Monday, January 17, 2011

Despite a 3-1 Win Over The Senators, Caps Still Need Minor Work ...

Yesterday afternoon's 3-1 win over Ottawa was the highlight of the last week for the Capitals. Yesterday's game was a good one by the Capitals, they played patient hockey, they stuck to their game plan - if you can say such a thing about a game where for the life of most people you can's discern who was playing with who on what line if they were wearing a red jersey - and in the end they prevailed convincingly. However yesterday's win meant the Capitals were 1-2-1 or 0.375 on the week when it comes to points captured vs. points possible, hardly their best week of the season. Perhaps the disturbing thing looking ahead for the rest of the season is the fact the Capitals have a schedule that is at least as tough as last week for the rest of the season, and it's not like things get any easier in the playoffs. The one team the Caps managed to beat cleanly last week is a struggling team, who arguably to a large degree beat themselves yesterday. Don't get me wrong, I'm not screaming like a crazy man for major rebuilds, etc. of the Capitals, I am just saying that playing like they've been playing doesn't give me a lot of confidence that they are on track this season for a deep run into the playoffs. They haven't been playing like that sort of team for going on eight weeks and that's a pretty long stretch of time. In fact as we all painfully remember for the month of December the Capitals went 5-6-3 and played 0.464 hockey; now so far this month they are 3-2-2 (0.571). Even more disconcerting is their play against likely "playoff teams" over that time span: 3-6-3; not exactly fear inducing to those potential playoff opponents.

So despite having 57 points in 46 games and being well on track for a 100+ point season, there's plenty of work the Capitals still need to do, if they want to achieve their goals this season. Earlier this month there was some speculation, locally here in the Washington DC metro, as to whether the Capitals might be "pacing themselves" - sure they're pacing themselves, just like I really worry about how winning a big Powerball Jackpot would mess with my life. Seriously, this is a team searching to identify what little tweaks it must do to win the tougher games and put away opponents consistently when they start a third period in control of the game. They aren't pacing themselves, the reason Bruce Boudreau and his mates on the coaching staff are constantly juggling the lines is not to make sure the team "paces itself" or their opponents can't get to fine "a bead" on them before the playoffs or anything silly like that. This team is looking for answers and because of the salary cap as well as the fact that of the 30 teams in the league AT LEAST 22 of them still have some reasonable possibility and hopes of making the playoffs so are NOT looking to give up anybody of "value" without getting something SIGNIFICANT in return. So making a deal that makes sense for a team is harder than ever right now for any NHL GM; and if you're George McPhee and the Capitals it might be even harder than for many others. Like many teams, the Capitals don't have much cap room; they have a very solid talent pipeline but to pick up what they need most right now, which in my and many others estimation is a solid second line center. That likely means they also need to trade away someone with a bit of a Cap hit to make room for the incoming player who will likely have a Cap hit of ~$4-5M for a full season. That won't be easy. The one place many worried about - goal tending - doesn't look to be all that much of an issue right now. Through 46 games, the Capitals young goal tending crew has had a combined GAA of 2.63, that's well within statistical norms to be considered "on par" with the other 20 or so likely and/or valid potential playoff teams. On defense while the Capitals continue to have a less "physical" defense than one might like (John Erskine is #2 on the team in hits (#1 is Ovechkin) with 97 is #44 in the league to date compared to Brent Seabrook of Chicago who is #9 with 140), the Capitals defense hasn't been the root of their issues these past eight weeks. The issue for the Capitals has been they've been weak offensively. Their previously high powered offense hasn't been putting the puck into the net, or even getting nearly as many high quality scoring chances per game as they've conditioned us all to expect. In the last eight weeks they've scored more than three (3) goals only three times in twenty-one (21) games and in those games they've been 2-0-1.

So the issue is that it's that time of year when the Capitals top six forwards need to start playing like their top six forwards - consistently. Here's a list of names for you: Scott Stevens, Patrick Roy, Nicklas Lidstrom, JS Giguire, Brad Richards, Cam Ward, Scott Niedermayer, Henrick Zetterberg, Evgeni Malkin, and Jonathan Toews. That list has three goaltenders, three defensemen, and four forwards - all centers on it; it's the list of Conn Smyth (playoff MVP) Trophy winners since 2000. My point here is, as importantly as secondary scoring, excellent team play, and great role players are to a deep Stanley Cup playoff run - this list would suggest that to win the Stanley Cup - your best players have to a) be your best players and b) be on their game, playing great hockey for the entire playoffs. The only way that usually happens is for those guys to be "on their best games" going into the playoffs, for the Capitals the only guys who are even close to fitting that are: Mike Green, Semyon Varlamov, and/or Michal Neuvirth. Given that in the post "lock-out" era, three of the five Conn Smyth Winners have been forwards, that's also not an especially comforting thought. It's time guys - its time - time for the best players to start consistently playing like the best players so the coaching staff can stop CONSTANTLY juggling the lines and this team can return to being a team with offensive flow as well as one that plays responsible hockey and defense. It's time to do that if this team is going to be ready for the 16 - 28 game second season that starts in the third week of April. To do that it's probably time for GM George McPhee to locate and obtain a solid, veteran second line or even "rental" first line center to enable that all to happen. That probably means it's going to cost the Capitals something. If the move works and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals results, everyone is likely to be happy. If it doesn't everyone will be looking at the move that gets made in the next couple of weeks in hindsight come June and thinking if not saying, well that wasn't all that smart. And like many other aspects of the game - that's hockey and that's why McPhee gets the big bucks. One things for certain the current status quo, especially against other playoff quality teams, isn't good enough to get there.

In the meantime, thanks for a solid game and two points yesterday Caps; next up the Flyers in Philadelphia on tomorrow evening.


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