Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Morning After -- Caps vs. Hurricanes

No points last night . . .


That would be the sound of playoff chances falling off the shelf after the Caps’ 6-2 loss in Raleigh last night against the Carolina Hurricanes. One could say if this happened or that, or if this team went into a slump and the Caps beat this team or that the Caps could sneak in, but the fact of the matter is, the Caps are now a below-.500 team with 33 games to play, and every team in front of them leading up to the eighth spot is an above-.500 team. All but one of them (Toronto) have games in hand on the Caps. Putting those playoff chances back in place is going to be a difficult task.

The 6-2 loss was especially instructive as to the current state of the team. When the season started, The Peerless thought that an injury would reveal the troubles the club had with respect to skill and depth, but we thought that sort of injury would be of the catastrophic kind – to an Olaf Kolzig or an Alexander Ovechkin. We didn’t contemplate that the Caps would be undone by a series of what are comparative bumps and bruises – a series of injuries (which we do not wish to represent as being minor to those involved) to such as John Erskine, Bryan Muir, Richard Zednik, Brian Pothier, and Matt Bradley. But that serves to illustrate the zero margin for error this club has at the moment. The slightest disruption to the delicate balance of its roster – the fact that the club really isn’t 23-deep even when healthy – and what was a 15-10-7 season full of hope was spun into six weeks of 5-12-0 and the first thoughts of what might have been.

That’s the bad, and it is what it is. But there are silver linings in all these clouds, too. Although the Caps were beaten by a better team, the Caps did not lack for effort in the same way they did against Florida a week ago. They hit everything that moved, right from the drop of the puck – Hurricanes, officials getting in the way, even that pig of the heavily-medicated look that serves as a mascot. And they kept it up, working over all 200-feet of the ice sheet even as the game was falling out of reach. A loss can serve to help establish and cement the identity of a club.

The Caps returned to the kind of club they often reflected when they were getting out to that 15-10-7 record. They worked hard, they finished plays (not always successfully), they harassed the other club. But if we look at what we thought were the keys to the game, the Caps came up short:

Get off fast (score first) – Carolina scored the first two goals in the first nine minutes of the first period. To their credit, the Caps came back to tie, but scoring first has been everything in the first four games this year against Carolina, and it was last night, too.

Be aggressive (out-hit Carolina) – 61-33. That was the official hit tally. Generous? Almost certainly, but the Caps did play with an intensity that often has been lacking in the six week slide.

Shoot the damn puck – 26 shots. The Caps won the two games in which they had at least 30 shots, lost the ones they didn’t. 26 isn’t 30; they lost.

Make sure the usual suspects are represented on the score sheet – the usual suspects had five of the six points for the Caps (Jeff Schultz getting the other on an assist for his first NHL point). That’s not bad, but then again, they were done for the evening 54 seconds into the second period.

The Caps can thrive in a game that lacks a certain flow, especially when playing a more talented, deeper team – their own top end players end up a bit fresher. But 13 penalties was a lot to overcome. Jakub Klepis might have played himself off the roster last night, and that is very unfortunate. Two penalties taken early in the second period – the second coming seven seconds after the first (a terrible goaltender interference call, by the way) expired – stemmed whatever momentum the Caps might have been building after the tying Ovechkin goal to start the period. Justin Williams scored for Carolina 21 seconds after the second Klepis penalty was called – just as another Caps penalty was expiring -- and Carolina was off. Klepis did not return to the ice for the remainder of the game.

It’s hard to get too down on this club. There are very, very good elements here. Ovechkin, certainly. Chris Clark is following up one career year with another. Dainius Zubrus is playing solidly, if not spectacularly. Alexander Semin has points in eight of his last nine games. Boyd Gordon has improved by leaps and bounds since the start of the year. Steve Eminger has come back from a slow start to play excellent defense over the last several weeks (although last night was brutal for him on the scoresheet). But there are gaping holes on this roster – the defense is equal parts green, injured, and thin. There is little production coming from the bottom half of the line combinations, even on nights when the Caps win. Goaltending has not been inspired, at least not to the degree it was for much of the first ten weeks of the season. Neither goalie has had the ability to steal a game for the club during this skid. The bad news for the Caps is that team with stakes worth playing for are increasingly able to exploit the holes to withstand the contributions of the skilled players.

On any single night, the Caps can – and should be expected to – muster up a 100-percent effort. But that is a hard chore to repeat night after night with a thin and injury-depleted club. Unfortunately, that’s where the Caps find themselves as they try to put those playoff chances back up on the shelf for fans to see. They don’t have enough talent up and down the roster to do anything else.

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