16 April, 2014


Washington Capitals 2010-11: The Moment Is of the Essence

We kid ourselves, don’t we, if we think for a moment that with the puck-drop tonight in Atlanta all the agony of last April will forever be vanquished? That all of our collective scar tissue will be healed.

Forget about just last spring — do you know how much scar tissue related to Capitals’ playoff misery there is for an Old Timer like me?

Of course it will be great to watch hockey again, but unlike any previous season in Capitals’ history, 2010-11 will be about crossing off the 82 game markers of the autumn and winter calendar and marching, deliberately, toward a severe springtime judgment. Spring is the season of our perpetual sting.

It was Mike Green, last May, who first hinted at the marathon-trial that lies ahead, beginning tonight. Belatedly he met with a smattering of Washington’s hockey media out at Kettler then, still somewhat shell-shocked from the first-round upset, and plainly stated: Now we have 82 games to get through before we get another chance at redemption.

Certainly Greener’s Capitals teammates didn’t arrive at training camp last month with amnesia. They wore their anger in their t-shirt slogan (“Stay Angry”), but also with an eye cast toward the future, with resolve to trust in one another (“Believe in Yourselves”).

In 2010-11, for this hockey club, trust is good; urgency, however, is better.

In the salary cap era the championship-contending window for any well assembled club is finite. And this hockey season brings the Capitals their first clear encounter with this reality: it is potentially Alexander Semin’s last in Washington, as he arrives at unrestricted free agency next summer and has already rebuffed management’s effort at an extension. Say what you will about Semin, but make no mistake: he is a game-breaking talent, one who put up 40 goals last season while being centered by committee (again). And he has been a part of the contending core that General Manager George McPhee has patiently assembled and believes is of championship mettle. Were he not — were Alexander Semin some manner of locker room sour, or an overall disappointment for the head coach — he’d already be gone; he would have been dealt over the summer.

But returning to the theme of a meaning-challenged regular season: it is not a pedestrian affair for every NHL club; just this one. At this moment. Do we really need another Southeast division championship banner hanging from on high? Or how about the encasement of a second President’s Trophy? What would give you, devoted fan, the greater satisfaction over the course of the next six months — witnessing the Caps sweep the season set with the ‘Canes or seeing George McPhee secure a burly, bruising blueliner as a Valentine’s Day gift to the Red Army?

My esteemed blogger colleague Peerless penned this week a majestic preview of the Capitals (you simply must read it), and I was struck at how in synch he and I were with integral but also somewhat controversial considerations related to this hockey club.

First and foremost, Peerless and I agree that the Capitals’ club that will take the ice in Atlanta tonight will be appreciably different from the one that competes in next spring’s postseason. The Capitals did not slow dance with Willie Mitchell back in August merely to pass idle time. And down the middle, they’ve two centers with demonstrated difficulty in taking faceoffs: Tomas Fleischmann won just 43 percent of his draws last season, and behind him, a just-turned 20-year-old rookie, Marcus Johansson, spent this exhibition season winning a grand total of 30 percent of his draws. The Pittsburgh Penguins have proven that a post-lockout team can win a Cup with great centers and mediocre wingers; it’s yet to be proven that a Cup can be won with but one difference-making center.

When it comes to the middle of the ice look for the Capitals this season to use upwards of a seven-man rotation, including Mathieu Perreault and Matt Hendricks, as management utilizes fall and early winter to assess whether or not it needs to shop for a veteran to follow Nicklas Backstrom on the second line.

Peerless also alluded to something tantamount to a Capitals’ curse (he calls it karma (of the bad variety), I call it a curse), and when I wrote about this over the summer the owner took issue with me (spiritedly). The Capitals made NHL history last spring by being the losers of a seventh game on home ice for the third consecutive season. There are an awful lot of NHL clubs with an awful lot more playoff experience than the Caps. No matter. That infamous record is ours. How couldn’t it be? Until a band of Caps warm-weather authors otherwise, that’s how the hockey gods have decreed it to be in D.C. Our team’s crest, I wrote this past summer, is cursed. Our Winter Classic one especially so.

To combat the curse the artillery in red this season is heavy: not eleven first-round picks in the lineup, Mr. Leonsis, but twelve!, as the father of the forgotten, Curt Steckel, helpfully reminded you. A quality NHL club would dress seven or eight on any given night, the Caps a full dozen. They are loaded.

Except where it most counts, for the portion of the calendar where it most counts. Willie Mitchell didn’t work out; someone else of his pedigree must. There are holes — or at least significant question marks — in the middle of the ice and that one big hole on the blueline.

In the immediate aftermath of the Capitals’ April demise I tipped my hat to R.J. Umberger (who was right) and opined that the Caps simply had to get tougher to play against. Welcome to Washington, King Kong; and welcome, too, Matt Hendricks. One or two more ornery types like you and we’ll have some fun alright.

There is for me, too, a real concern behind the bench. Peerless rolls out the disturbing stats here as well. In three seasons in D.C. Bruce Boudreau has won nearly 70 percent of the games he’s coached in the regular season (.689). It’s quite another story in the postseason: .464. In the American League it was fairly feast or famine for Gabby: He won a Calder Cup with Hershey (2006) and took them to the finals the very next season. But flaming out in the first round appears conspicuously in his record (five of his first six seasons in the ‘A,’ Peerless notes, ended abruptly early in spring). It was that early exit habit that got him axed in Manchester.

Bruce Boudreau has to be one of the most likable figures in all of pro sports. However, he’s yet to demonstrate — at this level — that he’s the man for the job. When it counts. He’s won championships at two separate levels of professional hockey. That’s the positive. But it wouldn’t be severe, the thinking here is, to posit that Gabby’s been outcoached in all four of his NHL playoff series. That Rangers’ club in 2009 in particular had no business extending the Capitals to seven games.

The Capitals this season possess intriguing possibilities for their fourth line. This season’s fourth unit — some combination of Boyd Gordon, Matt Hendricks, Dave Steckel, Matt Bradley, and King — is poised to deliver a portion of the trait that was badly lacking a season ago: miserable to skate against. Hendricks may have made the team on September 30, when at the opening faceoff in Boston he offered a reckoning to the Bruins’ Greg Campbell for some Ovi-directed disrespect from the night before. This season’s entertainment valued wouldn’t be harmed by more of that.

On the blueline, the Caps have jettisoned experience (Shaone Morrisonn, Brian Pothier, Milan Jurcina) for promising youth: John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Winning — large — appears to follow Carlson: Captain America is 3-0 in his last three championship competitions. While early on in training camp it appeared as if Boudreau was going to keep the dynamic young duo partnered together it looks more like Carlson with skate with Tom Poti with Alzner in the third pairing, at least to start the season. The Caps’ top four on the back end is mobile and poised on the puck, and ought to produce decent offense; there is not, however, much in the way of a crease-clearing ethos or stature. Again. Pray for that to change.

Youth is also served in net, but as 2010-11 commences there is already concern about the health of the presumptive no. 1, Semyon Varlamov. What back in summer looked like a glut of great young goalie talent in the organization is suddenly much-needed depth. If Varlamov’s leg ills persist it could be fair to interpret the condition as chronic, and perhaps even career-threatening. Then you would think McPhee would be forced into acquiring a veteran band-aid or better as replacement. Not comforting. But even if both Michal Nuevirth and Varly eventually compete healthy this season they will do so behind a young and largely soft and therefore vulnerable blueline.

It was Jekyll and Hyde on special teams a year ago: 1st in the NHL on the power play, 25th on the PK. To address the latter, Capitals coaches this season will have forwards up top apply more pressure in pursuit of the puck. There is plenty of personnel adequate to that task.

If the Capitals are to prosper next postseason they simply must be tougher to play against.

That brings me to Five Key Questions Confronting the Caps in their Quest for the Cup this season:

  • Will a hot and confidence-instilling no. 1 netminder emerge internally, or will George McPhee have to go shopping for a vet?
  • Will a quality second-line center develop or have to be acquired?
  • Can the Capitals’ penalty killing move from the sewer and into a realm of respectability?
  • Will a youth-laden blueline be bolstered by a bruiser, and can two terrific ‘youngins back there — Carlson and Alzner — prove precocious in the postseason?
  • Will Gabby get it done?

It would be helpful for the Capitals this season to be pushed a little from competition within the perpetually putrid Southeast division. One lone resident within — Tampa — is equipped to do that. Atlanta is likely improved, but with spare parts from the Hawks. Carolina is without Caps-killer Ray Whitney and closer to rebuilding than contending for a postseason slot. Florida is appreciably worse — perhaps the odds-on favorite to win 2011′s Entry Draft lottery. And so again the Capitals will skate many an exhibition prelude to the season that counts.

To state the silly obvious, the Caps will win the Southleast, comfortably. Give me a burly blueliner at or before the trade deadline, to place at the top of the defense pairings, and I’ll peg them for the conference finals. Have one of the kid goalies get silly hot next spring . . . and let the healing begin.



3 Comments

  1. penguin pete wrote:

    enjoy the game tonight.

    and you have to at least chuckle at this…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6CIuvy7hpc&feature=player_embedded

    8 October, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Matt Barrett wrote:

    Like seeing the Bruce warning in your preseason preview. My twitter handle is GrinNBarrett7 and we had a brief exchange on this topic (I was frustrated with the focus on WC uniform talk…ha). Here’s a Gabby analysis I wrote for a season preview email thread my season ticket group has been tossing back and forth. Coachie shat the bed vs. Montreal.  It really bothers me that DC media and the Caps blogosphere failed to highlight this as a key part of our collapse last year. So I will do that now. Bruce brought his AHL playbook to an NHL party. And I know his AHL playbook because I read his tell-all autobiography Gabby: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer. Here are some of the key observations in relatively chronological bullet form.

    Bruce was looking past Montreal. This point is key. I don’t care what he says. He was looking past them. The team was looking past them. This was evidenced by our sloppy, unfocused play in games 1 and 2. What we (should) learn from this post season, however, is that the Florida Panthers could have been our round 1 opponent and took us to seven games. In the NHL playoffs it is clear that the talent separation contracts. Hunger and tactical savvy expands. The 7 and 8 seeds made the finals in the East. The opponent doesn’t matter. It’s what you bring to the party.
    Before game 1, Bruce is participating in verbal spats via the newspapers with Scott Gomez and Tomas Plekanec. And, of course, Gomez scores the game tying goal in the 3rd period and Plekanec scores the game winning goal in overtime.  To make matters worse, Bruce’s verbal blabbering leaves the door wide open for other Caps to do the same. And, predictably, they do. Team Captain Ovie says Halak’s hand looked shaky after allowing 6 goals in game 2 and jokes about it in practice in front of Canadian cameras. Big mistake by our team captain. A mistake enabled by our head coach.
    In game 2, if not for Captain America John Carlson bailing us out with 1 minute left in regulation and Backie bailing us out in OT, we’re down two games to none going back to Montreal and all of a sudden it’s the same story as the Rangers series of a year ago. You can throw the win out the window. No urgency lesson learned from a year ago. No progression in playoff attitude and preparedness. No accountability for being slow and nervous and defensive out of the gate. All that is on the coach.
    Alas, we win game 2 and then dominate much of games 3 and 4 on that momentum and behind the STELLAR play of Varlamov (which is forgotten in all this…Varly was our best player in Montreal). Ovie shows up for a full 60 both games and we get all our secondary scoring for the series on a Boyd Gordon shorthanded goal, Knuble shorty, Fehr goal, Bradley goal, Chimera goal and some other hard fought tallies.
    Fast forward to game 5, with the Caps up 3-1 in the series, coming home after two incredibly taxing games in Montreal and no sleep the night before due to a bunch of fog holding up the return flight. Bruce has a chance to reinsert a fresh Theo with a chip on his shoulder and a chance to close out the team and city that sent him packing—two things that would have given the Caps team a guy to rally behind to get that extra edge to put the nail in the coffin NOW. Instead, Bruce goes with a clearly tired Varly, Montreal scores three first period goals, and the game is over. Then, Bruce just loses it. He loses it on the bench and then in the post-game. He’s up 3-2 still, but he’s pushed the panic button. That is the tone for Caps play for the remainder of the series: Panic. 
    Leading up to Game 6, the mantra is “we gotta get Semin to score” to have a chance to win. Bruce changes the lines. He puts Belanger on line 1 with Ovie and Knuble and drops Backie to line 2. Meanwhile, he keeps the entirely ineffective Tomas Fleischmann in the lineup and keeps Green’s minutes in the high 20s despite his utter lack of confidence and terrible play.  His top power play line remains Green-Ovie-Backie-Semin-Flash/Laich with a second line of Poti-Ovie-Backie-Laich-Knuble/Fehr. Let’s dedicate a bullet to the power play.
    Bruce’s handling of the power play blew my mind. The team finished with ONE goal in 33 tries with the man advantage (sometimes with a TWO-man advantage). Knuble finished the series with fewer Power play minutes than TOM POTI and just a hair more time than Flash. This, despite the NUMBER 1 reason for signing Knuble in the offseason being his big body in front of the net…on power plays… in the playoffs. During the series, Knuble scored a shorthanded goal and assisted on another for crying out loud.  We scored more goals shorthanded than on the power play.  Yeah Halak played well, but Bruce was stubborn with the PP personnel and didn’t play the right guys to counter Montreal’s aggressive PK and Halak’s hot hand. He didn’t make adjustments. Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Bruce’s handling of the power play was insane.
    Back to game 6. Needless to say, the line-juggling is a disaster. After they flounder for a period and a half, Coach switches them back. We shoot the puck at Halak 80 times but almost all at his chest from the circles with very few screens, very little traffic and not a lot of second chances. Our power play continues to flounder with way too many danglers and not enough guys paying the price in front of the net. And, we lose. 
    Game 7 is a foregone conclusion at this point. Though at the time the entire fan base is in denial of that fact. Instead, we’re cautiously optimistic. But, Bruce still refuses to try to swing the mo by reinserting Theo, and though he FINALLY takes out Flash (too little too late) and calls up Alzner (too little too late), he keeps the power play combos how they were, and he eats a game 7 loss.
    While Bruce was flailing during last spring’s series, Montreal’s Jacques Martin was cool calm and collected. He reinserted Halak in game 5, got his D to focus on shutting down Ovie/Backie/Knuble and take their chances on the PK (they were 32 for 33), and had his boys skating hard right out of the blocks in games 5, 6 and 7.  He won two elimination games in our building. Then he beat the Stanley Cup champs in round two. I hope Bruce was watching.
    In fact, think about this. The only coach Bruce has beaten in the NHL playoffs is John Tortorella. As you will remember, Tortorella (who’s Rangers were up on us three games to one going into game 5) SELF DISTRUCTED by throwing a water bottle into the stands behind the bench in game 5 and got himself a game suspension for a critical game 6 in NYC.  You can still easily make the argument that Torts—who has a Stanley Cup on his resume—was outcoaching Bruce tactically up to that point. That’s painful for me to say, because I hate John Tortorella.
     And think about THIS random thought too. ONLY Sergei Fedorov, the Caps’ guardian angel—and disciple of Scotty Bowman I might add—has scored clinching goals for the Ovie-led Caps teams. The first against the Panthers in the final regular season game of 07-08, and the second in the Ranger series in 08-09. That’s all we’ve got so far in this new era. Feels like it should be more doesn’t it? Good NHL coaching builds players who know how to get it done.Clearly, none of our homegrown players are there yet.
    Despite all this evidence to the contrary, all summer Bruce stuck to the talking point that we ran into a hot goalie and that’s why we lost. No accountability. Just a bunch of bad commercials.  Perhaps most telling are comments from Ovie and Backie about the Playoff Fail. They both basically suggested that the team let down it’s guard, assumed the win was coming to them, and, as Ovie put it, “stopped playing.” It’s a coach’s responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. I think that’s as close as Ovie and Backie will get to criticizing Coachie but I heard it loud and clear. Bruce didn’t have the team where they needed to be for Game 5 (as evidenced by the disastrous first period) and his panic in games 6 and 7 set the tone.  Brooks Laich is still angry. I can think of one person I bet some of that anger and frustration is directed toward.
    The reality is that Bruce never cut it as a player in the NHL and in no small part due to a series of incredibly stupid and careless lifestyle and attitude choices and his inability/unwillingness to play defense (see Gabby: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer). So, he basically became Crash Davis of the AHL. And then, somehow, despite seemingly zero tactical savvy as a player, he became a very successful ECHL/AHL coach through determination, good player-coach skills and a heavy dose of just sticking it out. So, perhaps it’s no surprise at all that his playoff coaching success has yet to translate in the NHL. He had to lose a bunch of times in the playoffs in the minors before figuring it out.
    ALL THAT SAID. I still love Coachie. I love the style of play he’s brought to this team. I love his demeanor. I love his passion for the game. I love his Gabby-ness. And, the Caps are the most exciting team to watch in the NHL by far. It’s really not close. I still believe in Coachie’s ability to take us to the promised land. But, he needs to grow up. He needs to do as a coach what he couldn’t do as a player and that’s be accountable, take some humble pie, get smart and become an NHL star. Enough of the AHL playbook. He needs to become an NHL coach when it counts.

    9 October, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  3. Dougeb wrote:

    Looked like the Montreal series, all over again.
    Out hustled, out played, shots being blocked, soft euros knocked off the puck, etc.

    9 October, 2010 at 8:42 am | Permalink

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