Cool on the Caps
It’s not the same.
Those are the only four words I can use to describe the 2010-11 Washington Capitals. My mind races to try to wrap my head around that statement.
After all, this is largely the same team, same coaching staff, same owner and same management that absolutely dominated the NHL regular season a season ago. Last season’s Caps were a high-scoring, fun-loving juggernaut in the regular season: 54 wins, 121 points – nearly 20 points better than their nearest Eastern Conference rival – 318 goals and winning the Southeast Division by nearly 40 points.
That doesn’t even include the individual numbers, 50 goals and 100 points for team captain Alex Ovechkin, 100 points for center Nicklas Backstrom, 40 goals for winger Alexander Semin, 30 goals for winger Mike Knuble, seven 20-goal scorers, the leading scorer among defensemen in Mike Green and the league leader in plus-minus in Jeff Schultz at +55 (meaning Schultz was on the ice at even strength for 55 more goals than were scored against him).
This year, the Caps are struggling to do, well, everything. With less than 25 games left in the regular season, the Caps are closer to being out of the playoffs than the top seed. The team is struggling to score goals. Division rival Tampa Bay has opened up an ever-increasing lead on the Caps. After two inspiring games against Tampa and Pittsburgh, the team has regressed against Western Conference foes San Jose, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
The only silver lining is the Caps are preventing goals much better, and the penalty killing has improved substantially. But when you’re struggling to score, having to win every game 2-1 is walking a thin tightrope indeed.
So what’s the problem?
Really, who knows. Again, it’s just about the same team as a year ago, but this year something is off. It’s something deeper that I don’t think can be resolved through trades, practice or a change in coaches.
No, there’s something more Zen to the Capitals struggles. A psychological barrier that I’m not sure all the popes, swamis and snake charmers in the world can fix.
It’s a problem that has its roots around Game 5 of last year’s playoffs. Allow me to set the stage.
Last year’s Caps crushed the competition through 82 regular season games. After losing Game 1 of their playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens, the Caps found their groove in games 2,3 and 4 – outscoring Les Habitants 17-9, including handing Montreal humbling 5-1 and 6-3 defeats in the Habs’ own building to take a 3-1 series lead.
All the sudden, the offense dried up. A power play that had been the best in the league by a mile went 1-for-33 for the series. The once unstoppable Caps blew two out of the next three games at home to lose in seven games.
Certainly, Montreal’s trap-happy defensive system helped, as did the fact that the Caps pumped shot after shot into the shinpads of Montreal defenseman. The shots that did get through were stopped by then-Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak, who morphed from a guy who got pulled in his home rink into Ken Dryden, Dominik Hasek and Bernie Parent rolled into one.
The collapse was as swift as it was sudden. A little bit of hockey’s soul was lost with the Caps’ demise. Once again, a high-scoring, entertaining team had gone down in the postseason to a defensive-minded (i.e. boring) team.
Granted, given the Caps’ gory playoff history – it’s too long to recount here, but let’s just say they have a lengthy record of coming up short – I should have known.
After the Caps meltdown last year, I couldn’t watch hockey for a long time, which is truly saying something. Hockey is my first love, a game I’ve had the pleasure of watching and playing since 1987.
Last year, I lived and died with every Caps game; I cared maybe a little too much about November games against Columbus. Perhaps the best part of last year was sweeping the hated Pittsburgh Penguins and an 8-2 beatdown of the slightly less hated Philadelphia Flyers. When they took a 3-1 lead against Montreal, I looked forward to facing the Flyers in the next round and sweeping them right out of the playoffs. Alas.
The collapse against Montreal did a little bit more than just dampen my enthusiasm for the Caps. It made me totally not give a crap until the playoffs. Sure, I’ll watch them, and still love them (my Nick Backstrom Winter Classic jersey is especially spiffy) but I’m wary of falling in too deep again. They sucked me in big time last year and burned me bad.
I sort of think that has been the team’s approach to the season too. The players seemed to have adopted the attitude of, “We already tried rolling through the regular season and see what it got us? Let’s just save it for the playoffs.”
Only problem is hockey is not basketball, which is more individualistic and a game where talent alone can win. No, success in hockey is much more based on collective chemistry and a group work ethic. Those things are ingrained over the regular season, where a team establishes, at the least, a team chemistry and work habits that are brought night in and night out.
With this year’s Caps the whole thing just looks…off. From night to night, you don’t know what you’re going to get. They could score seven goals and look like the Caps of old, or get blanked twice in a week by a journeyman goalie like Dwayne Roloson. In fact, you’re more likely to see the latter than the former these days.
Ovechkin is a particularly perplexing case. In his first few years in the league there was no more thrilling player to watch. You had to watch Caps games every night just to see what kind of highlight reel goal or hit he might break out next. The man was a wrecking ball on skates, and his YouTube-ready goals, gap-toothed grin and goofy Russian accent were a big hit.
But something has happened in the last year. The once effervescent Ovechkin seems suddenly muted. I’m not sure what the cause is, but if you watch him from two years ago compared to now, it’s not the same guy. It’s not just bad luck – he has to lead the league in shots that are sure goals ringing off the posts; he seems beat down.
Certainly there are reasons for that. The guy seems to have more critics than the Cannes Film Festival. His exuberant goal celebrations drew the ire of hockey purists.
His hit on Chicago’s Brian Campbell last season seems to have tempered his physical play, after he was accused of being a reckless and dirty player.
It also seems he has not recovered from the drubbing his beloved Russia received in the 2010 Olympics at the hands of rival Sidney Crosby and Canada. The meltdown against Montreal in the playoffs was just mayonnaise on the poop sandwich that was Ovi’s 2009-10 season.
Teammates and buddies Backstrom, Green and Semin seem to have followed in this malaise. Sure, there have been good moments – the Winter Classic victory against Pittsburgh stands out – but as a whole, the Caps have the feel of a team that hasn’t found whatever elusive “it” they had for the 2009-10 regular season.
Is it too late? Not at all. In hockey, teams can find that “it” at various times. The 2008-09 Penguins would win the Stanley Cup, but not before firing their coach after struggling up until February. Last year’s Flyers needed a shootout win on the last day of the season just to make the playoffs, but found their stride at the right time to make a run to the finals.
Here’s all you need to know about this year’s team: at midseason the Caps have abandoned the high-scoring, free-wheeling, entertaining system they played the past three years in favor of…gulp…the trap.
It’s just not the same.