Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Rebuild is Not Over

Nope, not by a longshot. It’s like saying, I’ve had all the materials delivered, now the house is built.

Let’s say it out loud...the rebuild is not over. Look at the raw materials...

Goaltending – Olaf Kolzig is the number one goaltender, probably for as long as he is a Cap. The event of a sublime Brent Johnson performance is not going to change that, but Johnson playing well in 15-20 games or more is a critical ingredient to success. So far, Johnson has been pretty good. His 3.35 GAA isn’t where one would like it, but having to face 53 shots in one of the three games he’s played (and giving up seven goals) will do that. His .904 save percentage is what the club needs.

Defense...It’s young and not experienced among its parts. Tom Poti is new to the club, and the Caps have a lot of sub-25 year old types manning the blue line. This is the task that really can’t be rushed. Defensemen take time to grow and learn. Mike Green looks like a wholly different player than the one he was last year, to the benefit of the Caps. If someone like Jeff Schultz can find that leap this year, all the better.

Power Play...perhaps the most intricate part of the construction, there are parts to it that must be performed correctly, or it just doesn’t work. A credible threat from the point, a deft hand on the side boards, a gritty stalwart in front, players with quick hands and good vision all around. And chemistry. It takes time to become adept at building, it takes time to integrate different parts from different teams (last year, Poti, Nylander, Kozlov, and Backstrom played in different cities) and create that needed chemistry.

Penalty Killing...The studs have to be put in place correctly and in alignment, or you have problems that can last the whole season. The Caps have the materials here – Boyd Gordon, David Steckel, Matt Pettinger, and Chris Clark can be very effective forwards on the penalty kill, and as the defense matures it can become just as effective. But it is a work in progress, not a rebuilt edition.

The foundation...Alexander Ovechkin. He has six points in seven games, but he looks more like a well-rounded hockey player than he has in either of his first two years. His attention to more facets in his game than scoring can have the effect of being an example for the team. Whether this has an effect on Alexander Semin will be something interesting to watch when he returns from injury.

The fixtures...Viktor Kozlov, Michael Nylander, Nicklas Backstrom. At one point or another, any or all of them will center Ovechkin this year. The trick in making them fit with Ovechkin is equal parts art, science, and time...this is what the Capitals are still working out.

Shootout...An item that has been installed, although not tested, but one – whatever what one thinks of this abomination – that has to improve, even if it is somewhat overrated (of 32 playoff teams over the two full years of the shootout, 12 finished below .500 in shootouts; Ottawa had a combined record of 4-12). And whatever improvement the Caps might have in adding Viktor Kozlov and Michael Nylander, the improvement has to include the goalies, as well (.639 save percentage over the last two years).

The materials are on the lot, and the framing is up. But let’s not confuse this rebuild with a completed project. There are things to assemble, things to install, and problems to overcome. The rebuild will be done when the Capitals have clinched a playoff spot, not before.

But there is a deadline of sorts to this. The Capitals, as Tarik El-Bashir notes in his Capitals Insider and we suggested here, cannot fall too far behind the leaders in October. A sub-.500 record in October is a large hole out of which to climb. And if this club is still struggling to find its identity and standings points at Thanksgiving, the playoffs will start to look more like wish than expectation.

What all that suggests, to carry this rebuild idea up another notch, is that the materials have been delivered to the site and are in is now the job of the "foreman" to make sure that the project comes together expeditiously. It's not too late, despite the doom and gloom in the usual places...but it's not too soon for a sense of urgency, either.

Then and now...the defense

One of the problems the Caps had last year was getting no appreciable offense from the defense. There simply wasn't enough of a threat from the blue line to keep opponents from packing in their defense and clogging the way for forwards. Well, what difference has a year made?

2006-2007 (after seven games): 3-11-14, +1
2007-2008 (after seven games): 4-8-12, even

But compare the shots on goal...60 so far this year from the defense, compared to 38 over the first seven games last year. The idea here is to get the puck to the net. The defense has done their part -- at least more so than to start the year last year. The job now is for the forwards to screen and get rebounds. Last night the Caps got one that has to continue.

Saturday Night's Alright for...

...well, take a gander...

It was a NO point night -- Caps vs. Penguins, October 20th

Once upon a time, somewhere – it might have been in a stall in a bathroom somewhere – The Peerless read this about a hockey season….”there are 20 games you’ll lose, no matter what; and 20 games you’ll win, no matter what…it’s what you do with the other 40 that matter.”

The two odd games aside, last night’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins was one of those 40 games that matter. But for the width of a post, a penalty the four eyes of the two referees saw (and then the penalty those four eyes didn’t see in the same spot on the ice), and a power play that should merely be called, “play,” the Capitals might have made it a better night than it turned out to be.

The Penguins emerged from Verizon Center with a 2-1 win in a generally hard-fought, well-played game on both sides. But while Marc-Andre Fleury had a game he hasn’t had this season, and Ryan Whitney had the game-winning goal, the pivotal player on the ice this evening didn’t show up on the score sheet.

Matt Pettinger was in the middle of three critical plays in this game, two of which turned out bad for the Caps, and both of which found Pettinger as the victim.

The first play was a product of something coach Glen Hanlon was preaching this week – getting (and staying) in front of the net. Passing the 13 minute mark of the first period, Michael Nylander had the puck along the right wing wall. Cycling once and finding nothing to his liking, he curled off again, sliding the puck to Brian Pothier for a one-timer that beat Fleury. The Pittsburgh goalie would later remark that he never saw the puck. That was a product of #18 planting himself firmly in Fleury’s line of sight at the top of the crease. It wouldn’t be the last time the Caps tried that approach, but it would be the only time it was successful (but keep trying, boys).

In the second instance, the clock was winding down past five minutes to go in the second and the game tied 1-1; the Capitals were buzzing in the Pittsburgh zone. Michael Nylander curled out from behind the Pittsburgh net and sent a pass to Nicklas Backstrom left alone in the high slot. Backstrom snapped the puck at the Pittsburgh net, and Fleury got a piece of it, but not enough to keep it from inching toward the goal line. The puck tapped the post, and Matt Pettinger was there, trying to nudge the puck in. But as he was trying to get his stick to the puck, he got tangled with Fleury’s pads, and missed the opportunity to put the Caps ahead.

Finally, in the third period, with the Penguins having taken the lead on the Whitney goal, in the same spot on the ice near the Capitals’ bench where Brooks Laich was whistled for a phantom hooking penalty in the second period, Matt Pettinger took a Penguin stick square in the chops (edit: actually it was Gordon taking the stick, but Pettinger went after Staal in the aftermath). The same four eyes that saw a hooking penalty in the second didn’t see Pettinger’s head fly back. Maybe he should have done the full Barrymore, as Sidney Crosby did when high-sticked earlier, and he skated a broad arc away from the play in stage-agony while it was still going on. ‘Gadzooks!...Oh, I am slain!!” (for the record, yes, it was a penalty) Pettinger, instead, took off on Jordan Staal, making relatively short work of him and earning (with Staal) five minutes for his trouble. Although the Caps were oh-for-three on the power play, having another with the game in its final throes couldn’t have hurt the Caps’ cause.

But the Caps didn’t get that bounce of the puck or call from the referee, and the Penguins survived, thanks largely thanks to Fleury remembering that he’s supposed to be a key to whatever success the Penguins have this year.

Some other items…

-- Boyd Gordon was back, and boy, does that make a difference. Crosby had the primary assist on the game-winner (Gordon was not on the ice for that goal), but was otherwise almost silent. If the Caps had chosen this night to discover their offense, Crosby would have been a non-entity. I don’t much care if Gordon scores a point this year (well, I do…sue me for hyperbole), but if he can have results like that on defense, the Caps will do well. Here might be his stat of the night…he won six of eight defensive zone draws.

-- Alex Ovechkin…eight shots, five hits, and a penalty. If it was Christmas, he might have bagged a partridge in a pear tree, too. He was the most dominant skater on this evening, but with Viktor Kozlov not being especially effective last evening, and Joe Motzko being plucky, but not the stuff of a first-line right wing, Ovechkin was once more in the position of having to do a lot on his own.

-- Regarding Motzko…The Peerless sat watching him last night and came up with a nickname…”The Hedgehog.” He did a commendable job rooting around for pucks and was more patient with the puck than one might expect from a call-up from the AHL. He also showed a resiliency when taking a hit and a willingness to throw same (he was credited with one, but it seemed like more). We like the guy…he is not a top-line, right wing option on a team with playoff dreams, but he’s a guy who can help a club. Although he was returned to Hershey after the game, we would not be surprised to see #50 in the lineup again this year.

-- Hey Caps fans…how many times have you seen this against the Penguins? Hits: 25-13, Capitals…shots: 31-22, Capitals…final score: 2-1, Penguins.

-- The two-fer of the night…Ovechkin laying the lumber to Crosby in open ice, then as Crosby was collecting his wits, getting whacked again by Shaone Morrisonn. You could almost see the cartoon stars circling Crosby’s head.

-- Evgeni who? Did he dress?

-- Donald Brashear and Georges Laraque had a fight…it was required. For the record, The Peerless scored it a draw, Laraque winning the early rounds…uh, seconds…and Brashear coming on late.

-- Nicklas Backstrom looks a good deal more comfortable on the ice than he did in the opener. And, he’s starting to look like Mini-Ny with his curl off moves.

-- On the other hand, Milan Jurcina seemed to struggle. He looked for most of the night as if he was skating in oatmeal, as if he couldn’t get his skates under him. But his effort was there.

-- David Steckel looks sometimes like he’s just loping across the ice. Then you look up, and he’s got his 13 minutes, a couple of hits, a couple of blocked shots, and has won more than half his faceoffs (8-of-15 last night).

-- Brent Johnson…lost in all this is that Johnson played a whale of a game, including a superb left-toe stop on Ryan Malone off a rebound he gave up on a Maxime Talbot shot mid-way through the third, when another goal would have probably doomed the Caps. And if you see a replay of that sequence, watch who it is flying into the picture from behind, almost getting a chance to sweep the puck away from Malone….Ovechkin.

The Penguins, to their credit (The Peerless said with teeth knashing), did what they had to do to win. But the Caps, playing without Alexander Semin and with Boyd Gordon having played only as a game-time decision, played the Penguins to the width of a post. Right now, that’s the difference between these teams. But teams that make the playoffs are on the winning end of such games, not the short end. And that’s the difference between these teams right now, too.