17 April, 2014


The Club That’s Needed Has Been Built

The sort of Capitals club I’d want to see contest an NHL postseason would be able to roll four lines almost interchangeably, impact achieved rather uniformly among them, and cumulatively, deliver an impact that wears down a quality opponent the longer games go. In the absence of possessing an authentic “shutdown” defenseman, this designer Capitals contender would boast quality blueline pairings such that there was a striking balance of minutes logged among them and a high regard for the reliability of the entire unit. Furthermore, this club would take it as creed to crash the opposition net with abandon. It would boast a top 5 power play. And it would be backstopped by a veteran netminder of technical brilliance, gaudy statistics, and swagger.

So in Washington this morning we’d sort of like to ask the commissioner: Can we start the NHL playoffs this week?

We are witnessing history each night with each successive Capitals’ victory this October, but more importantly, we are witnessing the successful auditioning of a roster for a durable and successful stay in next spring’s postseason — health permitting. And this isn’t merely because the Capitals are winning every time they lace ‘em up, it’s because of how they are winning.

A club that once upon a time failed because of its preference for perimeter play is today hard-charging the opposition cage, making life miserable there for netminders, and scoring goals in bunches from in tight. You pretty much figured that Troy Brouwer and Mike Knuble and Joel Ward would lunch-pale it in the slot, but this fall so too is Alexander Ovechkin. And Marcus Johansson. And . . . Mathieu Perreault.

When we watch this fall’s Capitals win so well and in such a laudable fashion — heavy on cohesion and work ethic — we meditate a bit on the important traits lacking in the failed clubs of the recent past, and increasingly we are led to conclude: those shortcomings sure appear to have been vanquished. Marcus Johansson has seized the long-vacant second-line center slot, displaying blazing speed, deft finish, and a high degree of overall hockey intelligence. You need your second pivot to deliver production and be a bit of a threat. It’s early still, but the toolbox young Johansson is displaying plausibly suggests 25-goal, 50-point production.

Previous Capitals clubs lacked a reliable no. 1 D pairing with battle-tested experience and pedigree. This Capitals club likely has two of them today. If you’ve followed Comcast’s Alan May on either television or Twitter this month you know that one of Washington’s most astute hockey analysts regards this year’s Mike Green as authentically Norris viable, and not because of his big offensive numbers by themselves. Roman Hamrlik is filling precisely the role the Caps had hoped he would, and proving to be the long-sought-for perfect partner for Green. Dennis Wideman is enjoying the finest start of his NHL career, and he might be the Capitals best all around rearguard. He skates in the team’s third pairing.

Take a look at the balanced minutes nightly being skated by the Capitals’ six rearguards: Green (22:45), Hamrlik (21:21), Carlson (19:47), Alzner (18:28), Wideman (20:06), Schultz (17:29).

And speaking of well-managed minutes, the team captain is clocking in at an average of 18:45 a night; he’s never averaged less than 21 minutes a game in his preceding six NHL seasons. If Bruce Boudreau is able to maintain a moderation of labor among his elite talent all season long the Capitals are likely to enter the postseason next spring with the league’s freshest set of legs.

The power play was moribund much of last season, and futile in the postseason. (Again.) As of last night, it ranked no. 1 in the NHL at 29 percent. Last season I was one among many in media who questioned the wisdom of positioning Alexander Ovechkin on the power play point. This season he’s most often found along the half boards with the extra man units — or in front of the net! — while a bevy of capable blueliners crisply distribute the puck and blast low and hard slappers on goal from the point. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

Capitals playoff clubs in recent years have had quality netminding but something far short of a game-stealer. If Tomas Vokoun’s early work this fall is any indication of what we can expect come spring, the Capitals will be a tough out against any club. Vokoun’s numbers — especially ones subsequent to his debut — are stellar (all told, a 1.80 goals-against, .944 save pct.), but what has drawn my notice most is the technical brilliance with which he plays the position. It doesn’t seem to matter where shots come from on the ice; he seems to have his body consistently squared to the shooter. Pucks hit him in the middle of his frame and pads, rebounds are thereby relatively easily controlled, his blueliners puck possession and breakouts subsequently efficient. And it is certain that Vokoun and his blueliners will become even more comfortable with one another, and of more common understanding with one another, in the months ahead. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

On the morning of the season opener I overheard general manager George McPhee offer something close to a prediction that his third line of Joel Ward, Brooks Laich, and Jason Chimera would remind folks of one of the team’s all-time best two-way lines: Ulf Dahlen, Jeff Halpern, and Steve Konowalchuk. Prescient forecast, that. No club in the NHL can match the production and two-way impact of the Capitals’ third and fourth lines. It’s rare to see a club skate in fall 12 forwards you hope remain paired without alteration the following spring, but that’s what the Caps appear to have this fall.

This is a terrific time for Washington’s hockey team to be seriously surging, what with the Redskins swooning anew and the Wizards AWOL. Things could get real ice-interesting-re-orienting around here in short order. That would be a beautiful thing to watch.



7 Comments

  1. Louis Ray wrote:

    I have been holding my breath so far this season, because I have been disappointed so many times, but I am beginning to believe you might be right. The ability to rotate a full four lines, should mitigate against the key injuries which have plagued seasons past, and the possibility that they have achieved a real balance between offensive skill and defensive power could lead me to hope one more time.

    Maybe after another 10 – 20 games you will be able to count me as a true believer once again. I really hope so!

    24 October, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  2. LR, your observation about mitigating injury likelihood to some extent with greater roster balance is an important one. I appreciate you sharing it.

    24 October, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink
  3. Patrick wrote:

    Even the most negative of critics would struggle to find fault in the Caps play so far. Where are the Penguin fans lately?
    CHEERS!

    24 October, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  4. jas wrote:

    When a team plays with aggression and hunger for puck as well as maturity at defense that would make the best of offenses lose their mind; It is indeed a beautiful thing to watch.

    24 October, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Permalink
  5. Lisa Cole wrote:

    Is it possible we could be witnessing the collective maturation of the Caps young guns? As much as the skill and bench depth can mean in the spring, the real test will come if the Caps advance two or three rounds into the playoffs and come up against a team of grizzled veterans willing to sacrifice and pay the price. Will they have the will and the focus to sustain that kind of campaign? I’m Cautiously optimistic, but like Mr. Ray above, not quite sold yet…

    Go Caps!

    25 October, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  6. This organization has earned your skepticism, Lisa — richly. But if we analyze the early goings reasonably objectively it’s difficult not to conclude, I think, that something exceptional — particularly with respect to most recent iterations — has been assembled.

    25 October, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  7. Jon wrote:

    This team is really letting loose and playing confidently. This is what they are capable of. I just wish they didn’t get so tentative in the postseason. Does the team have the leadership it was lacking in against the Lightning in the sweep at the hands of the Lightning?

    25 October, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Permalink