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The Caps Are 0-3. Should We Worry?
Braden Holtby takes a spin in the Capitals’ net during the 2012 Playoffs (Photo Credit: M. Richter).
After the third game (and loss) of the season, the Caps are off to a rough start. But when you add everything up, is it really a surprise? More importantly, when should fans (and the team) be worried?
The Caps aren’t known for getting off to a slow start, but this is far from a normal season. In the past, they have had the consistency of a traditional training camp, complete with development camps and exhibition games, as well as steady coaching. Even though the Caps have gone through three coaches in two years, this is the first time they’ve started a season with a new coach and brand new systems since 2002 when Bruce Cassidy took over the team.
This year, the Caps have plenty of things to adapt to in addition to the new bench boss. While that isn’t an excuse for poor play, it’s something worth exploring after their first two games.
Coaching changes can rattle any team. Sometimes, that’s precisely the reason a change occurs, but it’s always a risk. Bouncing through three different systems in two years is a rapid change by any measurement, and the constant transition makes it difficult to find a middle ground within any of the systems.
Last year, the Caps made a mid-season switch from Bruce Boudreau‘s attempt at a defensively responsible team to Dale Hunter‘s strict defensive tactics. While the players bought in and played the system as well as they could on such short notice, it wasn’t enough to make it past the NY Rangers. They fell in the second round of the playoffs, after an impressive struggle to even get into the post-season.
Not long after the Caps’ season ended, Hunter announced he would not be coming back, and the Caps were back to square one. That’s where former-Capital and Hockey Hall of Fame member Adam Oates comes in (along with a brand new support system of familiar faces on the assistant panel, Calle Johansson and Tim Hunter).
Thanks to the long-lived CBA dispute, the Capitals – along with the rest of the NHL – missed out on some key preseason conditioning and a chance to build familiarity amongst the new faces in their club. Because the staff was prohibited from talking to their players, Oates lost a huge opportunity to get acquainted with his new team and explain his approach to the game. The one thing he was able to accomplish was getting an idea of the team he’s now handling. He had plenty of time to prepare and theoretically allocate talent, but woefully little time to implement the grand schemes that populate the whiteboards in his mind.
Change happens in hockey, however. It’s a given, even if it’s been a while since the Caps were quite so abruptly subjected to it as the year got underway. What makes this start so different is the experimentation going on.
While conditioning has been mentioned as an issue for some, the chemistry and structure the Capitals’ lines is at least as much of a concern for many. Several of the lines are quite different from previous seasons, and it’s the kind of thing that will take time to get used to (and that’s only after the lines are settled).
Mike Green and Tom Poti are two players we haven’t seen enough of in the last few seasons, and finally appear to be back in the game (at least for now, fingers crossed!). The tandem has yet to really impress, but they’ve made important strides and should see improvement as the season progresses.
Green and Poti aren’t the only ones on the defence end of things who bear blame for recent losses. Their fellow d-men – most notably, perhaps, is the Alzner-Carlson pairing who have been on the ice for the majority of goals against – have yet to show the discipline and great play we’ve been hoping for, especially in a more balanced system of play.
On the offensive side, you may notice something different about Alex Ovechkin – he’s not on the right. No, he’s not suffering from renewed culture-shock, that placement is on purpose. Both Oates and Ovechkin decided to try out the other wing in an effort to open up the ice and improve his play. But that’s not all the only new item on the Caps captain’s agenda – he’s also being tested on the penalty kill. Both are very controversial, as they have been tried before without positive results (and have yet to shine through this time around).
Whether or not these changes stick around, it’s easy to make the argument that the possibility for improvement might be just a practice or two (or perhaps three) away.
Along with changes within former Capitals line-ups, there have been additions since the last season that are still taking their time settling in.
Starting from the fourth line and working our way up, we have Joey Crabb, who played for the ECHL‘s Alaska Aces during the lockout. While he was comfortable scoring in the ECHL, his place among the Capitals will likely be a more limited, albeit much needed, fourth liner and penalty killer. His Washington debut against the Jets wasn’t very notable, but that’s not something to worry about just yet. The entire penalty killing system has yet to really kick in, despite seeing quite a bit of ice during the last two games. Crabb did offer some relief late in the third, breaking the Canadiens 4-0 shutout with his first goal of the season and the only Capital goal of the game.
Higher up the ranks, we have Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolski on a second line with second-year Capital Troy Brouwer, all bringing in points in their first two games for the Caps. For game three, Wolski was moved up to the first line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, however he was returned to the second line later in the game. Their play, together or not, is something we can hope will continue as the team begins to find their balance, and a strong second line is something that the Capitals have badly needed.
Still, one of the biggest questions remains – Where in the world is Braden Holtby?
For the Capitals, goaltending has been an issue for a number of years. Most recently, it hasn’t been an issue of lack of talent, but rather a mixture of injuries and rising talent slowly maturing in the minors.
Likewise, veteran Tomas Vokoun‘s single season with the Capitals was also injury filled, shifting the starting slot in part to the rising Michal Neuvirth. As in previous seasons, Neuvirth proved to be comfortable in the crease at the NHL level.
Unfortunately, as the playoffs approached, the team’s injury bug caught up with Michal. This left it up to Braden Holtby to carry the team’s hopes into the post-season. It was a good opportunity for the rookie, who has gained quite the reputation as a high-pressure performer for both the Bears and Capitals.
This year, however, Braden’s performance has been somewhat troubling. This is even more so in light of the fact that he spent the lockout keeping his skills sharp with the Hershey Bears.
Braden was noticeably slow tracking puck movement, and he made several judgement errors in playing and stopping the puck that became apparent in game two.
Two games in is an incredibly small sample size, and it’s even smaller when judging goaltending. However, it is important to remember that the Caps are a team with two skilled goaltenders to make use of.
Michal Neuvirth started game three against the Montreal Canadiens, but unfortunately wasn’t able to produce the results wanted for the club, with a final score of 4-1 for the Canadiens.
Not all the blame can be put on the goalies (let’s be reasonable, is it ever really all their fault? Of course not). The Capitals need some work up both front and on defence, most notably in the areas of timing and chemistry development. If they want to make a run for the cup, they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them. With luck, this three-game sample is just the same general mud-puddle that many teams are struggling to work through as they shake some life into sleeping limbs. If that’s the case, then it’s only a matter of time, coaching, and hard work before they’re back to the Caps we’ve been waiting for.
Perhaps game two of the Caps’ first back-to-back will be enough to shake the remaining rust for real. At the very latest, we should be seeing the turn around by Valentine’s Day. If it does, then it will be time to dig out that old and familiar doom and gloom (and possibly borrow a few spare rations from the Maple Leafs…)
M. Richter contributed to this report.