Monday, December 20, 2010

The Fall and Rise and Fall and Rise: Washington Caps 2010/2011 So Far

It’s been an interesting season for the Washington Capitals so far. The team hit 10 wins in only 14 games, better then last season, and the best start in team history. Despite not playing well the guys in red did what they did last year, won. Well, at least until recently. Having jumped out to lead in the South East division, the Caps, who have struggled all season to consistently score, lost 8 straight. While they managed to pick up a couple points during the losing streak, they also managed to give up a lot of ground and dropped to third in the South East behind Atlanta and Tampa Bay. While the losing streak is now over, a 3-2 victory on the road against Ottawa, the team is steal struggling to look like the team that won the Presidents Trophy last year.

There’s been a lot of criticism of this team all year. With Varly sidelined with an injury to start the season off the Caps put all their net minding responsibilities on Michel Neuvirth, who responded great. While the offense hasn’t been clicking, minus two 7 goal performances against the Rangers and Flames, the Caps goaltending and defense has stepped up big time.

While Neuvy has cooled down over the past month, he was hot to start the season. His glove was snagging anything near the net and he made great save after great save to help give the Caps a lot of close, low scoring wins early. With Varlamov out the team turned to Brayden Holtby to step in as Neuvy’s backup. Holtby’s starts were inconsistent. There were flashes of great talent from Holtby but inexperience showed. Holtby’s had better starts down in Hershey since he was sent back down but he’s still been inconsistent between the pipes. A year or two in the AHL will really help is development in something special.

Varlamov came back from injury and look spectacular. He looked like the Varly that everyone feel in love with during the Rangers and Penguins series of the 08/09 season. The question of who would be in net for the Capitals seemed to be answered. They have 2 strong goaltenders, and while Varlamov has shown himself to be the better of the two, you have confidence with either one of them in net. While I still questions some of Neuvy’s puck handling behind the net and both goalies give up way to many soft goals, I don’t think the team will go out and look for a veteran goaltender.

The offseason saw Bruce Boudreau try to help the teams biggest weakness, defense. We all knew the team could fly down the ice and score at will but they couldn’t play defense last year. The penalty kill wasn’t very good and the Caps won too many 6-5/5-4 games. Two many goals allowed and late in the season and in the playoffs you could directly point to defensive breakdowns that lead to easy goals for Caps opponents.

The first month and half/two months of the season we watched a different Caps team play. We saw the team play defense and play defense well. While complaints flew about how the offense was broken, the defense went unnoticed. The Capitals penalty kill went the first 7 or 8 games with a perfect PK and was playing lights out. The Caps were 3 strong lines to start the season, Green and Shultz, Alzner and Carlson, and Poti and Erskine. The team even went out and traded Fleischmann to the Avalanche to acquire Scott Hannan, a big stay at home defensemen.

The biggest issue with the defense is they’ve been so injury plagued the last 2 months that it’s been hard to remain consistent. Poti was out a couple weeks, followed by Green. And while they got Hannan, injuries haven’t allowed for lines to develop and gel. Hannan has played with a different player in just about every game since joining the team. While John Erskine has turned into a solid player for the Caps, Tyler Sloan still sucks. Sloan’s play this season has been woeful and his injury/flu recently has, sadly, been welcome. Jeff Shultz has also been out with a broken thumb and will be out for the 4-5 weeks. While there are 6 solid defenders in DC, Tyler Sloan in reserve, and Brian Fahey always a phone call away in Hershey, anymore injuries on the defensive side of the puck and things could get bad quick.

Now to the offensive side of the ice… The Capitals forwards should be grateful for solid net minding and good defensive play this year. Winning games 2-1 in overtime is not really Washington Capitals’ hockey. It’s certainly not been the Caps way of winning since Boudreau took over as coach. But struggle they have. They dropped the season opener and responded by murdering the Rangers in a 7-2 game. But then for the next month the Caps couldn’t score. The team did nothing on the power play early on. It was almost as if the last couple of years were a fluke. And then the Caps played Calgary and again put up 7 goals and took a statement win. Their offense was back and their power play was working… For a little while. The Caps had a couple of solid weeks in November where they returned to form. They were scoring 4 goals a game and while their defense struggled in that stretch, the team was mostly playing well.

The team’s inability to score goals early in the season and over their recent 8 game losing streak, points to a real problem. While their victory against Ottawa saw the team score twice in 44 seconds in the first 2 minutes of the second period, something we had yet to see this year, the offensive production overall just hasn’t been there. And part of that goes back to last season’s playoff disappointment and the way Montreal played the Caps.

Teams are doing a good job getting sticks on the puck. Anytime the Caps are on the offensive attack teams are finding a way to block shots and passes, and break any sustained pressure or momentum. On top of that, the Caps have become real lazy with their passing. Too many blind backward passes to nobody, or passes side to side that are easily picked off. The Caps have had one, maybe two, good passing games this season. The other thing is teams are doing a great job of double and triple teaming Alex Ovechkin. He hasn’t been successful breaking free from pressure and scoring like he has in past years. While this has opened things up for Backstrom and Semin at points this season, if those guys aren’t hitting the mark it doesn’t matter.

No bounces have gone the Caps way and they seem to be getting teams and goaltenders best performances each time they hit the ice, and that’s to be expected. Tim Thomas was lights out against the Caps going 3-1 in their 4 games this year. The great, pretty, clean shots the Caps made all last year haven’t found their way to the back of the net this season and so the game needs to change. Mike Knuble, Eric Fehr and Brooks Laich have to be solid and have to know their role of playing in front of the net. On those first two lines the Caps really need a guy to stand in front of the net, screen the goalie, and get the dirty goals. Sydney Crosby’s first couple of seasons were spent in front of the net just collecting rebounds and putting them in the net. The Caps need to be a better rebounding team and find a way to take multiple wacks at the puck, like they did against Ottawa. This one shot and done nonsense that’s been happening all season has to stop.

The other thing the Caps need to improve on is their power play. 0-8 in a loss to the Florida Panthers…. 0-8. That can’t happen. The power play hasn’t looked good, even when it’s worked. The Capitals have struggle to get the puck in deep and keep long, sustained pressure with lots of shots, that result in goals. They spend too much time passing, waiting for the perfect shot that they miss chances to just get the puck in front of the net and take swings at it. All this passing is frustrating and it creates, once a game, an odd man, shorthanded rush for the other team. I tweet about it every game and I’m tired of it.

The Caps now have a win after 8 straight losses and hopefully that monkey is off their back. With two games against Pittsburgh coming up, one of them the Winter Classic, and HBO soon to be gone from the locker, I hope this team can build off their win against the Senators and start scoring again. I still believe this team can make and advance in the playoffs and I’m glad this losing streak happened now and not in March.