Road may be just what Caps need, and the real world saves the day
For a longtime Washington Capitals fan such as myself, the warning signs through the first two games of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Tampa Bay Lightning are all too familiar.
Missed opportunities, bad luck, an opposing goaltender stealing games, not being able to generate enough offense, ragged play and more missed opportunities have all too often become hallmarks of the Caps this time of year. Like many teams before them, this version of the Caps was supposed to change that. Through two home losses, they don’t look like they’re going to be any different.
I know I should be more optimistic about things, not be so fatalistic. But until this franchise removes the black cloud that seems to always hover over it in the playoffs, it’s not going to go away. Like Red Sox fans before 2004, Caps fans, at least older Caps fans like myself, expect the worst and hope for the best. When we see the warning signs of the old “choking dogs,” as Tony Kornheiser used to call them in the 1980s, you could listen to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” by The Smiths on a 24-hour loop you’re so depressed.
And the warning signs are all there.
Tampa has had all the luck so far. In Game 1 they changed the momentum with a goal that went off Caps defenseman Scott Hannan’s stick and in Game 2 they took the lead on a goal off Mike Green’s skate.
The Caps are blowing all kinds of opportunities, especially early in Game 2 when Tampa went on a parade to the penalty box, and the Caps couldn’t score. They have had several chances with gaping open nets and haven’t capitalized. Marco Sturm and Nicklas Backstrom both missed breakaways in Game 2. The Caps have dominated the bulk of the action in this series and yet find themselves down two games.
The other team’s goalie, as always it seems with the Caps, has looked like a human Berlin Wall. Dwayne Roloson, the Bolts’ 41-year-old netminder, has stopped just about everything the Caps can throw at him. The Caps have been able to score on him by rushing the net hard, which of course, they’re not doing enough.
Tampa’s 1-3-1 defensive system is also causing issues for the Caps, which to me is absurd since the Lightning have been playing the same system all year, and the Caps played Tampa six times in the regular season. Instead of being patient, by forcing the Lightning forwards to become so bored they rush in and break the trap themselves, the Caps are skating right into it.
–––Side rant alert (scroll down if you want to avoid this rant about hockey strategy)––––
So here’s the gist of Tampa’s 1-3-1: one forward forechecks, three players line up around the red line to clog the neutral zone (the area between the blue lines), with one man trailing behind as a safety valve.
The idea is to invite the opposition to carry the puck up ice, then trapping the puck carrier and forcing a turnover – leading to a quick counterattack – or forcing him to dump the puck.
I do not begrudge Tampa coach Guy Boucher for employing this strategy. His job is to win games by any means necessary. Period. If not, he will be fired and replaced by someone the organization thinks can win games.
That being said, I hate this system. Hate it. Hate it in the same way Roger Ebert hated the movie “North.”
It is meant to choke the life out of everything that is great about the sport of hockey, the speed, the skill, and the dazzling artistry some of these players can display with the puck. It’s basically meant to take away everything that is fun about the game.
This system is not too dissimilar from its hideous forebearer, the neutral-zone trap, which the New Jersey Devils and their imitators used to suck the life out of the game in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The league paid for not doing anything about this stuff with miniscule TV ratings, since who other than a hockey diehard wants to watch two teams basically play a soccer match on ice? If casual fans, and yes, hockey people, we are going to need these folks to grow the sport, want to watch two teams play for 1-0 or 2-1 victories, they’ll watch the English Premier League.
If I may paraphrase Toronto General Manager Brian Burke, all people want out of a hockey game is to see some goals, see their team win and maybe see a fight or two. Systems like the 1-3-1 do nothing for that.
The post-lockout rule changes were supposed to end this kind of stuff. But after a brief explosion of scoring in the first few post-lockout years, offensive numbers are close to being back where they were before the lockout, with only one 50-goal scorer this year (Anaheim’s Corey Perry) and one 100-point scorer (Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin).
I don’t know how you legislate this stuff out of the game, but if you want to see how hockey is meant to be played, I suggest watching games from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. That era had a lot of scoring, but not the video game numbers of the early Gretzky years. It was physical and hard-hitting. Despite a lot of offense, it had great goaltenders, who could stop pucks without looking like the Michelin Man like the goalies do today. It was a fan-friendly era.
For years I had a tape of Game 7 of the Smythe Division Semifinals between Vancouver and Calgary. It was a tremendous game: the teams went up and down the ice, it was hard hitting, great goaltending, a dramatic overtime finish – it had everything you want hockey to be.
These new systems that consist of “let’s line everyone up at the red line like bowling pins and pray for a turnover” may win games for coaches, but as a fan and someone who loves this sport, it was crap when the Devils did it, and it’s crap now.
––––End of side rant ––––––––
With all that said, going on the road for the two games in Tampa might be the best thing for the Caps. Between the end of their first round series with New York and the long layoff between the Tampa series, the Caps have been at home for more than a week.
At home, you don’t have the rigid routine you do on the road. On the road, you can focus just on the game itself, something Tampa – which has won five straight road games – has done. Going into a hostile rink can sharpen your senses; make you more aware of what’s going on out there on the ice.
If nothing else, the Caps have the knowledge that road teams have been dominate this postseason. They’re going to need that on their side. Down 2-0, they’re somewhere between heaven and hell.
The end of Bin Laden
After the Caps lost Game 2 in overtime last night, I licked my wounds in front of the tube while the wife, dog and cats slept all around me. Flipping around on the remote, I came across the newsflash that said Osama Bin Laden was dead.
Now if that doesn’t make one forget about a pro hockey team losing, I’m not sure what does.
Speaking for myself personally, I felt no great jubilation at Bin Laden’s demise. My feeling was one of relief.
Relief for those folks that lost loved ones in New York, Pennsylvania and DC on 9/11. It’s not closure, but it’s something.
Relief that a murderer has been brought to some form of justice.
Relief for our armed servicemen and servicewomen out there, this surely means the world to them, as they’ve been the ones on the ground, at sea and in the air doing the grunt work.
Relief that this guy is no longer out there preaching ignorance, intolerance, violence and fear, there’s far too much of it in the world today.
Relief for our current president and former president, who’ve had the weight of the free world on their shoulders to bring Bin Laden to justice.
And finally, relief for my fellow Americans, those folks celebrating in the streets and chanting “USA-USA-USA,” too many of whom haven’t had much to be happy about over the last few years.