Sunday, June 30, 2013

Washington Capitals -- 2013 Draft: A Well Traveled Path to a First Rounder

With their first round pick (23rd overall) in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the Washington Capitals selected Andre Burakovsky of the Malmo Redhawks of HockeyAllsvenskan in Sweden.  Observers of the Capitals are hardly surprised.  The Caps have worn a path between Arlington, Virginia, and Sweden over the years in their search for amateur talent.  Here is the history of draft picks from Sweden since 2000…

Of the last ten first round draft picks taken by the Caps, starting with Nicklas Backstrom with the fourth overall pick in 2006, five come out of teams in Sweden.  The early returns on draft picks from Sweden at the beginning of the 2000’s was not very good, owing largely to those picks coming in later rounds.  But three of four first round picks before Burakovsky, starting with Backstrom, either played significant numbers of games for the Caps (Backstrom, Marcus Johansson), or they (“they” being Filip Forsberg) yielding a solid veteran in trade.
Burakovsky might be a year or two away from coming to North America, but the path he takes to get here is a familiar one in recent Caps history.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Washington Capitals: The 2013 Season -- Ten (well...six) Games that Mattered: Capitals at Rangers, May 6th

The last of the six games that mattered for the Washington Capitals in the 2013 season was a playoff game.  No, it was not the 5-0 thrashing the Caps received at the hands of the New York Rangers in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup.  In retrospect, that game was foretold by what would happen – or more precisely, did not happen – in an earlier game of the series…

May 6, 2013: Eastern Conference Quarterfinal – Game 3

Washington Capitals (2-0) at New York Rangers (0-2)

Result: Rangers 4 – Capitals 3

The Background:  Coming into the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs the Washington Capitals had taken a two-games-to-none lead in a seven-game playoff series six times in franchise history.  They never won that third game in those series to make it 3-0..

That made Game 3 of their 2013 Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers a game of special interest.  They took the Madison Square Garden ice against the Rangers on May 6th having won Games 1 and 2 at Verizon Center, hoping to win that third game to take a 3-0 lead in games for the first time ever in a seven-game series.

While winning Game 3 was important to the Rangers to avoid being pushed to the brink of elimination, the Game was just as important for the Caps.  In those previous six series in which they won Games 1 and 2, but lost Game 3, they went on to lose four of those series. The Caps had just a 2-3 record in series in which they won Games 1 and 2 on home ice. 

Why it mattered:  Winning Games 1 and 2 at home means, if you think of it from the opponent’s point of view, that the winners merely “held serve,” in tennis parlance. Now, with Game 3 and 4 on Ranger ice, it was the New Yorkers’ chance to do the same.  For the Caps the task was simple in concept, difficult to execute – score first, take the crowd out of the game, make the Rangers play catch-up, make them grow more desperate, and then take advantage of the opportunities to drive a stake through the Rangers’ chances to win.

The Caps got the first part of it right barely four minutes into the first period.  It was a superb effort by Nicklas Backstrom that led to the game’s first goal.  It started when he stepped in and picked up a loose puck that the Caps’ Martin Erat and the Rangers’ Brian Boyle were fighting over in the corner to the left of goalie Henrik Lundqvist.  Backstrom carried around the end wall, fighting off defenseman Anton Stralman all the way around the boards and half way up the wall to the right of Lundqvist.  He then one-handed the puck up to John Erskine at the point, who slid it over to John Carlson at the opposite point.  As this was going on, Backstrom was circling back to the middle, putting him in excellent position to try to tip any shot Carlson might attempt on net. That is exactly what occurred, Carlson’s drive tipped down and through the legs of Lundqvist to give the Caps a 1-0 lead and quiet the Madison Square Garden crowd. 

The Caps had an opportunity to further demoralize the Rangers and the crowd as they were killing off a Joel Ward high-sticking call midway through the period.  They almost got out from under the man-disadvantage, but Brian Boyle was allowed to walk in from the right wing wall, and with Mike Green having gone to one knee in what was, one assumed, a defensive posture, Boyle curled around him and snapped a shot past goalie Braden Holtby just as the Ward penalty expired.

Then it was the Rangers turn to take the lead.  Less than 90 seconds into the second period Derick Brassard connected on a power play, wrong footing a wrist shot from the slot past Holtby’s blocker to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead.  The Rangers almost got out of the period with that lead, but with less than three minutes left it was Mike Green tying the game for the Caps.  It started with Eric Fehr working hard along the left wing boards to work the puck out to Mathieu Perrreault.  He worked the puck back down the wall to Jason Chimera, who backhanded a pass through his legs back to Perreault.  From the left wing circle Perreault slid the puck to Green at the top of the right wing circle.  Green walked in undisturbed and wristed the puck over Lundqvist’s glove to tie the game at two-apiece heading into the second intermission.

The Caps were victimized early in a period once more and from an unexpected source once more when Arron Asham was left alone in front of Holtby to take a pass from Brassard and wrist the puck into the back of the net to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead.  Less than five minutes later it was four unsung Caps combining their efforts to tie the game once more.  It started with Matt Hendricks winning a faceoff in the offensive end against Boyle.  The puck was drawn back to Jack Hillen at the left point, with a helpful nudge along the way by Joel Ward.  Hillen wristed it toward the Ranger net, barely missing Ward on its way through.  It did not miss Jay Beagle, though, who was just enough in the line of flight to have the puck deflect off his equipment, changing its track to the left of Lundqvist’s left pad and in.

The Rangers took the lead for a third time as the clock approached the five minute mark of the period.  It started with Ryan McDonagh holding the puck at the Capitals’ blue line and stepping around Alex Ovechkin to work it down the left wing wall.  The Rangers then ran the puck around the end wall – McDonagh to Mats Zuccarello in the left wing corner, then Zuccarello throwing the puck across to Rick Nash in the right wing corner.  Nash then fed a centering pass to Derek Stepan, who came all the way from the neutral zone (backstopping McDonagh as he was trying to hold the puck in at the start of the play) to the low slot, in perfect position to redirect the puck past Holtby.

The Caps had one more chance to send the game into overtime.  Brad Richards took a slashing penalty on Ovechkin with 1:54 left in regulation.  The Caps furiously pressed the matter in front of the Ranger net as the clock was winding down, but they could not manage a shot on goal in what was a 6-on-4 power play.  They attempted three shots, one of which was a Troy Brouwer miss, the other two from Nicklas Backstrom, both blocked by Ranger defenders.  When the last shot was blocked and the puck cleared down the ice, the Rangers held their serve with a 4-3 win.

The Takeaway:  The Caps had their chances.  Then again, they had their chances in other two-games-to-none situations over the years.  In this one, Alex Ovechkin had 11 shot attempts, but only two on net, none after the first period. Braden Holtby, who stopped 59 of 60 shots in Games 1 and 2 at Verizon Center, a .983 save percentage, allowed four goals on 30 shots in this contest.  The Caps let the Rangers back into the game – and the series – on the sticks of foot soldiers like Brian Boyle and Arron Asham.  The penalty killers let the Caps down, allowing Boyle’s goal just as a penalty expired and then allowing a power play goal to give the Rangers their first lead.  At the other end, the Caps not only drew a blank on their own power play, going 0-for-3, but they managed just one power play shot on goal in 5:54 of power play time.  It was an opportunity to take control of the series… wasted.

In the end…

You could see it coming.  Here is the Washington Post’s Katie Carrera describing the attitude at the morning skate…

“The mood at the Capitals’ morning skate Monday at Madison Square Garden ahead of Game 3 was noticeably relaxed. Players whooped it up on the ice, joking and teasing each other as they worked through drills and line rushes.”

Braden Holtby was the one who expressed a certain concern…

“It’s good to a point. I’m not sure we want it as loose as this morning.  It’s still playoff time and you never want to get comfortable. When you’re starting to get loose, you can tell guys are starting to get comfortable and whatnot.”

Maybe the playful attitude in the morning had nothing to do with what transpired in the evening.  Still, it could have been a special moment for the Caps – the first three-games-to-none lead in a seven game playoff series in team history.  But like six teams before them holding a 2-0 lead, they left Game 3 with only a 2-1 lead.

When “special” became “same old, same old,” Caps fans could recite the remaining script from memory.  Another loss in New York, followed by a win at home.  A chance to close out the series on the opponent’s rink, failing to do so when they can’t find the back of the net.  Then, another Game 7 on home ice.  Home ice advantage.  Yeah. 

Going into Game 7 at Verizon Center the Caps had played eight Game 7’s on home ice in team history.  Their record was 2-6, four of the losses coming by one goal, two of them in overtime.  At least Caps fans would be spared the suspense and heartache of a one-goal game or an overtime loss.  The Rangers scored first, tacked on two goals in the span of 130 seconds in the second period, then coasted in the third with another pair of goals to end the Caps’ season, 5-0. 

One could say that the series was lost when the Caps failed to find the back of the net on their last 66 shots on goal in the series, going back to the third period of Game 5.  We argue differently.  The Caps lost this series when they failed to stand on the throat of their opponent in Game 3.  Whether that was the product of a too-cavalier attitude, we cannot say.  What we can say though is that the Caps played this Game 3 like a lot of teams before them.  And when the results were the same as those teams before them, the final result was their destiny.  That is why this game mattered in the 2013 season.

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Friday, June 28, 2013

Rock the Mock! ...NHL draft, that is

We do not earn a living as a scout, a general manager, or a media analyst of the NHL.  This makes us uniquely qualified to spout utter gibberish about who will select whom in Sunday's NHL Entry Draft.  What follows is not science.  We merely combed the four corners of the hockey universe for mock drafts from media outlets, aggregated them, and came up with a "draft of drafts."  The only tweak we made to it was to take the Colorado Avalanche at its word that they would be drafting a forward with the first overall pick.  So, let's get to it...

For you Caps fans, the Kerby Rychel pick at 23 is an interesting result.  Once you get past the top four picks, players who have been cemented into the top-four for a year now, Rychel was the most consistent in terms of where he was slotted.  In all but one mock draft we looked at, he was slotted between 20th and 24th overall.

Of course, now that we've said that, we don't think Rychel will be a Cap because we do not think the Caps will stay at 23.

Call it a hunch.

Washington Capitals: The 2013 Season -- Ten (well...six) Games that Mattered: Jets at Capitals, April 23rd

We are almost at the end of our six-pack review of games that mattered in the 2013 season.  Game 5 – the last game that mattered in the regular season -- was about a bit of history and a time to turn the page…

April 23, 2013: Winnipeg (24-19-3) at Washington (25-18-2)

Result: Capitals 5 – Jets 3

The Background:  In 1998 the Washington Capitals reached the Stanley Cup finals as representatives of the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference.  When they returned to the ice for the 1998-1999 season after losing to the Detroit Red Wings in the 1998 final, they did so as a member of the new “Southeast Division.”  The NHL created two new divisions – one in each conference (the Northwest Division was the new entry in the West) – and realigned teams in the new six-division format to establish (one hoped) regional rivalries.

That inaugural season in the Southeast for the Caps was not kind.  The Caps lost 511 man-games to injury, dressed a total of 37 skaters and four goaltenders, and finished third in a four-team division race, out of the playoffs with a 31-45-6 record. 

Things did get better, at least in the division.  The Caps won the next two division titles and then, after a five-season drought, won four more division crowns in succession before finishing second to the Florida Panthers in 2011-2012.  Realignment was in the air, though.  When the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg following the 2010-2011 season, the die was cast.  All that seemed left was to make realignment a reality. 

After fits and starts (the NHL Board of Governors actually approved a realignment plan in December 2011, but the players association rejected it a month later), the realignment plan finally fell into place to the satisfaction of the league and its players, finally approved in March 2013.  Whoever won the Southeast Division in 2012-2013 could put on its letterhead “Last and Forever Champion of the Southeast Division.”

Why it mattered:  Oh, yeah…the game.  By late April the Caps had climbed all the way back from their dismal 2-8-1 start.  With a record of 23-10-1 since that start, they were poised to clinch that last division title if they could get past the Winnipeg Jets, themselves hanging onto hope for a playoff spot by their fingernails.

Things looked good for the Capitals early.  It started with Matt Hendricks barely three minutes into the game.  And what an effort it was.  First, Hendricks was knocked to the ice at the Jets’ blue line by Chris Thorburn as he was dumping the puck to the corner.  He got up, pursued the puck to the corner where Jay Beagle and Ron Hainsey were battling over it.  Hendricks beat Antti Miettinen to the loose puck, circled out, took a couple of steps down the goal line, and shot the puck off the shoulder of goalie Ondrej Pavelec and in for the game’s first goal. 

The Caps were about to stick a fork in the Jets’ season late in the period.  Mathieu Perreault won a race to the puck below the Winnipeg goal line.  After working a give-and-go with Jason Chimera,  Perreault set up behind the Winnipeg net as Chimera went to the front of the cage.  With Winnipeg’s defense keeping their eyes on Perreault, he slid the puck in front to Chimera, who took two swipes at the puck, the first stopped by Pavelec, but not the second.  Chimera’s goal at 17:53 put the Jets behind the eight-ball at the first intermission, 2-0.

If the Caps stuck a fork in the Jets, they found that the roast was not quite done.  The Jets tied the game, first on a goal by Evander Kane just 16 seconds into the period, then again at 14:48 when Blake Wheeler one-timed a pass by Nik Antropov past goalie Braden Holtby from point blank range in the low slot.

Then it was Winnipeg’s turn to see momentum stolen away.  Just 37 seconds after tying the game, Nicklas Backstrom converted a centering feed from Alex Ovechkin, redirecting the pass past Pavelec to put the Caps back in front with 5:02 left in the period.  Less than three minutes later the Caps’ two-goal lead was restored.  Mathieu Perreault started and finished the scoring play. He started it by leaving the puck for Eric Fehr as he was crossing the Winnipeg blue line.  Fehr could not control the puck though, his stick lifted by Alexander Burmistrov before he could get control.  Jack Hillen jumped up, though, and ripped a shot toward the Jet’s net.  Pavelec stopped the shot, but just outside a clot of bodies fighting for the loose puck,  Perreault, dug it out and flipped it into the net to make it 4-2.

The Jets would not go away, though.  Nik Antropov cut the lead to one when he scored mid-way through the third period to make things uncomfortable for the Caps.  That would be as close as the Jets would get, though.  Alex Ovechkin put an exclamation point on the win with an empty net goal with 28.3 seconds left, the Caps skating off with a division-clinching 5-3 victory.

The Takeaway:  Eleven games into the season Caps fans were ready to start wondering, “Seth Jones or Nathan MacKinnon?”  In Game 46 of the season they were now pondering first-round playoff matchups. It was quite a comeback by the Caps, but perhaps possible only in a division in which three teams finished 13th, 14th, and 15th in the conference.  The Caps would be the primary beneficiary of those struggles among Southeast Division teams, going 15-3-0 in the division for the season.

In the end…

The Caps would win their seventh Southeast Division title in 14 seasons, their fifth crown in six years.  Over the 14-season history of the division the Caps would compile a 185-100-42-2 intra-divisional record.  That works out to an average of 103 standings points per 82 games.  They were the class of the division, winning at least ten games against division rivals in 12 of those 14 seasons.  In 2013 they would enter the post-season as the number-three seed in the Eastern Conference.  But behind the banner as division champion was the dark cloud.  In those 14 seasons representing the Southeast Division, the Caps reached the playoffs nine times, never moving past the second round in any of them and being eliminated in the first round six times. That, however, was a concern for another day.  On this night in late April the Caps returned to the place they occupied more frequently than any other team in the history of the Southeast Division.  It was a place few thought the Caps would occupy when they were struggling in January and February.  That is why this game mattered in the 2013 season.

Photo: Getty Images

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Washington Capitals: The 2013 Season -- Ten (well...six) Games that Mattered: Capitals at Hurricanes, April 2nd

The fourth game in the six-pack of games that mattered in the 2013 season of the Washington Capitals was one that the Caps had been inching toward for quite some time, one that would get them to a milestone that represented their base camp for a final assault on a playoff spot…

April 2, 2013: Washington (16-17-2) at Carolina (16-16-2)

Result: Capitals 5 – Hurricanes 3

The Background:  When the Washington Capitals took to the road to take on the Carolina Hurricanes on April 2nd, the Caps and the Hurricanes were sitting outside the playoff eligible top-eight in the Eastern Conference, tied for tenth in the conference in points.  With the season almost down to its last dozen games, the loser of this game would have the chore of trying to make up points and having to climb over three teams to make the playoffs.

For Washington there was a special incentive in this game.  At no point in the 35 games they played to this date did the Capitals have so much as a .500 record.  Oh, they had their chances… Game 2, to get to 1-1 (they lost in their home opener to Winnipeg); Game 23, to get to 11-11-1 (they lost at the New York Islanders); Game 33, to get to 16-16-1 (they lost to the Islanders again); and Game 35 to get to 17-17-1 (they lost to Philadelphia in overtime). 

Why it mattered:  This was Washington’s fifth try to get to .500 for the season, and they were 0-3-1 in their previous four attempts.  It was perhaps their best chance to do so.  Carolina came into this game having lost eight of nine games (1-7-1).

Carolina looked to bust out of their slump early in this contest.  Jiri Tlusty backhanded a loose puck past goalie Braden Holtby at the 11:32 mark of the period with three Caps within arm’s length of Tlusty looking at the ice for the puck.  Tlusty doubled the Carolina lead less than three minutes later on a power play, taking a feed from Marc-Andre Bergeron and finding a hole with a wrister past Holtby. 

However, teams in slumps get into slumps for a reason, and one of them is giving away the momentum they generate with early goals.  That was the case late in the period when Alex Ovechkin halved the lead with just 39 seconds left when he took a pass from Nicklas Backstrom just inside the Carolina blue line and wristed the puck just inside the far post past goalie Dan Ellis’ blocker.

Another reason teams get into slumps and stay there is giving up goals early in periods, and that is just what Carolina did in the second period.  Mike Green lit the lamp just 42 seconds into the period when he banged a slap shot off the post to Ellis’ right and in on a power play to tie the game at two apiece. 

Tlusty restored the Hurricanes’ lead by completing the hat trick just 70 seconds after the Green goal on a power play, but that would complete the fun portion of the evening for the Hurricanes.  Green tied things up at 4:26 when Nicklas Backstrom left him the puck and pushed the defense back by going to the net.  Green jumped into the void and snapped the puck over Ellis’ blocker to tie the game once more at three apiece.  That goal would end Ellis’ night in favor of Justin Peters.

Peters fared no better.  At 11:06 Alex Ovechkin got his second goal of the game on a play that started with a Carolina turnover.  Defenseman Joni Pitkanen tried to move the puck up the left wing wall, but the pass struck Ovechkin in front of the players bench and skittered to the middle of the ice. Backstrom picked up the puck there and headed into the Carolina zone accompanied by Ovechkin on a 2-on-1 break.  Backstrom laid the puck across onto the tape of Ovechkin’s stick and it was just a snap shot from there over Peters’ glove, and the Caps had the lead. 

Carolina compounded their problem by allowing the Caps a shorthanded goal with under a minute to play in the second period.  It was another turnover, this one occurring when Marc-Andre Bergeron crossed the Caps’ blue line and tried to feed the puck to Eric Staal at the right wing wall.  The pass was behind Staal, and when the loose puck caromed off the wall, Marcus Johansson was first to it. He and Joel Ward headed out on another 2-on-1 for the Caps and when Joe Corvo tried to defend Johansson, it was Johansson feeding the puck across to Ward for the one-timer and a 5-3 lead for the Caps.  Oddly enough it would be the only goal on which Nicklas Backstrom did not record an assist.  His four-assist game was the seventh time he turned the trick, the first time since getting four helpers in a 6-3 win over Tampa Bay on Veterans Day, 2010.

From there the Caps turned it over to Braden Holtby, who stopped all ten shots he faced in the third period, and the Caps had a 5-3 win plus a .500 record for the first time in the 2013 season.

The Takeaway: It was the start of quite a finishing kick for the Caps.  Starting with this first game of April, Washington went 11-1-1 for the month to close the regular season.  And they did it with their big guns firing.  In this game, Ovechkin went 2-1-3, Backstrom went 0-4-4, and Green went 2-0-2.  It started a month in which Ovechkin would go 14-8-22 in 13 games, Backstrom would go 2-15-17in 13 games, and Green would go 7-8-15 in 13 games.  Needless to say, that .500 mark was in the rear-view mirror pretty quickly.

In the end…

This win would be the first in what became an eight-game winning streak for the Caps.  That would make it six consecutive seasons in which Washington enjoyed a winning streak of at least seven games.  Considering it took the Caps 20 games to accumulate a total of eight wins at the start of the season, they had come a long way.  For Carolina, it was another stop on their descent into oblivion.  They would go 3-10-2 for the month, wrapping up a ghastly second half of the season.  After having gone 15-9-1 in their first 25 games, the Hurricanes finished 4-16-3 in their last 23 contests, largely the result of a series of injuries to critical players.  What that meant for the Caps was that one rival was dropping out of the race for the Southeast Division title, leaving only Winnipeg ahead of them in the stretch run.  That was what made this game, one in which the Caps passed the Hurricanes for good and reached .500 in the process, a game that mattered in the 2013 season.

Photo: Chris Seward/News Observer

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Washington Capitals: The 2013 Season -- Ten (well...six) Games that Mattered: Capitals at Jets, March 21/22

We’ve reached Game 3 in our look back at games that mattered for the Washington Capitals in the 2013 season.  This one – two actually – propelled the Caps into the race for the Southeast Division lead…

March 21, 2013: Washington (12-16-1) at Winnipeg (16-12-2)
March 22, 2013: Washington (13-16-1) at Winnipeg (16-13-2)

Results: Capitals 4 – Jets 0 / Capitals 6 – Jets 1

The Background:  The Caps righted the ship when they beat the Devils back on February 23rd, but they had yet to make much progress in climbing the standings in the games that followed.  They were 6-6-0 in the dozen games played after they beat the Devils back in late February.  Worse, they had just embarked on a four-game road trip that would take them to Pittsburgh to face the Penguins, to Winnipeg for a pair of games on consecutive nights against the Jets, and then to New York to visit the Rangers. 

The Caps did not get off to a good start on that road trip, dropping the first game in the trip to the Pittsburgh Penguins by a 2-1 margin.  It was a moral victory of sorts, since the Caps had already lost twice to the Penguins back in early February by a combined 11-4 margin.  Still, with the Caps sitting in 14th place in the East, nine points behind the Jets for first in the Southeast Division and five points behind Carolina for eighth place in the Eastern Conference, time was starting to get scarce, and the Caps needed to make a move.

Why it mattered: The Caps already split two games with the Jets, losing a 4-2 decision in Washington’s home opener, then beating the Jets at MTS Centre on March 2nd by a 3-0 score.  They also happened to be on a see-saw with their schedule, alternating wins and losses over their previous five games (2-3-0).  The Jets were on a bit of a roll, going 6-1-1 since dropping their first two decisions in March.

It was the Caps who looked like the team on a roll and the Jets like the one treading water in the first game of the set.  Part of it was getting Mike Green back in the lineup.  Green missed 10 games with a(nother) groin injury.  He would not get a point in this game, but his minutes would allow John Carlson to bear less of an ice time burden.  In the ten games Green missed, Carlson averaged almost 26 minutes of ice time a game.  In this one Carlson would finish with 23:23.  The recalibrating of ice time seemed to work for the defense; they would hold Winnipeg to just 20 shots on goal for the game, the fewest the Caps would allow an opponent all season.

And, while Braden Holtby was stopping all 20 of those shots on goal, the Caps were being very efficient at the other end.  Troy Brouwer got the Caps off and running just 3:06 into the game on the Caps’ second shot on goal. It was all Brouwer, who blocked a pass attempt by Grant Clitsome outside the Caps’ blue line, skated down the right side and fished the puck out of the corner, dropped a pass for Brooks Laich, took a return pass, backed out from the opposite corner and wristed the puck past goalie Ondrej Pavelec. 

Brouwer’s effort was typical of the Caps’ performance in Game 1 of the two-game set.  Late in the period it was Marcus Johansson bumped off the puck by Mark Stuart in the neutral zone.  But Johansson kept after it, heading into the Jets’ end to apply the forecheck on Dustin Byfuglien.  A pass from Byfuglien to Evander Kane eluded the recipient, and Alex Ovechkin picked it up.  As he was doing so, Johansson circled out from behind the net and was in perfect position to redirect a centering pass from Ovechkin to make it 2-0 at the first intermission.

The Caps clamped down after that, and when Ovechkin scored a power play goal with less than six minutes left, followed by a Nicklas Backstrom goal with 1:38 left, the Caps had their second straight shutout of the Jets at MTS Centre.

Game 2 started in much the same fashion for the Caps, who scored twice in the first period.  Laich and Brouwer, who combined on the first Caps goal in Game 1 had one apiece in the first 20 minutes in this contest.  Laich outdueled Dustin Byfuglien for a loose puck along the wall, then beat him to a spot in the left wing circle to score from one knee on a pass by Mike Ribeiro.  For Brouwer it was another three-zone effort that started when he chipped the puck, not once, but twice off Winnipeg sticks to get it into the neutral zone.  He collected the puck on the run and skated it to the Jet’s blue line where he slid it over to Mike Ribeiro.  Brouwer one-timed the return pass into the back of the Winnipeg net, and the Caps had another two-goal lead at the first intermission.

The Caps added a pair in the middle frame, one on a Jay Beagle one-timer from the edge of the right wing circle, the other on a wrister from Alex Ovechkin less than two minutes later.  And if that did not end the competitive portion of the evening, a goal by Mike Green just 1:51 into the third period did.  Dustin Byfuglien ended Braden Holtby’s shutout streak of 190:37 against the Jets when he made it 5-1, but Ovechkin got that one back with a power play goal with 4:02 left to seal the 6-1 win and the sweep at MTS Centre.

The Takeaway:  Everything went right for the Caps in the two-game set.  They outscored the Jets, 10-1.  They were 2-for-7 on the power play, while they killed off all eight shorthanded situations they faced.  Seven different players recorded goals, and 14 skaters had at least one point (the Caps had 14 skaters with a point in Game 2).  They led for 104:44 of the 120 minutes and never trailed.  Braden Holtby stopped 50 of 51 shots on goal (.980 save percentage).

The Caps got production from its top line.  Alex Ovechkin was 3-2-5, Marcus Johansson was 1-3-4, and Nicklas Backstrom was 1-2-3.  They got production from the grinders with Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, and Joel Ward picking up points.  Mike Green had a goal, and John Carlson had a pair of assists from the blue line.  In fact, five different defensemen had points in the two-game set with Karl Alzner, Steve Oleksy, and Dmitry Orlov contributing.

This was about as good as it gets in an early-spring series in Manitoba.

In the end...

By the time the two-game set ended, the Caps climbed to 10th in the Eastern Conference, just three points behind the New York Rangers for eighth place and only five behind the Jets for the Southeast Division lead.  It could have been a road trip that killed their season, and when the Caps lost in Pittsburgh to start the trip it looked as if that might happen.  But they dominated the Jets in two games, starting the Jets on a slide that saw them finish the season 8-7-1 and out of the playoffs. 

For the Caps it turned their season from being one of waiting on the end of the regular season to start their summer early to one of having a realistic chance of making the playoffs.  But to build on that and to make the road trip a success, they still had one more stop to make, a game in New York where the Caps would complete a successful road trip with a 3-2 Gimmick win.  In the meantime, a two-game trip to Winnipeg and the sweep that resulted made these games that mattered in the 2013 season.

Photo: Marianne Helm/Getty Images North America

A Day at the Office

The alarm clock goes off.  You have a runny nose and a bit of a cough.  You’re coming down with something.  You stand over your coffee maker as it bubbles wondering, “should I call in sick today?”  After all, those meetings you have on your schedule and phone calls you have to return at the office are quite demanding.  Finally, you decide to drag yourself into the office, even if you don’t quite feel up to it today.

You have broken ribs.  Torn cartilage and muscles.  A separated shoulder.  The last time you were at the “office,” you left in an ambulance.  But you showed up for work the next day.  And unlike that office worker debating with himself over his coffee maker (among which we include ourselves), you work for a living.  Your body is your tool set.  And it’s broken.  When asked to describe the nature of your injuries, whether they are, in the code of your profession, “upper body” or “lower body,” your boss merely says, “body.”

You are skating a shift in the late stages of the first period.  You just turned the puck over, but you jump back into the play to try to defend your mistake.  A shot caroms off your stick and hits you square in the cheek, frozen rubber striking skin, flesh and bone.  It rips a streak of red across your face, leaving you face down bleeding onto the ice.  It is your last shift of the period, because it takes time to stitch up a cut.  You are back on the ice for your first shift of the next period, still feisty enough to take a penalty to end that shift.

Your job description includes some items that jeopardize your physical well-being.  Going into places inhabited by large men with malice on their minds is among them.  But to succeed, there is where you have to go sometimes.  One of those times, you are plastered to the ice trying to do your job, left woozy and uncertain on your feet.  It’s all in the job description, the risk you take.  But you’re back at work the next day, and the next time you show up at the office, it’s your goal that blunts the momentum of the other team, at least for a while.  When your team finally takes control of the game, you are on the ice in the last minute to defend your lead, to defend the championship you are about to win.

The term “heroes” might best be reserved for those who toil on the field of battle, but there really are not very good synonyms for the term.  Leave to say that Patrice Bergeron, Andrew Shaw, and Jonathan Toews are special. 

Then again, perhaps not.  They are hockey players, and this is what hockey players do.  They just did it on the biggest stage of all in their profession.  And that is one reason why hockey fans might be the most rabid of any sport (well, there are those World Cup soccer fans…).  Because hockey players are, if not heroes, then very special individuals.  It puts in stark relief how stupid, silly, and petty all the nonsense was that left the NHL dark for four months.  And how much smaller those were who brought it about.

The game of hockey is in good hands with young men like Bergeron, Shaw, and Toews – and dozens like them.  They, and the game, deserve celebration this morning.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Washington Capitals: The 2013 Season -- Ten (well...six) Games that Mattered: Devils at Capitals, February 23rd

We take up the second of six games that mattered in the 2013 season with one that made a welcome statement for the Caps…

February 23, 2013: New Jersey (10-3-4) at Washington (5-10-1)

Result: Capitals 5 – Devils 1

The Background:  As February was coming to a close, the Capitals were struggling and in danger of falling out of the playoff race almost before it began.  Washington finished the one-third mark of the season in last place in the Eastern Conference.  A large part of that disappointing start was the fact that the Caps were 2-8-1 against teams outside of the Southeast Division, including the 3-2 loss they suffered to the New Jersey Devils in the first half of a scheduling quirk – back-to-back games against the Devils hosted by the Caps on February 21st and 23rd.

The first game of the back-to-back was especially hard to swallow, given that the Caps twice held one-goal leads and gave up the lead for good when the Devils scored two goals barely two minutes apart midway through the third period.  The last one came on what would be the Devils’ sixth power play of the contest, Ilya Kovalchuk doing the damage for the game-winning goal once more.  The penalty that led to it – an interference call on Tom Poti – was the sixth minor penalty charged to the Caps in the third period. 

The sixth time was the charm.  It would be the only successful power play on the evening for the Devils.  It was a frustrating night overall for the Caps, punctuated by Troy Brouwer going off on a rant at an official at the 20:00 minute mark, smashing his stick on the bench, and drawing a ten-minute misconduct penalty for his tirade.

Why it mattered:  From one perspective, the Caps were only six points out of a playoff spot when they took the ice against the Devils in the back-half of the back-to-back games.  Then again, the Caps had just those two wins against a team not in the Southeast Division, and they were in jeopardy of suffering their third losing streak of the season of at least three games after just 17 total games played.

The Caps needed to make a statement and needed to make it with their top players.  In the 3-2 loss in the first game against the Devils in the back-to-back set, Mike Green did not dress, while Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom combined for one assist (Backstrom) and a minus-3. 

Green would not dress for the second game of the set, either, meaning that someone had to step up for the Caps.  After 25 minutes of this game, though, it was hard to see just who it might be to step up for either team.  The clubs split just ten shots on goal in the opening period without a goal being scored, and five minutes into the second period the Caps were turned away on the only shot they recorded, and the Devils were denied on the three shots on goal credited to them.

But with just over five minutes gone in the second period Mike Ribeiro, of all people, separated Adam Henrique from the puck at the back of the Washington net.  The puck squirted out to Alex Ovechkin, who fed the puck to John Erskine heading up ice.  Erskine moved the puck back up to Ovechkin heading down the right side.  Ovechkin dropped the puck for Jason Chimera, who skated with it into the Devils’ zone, spun, and found Ribeiro skating down the middle.  When the Devils’ defense closed on Ribiero, he ladled the puck to Ovechkin in the left wing circle.  A one-timer past goalie Johan Hedberg’s blocker later, and the Caps had a 1-0 lead.

The Devils tied the game in the last minute of the period – Ilya Kovalchuk being a nuisance to the Caps yet again – and that might have deflated the Caps entirely.  However, just 83 seconds into the second period Ovechkin took a long feed from Matt Hendricks, skated into the New Jersey zone, and using defenseman Anton Volchenkov as a screen snapped the puck past Hedberg’s blocker on the long side to give the Caps the lead for good.

Eric Fehr gave the Caps a two-goal lead while shorthanded when after the Caps cleared the puck down the ice, Hedberg misplayed it in his skates, allowing Fehr to pick his pocket and wrap it around the post before Hedberg could return to position.

Ovechkin drove a stake through the Devils on the power play with just under five minutes left not long after he was robbed at the door step on a pad-save by Hedberg.  His next chance found the back of the net off a feed from Mike Ribeiro from the goal line extended, through the slot and onto Ovechkin’s stick in the left wing circle. 

When Troy Brouwer added a power play goal less than two minutes later the Caps had their first five-goal game against a team not named for a large cat (Florida Panthers).  The Caps also avoided another three-or-more game losing streak (they would have only one more of that length over the rest of the season), and it got them started on a 5-1-0 run that would help turn around their season. 

The Takeaway:  For Ovechkin it was an especially welcome night.  For him it was his first hat trick of the season, first multi-goal game since March 23rd of the 2011-2012 season, his first hat trick since January 22, 2011, his first hat trick and four-point game at home since February 7, 2010, when he was 3-1-4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

For the Caps it was their most convincing win to date on the schedule, their 5-0 win over Florida on February 9th notwithstanding. Mike Ribeiro had a pair of assists, and seven other Caps recorded a point.  Matt Hendricks was credited with six hits.  Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perreault won a combined 16 of 21 faceoffs (76.2 percent).  The Caps as a team held the Devils to only 22 shots (only twice all season would the Caps hold an opponent to fewer), and Braden Holtby stopped 21 of them in goal, including a penalty shot attempt by Steve Bernier that could have tied the game mid-way through the second period.  Ovechkin got most of the attention after the contest, but it was a team effort with a lot of guys stepping up after a tough loss to the same team on the same ice sheet just two nights earlier.

In the end…

The Caps were not the same team after this game.  They went on a 5-1-0 run starting with this game and would go 10-7-2 outside the Southeast Division over the rest of the year after starting the year with a 2-8-1 record against those teams.  Starting with this game the Caps averaged 3.22 goals per game over their last 36 contests and allowed an average of just 2.38 goals per game.  If they were not quite The Greatest Show on Ice that they were in the 2009-2010 season, they were a very productive team over those last 36 games.  And because that run started with this game, the February 23rd game against the Devils is one that mattered.

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Washington Capitals: The 2013 Season -- Ten (well...six) Games that Mattered: Capitals at Devils, January 25th

We are at that point in the season where we look back at the games that mattered this past season.  Since there was no full 82-game season, it would be hard to find ten games that mattered as we see it.  A six-pack looks about right.  So let’s get right to it…

January 25, 2013: Washington (0-3-0) at New Jersey (2-0-0)

Result: Devils 3 – Capitals 2 (OT)

The Background:  After waiting four months to start their season, the Capitals laid an egg in their first three games of the new season.  They were neither scoring goals (six in three games) nor preventing them (14 goals allowed).  It was a team that was, as one might expect with a new coach, sorting things out. 

One of the things Adam Oates was sorting out was the top line.  Over the first three games, he mixed up his centers (Nicklas Backstrom and Mathieu Perreault getting time) and his left wings (Marcus Johansson, Matt Hendricks, and Wojtek Wolski earning minutes).  The constant was on the right wing.  There, it was Alex Ovechkin playing a position he had not played over any significant minutes in the NHL. 

The erstwhile left winger did not take to the switch like vodka to ice.  Over those first three games Ovechkin recorded only one assist in 70 minutes of ice time, and that one was a secondary assist in a 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets when he circled out from behind the Jets’ net on the left side, feeding Nicklas Backstrom, whose shot was deflected off Matt Hendricks’ skate for a goal.

Maybe this whole Ovechkin-on-the-right-side thing was an experiment that was not going to yield results.

Why it mattered:  Seventeen seconds into their fourth game of the season -- at New Jersey on January 25th -- Alex Ovechkin took the ice, this time once more as a left wing.  He did not do it with Nicklas Backstrom or Mike Ribeiro at center, with Troy Brouwer or Eric Fehr on the right wing.  He took the ice with Joey Crabb on the right side and Jay Beagle centering the line.  It was hard to tell if Ovechkin was being demoted or his two linemates were being promoted.

Maybe it was to make a point.  It was a not too subtle way of saying that returning to the comfort zone of the left side would come at a price.  Eleven of his first 13 even strength shifts came skating on a line with Crabb and Beagle.  As one might expect, Ovechkin did not record a point.  He recorded only one even strength shot on goal, and that one came when he shared a line with Backstrom and Brouwer just after a Capitals power play concluded.

It was not entirely an object lesson.  Oates thought enough of trying to win the contest by putting Ovechkin on a line with Backstrom and Joel Ward at even strength for late shifts in regulation.  It might have paid off had the Caps won the game in overtime, but Ilya Kovalchuk put an end to that thought when he scored with just 21 seconds left in the extra frame to deny Oates his first win as head coach of the Capitals.

The Takeaway:  It was not the end of the lesson.  In his next game Ovechkin took his first shift with, again, Crabb and Beagle, but that shift turned into a power play just 13 seconds later.  Ovechkin did not get his next even strength shift until there were more than five minutes gone in the game.  He logged a lot of even strength time for the game; his 15:39 was more than any Capital forward except Nicklas Backstrom and Jay Beagle.  Joey Crabb skated only a minute less than Ovechkin at even strength (it was part of his highest ice time finish of the season, the only time he cleared the 15 minute mark). 

This game ended better for the Caps, the good guys winning by a 3-2 score and giving Oates that first win as head coach.  Ovechkin even scored the game-winning goal, that one coming on a power play.  It was not the end of the lesson, though.  Ovechkin would skate on a line with Beagle and Crabb in the next game, a 3-2 overtime loss in Ottawa.  He finished with no points and only two shots on goal, only one of them at even strength, that one in the third period moments before the Senators tied the game, 2-2.

The experiment – or the object lesson, if it was that — lasted one more game.  It was another two-shot/one at even strength result (his lone power play shot was a goal).  And, it was another Caps loss, this one a 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs to push the Caps’ record to 1-5-1.  That would be it, though.  When the Caps took to the ice on February 1st against the Philadelphia Flyers, Ovechkin stepped onto the ice for his first shift 1:04 into the game with Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolski, a line resembling more a scoring line with which Ovechkin might usually be placed.

In the end…

The point was made.  It was a bit like watching the hockey version of the movie “Hoosiers,” the early scenes when coach Norman Dale has a player pushing back against his philosophy.  The player wants to do things his way, they way he did them in the past under another coach.  Dale benches the player, and even when the team is left with four players on the court after a fifth fouls out he does not put the benched player back in the game.   

Maybe it was a case of Oates wanting to get Ovechkin skating with what he called “north-south guys.”  Then again, it might have been Oates making that point with a player who was pushing back.  Some might have argued that Oates sacrificed wins to make that point.  In the four games that Ovechkin skated primarily with Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb at even strength he managed five shots on goal (no goals) in 60:30 of even-strength ice time.  The Caps went 1-2-1 in those games.  But starting on February 1st, the Caps went 26-13-2 over the rest of the season while Ovechkin went 30-23-53, plus-5 in those 41 games.

Unlike the Hickory Huskers of fiction, the Caps did not win the big game in the end, but Adam Oates bringing Ovechkin around to his point of view and helping restore Ovechkin to something resembling his early career offensive production is a valuable outcome of this season.  It is one thing that the Caps have in the bank as they look forward to their 2013-2014 season.  And that is why that game back on January 25th mattered.

Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Washington Capitals: 2012-2013 By the Tens -- The Fans

There are different stories about how the word “fan” came into use to describe an avid follower of a movie star, a singer, or a sports franchise.  Some say it is a product of 18th century England, when the term “the fancy” was used to refer to followers of a sport.  Some argue it dates all the way back to the mid-1600’s and the Latin word, “fanaticus,” meaning “divinely inspired.”  And there are those who of a mind that the word is uniquely American, derived from shortening the word, “fanatic.”

Whatever.  Fans are the lifeblood of sports.  You might say that they are – or can be – the inspiration for athletes on the field, the court, or the rink.  How many times does one see a reference to the “12th man” in football? The “sixth man” in basketball, or “the seventh man” in hockey (sorry, ladies, it always seems this reference is made to men)?  They are not talking about the Zamboni driver, who might have a fan club of his own.

They are referring to fans.  And contrary to opinion in a lot of places in North America, the Washington Capitals have one fantastic fan base.  That 181-game sellout streak the Caps have represents more than 3.3 million fans.  They rock the red, the scream their lungs out, they make Verizon Center one of the loudest rinks in the league.

But that is just the surface.  There are those fans that plan summer vacations around development camp in July or postpone their vacations so they can attend training camp in September.  There are the ones who for almost 15 years have been combining their love of hockey and the open road to plan road trip charters.  There are fans who take the time to build, nurture, and maintain message forums to talk about the Caps.

There are the Caps fans that blow their horn and lend a full-throated roar in support of the boys, night in and night out.  You’ll go to a lot of arenas and never hear any horn sounded so clearly and used with such impeccable timing, or hear a voice that could drown out most public-address systems.  How could one not “unleash the fury” with that fusillade of sound?

Then there are the folks who write about the Caps because they’re fans.  The do it without compensation because they’re fans.  You’ll see a lot of them over there in the margin on the right – our “fellow wizards,” we call them – and we are probably missing a lot of them in that list because, well, the Caps have a lot of fans and they have a lot of things to say.  You will not find better reporting anywhere than you will see over at Japers’ Rink, or Russian Machine Never Breaks, or Capitals Outsider, or…well, you get the point.  The Caps have the best damn blogging community around.  Period.

And even though he is part of the production, there is the voice of the Capitals, Wes Johnson, who seems at least as much a fan as announcer.  No one revs up the faithful of your WASH-ING-TONNNN CAP-I-TALLLLLLLS like Wes.  Ditto for John Walton, Ken Sabourin, Joe Beninati, Craig Laughlin, and Mike Vogel doing television, radio, and video production.  They are the best at what they do in large part because they’re fans.

Folks talk about “bandwagon” fans and do so too often in a derogatory way.  Sure, the Caps have had a lot of folks jump on the bandwagon over the last few years.  But hey, the more the merrier.  But those folks who have had a seat on that bandwagon over the last ten, twenty, thirty or more years...those folks are the true fanatics.  You have to be a fan to have your heart broken so many times in so many ways – blowing three-games-to-one leads, hearing shots in overtime hit a post to end a Game 7 in the playoffs, bad ice that makes you fumble the puck that leads to a series clinching breakaway, the Islanders, then the Penguins, and now for you “bandwagon fans,” the Rangers.

In 2013 Caps fans suffered the loss of almost half of a hockey season, and then, just when the team seemed to be clicking under the hand of new head coach Adam Oates, suffered yet another early playoff exit.  Only once have the Caps played hockey in June.  If you’re a Caps fan, you know that.  But you’re a Caps fan because you want to be there when they do it a second time.

Maybe Washington is not a “hockey town” in the same way Detroit is, or Toronto, or Montreal, or those cities in the Northeast.  That says nothing about the devotion of those who do call themselves “Caps fans.”  They have had to be to sustain themselves through long winters and too-early springs over the years.  In 2013, their devotion and fanaticism was put to the test.  They passed with flying colors (mostly “red”).

Grade: A+

Photo: Greg Fiume: Getty Images

Washington Capitals: 2012-2013 By the Tens -- The Planners

Fans of the Washington Capitals know the drill.  There is this “plan,” you see.  It started back in 2003 when the previous plan went bad.  That one started when in 2001 the Capitals made one of the biggest trades in club history, procuring the services of Jaromir Jagr and Frantisek Kucera from the Pittsburgh Penguins for prospects Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk, Michal Sivek and future considerations.

The trade announced to fans, other teams, and the hockey world that the Caps were now “players” in the NHL, serious about taking the actions and implementing the means to compete for a Stanley Cup.  It was the very definition of a blockbuster trade. 

However, Jagr struggled on the ice compared to his production with the Penguins, even after receiving a long, lucrative contract extension from the Capitals, and the team sought to rectify the situation by doubling down – obtaining Robert Lang (another long, lucrative contract) and Kip Miller, both of whom were former teammates of Jagr brought in to give his game lift.

A team with Jagr, Lang, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, and Michael Nylander to fill the skill needs, plus players such as Steve Konowalchuk, Jeff Halpern, Mike Grier, and Calle Johansson to fill support roles, just had to be formidable.

They were not.  In 2003 they were ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs in four straight games after jumping out to a 2-0 lead in games off impressive three-goal wins.  The fall from there was swift and stunning.  They started the 2003-2004 season going 1-7-1 in their first eight games.  Things did not improve appreciably after that.  By December 8th, after they lost to the Colorado Avalanche by a 4-1 score in Denver, the Caps were 8-18-1-1, 14th in a 15-team Eastern Conference, tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins with the fewest standings points in the entire NHL.

Then, they fired their coach.  Then, they swapped out players – old for new, expensive for cheap, “stars” for journeymen.  Then, they finished the season (mercifully).  They embarked on a new version of, “The Plan.”

Almost ten years later, the Capitals have a “plan,” but do they a have a “clue?”  That is, about how to implement their plan.  Whatever the merits of their “plan” (and we do not have any quarrel with it), they don’t give evidence of having a clue of what kind of team they want to be, and if you don’t have that, no “plan” is going to help you.  It is like having a road map without a sense of what your destination is.  You end up wandering from pillar to post with this “plan” in your hand wondering why it is you’re not getting any closer to where you want to go.

We read somewhere once that “buying a lottery ticket is not a financial plan.”  Well, for the Caps, in retrospect, maybe that was the hockey plan.  They just happened to win that lottery.  They won the bounce of the ping pong ball in 2004 and with that ping pong ball clutched tightly in their hands selected Alex Ovechkin.  That did not take any “plan” to accomplish.  The trick, we maintained then and do so now, was what the Caps would do to build a team around their lottery prize.

You see the results.  This is a team with the simple aims to “make the playoffs.” Once done, the story goes, “anything can happen.”  It is as if their fate would then be in the hands of the hockey gods, not their own, as if they could not take action to reach higher – “the Stanley Cup is our goal” – but instead be acted upon.  Games and series then become a product of officiating or the proverbial “lucky” – or in the Capitals’ case, “unlucky” – bounce.

The Capitals are the “Good Enough Franchise.”  Made the playoffs?  Good enough.  Sold out the arena?  Good enough.  Rockin’ that red merchandise?  Good enough.  You can see it in the spin the franchise wishes to put on its season.  Caps fans were treated to a season-ending example of this.  One would think this a season of high accomplishment, when, well... let’s take a look at some of the facts, spun a bit differently…

- The current streak of six-straight playoff appearances is tied for the fourth-longest active playoff streak in the NHL.

The Capitals have three series wins in that period.  Nine teams have more, and two others have as many.

- Since 2007-08 the Capitals have won 148 games on home ice, tied for the second-most home wins in the NHL in the last six seasons.

Since 2007-2008 the Caps are 16-15 on home ice in the playoffs, 1-4 in Game 7’s.

- The Caps 116 road wins since 2007-08 rank tied for seventh in the league during that span.

The Caps are 11-16 on the road in the post-season since 2008.

- The Capitals have won five Southeast Division titles in the last six seasons, joining Vancouver as the only two teams in the league to accomplish that feat.

In those five seasons only twice did another Southeast Division team qualify for the playoffs.

- 2012-13 marked Washington’s 24th playoff appearance in franchise history.

Twice in those 24 seasons they advanced past the second round, none of them in their last nine playoff appearances.

- Washington has advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals in three of the last five seasons.

And twice lost to lower seeded teams.  We won’t bring up that one-and-done Presidents Trophy year.

- In the past 10 years only one team has won multiple Stanley Cups (Detroit), and there have been nine different Stanley Cup winners in each of the past nine seasons. (That underscores the parity in this league.)

23 different teams have advanced to a conference final in that span of years, including two Southeast Division teams that went on to win a Stanley Cup.  The Caps are not among either of those groups.

- The Capitals finished April with an 11-1-1 record, the best record in the league and the most productive month in Capitals regular-season history.

They finished May with a 3-4 record, their 14th first-round playoff exit in team history and sixth in nine playoff appearances since they appeared in the Stanley Cup final in 1998.

- Adam Oates helped guide the Capitals to the Southeast Division title in his first season as a head coach in the NHL.

We like Oates, a lot in fact, but the there is also the fact that in 2011, rookie head coach Guy Boucher (of the Southeast Division Tampa Bay Lightning, it might be noted) led the Lightning to the Eastern Conference finals (after sweeping the Capitals in the second round to get there, it might also be noted).

- For the fourth year in a row, the Capitals sold out every home game and continue to build upon their club-record 181 consecutive sellouts (including playoffs and dating back to 2008-09).

Meaning a lot of people got to watch another in a long line of disappointments.

But, dear reader – yes, you…the one forking over those thousands of dollars for season tickets and all that rockin’ red merchandise – it is “good enough?”  Different people have different expectations and different ways of defining satisfaction with a product.  That is something for each fan to consider.  Judging by what the team says are its renewal rates for season tickets, it seems a lot of those fans are satisfied.  Score one for capitalism.

But one just gets the feeling, after all the self-promotion about having a “plan,” whatever the merits of that plan (and like we said, we don’t have a quarrel with it), the simple matter is one of whether these planners have done an especially good job executing that plan.  If playoffs are your aim, if ticket sales are the goal, if ringing up merchandise sales is the objective, then yes, they have done a swell job.  But as far as building a hockey team that can compete with the elite teams in the National Hockey League?  Well, not so much.  They can make the playoffs these days with regularity, just as they did with regularity before the current administration took over.  Making the playoffs is not nothing; it is an achievement.  But this was not the 2006 Capitals for whom making the playoffs would have been a borderline miracle.  Should making the playoffs not be an expectation as well as an achievement for this team? 

Whatever the answer is to that question, one thing is sure.  Making the playoffs makes you a good team, but it is no more the measure of an elite team today than it was in the 1980’s and 1990’s when the Caps strung together 14 straight playoff years.  In the end, Caps fans were dealt a double dose of disappointment.  First, they were denied almost half a season of hockey in part by those who seem to plan lockout strategies much more effectively than they do their core product.  Then, they watched as the Caps went out in the first round of the playoffs...again.

The 2013 Capitals that lost in the first round of the playoffs were hardly distinguishable from the 2003 Capitals (out in the first round), the 1993 Capitals (out in the first round), or the 1983 Capitals, for that matter (out in the first round in their first ever playoff appearance).  Maybe that parade down Pennsylvania Avenue will happen someday, but for the moment – here in 2013 – what you see, it seems, is…

Good enough.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson