Are you ready to rock?
The 2010-11 Washington Capitals regular season was just a long exercise in patience. It was never supposed to be a definitive statement of what the Caps are or where the franchise stands in the pantheon of almost-great NHL hockey teams.
If anything, it was an exercise in patience, humility, endurance, creative problem solving and transformation. The Caps were like a caterpillar that turned into a butterfly.
Washington started off the season a high-octane offense-first juggernaut – flying, big scoring, finesse and fragile. This was the version of the Caps that the fans had come to know and love and be continually frustrated by in the playoffs. Up until the last weekend of November, the MVP of the Caps was probably Alexander Semin. If you even thought of Semin as the MVP of this team now, they would laugh you out of the Green Turtle. Then there were the larval stages, December through most of March, where the Caps suffered through the changes of playing a different style of hockey, relying less on scoring (and scoring a lot less), integrating new players from outside the organization and folding in the prospects to the already young base of Alexander Ovechkin, Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green.
The Caps learned to play good defense. Not just the defensemen, but the entire team has gotten better on the back check, they are still aggressive on the forecheck if a bit tempered, and have the ability to trap and keep shots coming from the wings as opposed to the slot. It has not been a perfect transition – the inner offensive juggernaut wants to be free – but it has been effective enough where Washington was able to rally out of its doldrums, find some of it old offense and emerge the butterfly as the Eastern Conference top seed heading into the playoffs. The spinning wheels of waiting for the second season, the real season, are finished.
Now it is time to fly.
What do the Caps need to do to succeed in the chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup? Here are five items that will be important for Washington to get over its frustration and make a run deep into spring.
Who to watch – Michal Neuvirth
Goaltending is the first pillar of extended playoff runs. It does not always have to be spectacular, like the Sabres or Devils with Dominik Hasek or Martin Brodeur of years past, but it does need to be solid and consistent. The Caps trio of young goaltenders will be the key to getting through the gauntlet that April and May hockey represent.
Coming into the season, goaltending was one the Caps most nebulous questions. Washington knew it had talent with Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov with the unknown-quantity of Braden Holtby waiting in the wings. But, young goaltenders can be fickle creatures. Look at Carey Price in Montreal. He can be terrific at times and an absolute head case at others.
The results from the trio this year have been a string of consistent starts with periods of growing pains. Neuvirth has been the key, yet Varlamov has the best numbers when he is healthy. Holtby looks like a cross between Tim Thomas and Cam Ward and is probably the Caps goaltender of the future. Of the three it will probably be Neuvirth who coach Bruce Boudreau will go with first. Holtby, on the other end, will see what he can do in bringing another Calder Cup to Hershey.
Can Neuvirth go end-to-end and bring the Caps a Cup? The realistic answer is – not bloody likely. Yet, can a mixture of Varlamov and Neuvirth get Washington at least an Eastern Conference finals birth? Probably, yes. Anything else would be a huge disappointment. There have been young goalies that have emerged as playoff heroes. Ward was only 22 when he led the Hurricanes to the Cup in 2006. It can happen. Let’s see if the young netminders are up to the task.
Defensive endurance and health –
Who to watch – The entire defensive corps
Playoff hockey is a different beast than the regular season. There are not a lot of 5-4 games in the playoffs. It becomes more like World Cup soccer where 2-1 and 3-2 games litter the landscape.
Washington’s biggest problem with the Canadiens last year was that they were trying to blow the Habs out of the water with five goal outputs. Montreal, despite being thoroughly outgunned, was smarter than that. They kept the Caps shots coming from the outside and cleaned the slot very well. The Habs play in a division with the Sabres, Bruins, Leafs and Senators where grind-it-out hockey is the norm and the style translates well to the playoffs.
As mentioned before, the inner juggernaut of the Caps does want to rear its head. You can see them slip out of Boudreau’s new defensive style from time to time. The key for the Caps will be the ability to stay within the defense and keep the structure of their zones. It is disciplined hockey and it leads to positive results in the playoffs.
Can the Caps do that though? The defense has been much better this year with Karl Alzner and John Carlson leading the way as shutdown defenders that Boudreau has come to lean on heavily. The backend with John Erskine has been solid as Erskine has turned into a reliable NHL defender who has the ability to be very physical and clear larger opposing centers (like the Flyers Mike Richards, for instance) out of the slot in front of the crease.
The playoffs are a battle of attrition. Mike Green is just coming back to the line up, Dennis Wideman is out until at the very least the second round, Tom Poti has not been available or reliable all year. If Green and Wideman can get healthy and effective, that gives the Caps a much better chance than without.
Which leads to the next point …
Puck moving and possession –
Who to watch – Green, Wideman
When Washington struggles, one of the things to watch has been how well they move through the neutral zone and break opponents’ forechecks. When the Caps are losing, it has been a painful lesson in the need to have a dynamic puck-moving defensemen that can break through the neutral zone himself or make the good outlet pass.
The fact of the matter is that you cannot score if you are not in the offensive zone. The longer the better. Always being on the rush and throwing pucks from the wings is not going to help, especially in the slower and more physical NHL playoffs and that is exactly what happened to the Caps last April against the Habs.
In this, Green and Wideman will be essential. Carlson and Alzner as a unit (moreso than individually) are decent puck-movers, as is Hannan, but when it comes to getting from one trapezoid to the other, Green and Wideman are near tops in the NHL. If the Caps can get both of them healthy, one or the other can be on the ice at almost all times. Get Wideman to actually play defense and puck-moving (which leads to possession) becomes one of the Caps strengths as opposed to its greatest weakness.
As the first round unfolds, watch the Caps entering the blue line. If they are consistently being turned away or losing the puck, it might be a quick hook.
Slot hockey –
Who to watch – Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich
This is not something the Capitals are good at, even if they know they are supposed to be good at it. Slot hockey is what leads to “dirty goals” – bang-down-the-door from the top of crease. A shot comes from the point, heads through traffic in front of the goaltender, is saved but there is someone there to collect a rebound and try to stuff it through the pads.
Pardon my language, but fuck finesse. Finesse only takes a team so far in the playoffs. Knuble has been much better in the second half of the season than in the first and will be the prime candidate to give the Caps a few dirty goals in the post season, goals that can be the difference between moving on getting blasted in D.C. as a always inevitable also-ran.
The stars need to be stars –
Who to watch – Alex Ovechkin
This is a cliché. My thought on clichés has always been that the reason they are clichés is because is a fair amount of truth to them, even if they are overused.
There are players that make the playoffs theirs. Sidney Crosby in the Penguins recent runs, Dustin Byfuglien last year, Cam Ward, Martin Brodeur … Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Patrick Roy.
If Ovechkin wants to move up in the pantheon of elite players to ever skate in the NHL, he needs to lead his team to a Cup. Otherwise, he becomes the Washington version of Joe Thornton (who the book has not closed on yet but the example is pertinent).
Semin, Green, Backstrom are all good players but lesser stars. They need to play well, but it will not be them to have to face the harshest criticism if the team falters or chokes. Ovechkin wears the “C” and is the face of the franchise. He has the ability to carry the team to the Cup, all above factors be damned.
Tomorrow we will look at the playoffs and the Caps opponent – the New York Rangers – more in depth before gearing up for Game 1 on Wednesday.