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.

“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.

Avalanche 4, Caps 1

“We had nothing; we were horrible out there,” Boudreau snapped. “Everybody had their bad game at the same time. You win a lot of games in a row, you’re going to have a stinker. Today was it.”
Capitals Insider

Boy, it’s much more fun to write a Caps wrapup when they win.

Honestly, the less said about this game, the better. I said at both intermissions that the Caps were lucky to be tied/down by only one, and the third period proved me right. Honestly, if I didn’t know the players and the teams, I wouldn’t have been able to tell which team was #2 in the East and which team was #15 in the West.

The only good things I can say about this game are:

  1. Perfect on the penalty kill, including 43 seconds of 5-on-3
  2. Backstrom’s goal was nice
  3. Much better on faceoffs – as a team, we won 60% of them. Only Nylander was below 50%. Steckel won 9 of 10
  4. Err, did I mention the Caps were perfect on the PK?

Japers pointed out that “the frequency with which these “efforts” are happening that is more than a little disconcerting.” After last night’s effort plus the 3rd period effort against Montreal, “more than a little disconcerting” is spot on.

Next up, Caps play the Penguins tomorrow. The Pens just beat the Flyers 5-4. I didn’t see the whole game but Biron totally botched the play that lead to the Pens game winning goal. So we have the Pens riding a big win and the Caps coming off a lackluster performance on national TV. Should be interesting to say the least. Unfortunately, I’ve got a morning flight home to Seattle tomorrow, so I’m going to miss it.

Caps 4, Canadians 3 (SO)

I don’t get the chance to see many Caps games, being as I live over 2000 miles away from Washington D.C. I got to see them tonight live and in person for the first time in like four years, and it was awesome. Awesome to be there that is, even if the Caps were less than awesome in the third period. Frankly, I think the Caps were lucky to get one, much less two points in this game.

But before I talk about bad, let’s start with the amazing. Ovechkin’s goal was the most amazing a goal I’ve ever seen live. He leaves Hamrlik in the dust by banking the puck off the boards to himself while he does a 180 to reverse direction. Then he gets knocked down by Chipchura but still manages to slide the puck into the net under Price while lying on his side on the ice before Chipchura’s momentum knocks the net off it’s moorings. You’ve got to see it to believe it.

Crosby Sucks Caps Jersey

Honestly, I think this is even better than “The Goal” from Ovechkin’s rookie season. The goal itself maybe wasn’t quite as amazing, but the bank pass to himself while reversing direction that set up the goal was literally jaw-dropping. That with the knocked down goal in succession was truly a work of art. They showed it about a dozen times on the jumbo-tron, several times on the NHL network highlight show and I’ve watched the embedded video maybe a dozen times while writing this post. Anyone who thinks Ovechkin isn’t the best player in the league is frakking crazy.

Backstom’s give and go with Federov for the second goal wasn’t bad either.

But here’s the stat of the game that should give Caps fans nightmares: All three of Montreal’s goals came on the powerplay. Caps did fairly well in the penalty taking department – only taking four penalties on the night. But going 25% on the penalty kill? There’s no way to spin how ugly that is. To add insult to injury, two of the three goals came less than ten seconds into the penalty – Montreal scored before the Caps could even get their kill set up. Ugh. The first was had two Caps getting tied up in the faceoff circle, leaving Higgins open to score. The second I think went off Erskine’s stick and over Theodore. And the third looked like one Theodore should have had.

The third period, the Caps looked totally flat until Steckel’s nice tip in to tie the game. They didn’t seem to be winning any one-on-one battles for the puck. I know the Caps have talent to spare, but they need to win on the boards if they’re going to win on the scoreboard. They picked it up for the last three minutes of the third and Overtime (except for very scary giveaway by I think Nylander near the end of OT that the Habs couldn’t capitalize on).

Giveaways were a problem – Caps had 12 to Montreal’s 6 – and Backstrom got slapped around in the faceoff circle, winning only 6 of 18. Nylander had a bad night on the dot, going 2 of 8. On the plus side, Caps had 17 takeaways to Montreal’s 7 and Gordon, Steckel and Laich and Federov all were over 50% on the faceoffs (team as a whole won 27 of 58, or 47%.)

As I said, I don’t get to see the Caps often, but I hear they aren’t that good in the shootout, which is kinda surprising given the surplus of offensive talent on the team. They were 2-3 in the shootout going into tonight, while the Habs were 7-4. But the Caps were perfect, Semin and Backstrom scoring while Theodore stoned Plekanec and Markov.

In the end, it’s two points which puts us a full game up on the Devils for 2nd in the East and seven games up on Florida who’s technically chasing us for the SouthEast division crown. Not quite in the bag, but making up that much ground in the 24 games remaining is pretty daunting. The Caps trail Boston by four and a half games for the top seed in the east, which is also a daunting task given the amount of season remaining. I’d love to be in first, but I’m pretty happy with where the Caps are right now – except maybe for the PK.