The Washington Capitals pretty much owned the Boston Bruins on Thursday night in their 4-1 victory to open their NHL season. It was only the first of 82 games in what will be an incredibly long season that includes a 14-day Olympic break, but for the Caps it was a huge win for a couple of reasons. First, the win and the way he won was very important for goalie Jose Theodore and second, Washington did something both Alexander Ovechkin and Brooks Laich have said the Capitals need to do on a consistent basis all year, and that is to play their system.
Let’s start with the Theodore situation and why it was so big. The former Hart Trophy winner (2002) came to Washington with high expectations and a nice 2-year contract at $4.5M per season in the summer of 2008. Then right out of the gate #60 struggled, including getting yanked on opening night in Atlanta, and he was actually behind Brent Johnson on the depth chart for a good part of the first two and a half months of last season. However, things drastically changed for the better in a crazy 5-4 overtime come from behind Caps victory in New York against the Rangers on December 23rd where Theo was pulled after giving up three goals yet was re-inserted after the first period due to an injury to Johnson. For an extended stretch from that game on until early March, Theodore was making that huge investment made by GM George McPhee look like a real bargain as he reeled off win after win with a 90% plus save percentage.
But something happened to Jose (and the Caps) during the final 10 games of the regular season as Washington looked like it was going through the motions just waiting for the post season to begin. As a result of this mode of effectively “playing out the string,” Coach Bruce Boudreau’s squad just wasn’t ready to begin their opening playoff series with the Rangers. Theodore was downright horrible in game one of the playoffs giving up several soft goals and Boudreau then made an incredibly bold move by yanking #60 for the rookie, Semyon Varlamov, in game two. As we all know, from there #40 took off on a run and Theodore did not get back in net until it was far too late to help his team in game 7 of the Penguins series.
It didn’t help Theodore much that right before the playoffs many Theo detractors, such as former Islanders forward Ray Ferraro, went on television saying that the Caps couldn’t go deep into the playoffs with #60 in net. And those of us (like me) who said the Caps could go all the way and take the Cup with Theodore in net looked pretty foolish when Boudreau pulled the rug on him and then Varlamov took over after just one contest! Personally, at that point, and for a good portion of the summer, it seemed that Jose could be done in Washington because I felt that no matter what the goalie would do in the 2009-10 regular season that come the post season, should he have one bad outing it would not only cause doubt for Theodore again, but for his teammates too?
Anyone who has ever played hockey, even at the pick-up level, knows that a team with no faith in its goalie is sunk before the puck is even dropped. So when Boudreau, during Caps development camp, proclaimed that the #1 job in net was Theodore’s going into training camp it took me, and probably several other people, by surprise. But as I said on WNST last Tuesday morning, strange things happen in hockey! And it sure looks like a guy who has lived his whole life around the rink (Boudreau) seems to know what he is doing when it comes to goalies.
All of this brings me back full circle to my first point that this victory is really huge because Theodore played very well on Thursday in Beantown, especially when the game was still in doubt early on and now his teammates have restored confidence in #60 once again. Sure it is only one game but imagine how things would be right now had Theodore played poorly in his first game and the Caps had lost? I assure you it wouldn’t be pretty but his excellent outing can at least temporarily postpone any negative talk and perhaps the goalie, who historically has played very well in a contract year, can regain that 2002 form and carry this team during the regular season and into the post season? That all seems possible once again, even if it was just one game.
As for the team, more important than the pretty goals and beautiful offensive display was the way Washington won the game against the Bruins – they only gave up 20 shots and one goal and drastically limited the number of quality chances for Boston. In effect, the Caps played Boudreau’s system perfectly, something Ovechkin talked about on Versus before the game and something Laich made a BIG point of telling us on media day when he proclaimed the “Penguins were better than us… their guys play their system no matter what.”
Playing the system is going to be important for a Caps team that last year would look like the best team in hockey for 20 to 40 minute stretches at a time and then string together a dud period or two to make a game close or even lose, something that seemed to agitate Boudreau at times in 2008-09. Consistency clearly is the motto in the locker room and the first game was a perfect example of a 60 minute commitment by Washington to their system, something we didn’t see alot of in 2008-09.
So Thursday’s win was doubly huge and it should be a great game for Boudreau to point to all year if things start to waver as he can say “Look at what we did to a top team that is picked to go deep into the playoffs this season, like Boston, when we play our system!” The blueprint for success is there and when executed it can make a talented team like Boston look like it doesn’t belong on the same rink with the highly skilled Caps. Perhaps we are seeing a maturing team that has learned from its own experiences and has collectively figured out the hard way what they have to do to take it to the next level? Yes, the message is “play the system” and it is clear that team leaders like the Great #8 and Laich understand it and the rest of the troops showed they comprehend it as well in game one.