Friday, October 09, 2009

Taking the Long View

Look, let’s be up front about this. Bruce Boudreau doesn’t need some hack at a keyboard coming to his defense. He’s an Jack Adams Award winner, and the last time we looked, the only hardware we had was the four trophies the Alex Ovechkin bobblehead on our desk is holding. Boudreau forgot more about hockey stirring his morning coffee than we’re ever likely to know.

But here’s the thing. When the Caps lose, and lose in as particularly ugly a fashion as they did last night, there are whispers. Boudreau needs to sit this guy… Boudreau needs to wake up and realize Jeff Schultz is better equipped to have a job with a paper hat… Boudreau can’t be skating Boyd Gordon on a nightly basis… What’s Boudreau doing skating Tyler Sloan as a forward, for heaven’s sake??

Well, kids, here’s the deal. Last night was Game 4 in an 82-game season. Without looking it up, can you recall the result of Game 4 of last year’s season?* There is a long, long road ahead, and there will be ups and downs along the way. But of special relevance to this discussion is this. It’s all about the spring. So what if the Caps don’t win a Southeast Division title this year (we think they will, but humor us)? It’s not like anyone really cares at this point to see another Southeast Division Champion banner hoisted over the catwalk railing at Verizon Center. The only good it does at this point is provide employment to fabric manufacturers.

It’s all about the spring and finding out who can and can’t play (or play consistently) at a high level, both individually and – perhaps more important – within the team framework and philosophy.

We know already that the regular season is going to be largely an audition between Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov to see who gets the call as “The Man” in the spring in goal. But there is more than that. Coach Boudreau needs to know who can play with whom. Are John Erskine and Tom Poti, in fact, a train wreck waiting to happen as a defensive pair (they looked like it against Philly)? Better to find that out in October and November than in April or when you’re facing an elimination game.

Is Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin really a line for the ages, or is it the NHL equivalent of shooting a satellite into the moon and watching the pretty show for a few minutes (we have that on our minds this morning as we watch the live NASA feed with one eye)?

Should Chris Clark play on the third line… should he play -- can he play -- on the top line?... should he be a scratch? It would be nice to find out now, not in the last week of the season.

Can Tyler Sloan be an adequate fill in as a depth forward? You probably don’t want to be asking that question in the second week of April.

Are Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble – teammates from long ago in maize and blue – a good fit as linemates in red and blue? Hey, they’re both new here, let's find out… now, before the crunch of a stretch run and a playoff series.

This isn’t the Beauty Contest System of college football, where if you lose a game in September, you can kiss your “national championship” dreams goodbye. It’s not the NFL, where you have only 16 Sundays to get yourself into the playoffs. This is an 82-game season. A couple of years ago, a Capitals coach won the first three games of the season and was fired on Thanksgiving.

Things change.

You could say that this Capitals team is little different than the one that skated off the ice last May after losing to the Penguins, and in terms of the roster, you’d be right. But you’d also be wrong. Every team is different. Young guys mature at different rates. Older guys might see this skill or that start to slip. Teammates than clicked last year might be thoroughly incompatible now, or at least not the best of fit. Better to find these things out now, to look at different pairings on defense, to look at line combinations, to test and stretch players outside of their comfortable roles, than to seek answers to those questions, or worse – problems – in April.

None of this excuses bad results or indifferent efforts such as that last night. That is a separate issue that we suspect the coaching staff will address. But with respect to how players are used, to what roles they are assigned, and to the extent they fit better with one teammate or another, remember… there is a bigger objective here than winning a game in October. There is the matter of winning 16 games in April, May and June. And if that means sacrificing a result here or there now to be ready to win those games in the spring, then it isn’t just smart coaching, it the smart management move to take the long view.

* It was a 4-3 win over Pittsburgh.

A NO-point night: Rangers 4 - Caps 3

There are nights when players take the ice, when there is a rhythm and tempo that makes for a seamless flow, a thread weaving its way about the ice in red, a tapestry of skill, determination, and success.

Well, this wasn’t one of those games.

Every team will have a real stinker from time to time, a game that hangs above the ice like a haze wafting in from the local sewage plant.

This wasn’t one of those games either. It was more disturbing.

From the center face-off dot to the rafters, Caps Nation – both players and fans – were pretty much dead tonight, a curious turn of events given that the Caps were playing a divisional rival that they met for higher stakes last spring. But the Rangers emerged… well, I suppose “victorious” would be the word here, but it was hardly a “victory.” More like, “we got the two points, boys, let’s head for the bus before somebody figures out we shouldn’t have gotten them, either.”

It was a 4-3 result that had one scratching one’s head (and frankly, we can’t afford too much more scratching – we don’t have a lot of hair left). It was an “Alphonse and Gaston” act in which the Rangers gave the Caps countless opportunities to settle the competitive portion of the evening early, only to have the Caps say, “thanks, but please, after you.”

The Rangers took four penalties in the first period, but the Caps converted on none of them, not even a 5-on-3 advantage. But the Caps did get a goal when Brian Pothier backed off the Rangers defense toward the left wing half-wall, then spied Alexander Semin pinching in from the right wing point. Semin snapped the puck through before goalie Henrik Lundqvist could get across the crease.

The Caps should have considered themselves fortunate to lead at the first intermission despite the four power plays and having taken a total of only seven shots in the period.

Well, fortune smiled on the same end of the ice in the second period – not a good thing for the Caps, because that was the end they were defending. Ryan Callahan scored on a backhand to tie the game 8:47 into the second period, and Ales Kotalik duplicated the feat with another backhand 2:01 later. Just like that, the Caps had played cordial host.

But hey, a cordial host is nothing without an appreciative guest, and the Rangers were exactly that just past the three minute mark of the third period. Looking to send the puck in on what was a harmless dump-in, Nicklas Backstrom sent the puck on goal from just over the center red line. Henrik Lundqvist, apparently pondering “hair gel” or “no hair gel” for the post game shower, waved pitifully at the puck with his stick as it slid past him on the long side from somewhere near the Old Post Office. Suddenly, we were tied.

OK, it’s 2-2, and it’s a game again. At this point, the Caps actually showed signs of life (the irony of the Caps employing a “pulse” in their pre-game intro video was not lost on this observer). Trouble is, life lasted all of four minutes and 34 seconds. That’s how long it took for Backstrom to score in a more conventional manner, taking a nice little feed from Brooks Laich to convert a power play – their only conversion in nine opportunities on this night.

So now it’s 3-2, Caps… what is the next phrase out of every announcer’s mouth since Foster Hewitt? Take your time, we’ll wait…

“You can’t let the other team score on the next shift.”

Sure enough, 18 seconds after Backstrom gave the Caps the lead, Jose Theodore handed it right back. Marian Gaborik fired the puck from between the top of the circles, the game was tied, and the Caps returned to their somnambulistic ways. Less than three minutes later, while the Caps were stifling yawns, it was Gaborik one more time, this time from a little further out, but again right there in the middle of the ice. The second of two goals that Jose Theodore should have turned away.

It was an especially unfortunate end for Theodore, since he played a solid, if not spectacular, 40 minutes to open the game. But those two goals at the end were the kinds of lapses in focus that found him modeling lids on the bench for the next 13 starts the Caps would have in the playoffs last year.

But even with that, the Rangers weren’t done giving. Donald Brashear left a parting gift for his former teammates by taking a rather silly tripping penalty with 5:06 left in the contest. But alas, there would be no tying goal, and frankly, the Caps didn’t deserve the point anyway.

Other stuff…

- OK, the first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin went 3-1-4, even… not a bad night. But nine power play shots and nothing to show for it?

- There are nights we wonder what color the sky is in the official scorer’s world. Nicklas Backstrom was credited with winning nine of 16 draws, when for the life of us, we were wondering if he was going to win a draw against air.

- The Caps were certainly equal opportunity “blah”… 14 of the 18 skaters could claim to have been on the ice for at least one Ranger goal (John Erskine, Brian Pothier, Brooks Laich, and Mike Knuble being the only ones to escape unblemished). The checkers – Steckel and Laing – were on for two goals. The energy guys – Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, and Tyler Sloan – were on for another. Add in Chris Clark, who was on for one goal, and lines three and four were on for three of the four goals while recording only one assist (Sloan). As Coach Boudreau said after the game, if you’re not going to score, you’d better not be on for any goals against.

- Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you. Ovechkin had 14 shot attempts (nine shots on goal) without finding the back of the net.

- Mike Green had 15 shot attempts, and it was a display that continued demonstrating that all of sports, it seems, is a game of inches. He had six missed shots among those 14 attempts, and it seemed as if every one was a couple of inches high over the net. Last year, those shots were a couple of inches under the crossbar.

- For what it’s worth, Nicklas Backstrom is now your league scoring leader (2-8-10). Semin and Ovechkin are tied for second.

- Now, here’s the flip side of that. The second line (Brooks Laich, Brendan Morrison, and Mike Knuble) had a total of three shots on goal tonight. OK, it’s only one night, and they still have six goals among them.

- 17 giveaways tonight… boy, it sure seemed like more.

- The Caps have now allowed 12 goals in the last seven regulation periods of hockey, starting with the three Toronto scored in a 6-2 Caps win. That’s “mite” hockey… as in “mite-y bad.”

- At this point, it is more than a little unnerving that a group of Marc Staal (22 years old, 166 games including tonight’s), Matt Gilroy (25, 4), and Michael Del Zotto (19, 4) could play better defense for 60 minutes than Mike Green (23, 246), Jeff Schultz (23, 176), and Tom Poti (32, 721). The Caps simply did not take enough advantage of the young defense for the Rangers.

- And why was that so? Well, it wasn’t only the defensemen. The team just didn’t make the Rangers pay any sort of price for playing in role of the visitor. The forwards bear a measure of responsibility for playing without much energy.

- Playing with such a lack of energy and focus resulted in the Caps wasting an opportunity on a night where Henrik Lundqvist did not look to be in world-beater mode. He was good, but it would have been interesting to see whether he’d have been any better had the Caps managed more quality chances.

- Because with respect to chances… 28 shots on goal, 40 misfires (22 shots blocked, 18 misses)

- On the other hand, the Caps blocked only eight shots. Who was paying a price?

- Anyone want to start taking odds that Michal Neuvirth is going to have another whirlwind season of travel that will see him end up this time in the Caps' net in mid-April?

The Rangers gave the Caps opportunity after opportunity on the power play, and the Caps gave it right back by converting on only one of nine opportunities. The Rangers put the game on a platter for the Caps when Henrik Lundqvist butchered a simple dump in. The Caps gave it right back when Jose Theodore gave up the tying and winning goals on very stoppable shots in the third period. The Caps should have won against a team where the only reliable offensive threat is Marian Gaborik, and the defense is way to green to be able to stand up – on paper – against the Caps scoring depth. But the Rangers managed to win the two points largely because the Caps didn’t seem terribly interested in taking those points for themselves.