As the minor penalties piled up high and thick on the guests at Verizon Center last night, and went uncapitalized upon by the hosts, a definite dread set in. It was 5-0 Caps in power plays earned through Monday’s night’s opening 20 minutes, and when the Florida Panthers escaped to their dressing room unscathed at the first intermission horn, you just got the sense that a beleaguered underdog of a Southeast road doormat was perfectly positioned to add woe to an already worrisome Caps’ week.
Woe is we!
Incredibly, the Caps would go on to earn seven of the game’s first eight extra-man opportunities. Incredibly, they did nothing with them. On the evening, the Caps authored a stunning 0-for-8 whitewashing while skating a man or more up.
The best medicine for a slumping hockey team is to have its best players perform their best. On Thursday night Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green were dreadful. It has been very much a peaks-and-valleys season thus far for the Capitals’ no. 1 center, and he is skating in another valley these days.
“If your best players aren’t your best players, you’re not going to have success,” Bruce Boudreau noted after the Caps’ 3-0 stinker Thursday night. “You have to get production out of your best players and it’s not happening for us right now.”
The best looking hockey teams are ones who skate in three-, four-, and five-man waves of integration, matched by excellent work ethic. Last night, again, the Capitals looked alarmingly individualistic. You can account for a team’s well-oiled cohesion and integration often by the length and volume of its passes. When passes are short and crisp they tend to be more accurate, finding teammates’ stick blades instead of their boots, and when passes are numerous it’s highly indicative of teammates being in synch in breakouts and attacks, of looking for, and finding, one another in open space. As last night’s game progressed the Capitals’ passes grew longer and therefore less accurate. Desperation and frustration set in. Florida patiently pounced.
Incredibly, the Caps have now been shut out three times since just November 19.
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This slump got started with an atrocious Dan O’Rourke call thwarting another Captain America moment, you’ll recall. I wonder: what if O’Rourke had gotten it right in that moment; what if the Caps had gone on to triumph in Dallas in overtime and impressively sweep up four tough road points? Wouldn’t they have returned home last Saturday night with a special swagger in their stride? And if so, would we be where we are this morning, burdened by an increasing number of troubling thoughts?
Interesting to note that it was O’Rourke who oversaw the parade of Panthers to the penalty box Thursday night.
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More distressing than the losing streak itself is the manner in which the Caps are losing. It. Is. Very. Montreal. In. Spring. Like.
Pump a high volume of shots on net (36 in the case of Thursday night), but have the vast majority of them pelt the opposition netminder’s crest and the center of his pads. Overrely on an umbrella game of three-man puck distribution on the power play point, which limits the volume of traffic that can be established in front of elite goaltender like Tomas Vokoun. Subsequently, make it easy for opposition rearguards to clear rebounds while penalty killing. Mostly, though, play a highly individualistic brand of hockey, one that’s earmarked for defeat.
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At the season-inaugurating Media Day General Manager George McPhee offered every assurance that his team’s involvement with HBO and its ’24/7′ series would pose no notable distraction for the club in the middle of the season. This may yet still prove to be the case. But there are, already, anecdotal accounts to the contrary.
There are, to put it charitably, extra media obligations associated with Winter Classic related media enveloping the team these days. This impacts some players more so than others. It’s safe to say that the cable outlet’s documentarians aren’t seeking an extra 15 minutes with the fellas here and there. Professional athletes have deeply etched routines, and hockey players perhaps the most resolutely ingrained ones, and those are being impacted by this project. But to be fair: HBO’s cameras are pestering the Pens just as much, presumably, and Sidney’s guys seem to be handling it rather well.
We have some fun ideas for covering the Capitals’ involvement with the Winter Classic, and we are receiving the characteristic courteous and helpful assistance of the Capitals’ PR staff in pursuing them. But they are making us aware of the novel demands on the guys of late. And so I wonder.
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Verizon Center, something quite less than full, was utterly lifeless last night, and that was only partly attributable to the Caps’ failing to score on Vokoun’s ‘Cats. On such nights it is my habit to remind my new media colleagues with whom I share the game experience of the novelty that is the arrival of the Southeast rival, and its attendant effect on rink atmosphere. No one in that rink last night hated a single member of the Florida Panthers. No hockey fan in the history of Washington, D.C., has ever hated the Florida Panthers. For they’ve given us no reason to hate them. Ever. Verizon Center last night was, at best, three-quarters full, and perhaps more likely closer to two-thirds capacity. That had nothing to do with locals’ need to holiday shop, or the lighting of a White House Christmas tree, last night. It had everything to do with the caliber and cache of the Capitals’ opponent. The Capitals are blameless for this.
And last night’s lifelessness in the rink matched that of the visit by the Carolina Hurricanes here a few weeks back — ostensibly the Capitals’ biggest rival in the Southeast.
In recent seasons it has become vogue for NHL clubs to designate select games as “premium” ones, pricing them as coveted commodities. In Washington we will never, ever, see a Southeast game priced as a premium one. It is metaphysically impossible.
My hockey blog has evolved over its modest lifetime, but one thing I will never change about it is my commitment to reporting the truth to my readership, painful though it be at times. Washington’s evolution from hockey outcast into a flagship franchise merits better treatment from the NHL than the perpetual puck purgatory that is the Southleast. It was yet another of Gary Bettman’s brilliant marketing creations.
Never forget that.