Typically in pro sports, wins and losses comes down to talent. On Sunday night in New York at Madison Square Garden talent was the difference as the New York Rangers knocked off the Washington Capitals, 2-1, despite an outstanding goaltending performance from the Caps Braden Holtby (38 saves).
The Caps came into this game already missing Brooks Laich up front and Dmitry Orlov on the back end and when they had to play without their best defensemen, Mike Green (lower body injury), you knew it was going to be tough sledding for Washington. And that is exactly what happened as the Rangers used their talent up front to dominate puck possession and the shot clock for the first 30 minutes of this contest. The only thing that made it a game to that point was Holtby, who somehow managed to keep the scoreboard knotted at one.
Unfortunately for Washington, Holtby couldn’t score goals from the opposing crease and that is what doomed the Capitals in this one. Over the last 30 minutes Coach Adam Oates’ team started to carry more of the play, but when you only have three top six forwards and are relying on guys like Wojtek Wolksi and Jason Chimera to score from the left wing on the top two lines you are in trouble. Don’t get me wrong, I like Chimera. He is a lunch pail, hard working forward, but he is a third line left winger. Wolski, well that’s another story. The former first round pick isn’t on his fifth team for nothing, although that is what the Caps pretty much paid for him. In this case, the old saying, “You get what you paid for” certainly applies. Wolski had several opportunities to score on Sunday night after some sweet set ups from Nicklas Backstrom, yet Wolski couldn’t find the net on many of them.
On the back end with Green out, Oates had two choices in either Tom Poti or Roman Hamrlik. Neither are good ones at this point as both older players have shown that their careers are pretty much finished. Poti got the call on Sunday and played less than 10 minutes. On the Rangers first goal, Poti was downright terrible turning the puck over and then failing to tie up Carl Hagelin by the net as #62 put the biscuit home. Oates barely played #3 after that one.
Still, given the talent imbalance, I have to give the Capitals players credit for battling a team that many have picked to come out of the Eastern Conference to play for the Stanley Cup this spring down to the wire. There was no lack of effort from Washington’s players and Oates has impressed me with what he’s done in many areas with this team. But at the end of the day, they just don’t have enough finishers. The Caps opponents know they just need to key on Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Mike Ribeiro and they are in good shape. Even still, the Capitals almost tied this one up late, so kudos on the effort.
But despite the late surge the effort yielded 0 points and Washington fell to 5-9-1, good for last place in the Eastern Conference.
Two years ago in the post season the Capitals eliminated the Rangers in five games. After that series, Rangers Coach John Tortorella said, “We are not there yet,” describing his lack of talent compared to Washington’s, at the time. Last spring, the Caps and New York played a seven game series that was pretty much a dead heat but the Rangers got the bounces and moved on.
So what transpired last summer from a management perspective for these two clubs? Well the Rangers went out and acquired former #1 draft pick Rick Nash while the Caps acquired Ribeiro to fill their gaping hole at second line center. Unfortunately the Capitals let Alex Semin and Dennis Wideman walk in free agency without replacing them. Sure they were counting on Orlov to fill some of Wideman’s shoes, but Wideman didn’t get upwards of $5M a year for nothing. Semin received $7M from the Hurricanes, who are in first place in the Southeast Division. Based on that, combined with the injuries to Laich and Orlov, it is pretty easy to see why the teams sure seem headed in opposite directions right now.
To get back into the playoff race will be extremely difficult for the Caps, at this point, unless management makes some moves. That doesn’t appear easy, even if they are willing to do so. Sure Washington has some good young talent overseas and at the junior level. But Evgeny Kuznetsov (2010 1st round pick) won’t be in the NHL until 2014, Filip Forsberg (2012 1st round pick) is playing in Sweden this year, and Tom Wilson (2012 1st round pick) needs the proper time to develop. There is no immediate help in the system this season so the answer would have to come from trades, which are difficult to pull off in the salary cap era.
Therefore, it just looks like the Caps will have to gut this out and see where things take them. If they aren’t making up ground by the trade deadline (April 3rd), then a decision will have to be made on Ribeiro, who will be a free agent this summer. Based on the way #9 has played, he will bring value in return. Then again, it may be worth signing him if Washington thinks it is in position to compete with the elite of the East starting in October. It also doesn’t make any sense to rush Laich and Orlov back from their injuries, as well.
In no way am I advocating quitting on the season, you never do that. However, given that there are some prize players at the top of the draft board this year, particularly American defensemen Seth Jones, who just helped Team USA win the Gold Medal in the World Juniors in January, the Caps need to be smart about things because adding a player like Jones given what is in the pipeline the next two years changes the dynamic of your team.
But there are still 33 contests to go and the Eastern Conference is pretty weak after the Rangers, Boston Bruins, and New Jersey Devils. The Penguins and Hurricanes certainly appear to be in the next grouping but after that, there are no really strong teams so anything can happen.
Still, when you see the holes in the Capitals lineup, it is tough to get excited about this short lockout stained season.
Notes: Backstrom was 12-6 on faceoffs and Washington won the battle there overall, 31-27, but on the Rangers game winning PPG, Jay Beagle was beaten cleanly on the draw and the Rags scored in seven seconds for the ball game…the Rangers had 20 shots in the 1st period but Holtby, in amazing fashion, stopped them all…Tomas Kundratek played a career high 23:25 with Green out of the lineup…Washington’s power play missed #52 and went 0 for 4…the Caps have a crucial two game series with the Devils starting on Thursday. If they lose both tilts, then the Jones talk will heat up even more…for more of my take on the team, check out my on-air session with Thyrl Nelson of WNST from Friday’s MobTown Sportsbeat show here