Caps: Facing an early exit if they don’t shape up

March 22, 2009 | Drew Forrester

In the NHL, a season worth of hard work can all be erased with one or two bad games in the playoffs.  To break it down even more, you can waste it all with just a couple of bad periods of hockey in April.  Or, as the Caps saw last year, you can get hosed on a call or two at the wrong time and it can all go away.

In the Capitals’ case this year, their playoff lives will rest on offensive production from someone other than Alex Ovechkin, solid goaltending from Jose Theodore and, ultimately, the club’s ability to play good, sound team defense.

If any of those three don’t come to fruition, the Caps will be teeing it up in their Tuesday morning golf league before the month of April comes to an end. 

Right now, with 8 games remaining in the regular season, Washington has issues in all three areas.  

Although the Caps are a comfortable third in the NHL’s Eastern Conference with 96 points, there are no first-round byes in post-season play.  You get in, and you play.  If the season ended today, Washington would play a Carolina Hurricanes team that embarrassed them at the Verizon Center back on March 3rd — 6-2 — and handled them on Saturday in Raleigh, 4-1. Between now and playoff-time, things could change and the Caps could wind up facing Pittsburgh or, perhaps, the Rangers in the first round of post-season play.  You can’t pick and choose your opponents, but I wouldn’t want to see the Caps play Carolina in the playoffs.  If Canes’ goaltender Cam Ward gets hot, he can win two or three games by himself.  You only have to win four in a series.  

As great as Ovechkin is, he can’t do it all.  In fact, one of the easiest things for a team to do come playoff time is blanket the other team’s best player.  Stopping Ovechkin is nearly impossible.  For starters, he’s phenomenal.  If you watch him during the normal course of a game, the man gets a dozen chances to score.  He shoots a lot, but all great goal scorers do that — and my guess is there are probably a handful of guys on the club who haven’t been pleased with his work on the defensive end over the last month or so.  Then again, the Caps have 96 points in the East and Ovechkin is worth about 12 of them by himself. Washington wouldn’t be a playoff team without The Great 8, that’s a certainty.  

Come post-season time, though, Ovechkin can’t win a series by himself.  Washington needs someone else – maybe even two guys – to step up and help carry the offensive load.  In the NHL playoffs, if you’re playing good team defense and your goaltender is hot, you can get by with 3 goals a night.  For the Caps, two of their “other” offensive hot-shots, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, are both finesse/flair players whose style doesn’t necessarily mesh with the rough and tumble post-season intensity that’s required from everyone.  Backstrom leads the team in assists (57) and games where you say, “Is he playing tonight?”  Generally, Backstrom is either really good or really not.  Semin is perhaps the team’s most talented offensive player — even Ovie would admit that — but his skills going forward don’t match his enthusiasm going back.  In the post-season, EVERYONE has to play defense.  Tomas Fleischmann is another skilled player who vanishes more than you would like.  For Washington to be successful in April, May and – dreaming here – June, Backstrom, Semin and Fleischmann have to be regular contributors on the scoreboard and in the defensive end.  If Ovechkin is asked to do it all, the Caps won’t go far.

In goal, Theodore is an experienced, champion goaltender who has the resume to take the Caps deep into the post-season — but does he have the GAME to do that as well?  While he’s been good throughout the majority of the regular season, just being “good” won’t get it done in the playoffs.  As Washington saw last season with their goaltender, Cristobal Huet (and with Philly’s netminder, Martin Biron), you have to be GREAT in the post-season to give your club a chance to win a series or two or three.  Theodore has gone through stretches this year where he’s been terrific over a weeklong period — which is the kind of play he needs to duplicate in the playoffs.  His one nemesis all year, giving up easy, dangerous rebounds in front of his own net, can be minimized in post-season play if everyone is minding their defensive P’s and Q’s — or, can spell disaster if the loose puck is nabbed by a sharp-shooter 10-feet out.  One mistake — one puck that should have been handled but instead trickles away — can mean the difference between winning and losing…a game…or a series.

I haven’t been completely sold on Theodore all year, going back to the day he was acquired.  That said, I’ve seen him have some outstanding performances this year and during each one of those, I always say the same thing:  “Damn, if he plays like THAT in the playoffs, the Caps can go deep.”  A few days later, I’ll see him give up a soft goal or two and I’ll say, “You can’t let those kind of goals get past you in the playoffs or you’ll be one and done.”  Consistency is Jose’s biggest question mark.

Theodore is the key to the team.  That’s a lot to put on one guy, but that kind of heat has been applied to the greats like Roy, Brodeur and Hasek throughout the last dozen years and they’re responded favorably more times than not.  

Washington’s power play is the best in the Eastern Conference but their penalty killing is in the bottom 3rd.  With Ovechkin and big-boomer Mike Green on the extra-man fivesome, the Caps will always be a threat when they’re up a man.  It’s the shorthanded work that worries Coach Bruce Boudreau, particuarly in light of the fact that so many playoff games are decided by one goal.  It might be a penalty you couldn’t kill in the middle of the 2nd period that puts your team down 2-1 — and 30 minutes later, that’s the final score.  

The Caps weak spot – departmentally – is in the defensive end of the ice.  Tom Poti is average, at best, — involved in giving up a goal just about every night – and Milan Jurcina and Jeff Schultz aren’t much better, if at all.  Only Mike Green pulls his weight game in and game out and his merit badge is for offensive play more than defensive play.  If Brian Pothier comes back healthy for the post-season after missing 14 months with concussion-side-effects, he’ll be of some assistance.  On the whole, though, the Caps’ inability to make a deadline deal for a strong, defensive-mind defender will have to be overcome by the dedication of the whole team to working hard at both ends of the ice in the post-season.  

April will be here soon enough and with it, the best playoffs of any sport in the world.  There’s nothing like Stanley Cup hockey. 

For the Caps, their post-season run will rely on a few players taking the heat off of Ovechkin, having Theodore handle the heat and, more than anything, hoping everyone on the club buys into the old sports adage, “defense wins championships…”

It’s been a terrific regular season — another first round playoff exit like the one suffered to Don Koharski and the Flyers last spring would be tough to swallow — but six months of hard work can go down the drain in a 10-day period if everything doesn’t come together at the right time.