“Stubborn” Caps Need to Look in the Mirror

April 16, 2017 | Ed Frankovic

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways..” – Michael Jackson

Through two games of their opening round Stanley Cup Playoff series, which is now tied 1-1 after Saturday’s 4-3 double overtime loss, the Washington Capitals have not resembled the team that had the best record in the NHL this season.

They’ve turned way too many pucks over in all areas of the ice, especially in the neutral zone and their own end. They’ve also overpassed on too many occasions taking themselves out of quality shooting and scoring opportunities in the offensive zone. Proof of this is the giveaway stats from game two: 28 for Washington and just 17 for Toronto.

They were crushed on faceoffs, 61-39, in game two, which was a reason why they “chased the game” as Coach Barry Trotz described how his team was playing.

On the other side, Coach Mike Babcock was incredibly confident in his post game presser following Kasperi Kapanen’s winning tally after 91 minutes and 53 seconds of hockey. Babcock, who had to go with five defensemen when Roman Polak was injured late in period two, was masterful in working tentative zebras Tim Peel and Eric Furlatt for extra time on a couple of OT icings with a shortened bench. He also said his team will get better and better as the series goes on. He noted that he gets the matchup choices now with games three and four in the Big Smoke.

Babcock sure isn’t intimidated or impressed with the Capitals.

Why should he be?

Sure, the Caps have a nice collection of talented players that look daunting on paper. You can go up and down the lineup and rattle off their high draft positions and individual accomplishments. But hockey isn’t about throwing your resume on the ice to decide who wins, especially in the playoffs. It’s all about playing hard and smart, winning the one on one battles.

That’s what forward Zach Hyman of the Leafs, a fifth round draft choice by the Florida Panthers, did in game two. To me, #11 is the perfect example of why Toronto is having no problems hanging with the Presidents’ Trophy winners, he’s constantly winning board battles and wearing out a Capitals defense that is supposed to be the difference maker in this series. So far the Caps have been atrocious in their own end and the primary reasons have been a lack of focus and effort. On the Leafs second goal on Saturday, two Washington forwards were in the slot with all of their weight on their front skate ready to rush up the ice instead of being focused on covering the Toronto players. That left Kapanen all alone to notch his first tally of the playoffs.

At even strength, Washington has only three goals in this series. One came as a result of a great forecheck (Tom Wilson’s game 1 OT winner), one was after back to back shifts where they wore out the Leafs and prevented them from changing (Nicklas Backstrom’s game tying tally that all started with Lars Eller winning a couple of board battles), and the other was a rebound marker by Justin Williams on the rush.

So that’s one rush goal in two games, yet that’s the style the Capitals have found themselves in too often in this series. That’s a reason why they went eight minutes without a shot on goal in period two in game one. Bad hockey!

When they’ve played smart and gotten the puck deep in Toronto’s end, they’ve had more success. They just haven’t done enough of that as Brooks Orpik told me after game two.

“I think sometimes we get a little narrow playing a rush game and I think our strength is when we get to their zone and start wearing teams down. That’s usually when we have our most success. They do a good job in the neutral zone and we know they are well coached. Sometimes it’s not a pretty game. It’s just simple and you have to take what they give you. You can’t be stubborn in that aspect,” said the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion.

Hammer meet nail head!

Orpik doesn’t talk to the media a lot and he’s a man of few words. So when he talks, everybody better listen up.

Stubborn. Unfocused. Fancy. Lazy. Soft.

All of those words could be used to describe the Capitals in the first two games.

Williams talked about “getting kicked in the teeth” when they lost to the Penguins last May. Right now that shoe is pretty close to the Capitals mouth.

So on Sunday and Monday when the coaches get them together to watch video, they will see a lot of what they’re doing wrong. Turnovers, over passing, losing board battles, and a lack of focus.  They’ll also see things they are doing correctly, like the shifts that led to the game tying goal. What they’ll see on that Backstrom goal was no fancy plays or passes, just hard work, focus, and a willingness to do the right things to generate quality scoring chances. The tally was simple hockey, a shot towards the cage that found its way to a player going to the net. It’s not rocket science.

So the Caps coaches and leaders need to stress the “play simple” message. They must play a smart game in all zones, go up and down the ice in a structured unit of five, and most importantly become Zach Hyman-like and take over the individual battles.

So it’s probably a good idea for each Cap to don their “Will over Skill” shirt on the flight to Toronto and ingrain it in their respective brains, because that’s the only way they’ll win this series.

Don’t be stubborn.

Play simple, hard, and smart!

“…take a look at yourself and make that change.”