals?

Once the NHL lockout ended everyone knew it wouldn't be easy out of the gate for the Washington Capitals. While the majority of their players were returning from the prior season many of the players hadn't played in an actual professional game since last May. Add to it that the team was going to have 6 days before the season started to gain chemistry with their lines and learn and adjust to their 3rd Head Coach and offensive and defensive scheme in 14 months and one had to figure the team would need some time to adjust to everything while having to play games every other night.

We are now two weeks and 7 games into the 48 game season and Washington is a cellar dweller at a lackluster 1-5-1. Scoring has been hard to come by for the team as has the ability to avoid committing penalties. In turn the Capitals end up with no energy by the end of the game which has lead to consecutive late game losses on their two game road trip to Canada.

The season started sluggish with an ugly loss to Tampa Bay in which the team gave up 6 goals which primarily came at the fault of poor defensive positioning, lazy neutral zone turnovers, and a failure to kill penalties. Six games later that still seems to be the case. The Caps dropped their home opener in similar but even uglier fashion against Winnipeg and failed to set up any type of offensive strategy against Montreal. As if the team's performance wasn't bad enough the usually raucous Verizon Center crowd was not only dead but half empty by the start of the 3rd period of the Montreal game. In the games to follow the Capitals fell behind New Jersey 2-0 before mounting a valiant comeback in the final 5 minutes thanks to some power play execution, but ultimately losing with under a minute to go in overtime. The team's ability to battle back however left fans optimistic. The team no longer gives fans the impression that they can come back when down a goal let alone two or three goals but in the New Jersey game they strung together a solid 10 minutes to end the game against the Devils and then put forth a solid 40+ minutes against Buffalo which lead to the team's first win of the season. The Caps came out pretty strong against Ottawa with a solid first 40 minutes and a 2-0 lead before the wheels fell off and the team allowed the Senators to score 1 in the 2nd and 2 in the 3rd. Against Toronto the Caps held again held a 2-1 lead heading into the 3rd period, this despite 8 Toronto power plays in the first 40 minutes, before ultimately falling 3-2, the 4th straight game with a 3-2 final.   

Entering the Ottawa game the Caps were 94-0-9 when leading after two between February 24, 2009 and Tuesday,  now they've lost 2 straight. The refs definitely got to the Caps in the team's first two games especially the first home game where Mike Ribiero was high-sticked twice but no penalty was called and yet he got hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct for chirping at the refs. Last night the eight penalties just gassed the Caps by the time the 3rd period came around and they had nothing left in the tank, they couldn't skate with the Leafs and they couldn't muster a shot on the Leafs goalie for over 10 minutes in the final period.

Add to it the players that played during the lockout, Ovechkin, Backstrom, Perreault, Johansson, and Holtby among them, have done nothing of use this season. Ovechkin has two goals, both on the power play, Backstrom has 4 assists, Perreault and MoJo spend more time in the dog house than they do on the ice and Holtby has lost his spot to Michal Neuvirth. On the flip side Joel Ward leads the team in goals and will soon eclipse last year's total, Matt Hendricks has played hard and tough, Ribiero has shown flashes, Joey Crabb has been a huge surprise and the most consistent player, Neuvirth has kept the team in most of the games he's started, and on defense "the Lumberjack" John Erskine has been blocking shots, hitting players...he rocked Phil Kessel last night, and even scored a goal on a muffin shot but has also blasted some beauties on net. The rest of the team has been mediocre (Mike Green) to unfortunate (John Carlson who has been on the ice for most of the goals for and against).

Adam Oates isn't a coach that's going to motivate his players. He feels they have a job to do, they know it, and they need to do it. They're trying the experiment of Alex Ovechkin on the right wing, it isn't working. Until Ovechkin learns to evolve and adapt to the fact that the NHL opponents know he's going to use the same stupid moves as he enters the offensive zone he's not going to be the Ovechkin of old, in fact with the gray showing in his hair he's just becoming old Ovechkin. I read he did relatively well in the KHL, I guess teams over there don't watch game film and plan for facing him or he's such a superstar over there they let him do his stuff because they're in awe of him. Add to it the detractors of Ovi will be willing to point to the fact that his offensive production as well as Mike Green's have been on the decline since around the time a doctor was busted for steroids and records showed unnamed Capitals players were his clients. I don't believe they used them nor do I think it would have helped their performance but I do think Ovi may need to go to the Eye Doctors of Washington and get some Lasik since he seems to be missing the goal just a bit to the right...and why not its worked for Green right? Unfortunately unless Ovi is willing to grind and battle and even go so far as to stand in front of the net to try and deflect shots he's going to be stuck in his rut of shooting long shots with little traffic in front and an easy save for the goalie because he can't blow past defenses like he once did.

If the Caps are going to make a run they'll have to do it soon. The next two games are both at home but they're against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and with Caps fans growing so frustrated with the team's effort, record and play and there being more and more empty seats with each passing home game I would expect the Flyers and Penguins fans to pack the Verizon Center..tho with the tighter security at Verizon I'd expect some of those opposing fans to not get in because of weapons. 
So that goes back to the original question...What's wrong with the Capitals? Its a little bit of everything. I've stated for years that their window of opportunity would be closing by the end of this season or next and it could be upon us or it could just be the whole lockout situation. What seems to be a lack of offensive strategy definitely isn't helping this team and not having the time to install it prior to the season, or in game because of penalties, makes the learning curve that much more difficult. Having Brooks Laich out with a hip injury certainly doesn't help since he's a leader on and off the ice and a grinder that gets dirty. In the end penalties is a main culprit. Too many 5-on-3 shorthanded situations; chirping at the refs, which seems to get called more against Washington than their opponents even though both sides do it and we'll see how strict the refs are when Pittsburgh comes this Sunday because Crosby constantly chirps at the refs especially against Washington; many of the penalties are careless some are even questionable and it gets even more confusing when the opponents do it and nothing gets called. The Caps can't control that they can only control their actions and they're going to have to learn from it, stay under control and do their best to put together solid efforts. If not the season will fully be lost. While the team has been outscored more in the 2nd period than any other they are dead in the 3rd so every opponent knows if you work the Caps hard the first two periods they'll have nothing left to finish and that will be the time to strike. Its essentially Dale Hunter hockey but with less energy in the final stanza. Is coaching the problem? Its too early to tell but I don't think so. These players are veterans and they shouldn't need a lecture. They've been there before and they're better than they're playing. They can talk a good game with they know what they're supposed to do and how they can make things easier but they aren't executing. A trade won't fix the problems but with George McPhee's fingerprints all over this team there is a chance that before the season is out Leonsis may decide that GMGM needs to be too.

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