Yet More Change for the Capitals

Six years ago, I was pretty excited about the future for the Washington Capitals. They had just lost their first round match up with the Flyers – which was a bummer – but they had made the playoffs for the first time in 3 seasons. I wrote at the time:

Furthermore, even though they lost, these playoffs are a promise of future success. I tell my kids all the time that the only way to get good at something is to work hard while you’re bad at it. Playoff hockey is no different. Most of the Caps had little or no playoff experience going into this series and it really showed thru the first three games. But they kept at it and played much better over the last four games of the series. They went 2-2 in those games, but the two losses went to overtime. A little more luck (or better officiating) and the Caps are headed to Pittsburgh instead of the golf course.

What a difference six seasons makes. Sure, they won the President’s Trophy in 2010. But the promise of future playoff success has been broken, badly. The Caps have been on a pretty steep decline after getting beat by the eighth seed Canadians in the first round of the playoffs in 2010. Since then, they’ve switched systems three times and head coaches twice. This year, they missed the playoffs entirely even with Alex Ovechkin racking up a league-leading 51 goals.

Today, the word came down that both the coach and general manager have been let go. As a Caps fan, I’m really torn about this. I mean, I totally agree that the coach and GM had to go – frankly, I was surprised it didn’t happen 7-10 days earlier. But now what do you do? The draft is two months and one day away, free agency starts two days after that. The search for a GM is going to have to be fast. Then the GM will have to make some really important decisions about players at the draft, free agency and compliance buyouts with limited knowledge of the players in our system. Plus, he’ll need to hire a new head coach – preferably before the draft as well.

The one positive note is that the salary cap for the Capitals looks pretty good for next year. The Capitals currently have the second largest amount of cap space / open roster slot in the league. (The Islanders are first with $14.5 million / open roster slot. The Caps have just over $7 million / open roster slot.) They have only a handful of unrestricted free agents to resign – with arguably only one “must sign” (Mikhail Grabovski) in the bunch. Of course, this could also be a bug rather than a feature – having that many players under contract may make it harder for the new GM to shape the team in his image.

Who every the Capitals hire to be GM and coach, I’m not expecting a promising start. It feels like the next season is already a wash, and we’re not even finished with the first round of this year’s playoffs yet.

I guess it could be worse.

I could be a Toronto Leafs fan.

Playing With The Lead

Ovechkin Celebrates the Capitals' First Goal in Game 5

Obviously, the Capitals win Saturday was huge. It put them through to the second round for only the second time since their trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998. It was also the first playoff series in the Ovechkin/Boudreau era to be settled without having to go the full seven games. The Capitals have played four seven-game playoff series in the past three years. It’ll be nice for the Caps to have the extra time off to rest and heal for a change.

As we wait to see who the Capitals will face in the Conference Semifinals, I want to highlight what I think is a huge change from series from the past three years: The Capitals went 3-1 against the Rangers when they held the series lead. Over the four series in 2008-2010, the Capitals went 2-5 in games where they held the series lead. That’s pretty bad. It gets even worse when you realize that both of those wins came early in their respective series. The Caps won game #2 against the Penguins in ’09 to take a 2-0 series lead. Last year, they won game #3 against the Canadiens to take a 3-1 series lead. In both of those series, the Capitals proceeded to lose the next three games. They eventually lost both series.

So when the Caps lost game 3 and we’re down 3-0 at the start of the 3rd period in game 4, it certainly seemed as if the Capitals we’re going to choke away another series lead like they had the past two years. Instead, they came out for the third period and played like their backs were against the wall. And while the Capitals’ have sucked at defending a series lead, they have played very well well when facing elimination – 6-3 to be exact in the past three years.

If the new-and-improved Caps can combine their traditional talent of playing from behind in the series with the ability to drive nails into coffins win games when they have the series lead, the Capitals will be a very hard team to beat this year.

Shocker at Staples

My passion for the Washington Capitals is well documented. What you don’t know is that I was actually a Los Angeles Kings fan before I was a Capitals fan.

I wasn’t into hockey growing up, but I caught hockey fever when I was going to college in southern California. That was the Gretzky era  – he led them to the Stanley Cup finals the year after I graduated from USC – and the Kings were the hottest ticket in town. But that era faded with the 1994 lockout, bankruptcy, trading Gretzky to the Blues in 1996 and missing the playoffs four years in a row. But unlike most of my then-fellow Angelenos, I stayed on the Kings bandwagon.

In 1998, the Kings finally made it back to the playoffs, facing the St. Louis Blues (Gretzky had moved on to the Rangers by then). The Kings had lost the first two games in St. Louis, but held a 3-0 lead in the 3rd period of Game #3. Then this happened:

In a game that will be talked about for years to come, the Kings saw a 3-0 lead wiped out by four St. Louis power-play goals within a 3:07 span after defenseman Sean O’Donnell received a fighting major for beating down the Blues’ Geoff Courtnall, who had knocked down goaltender Jamie Storr.

Pascal Rheaume, Brett Hull and Pierre Turgeon scored goals to tie the score and then Terry Yake knocked in the game-winner as the Blues rallied for a 4-3 victory Monday night to take a commanding 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven playoff series before a sellout crowd of 16,005 at the Great Western Forum.

Meltdown on Manchester
Los Angeles Times, April 28 1998

I was one of those 16,005. It was the ugliest feeling I have ever had walking out of a hockey game.

I imagine the fans at the Staples Center last night are familiar with it.

"I’ve never seen anything like it," defenseman Matt Greene said after the Kings squandered a 4-0 lead and gave up a season-high five goals in the second period.

San Jose winger Devin Setoguchi finished off a three-on-two break with a deadly wrist shot past Jonathan Quick 3 minutes and 9 seconds into sudden-death play, stunning a Staples Center crowd that had been taken for a long and wild ride all night. What seemed like a chance for the Kings to take control of the series instead became a potentially devastating defeat that left the Sharks leading the first-round series two games to one with Game 4 scheduled for Staples Center on Thursday.

Kings turn four-goal lead into 6-5 overtime loss to Sharks in Game 3 
Los Angeles Times, April 20 2011

I watched the 2nd period last night at first with jubilation (Kings go up 4-0 less than a minute into the period), then slight concern (Sharks finally get on the board), then increasing concern (Sharks close the game to 4-3), then relief (Kings score :15 seconds later to make it 5-3) and finally horror (Sharks score twice in the last :90 seconds to tie the game 5-5).

I couldn’t watch any more after that. I saw that it had gone to overtime, but I didn’t know who won until I looked it up online this morning.

Frozen Royalty calls it the “Flop on Figueroa”. Purple Crushed Velvet has a broken heart. Hockeywood calls it an “epic meltdown” but then suggests Kings fans need to “Keep Calm and Carry On” because “One game a playoff series does not make”.

Technically, that’s true – the Kings are only down 2-1 and have shown they can win in San Jose. But with momentum shift of blowing a 4 goal lead, I don’t see how the Kings win this series. I’d like to be wrong, but I don’t see how they win another game this year, much less the series.

Washington Stealth Lacrosse

Last Saturday night, my family and I went with some friends from the neighborhood up to Everett to catch the Washington Stealth in the National Lacrosse League Champion’s Cup final. This was my first indoor lacrosse game, and it was a doozy – the Stealth were down four goals with a a minute to go in the third quarter, but scored eight goals in a row to take the Champions Cup 15-11. After watching my Capitals collapse in the NHL playoffs, it was awesome to see the home team come out on top.

(Side Note, at least the Caps aren’t alone when it comes to embarrassing playoff performances this year. Boston blew a 3-0 series lead against Philly and Pittsburg blew a 3-2 series lead against Montreal and got beat like a drum in game 7. I’d argue that the Caps performance was still the most embarrassing of the three, but not by much)

As I said, this was my first indoor lacrosse game. The game is basically ice hockey without the ice. In fact, the Stealth’s advertising slogan this year was “It’s like hockey…with balls”. 1 As far as I could tell, the playing area is identical to a hockey rink except for the no ice thing. Benches, boards, penalty boxes, goal position – all the same. There are five players + a goalie per side, with lots of line changes and plenty of hitting. I might not have been to a game before, but I was able to pick up the basics of strategy and rules just based on the similarity to hockey.

Since it’s so similar to hockey, it’s probably easier to talk about the things that are different – like the shot clock. Similar to basketball, in indoor lacrosse you have a limited amount of time to take a shot or else you lose possession. Maintaining possession in lacrosse seems easier than in does in hockey, so the shot clock is an important addition. Otherwise, killing penalties and running out the clock with a lead would be child’s play once you got possession. But with the shot clock, you can only chew up thirty seconds at a time.

The combination of the basketball-esque shot clock and hockey-esque line changes creates for an interesting dynamic, but not always positive. I was expecting there to be more fast breaks, But instead, unless it’s a clear one-on-none or two-on-one, the breaking player almost always pulls up and waits for the line change to finish – often going off himself. There are line changes in hockey, but it’s rare for a guy in the offensive zone to be able to just hold onto the puck and wait for the rest of the team to line change.

On the other hand, I really liked how indoor lacrosse doesn’t have constant face-offs like hockey does. Face offs in indoor lacrosse are only to start quarters and after goals. Otherwise, when the ball goes out of play or there’s a penalty, there are simple possession rules to determine who gets the ball. Face-offs are exciting, and they happen often enough given the amount of scoring in indoor lacrosse (26 goals total Sat. night, which was close to the season average for the Stealth of 24.375 total goals scored per game) without being overwhelming (there were 68 face-offs in yesterday’s Sharks/Hawks game – that’s more than one per minute).

Of course, having a good game with a come-from-behind victory by the home team certainly casts the game in the best light. Having a packed house also helped. 8,600 fans there last night – a sellout – many of whom appeared to be involved in lacrosse leagues around the Puget Sound area. The friends we went with have a teenage son who plays, which is how they got into it. Patrick says he wants to learn to play to, so I’m guessing this won’t be our last Stealth game.

This being primarily a geek blog, I’ll add that both the Stealth and the NLL in general need to modernize their marketing and fan base building efforts. The Stealth website is old school to put it mildly – I especially like the full screen ad to buy tickets for Saturday’s game that still pops up, two days after the game. Lacrosse fans claim it’s the fastest growing sport in the nation, but it gets almost zero media attention. So why not encourage citizen media by issuing press credentials to fans who blog about the Stealth like the Caps did a few years ago? Selling NLL TV rights for any significant dollars is a pipe dream right now, so why not stream the games online? I suspect the main revenue source for NLL teams is ticket sales and merchandise – streaming the games would be a good way to push both.

  1. Cute slogan, but the implication that lacrosse players are tougher than hockey players is ludicrous. NLL season lasts 16 games and the playoff are three rounds of single elimination. NHL season lasts 82 games and the playoffs are four rounds of best of seven series.

“The Save”

This is an amazing picture of an amazing save in yesterday’s Capitals/Penguins 3-2 nail biting victory. (video on YouTube) The goalie is Simeon Varlamov who played most of the season at Hershey for the Capital’s minor league team. But he got the call in game two of the Caps opening round series against the Rangers and has posted a 1.5 Goals Against Average since, including two shutouts.

Photo by Clyde Caplan. Used under a Creative Commons license.