When Alexander Ovechkin scored just 1:06 into Saturday’s Capitals game against the Los Angeles Kings for their fastest start to a contest all season, it looked like Washington was poised to show that Tuesday’s lackluster loss to the San Jose Sharks following two strong wins against Tampa and Pittsburgh was just a minor bump in the road. Just under 59 minutes of hockey later, after the Kings scored three times in the third period to win 4-1, it looks more and more like the Sharks defeat was a more accurate description of where this Capitals squad is right now, and the picture is not good. The Caps, who held a players only meeting following the contest and then boarded a flight for Phoenix where they will begin a five game road trip on Monday night (8pm on VERSUS), seem to have more questions than answers with the playoffs just two months away and the NHL trade deadline looming on Monday, February 28th at 3pm. Simply put, Washington General Manager George McPhee is likely doing a lot of thinking after this game, which drops the Caps record to 29-17-10, given what he’s seen from his club since December 1st.
So with that lead in, get ready for some hard hitting analysis of an awful loss and a team that currently looks like it will be a one series and done squad in the postseason, unless changes are made:
- To me this was the WORST loss for the Caps all season. I know that they’ve had some stinkers this year like the 7-0 loss to the Rangers or the 5-0 defeats in New Jersey and Atlanta or the listless 3-0 performance in Tampa, but those games came with key players out of the lineup or were the result of tough stretches in the schedule. In today’s debacle THERE ARE NO EXCUSES! Washington had three days to prepare for the Kings and the only players missing were defenseman Tom Poti (chronic groin problem) and right wing Eric Fehr (shoulder). Mike Green was back after missing a game due to a head injury (puck in the noggin vs. the Penguins) and Alexander Semin was in his second straight contest since returning from a lenghty groin problem, so #28 should have had the rust worked off of his game. After a decent first period, in which the Capitals led 1-0 and held the Kings to just four shots on the cage, Washington played horribly and Terry Murray’s team outworked them and showed Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau’s club how to go to the net and get rewarded, something that the Capitals seem to refuse to do.
- At this point in the season the players should be competing hard and making a statement about their respective games if they want to stay on a team that some still believe has a shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup this spring, especially borderline guys like Jeff Schultz, Marcus Johansson, and Mathieu Perreault. #55 was easily the worst player on the ice on Saturday playing on what is supposed to be the team’s top defensive pair with Green. Sarge was -3 in 14:35 and was on for the first three Los Angeles goals. He only played two shifts after the third Kings tally. He was downright awful and slow, and on that third Kings goal I think an orange road cone could have played better defense than what he displayed on that sequence. Schultz doesn’t look anything like the player who went +50 in the 2009-10 regular season and seems to be very much the player who struggled in the post season against Montreal. Boudreau, who broke up the Scott Hannan-Green duo in an attempt to get more balance on his blue line pairs with Poti injured, should reunite 52 and 23 and just drastically cut the ice time of #55 and his likely new partner until #3 returns, John Erskine. I have no idea how this coaching staff and team can have any confidence in Schultz right now, he seems to have lost any step he may have once had.
- As for Perreault and Johansson, I’ve seen enough of these two little guys as the 2nd/3rd line center combo. If you add their ice time together from today it comes to 28:56 total and they were a combined -3. You cannot win with centers performing like that. Perreault had his worst game of the year and too many times he tried to carry the puck into the offensive zone when he had forwards waiting ahead of him at the blue line (typically Brooks Laich). The result of this tactic is often an offside infraction. #85 needs to learn to either pass the puck up to a leading forward and use his quickness to get open for the return pass after the biscuit is carried across the blue line or dump the puck into the offensive zone. His neutral zone puck hogging is zapping the Capitals of any speed entering the offensive zone and if you don’t have that it is very difficult to create time, open space, and scoring opportunities. Perreault also was woefully out of position on the two goals that were scored against his line. Johansson just continues to be a no show on two of every three nights. But he is a rookie and I will give him a little bit of a break. Let’s be honest though, if the Caps had any other decent options at center only one of these guys would be in the lineup, if that. I do not think Washington can win a playoff series unless they go out and upgrade the middle of the ice before the trade deadline because Montreal showed that all you have to do is shut down the Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom line and you can win. I would like to see McPhee try and bring in either R.J. Umberger or Jason Arnott, two players who could be available over the next two weeks. Either one is a big upgrade to the pivot position.
- Semin is sure giving Caps fans a warm and fuzzy about his $6.7M one year contract extension, isn’t he??!! #28 hasn’t scored a goal since November and we’ve all heard the injury excuse but this guy simply is a “ferrari with a volkswagon engine,” as one former NHL executive described him to me last season. He drew a penalty in period two but after that he disappeared and sat the pine with Laich over the last six plus minutes. As for #21, he had a great game against the Penguins last Sunday and a good one in Tampa two nights earlier, but over the last month when taking out those two tilts, he has one goal, one assist, and is -5 in those 10 other games. That doesn’t cut it.
- Boudreau talked after the game about his struggling power play and the excessive amount of work they’ve put in on it in practice over the last month in an attempt to get it back to the 25% success ratio it had in the 2009-10 regular season. The bench boss said he is puzzled why they can’t connect more often given that it is the same players on the ice. He finally sent a message to his top unit by putting out DJ King, Dave Steckel, and Matt Bradley on a man advantage after this one was pretty much over. With those guys on the ice and John Carlson playing the point, the Caps SHOT the puck, something that Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom, and Semin seem to forget you need to do to score goals. Those guys are running a power play these days like it is all about style points by trying to score the prettiest goal possible and it is NOT WORKING. Memo to 8, 52, 28, and 19: It is not rocket science on how to succeed on the power play, you get the puck to the point and blast away while the other guys crash the net for rebounds. I will also say this for what seems to be the 1,000th time, I don’t like the Great #8 on the point on the power play and he should be on the half wall, where he scored his last PPG against Tampa just eight days ago. Green has to start firing the slapper again like he did back in 2007-08 and if he can’t do it, then Carlson should get even more PP time. I believe that McPhee needs to trade for a heavy left handed point shot at the deadline to help get this unit back on track (Bryan McCabe? Tomas Kaberle?)
- Semyon Varlamov (24 saves) did not have one of his better afternoons. Sure he was left out to dry by the 55-52 duo, but #1 had a hard time with his rebound control today. Still, he was far from the reason why the Caps lost. Varly and Michal Neuvirth should sue the rest of the club for the non-suport they’ve received over the last two months.
- When the Caps switched to a more defensive hockey posture in mid December, the message was that they were working on that style so that they could use it in the playoffs, when needed. The result has been that the goal scoring has practically disappeared due to the lack of offensive zone pressure that used to create turnovers and scoring opportunities in Boudreau’s aggressive scheme. The players don’t look like they are having fun playing this system, nor do they look like the right combination of guys to do it. McPhee and Boudreau need to take a hard look at this scheme change and determine if it is the correct one, and if so, figure out which guys they should keep around to play it come April. If you ask me, there are a lot of players who could be moved out if a better commodity is made available. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Green, Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mike Knuble and Hannan all appear non-tradeable based on either ability or their contract, but I would have to say that every other skater could be shipped out for the right price in return.
- In summary, the direction this team is going right now leads to early tee times. The thought by some that the Caps can “turn on the switch” and be ready for post season hockey is becoming less realistic as this season has evolved. Bad habits die hard and the Capitals inconsistent play has to give McPhee and Boudreau a major uneasy feeling with just over two weeks until the trading deadline. I’ve seen enough myself, it is time to deal if Washington is to get where they want to be come late May/early June.
Notes: For the second straight game Washington, normally a good faceoff team, was buried from the dot, 27-17. Steckel went 6-4 and every other draw man lost more than they won…after this Monday’s game against the Coyotes, the Caps go to Anaheim on Wednesday and then San Jose on Thursday before finishing in Buffalo and Pittsburgh on Sunday and next Monday, respectively…Tampa blew a two goal lead to Carolina in the last two minutes on Saturday but then won in overtime to increase their Southeast Division lead over the Caps to five points…the 5th place Capitals are eight points ahead of the 9th place Atlanta Thrashers in the Eastern Conference standings.