Monday, November 15, 2010

Balance ...

Balance is something that when a talented team like the Washington Capitals exhibit it, makes them almost unstoppable. Unfortunately balance is something that is often fleeting, at least so far this season. A lot of folks have talked about the search for the 60 minute game, something that a lot of Caps fans feel we may have seen once so far this season during the 18 games the Capitals have played. To be sure a consistent solid effort by an entire hockey team is a significant part in achieving that thing I am calling balance. Another thing is that the entire team is playing and executing their roles, such that no one or two players need to be on the ice an inordinate amount of time. When a team is balanced and executing a balanced game plan, there's no need for a couple of players to "carry the team." If you are now asking yourself: "What's this guy talking about?" Don't worry I'm ready to make my point and here it is. The Washington Capitals, the team I root for in the NHL, is dangerously close to being a balanced hockey team and in fact often during this season so far they have been a balanced hockey team hitting on all cylinders for 20 or more minutes a game.

What only 20 minutes a game? you say. Yes, I reply, take last evening, clearly during the second period the Capitals were not executing well and were unbalanced. Last night I'd say the Capitals played about 25 minutes of balanced hockey and that was more than enough to beat the Thrashers. Though parity is starting to be achieved throughout the league and the Thrashers are much improved over last season, not all their off season moves this summer are paying off well. Though the pick-up of Andrew Ladd was by far the best move the Thrashers made this summer, at least so far this season. The pickup and transition of Dustin Byfuglien hasn't always been smooth and last evening was one of those times it wasn't pretty for Atlanta when big Buff was on the ice. I say this in spite of his statistics as if you watched the game he was routinely "preyed" upon by the faster and better skaters on the Capitals team.

One of the positives and why I say the Capitals are getting close to achieving balance throughout an entire game is exhibited in their ice time report from last evening. Ovechkin total TOI: 17:52 avg/shift: 0:56; Green total TOI: avg/shift ; those are the numbers you want to see these two guys around every game; they are of course the top forward and top blue-liner on the team. But look at these numbers and also look at the per period numbers of these guys Matt Hendricks total TOI: 14:48 avg/shift: 0:52; Karl Alzner total TOI: 19:53, avg/shift: 0:51; David Steckel total TOI: 15:39, Avg/shift: 0:44; John Erskine total TOI: 12:29 avg/shift: 0:49 (and don't forget Erskine spent 5 minutes in the penalty box for what at least so far this season was the best hockey fight by a Capital. That's a pretty balanced line-up and play, certainly there wasn't a lot of line matching going on by the Capitals coaching staff or if there was it's not all that obvious.

Of course all those good thoughts and things aside. The second period last evening was the worst period of NHL hockey I've watched live in a pretty long time. In fact given last night was the Capitals 70th consecutive sellout and I've been there for around 53 of them, I'd say the second period in last night's game was the most painful period of hockey for me to watch live in at least 52 games. Seriously, from right after Matt Hendricks responded to Andrew Ladds' first tally of the evening at the 2:23 mark of the period until about the 15:00 mark of the period the Capitals had no chemistry let alone balance. At one point or another just about every one of the Capitals looked like they were skating in quicksand for at least one shift. Then the last five minutes of the period, well just when I thought I couldn't get more disgusted at the on ice officiating in the NHL this season, well it got worse in my opinion. There were multiple non-calls of totally obvious penalties and this is going on while the score is tied 4-4. Seriously, if you can trip a guy in the corner so bad that I'm thinking it's a marginal slew-foot, then what's the point of even having a rule? There were nights in the past when I've complained about Kerry Fraser and made fun of his hair; and Stephane Auger - don't get me started; but Dave Jackson, congratulations, you sir are why the NHL must now continue to prohibit the organists around the league from playing "Three Blind Mice..."

Thankfully, the Capitals team that returned to play the third period was much more like the team that played during the first period than the second. The truth is that the first 10 minutes of the third period was probably the best hockey that either team played last evening.

So the guys who had good games last evening, I mean good games for the entire sixty minutes:
- Matt Hendricks (+3, 3 hits, 1 goal)
- David Steckel (+3, 83% FW (19 of 23), 3 hits, 1 takeaway, 1 blocked shot, 1 goal, 1 assist)
- John Erskine (+2, 2 hits, 3 blocked shots, 1 goal (the game winner) and 1 takeaway)
- Mike Green (+2, 6 blocked shots, 1 goal, 1 assist)
- Jeff Schultz (+2, 1 assist, 2 blocked shots)
- Tyler Sloan (+2, 2 assists, 2 hits, 2 blocked shots).

Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom owned the Thrashers in the first period and were a threat every time they were on the ice in the third period. The second period, as we say, not so much. For whatever reason last night during the second period the Thrashers basically outworked the entire Capitals team. Its hard to stay motivated with a two or three goal lead. The truth is the Thrashers first two lines are good this year. Andrew Ladd and Rich Peverley played well all night and they played hard all night. During the second period the Thrashers other young guns Evander Kane and Bryan Little also played well and came alive. In fact there were at least two instances during the second period when I wondered aloud why Mike Green didn't just stomp on Kane and on one of them he made us pay for not tying him up and neutralizing him when got the primary assist on Little's goal at the 3:07 mark of the second period to pull the Thrashers within one of the Caps. One last note on who fram the Tharshers had a good or bad night last night - statistically this season so far Nik Antropov of the Thrashers can't buy a good night. Last evening Antropov was as much a force in the Thrashers solid play in the second period as pretty much anybody other than Ladd or Peverley but he still managed to finish the evening at -3. I'm not a fantasy hockey guy but think about it so far this season Antropov is pretty much fantasy hockey death while over the last three Capitals games John Erskine has been total money. I'm thinking we'll be seeing that Fu Manchu 'stache that Erskine has been sporting for Movember until the 2011 playoffs are over the way things are going for the 30 year old Kingston, Ontario native.

In any case despite the ups and downs and ebbs and flows of the game, the Capitals managed to once again rise to the occasion and finish the night with two points as well as find themselves leading the league in the standings. To me the best coaching move of the night was leaving Michal Neuvirth in the net and letting him work his way through an evening that at one point (the end of the second period) saw him in possession of a SV% of 0.769 before recovering and progressing back towards his statical norms to finish the evening with his league leading 11th win of the young season and a SV% of 0.851 for the game. The most questionable coaching from my perspective came during the Capitals power plays late in the second period when after Bryan Little scored short handed for his second goal of the evening, the Caps juggled the power play all around trying all sorts of what to me were odd combinations while Mike Green was in the box. I just couldn't understand what the coaching staff was thinking other than something on the order of "Well since we are looking basically awful right now, let's trow the kitchen sink at 'em and see where that gets us." it didn't get us anywhere but we did manage to get out of the second period tied 4-4 and enabled us to basically play and win two points in what ended up being a 20 minute game.

Oh well, they all can't be pretty and to me the good things about last night were:

1) Michal Neuvirth fighting through his second period, where at least some of the issue was mediocre - not terrible but mediocre - rebound control and getting the victory.

2) Secondary scoring. 50% of the goals and 56.25% of the points the Capitals scored last night were done so by team members other than either top 6 forwards or Mike Green. That's a good night and a team effort by any measure.

3) Once again an active defense that is joining the rush figured in the game in a significant way. The blue line corps participated in five of the six Capitasl goals on the night. The only goal that a blue liner wasn't involved in was David Steckel's empty netter to ice the game at the 19:23 mark of the third period.

4) Alexander Semin's goal. Two reasons: a) it was the prettiest goal of the nice and it's awfully cool to see Ovie make a saucer pass to Semin in a little role reversal; and b) it was for Semin's 13th goal of the season and it moved him in front of this Crosby kid that some people out in Western Pa are always talking about. Also because it's part of the reason we're starting to see what I'd say are silly articles like this one about "the other Alex". So let me be the first or one of the first to say it - Ryan Lambert is most likely an idiot and this article is one of the silliest ones I've seen in a while. Take his statement: "But the year before that he had 14 points in 14 games and in 2007-08 he had eight in seven, right? Well, one or both of Ovechkin and Backstrom were on the ice for all but one of those." Well I was at or watched all those games and you know what you could take Ovechkin or Backstrom's playoff stats from that post season adjust the numbers slightly and move those three names into any of the other two places and say the same thing. Or how about this take Maxim Talbott, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby and their stats from the Penguins last two season they made/won the Stanley Cup finals and in the case of Malkin and Crosby make an argument as to who facilitated whose glory. Most people tend to forget Malkin is the guy who got the Conn Smyth when Pittsburgh last won the Cup. My point/contention is that Semin is one of the top 10 or 15 players in the NHL today. He's an elite talent and paying him $8M or so a season the next couple of seasons won't likely be looked at - even in retrospect say when he's retired and his playing days are behind him in say 2022 or so - as having "overpaid" him. That's why I'm saying the article I linked you too, is dumb. That said I love articles like this. I think they serve notice to ALL the Capitals that until this team wins a Stanley Cup, they are all - including Ovechkin, Green, Semin, Backstrom, Laich, Boudreau all of them - just as likely to have their talents and their exciting style of play questioned or subject to armchair pundits adding footnotes to their accomplishments. That's got to be a great motivator for them all.

5) The race for the crown for Movember is clearly now between John Erskine's lucky Fu Manchu and Karl "Erik The Red" Alzner's full crimson beard. The fact that so far this month both players have been having very good results on the ice, and that hockey players are notoriously superstitious means we are likely to see them keeping their current looks for a while longer. If they do I think I have a suggestion as to know who should be playing Santa at the Capitals Team Christmas Party...

Okay so next up will be the Buffalo Sabres here at Verizon Center on Wednesday evening. I'll be watching the game here at home in Bristow on CSN (HD) but I'll still be Rockin' the Red. How about y'all?



Anonymous said...

Mark, on your latest feed you suggest that Dave Jackson has recently missed some calls, I take it. What were you referring to as to the Caps in last night's game? Thanks.

Usually Frustrated Caps Fan said...

Just watch a replay of the last two minutes of the second period last at least two missed calls by both refs and to me the worst was a trip/at least almost slew foot in the Cap right side defensive corner....

To me this isn't news the officiating this year has taken a hit due to some retirements by some senior guys that many of us older hope would soon retire. Now we can all have regrets that we got what we wanted. I for one never thought I'd miss Kerry Fraser...