Sunday, December 19, 2010

Capital Punishment

The Capitals are Looking for Answers.  Boudreau Knows where to look.

The Capitals have lost 8 in a row.  That’s messed up.  They are way too good to have lost 8 in a row.  Look at their roster, and at the teams that have beat them.  What could possibly cause them to lose 8 in a row?  I MUST KNOW. 
With that in mind, I sat down last night to break down the battle of nation’s capitals, as the Senators played host to the Caps, and looked to send their slide to 9 games.  Here’s what went down:

10:44 (1) – The Capitals are down 1-0 on a Ryan Shannon goal.  I guess that I should mention that I am starting this about half way through the first period, since I, well, I just got the idea, I guess.  It could easily be confirmation bias on my part, as it certainly isn’t the sort of thing I would notice if I wasn’t looking for it, but the Caps bench just looks down.  No one is talking, and there is zero energy.  Everyone is just kind of staring out at the ice or at the scoreboard.  I guess you can’t blame them, being down 1-0 just 9 minutes in and having lost 8 in a row, but the entire demeanor screams here we go again.

9:15 (1) – As we head into the first commercial break, one thing is clear:  most of this analysis is going to be along the lines of ‘this is a team that just looks like they are struggling.’  In the first minute of watching, I have noticed guys reaching a lot, not moving their feet, like they are desperate to make a play but not thinking about how to do it.  Bernie Madoff had more of an idea as to how he was going to get out of his slump than the Capitals do right now. 

8:23 (1) – The passing isn’t there right now, either.  A D to D pass from Scott Hannan to Erskine (I believe) went off of the boards even though there was little to no pressure.  This led to Erskine swinging at a now contested puck, and turning it over, rather than making an easy breakout.  Even as I type this, another pass misses for an icing.

7:15 (1) – Another missed D to D with no pressure.  Another turnover results.

6:05 (1) – 2-0 Ottawa.  Carlson made a great pass to send Johansson in on a breakaway, but he got caught, leading the play back the other way.  Once it got into the other zone, Green couldn’t tie up Kelly, and a nice pass finds him in front.  There were three Caps in the slot, and Kelly got behind all of them (the pass came from the corner).  It is the kind of little breakdown that seems to hurt you when things aren’t going well.  Down 2-0, with things going poorly, it will be interesting to see how this team responds.  I don’t have high hopes. 
On the plus side, Mike Green appears intent to answer the question, ‘what would Manny Ramirez play like if he were an NHL defenseman.’  Godspeed, Mike, godspeed.

4:44 (1) – I just tried to watch Ovechkin for a shift, but it consisted of watching him stand next to his D man in the D zone, while Hannan and Green got cycled on, then jump offside on a 3-2 while Green tried to walk through 3 guys.  Not pretty.

4:21 (1) – Mike Knuble just made a small but telling play on a nice little scoring chance for the Caps.  He caught a pass in the slot, with a bit of time and a sprawling Brian Elliot in front of him.  Rather than shooting, though, he tried to stickhandle around Elliot, who was already in desperation mode, and actually gave him time to cover the post with his glove, making the stop.  Over-stickhandling is a classic sign of a struggling team, and that was a clear cut example. 

4:09 (1) – The Caps have surged since they went down 2-0. They created a couple of chances and are now on a powerplay on a Milan Michalek slash, although in the 20 seconds it took to type that, they have yet to touch the puck in the offensive zone.

3:01 (1) – Even with the man advantage, the Caps passing is HORRIBLE.  Over-stickhandling, a lost draw and bad passing have led to the Senators clearing the puck 5 times in the first 90 seconds of the PP before the Caps have a shot. 

1:52 (1) – PP killed.  No chances.  They looked lost.

0:00 (1) – Fehr scores, but it is a good second or two after the buzzer.  The Caps were cycling a bit right at the end of the period but even then they didn’t seem to have any effective puck movement.  Everything used the boards.  Every pass created a race.  You can’t live and die by small battles created when you had possession.  Nothing ends up getting to the net. 
At the end of the first period, one thing is abundantly clear.  I am going to have to find a lot of different ways to say ‘the Caps are pressing, playing like a team that is desperate and has been taken away from their game.’  At least they will provide plenty of different examples with which to point this out. 

20:00 (2) – Boudreau is in the ear of the officials before the start of the second.  It is the most fight anyone on the Caps has show in a week.  Then again, he could be fighting for his job.  The rumors have officially started flying.  It seems ridiculous and is easy to write off as ridiculous, but on the other hand, this is clearly too talented a team to be playing this badly, and coaches have been dismissed to wake teams up under less dire circumstances.  Ultimately I think Bruce will be fine (Boudreau is well liked and owner Ted Leonsis is pretty level headed), but it makes sense that he would be showing a bit of desperation. 

19:23 (2) – Caps strike early when a turnover and then an ill-advised dive by Gonchar gave the Caps a 3-1.  Even the goal was ugly for a skilled team like the Capitals.  Laich tried to pass to the trailer, Knulbe, who was in traffic.  Knuble fumbled with it, eventually kicking it at the net, but it went right to Perroult, though, and he tapped it in.

18:40 (2) – Eric Fehr taps one through Elliot after a terrible turnover to Ovechkin off of Phillips, for the second Caps goal in 50 seconds.  It was a pretty solid break for the Caps, but the energy level in period 2 is much better than it was in the first for Washington.  Make your own breaks indeed.  Timeout by the Sens.
Real quick, as much as it seemed natural to see how the Capitals would respond to adversity, I think it is actually going to be more interesting to see how they respond to a bit of good fortune and momentum.  They haven’t had much lately.  Will they loosen up and play to their skill level, or will they be more energetic versions of the pressing, struggling team that we saw in the first?  The energy picked up after the first goal, the challenge will be to maintain it.

17:51 (2) – My first reaction, as it pertains to the above question, is that they are (predictably) somewhere in the middle of the two options I gave.  A shift by the Backstrom-Ovechkin line looked energetic and way more aggressive than they had been, but they still look like they don’t have a plan out there.
(Also, the color guy for the Caps claimed that ‘if the Capitals get the next goal they will win,’ and didn’t bother to qualify it.  So apparently we are playing to three.  Good to know.)
(I like Joe Beninati and Jeff Rimer, the Caps TV team, but come on…it wouldn’t be a running diary if I didn’t make fun of the announcing, right?)

16:41 (2) – Powerplay Washington.  Offensive zone call against Ottawa.

15:38 (2) –The powerplay looks much better than the last.  A couple of tape to tape passes for the Caps, finally, although they are still having trouble sustaining pressure.  A couple of chances, none of them golden, and we are back to 5 on 5. 

14:27 (2) – Even in this second period, with things going their way, no one has looked good for Washington, but Carlson looks as good as anyone for Washington.  He is easily the most composed, and he is moving his feet much better than the typical guy for Washington.  He just drew another penalty by splitting a couple of guys and getting dragged down.

13:10 (2) – When it rains it pours.  A Green shot hits Laich and he goes down.  ‘Bad luck’ legitimately needs to be mentioned as a reason for the streak.

13:03 (2) – The powerplay, once again looking better than the last, finally breaks through.  After Ovechkin’s unit got a couple of chances, the second team got a bad rebound from Elliot, and Perrault tapped it in.  Elliot made a dumb play to try to paddle it away, putting it in the slot, and creating the chance, but the Caps were going to the net.  It is a universal hockey truth.  If things aren’t going your way, go to the net. 

11:14 (2) – The Senators come back with a little bit of momentum, but the caps don’t break.  They can’t stay back on their heels with things going their way for a change.  A struggling team will be tempted to sit on a lead, but for a team like the Caps to now attempt to win this game 3-2 with half an hour of game time left won’t work.

10:48 (2) – As I type that, Ovechkin crashes the net on a seemingly innocent rush and puts it in, but with one of the more obvious kick ins I have ever seen.  This one should come back. 
While the play is being reviewed, the ref turned to a linesman, and said something with his hand over his mouth.  I have no idea why he would want to hide the result of the play from anyone, so I can only assume that he was saying ‘Toronto says we need the Caps in contention.  Ovechkin is a poster boy, and has been slumping.  He needs this one.  We need to find a way to count this’ for the simple reason that conspiracies are fun. 
Turns out I am wrong, though, and they call it off.

9:45 (2) – Boudreau appears to agree that going to the net and getting it done ugly is the key to busting out, because ‘pucks and bodies to Elliot’ seems to be the directive right now.  It certainly is a change from the first, and seems to be effective.  The Caps still don’t look sharpe.  Tape to tape passes are rare.  They are stickhandling at times that you would expect NHLers to make a play with the puck.  But they are at least putting their desperation to work.  They are getting to the net.  They are creating traffic.  Finally, there is a plan, and it appears to be a good one. 

9:13 (2) – Green doesn’t like it, but he hooked Chris Neil pretty clearly around the waste and took a minor.  He looks TERRIBLE in his own zone.  That is his first penalty of the night, but he has been beat twice for goals, and is having exactly zero success breaking up the Senators cycle.  It is well known that Green does his best work on offense, but this is ridiculous. 

7:12 (2) – Capitals get the kill.  Ottawa got a couple of chances in the second half of the PP, but overall it was a good kill. 

4:49 (2) – Neuvirth has been fine today, making the saves he should, but something seems off.  He hasn’t been tested much, but he definitely doesn’t look good.  He is clearly fighting the puck.  He has used his glove to make saves on his blocker side a few times, and looks like he is holding on for dear life when he covers the puck.  Goaltending has definitely been an issue for the Capitals throughout this streak, and I can’t help but think that the main reason for that not cropping up tonight is a lack of opportunity.

0:39 (2) – Elliot just got RUN OVER, with no call.  It has nothing to do with the Capitals struggles, but maybe it is a sign of a karmic turn around or something, because I have seen 50,000 goalie interference penalties that had less contact than that.  Dwayne Roloson (the overdramatic, flopping piece of ---sorry) would be rolling around like he was shot if that happened to him.

End (2) – That was an undeniably good period for the Caps.  Obviously.  They scored three times, and controlled play (if that didn’t come through it was only because I am looking for reasons that they are struggling).  They still don’t look like the Capitals that we know, that are super skilled and can create exciting forms of offense, but they are playing better.  They simplified.  They went to the net.  They were aggressive.  It was a different team than the one that looked nervous and pressing in the first.  They need to stay aggressive, above all else, as they go into the third. 

18:18 (3) – A roller coaster first shift of the third for Ovechkin’s line.  They had a decent forecheck, but once it gets broken, and the Senators started to pressure, the Capitals absolutely TURTLED.  They went into D zone coverage like they were on a penalty kill, and the Senators worked the puck, getting a decent chance but missing the net.  That is ‘how not to win hockey games 101.’  For a minute the Capitals looked like the team that was scared and pressing (slumping) in the first period, again (although, this was ‘trying desperately to protect a one goal lead with 19 minutes left’ edition). 
Then, a bad pass led to a turnover, and Ovechkin beat Karlsson, forcing Karlsson to haul him down and giving the Caps a PP.  My hard hitting analysis?  Having the second best player in the world is nice sometimes. 

16:30 (3) – The Capitals powerplay has been unimpressive (was, now) save for a chance created by Ovechkin, and a nice save for Elliot.  Most of what the Caps have gotten this period has been a result of guys rushing the puck and beating defensemen 1-1.  On the one hand, this is an ineffective way to win hockey games.  On the other hand, if it can work for anyone, it is the Capitals. 

14:19 (3) – A quarter of the way through the third, the Senators are controlling the 5-5, but then again, there hasn’t been much in the way of scoring chances for Ottawa.  I am tempted to chalk this up to Ottawa’s sloppiness more than good work with by the Caps. 

13:00 (3) – The Capitals have had a couple of odd man rushes (a 2-1 and a 3-1), and neither was turned into a quality chance.  The Caps resemble the team we saw in the first way more than the team that was out there in the second.  Waiting back is natural for a team that is 15 minutes from their first win in a few weeks, but it isn’t effective.

12:52 (3) – Huge PK.

10:30 (3) – Nothing for Ottawa on the powerplay, although this time I am sure that it was due to a bad job by the Sens.  That was ugly.

10:10 (3) – A moment that sums up the Capitals issues has forced me to rewind the DVR to watch it again, then pause (rather than wait for a stoppage) to break it down.  The Senators turn the puck over in the neutral zone, and Ovechkin enters the zone with space.  A Capital is going to the net with speed, making it a semi-2-1, and the Ottawa defenseman plays the pass.  Ovechkin, he of the league lead in shots every year that he has been in the league, has a clear path to the net, with only a bit of back pressure.  It looks like the start of an uncountable number of YouTube videos that I have seen of Ovechkin.  What does he do?  Snipe?  Create a highlight?  Thread it through the defenseman to the crashing forward for a goal, even?  No.  He passes back, through the back checker, into more back pressure, sending the play the other way. 
That is the very definition of pressing.  He is one of the best goal scorers in the world, and he gave up a semi-breakaway.  Ovechkin has 6 points in the last 10 games.  For him, that is slumping.  This is a quintessential example of the way he is pressing.  Passing back in that situation is never going to improve that scoring chance.  Especially for Ovie, who may well be the best finisher in the game. 
When a team is struggling, they cease to trust their own abilities, and that is exactly what Ovechkin just demonstrated.

8:02 (3) – Nothing comes of a PP that was created for a hook on the guy going to the net above.  Unless something grabs me, I am going to watch this one to the end, than go with my thoughts there. 

4:57 (3) – Since we are in commercials, and I am up to speed on DVR, I may as well chime in here.  The Caps have their lead, but barely.  If the Caps win this game, it will be by holding on.  There is really no takeaway from that, though.  That is usually the way streaks end.  I you have lost a bunch of games, you start trying not to lose.  When you get close to that, it is extraordinarily difficult not to sit back and be defensive.  That’s what is going on right now.  On the other hand, if they don’t hold on, this could be devastating.  Back to the game.

2:45 (3) – Chimera just took a blatant holding penalty 200 feet from his own net.  That is TERRIBLE.  File that under the ‘reasons you have lost 8 in a row’ category.
The Caps will have to kill a frantic PP if they are going to hold on here.

0:16 (3) – Got the kill, then a holding call in the offensive zone for Follingo.  It looks like it is finally over.  You will never see a team happier to beat a team that they have 8 points on in December.  But that is what happens when you break a streak.

So the steak ended.  If you want you could say I jinxed it.  Whatever.   Really, though, I am left with two conflicting reactions as they pertain to the Capitals.
The first is that, when you have lost 8 in a row, a win is a win.  There are no two ways about it.  It literally does not matter one iota how you got it.  You will take the W.  When next week’s 24/7 comes out, you can expect that to be the reaction from the Capitals locker room. 
Having said that, Washington’s problems are far from over.  Ottawa is not a particularly good team.  They did not have a particularly good night.  But the Capitals made beating them look FREAKING HARD.  They held on for dear life for the last 15 minutes of that game.  It was not a 60 minute effort.  They played well for about 20 minutes (and only really good for about 5), and looked pretty shellshocked for the other 40. 
The Capitals also failed my ‘best players have to be their best players’ test.  Tonight, their best guys were a couple of rookies.  I love John Carlson, but he shouldn’t be their best defenseman, and he was.  The most energetic guy up front was Matthieu Perreault, playing just his 9th game of the year.  Backstrom was quiet.  Mike Green was terrible (he had a number of bad turnovers in addition to his D zone problems), and Ovechkin had just one shot, failing to make his usual impact shift-in-shift-out.  It worked for them tonight, but it won’t long term.
Once again, it is going to be about how they react going forward.  How many of their problems were born of frustration or slump?  I’m going to say most of them.  This is a team that could be better, but they are a lot better than this.  Winning should lead to more winning, and the problems I talked about should only diminish now that they are off the schneid.  That isn’t to say they aren’t there.  They most certainly are.
At the end of the day, though, they got the win, and killed the most improbable streak of the 2010 NHL season.  Scott Hannan finally has a W as a Capital, but only time will tell if that will put their problems behind them. 

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