As for me, I’d like to thank my lucky stars
That I’m alive and well…
And today, you know, that’s good enough for me
Breathing in and out’s a blessing, can’t you see
- Kenny Chesney with Dave Matthews
Hello Caps fans, it’s your old hockey blogger friend here back behind the keyboard after a six month plus hiatus. Yes, I’m alive, and well.
Since last April’s crushing loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in double overtime of game seven, I’ve had no desire to write about hockey. Getting your car locked in a DC garage overnight following that terrible finish didn’t exactly help either, but that’s all in the past now.
Credit Alexander Ovechkin and his amazing performance in Toronto on Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre, in front of his pal Alex Luey, who is suffering from what has been termed incurable cancer, for motivating me to come back and provide my take on the Capitals and the Metro Division.
With that, in honor of Ovi, what follows are EIGHT thoughts and analysis on those items.
Halley’s Comet – Let’s start right where Capitals talk belongs, with Alex Ovechkin. Tuesday’s spectacular two goal and two assist performance really had me feeling nostalgic afterwards. As chronicled by my friends over at Russian Machine Never Breaks, the young Luey has been coming to Caps-Leafs games in Toronto since November 2017 and the Gr8 seems to always find a way to lift his spirits. What made this night tougher was not seeing Luey standing next to the glass cheering in his vintage Ovi jersey and Caps hat after Ovechkin goals, like we’ve seen several times before. No, things have gotten very bad health wise for Alex and afterwards, via the Capitals Twitter feed, we were all witness to a picture of the young man laying down and unable to stand wearing an Ovechkin provided Nationals batting helmet surrounded by the Capitals team after their thrilling 4-3 overtime win in the Big Smoke. It was the Gr8 himself who scored the tying goal off of a fantastic apple from the Osh Babe, after T.J. undressed Morgan Reilly at the Leafs blue line, and then ended the affair on the power play with a top shelf rocket following an excellent feed from Dmitry Orlov. The Caps scored four goals and Ovechkin factored in on all of them. To me though, outside of what he and the team did for Luey after the game, the thing that really stood out from the Captain was his great back check in overtime to prevent Mitch Marner from getting a breakaway on Braden Holtby. That play backed up all of the pregame words the Gr8 provided to the hordes of Toronto media in regards to his thoughts on Auston Matthews and the Leafs need to focus on team defense in order to break through in the post season. It was just another stellar display of skill and power from the greatest pure goal scorer I’ve ever seen. Ovechkin is now at 669 goals and 12th overall on the all-time goal scoring list. Regardless of how the Capitals fare over these next few years as a team, following the pursuit of Gordie Howe at 801 and Wayne Gretzky at 894 is something I really look forward to viewing. So I ask Capitals and NHL fans the following question:
Do you realize how special it is to be able to watch Ovechkin play hockey?
Let me ask this again and I want you to really think about it:
Do you realize how special it is to be able to watch Ovechkin play hockey?
I hope you do, because I know I do, and in five or so years, we won’t have that ability anymore. So please enjoy the H-E-double hockey sticks out of it now while you can! A player like him is a once in every 75 years event.
Roctober – As has been written by the great Caps reporter, Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps), Washington just turned in a franchise record month of October going 9-2-3 which is good for 21 points and a .750 points percentage. The amazing thing is they went 7-1-1 on the road against some very good competition. Of those five overall losses, they were only pretty much out of one game (Colorado), and in the other four they had third period leads that they squandered. Simply put, this was a very productive month of hockey given the tough schedule, Evgeny Kuzentsov’s three game suspension for substance abuse, and Michal Kempny’s eight game absence that led to a patched up blue line on many nights.
Roll With The Changes – A big criticism of the Caps failure to repeat last season, in addition to fatigue and injuries, was the inability of the Capitals to adjust to their opponents in the playoffs. A young Carolina team shook off a two games to none hole and then a physical drubbing in game five to come back and win the series at Capital One Arena. Many pointed out, true or not, that the Capitals coaching staff was outcoached by Rod Brind’Amour of the Canes. That series loss and the salary cap forced many changes this offseason by Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan. Defensemen Matt Niskanen, a key cog in the Capitals turnaround from 2015 to the Stanley Cup in 2018 was dealt to the Flyers for Radko Gudas. Team leader Brooks Orpik retired and joined the Caps development staff. Andre Burakovsky, who didn’t want to play on the third line anymore, was sent to Colorado for draft picks and Brett Connolly was offered quality free agent money to become a Florida Panther. Garnet Hathaway, Brendan Leipsic and Richard Panik were all brought in to help reconfigure the third and fourth lines. The personnel changes and tweaks to the Capitals power play and penalty kill by the coaching staff have been a key factor to this fast start. So as much as the coaches take a lot of heat, they deserve a good deal of credit for a record breaking Roctober. They are under pressure to deliver and so far they’ve exceeded expectations in this campaign. Washington’s penalty killing percentage of 85.2% is seventh in the NHL after a season at 78.9% (24th in the NHL). In 2018-19 the Capitals power play became stagnant and predictable falling to 20.8% (12th in the NHL). Just 14 games into this season the team is seventh in the NHL at 25.5%. The special teams were a problem last year, but so far, things have really turned around. One thing I’ve noticed and liked is that they’ve taken John “Norris” Carlson off of the PK, for the most part, which has allowed him to avoid shot blocking injuries and provided him with more power play and even strength time. Carlson is off to a torrid seven goals and 16 assists start.
Stars in the City – One thing the coaches have not changed is their reliance on their top players. Ice time is slightly up for Ovechkin (21:20 vs. 20:55), Carlson (25:45 vs. 25:04), Nicklas Backstrom (20:23 vs. 19:57), and Oshie (19:24 vs. 18:37) over last season. Those increases are not alarming, but the staff has to be careful to keep this group fresh for the post season. In order to do that, others need to step up, especially the re-configured bottom six forwards group. While Panik has not brought production to the table yet (and he’s out on long term injured reserve), Hathaway and Leipsic have worked with Nic Dowd, Chandler Stephenson and Travis Boyd to bring some production to the fourth line. The comeback from 5-1 down in Vancouver, after the crushing OT defeat in Edmonton, was achieved without any goals from Carlson and the Capitals top line. Coach Todd Reirden and his staff need to get that type of production on a more consistent basis the rest of the season.
Pay The Man? – Three years ago, this blogger’s mantra for Oshie was “Pay the Man!” He promptly received an eight year deal to come back to the Caps and Washington won the Cup the next spring. In 2017-18, it was Carlson who earned that moniker and MacLellan rewarded Carly with an eight year deal at an $8M annual average value. Following the 2019-20 season, Backstrom and Holtby will both be key Caps unrestricted free agents. Backy and the Holtbeat (5-1-3 start) are clearly important pieces to this club, but who is going to get the “Pay the Man” moniker from me? It’s not clear yet, but after this hot start, I might have to change the saying to “PAY THE MEN!”
Puck Possession – There are some who diminish the value of winning faceoffs, but for me, it’s a key part of the game and when you have a highly skilled team, you’d rather have the puck off of a draw than be chasing it down. Chasing is tiring. Last season the Caps were DEAD FREAKING LAST in the NHL in faceoff percentage at 45.7%. This was after having a win percentage of 50.4% in 2017-18, the year they won the Stanley Cup. That nearly 5% drop off is huge and mattered in the team’s overall play. Losing Jay Beagle from that Cup winning team clearly hurt on draws, but I’m happy to report that this year’s group, which is almost identical to last year’s group of faceoff takers, is at 49.2%, good for 19th in the league. That’s not great, but it’s trending a lot closer to where it needs to be for the Capitals to be more effective when it comes to having the puck and generating scoring chances.
Trouble In River City? – The 9-2-3 start is fantastic, but things are not all roses in Caps land. Washington has been winning games basically because they are scoring enough to overcome their deficiencies in team defense. When the Caps won the Cup in 2017-18, they allowed 2.90 goals against during the regular season. Last season that total inched up to 3.02 GAA per game. Through 14 games, it is sitting at 3.29 per game, YIKES! The first half of the season is more wide open with less checking, so fortunately Washington has been able to score at a 3.79 goals per game pace to hide those sores we’ve seen in their own half of the ice. The Capitals have lost after having a two goal lead four times and in the game in Edmonton last week they struggled mightily from the red line in against Connor McJesus and Leon Draisaitl for large stretches of that contest. Washington’s gap control was horrendous and believe it or not, Holtby’s stellar play in net allowed the Caps to steal a point that night (and they nearly had two). Braden’s save percentage is only at .888 and a lot of that has to do with the quality scoring chances they are allowing. They are giving up 31 shots per game, similar to last season, but there have been far too many grade A chances allowed. Some of this is clearly explainable due to the personnel changes on the blue line. Kempny missed the first eight games due to his hamstring surgery, Gudas is new to the lineup, while rookie Martin Fehervary and long time AHLer Tyler Lewington all played significant time. With the top six all back now, things should improve, but the play of Nick Jensen and Orlov is a big concern. When Washington won the Cup they relied heavily on the Niskanen-Orlov duo to play the hard minutes against the opposing team’s top line. In Toronto on Tuesday, Jensen was relegated to 3rd pair duty and only logged just 12:32 while Gudas played 19:01. Jensen is -8 and Orlov is -9 so far, which is very alarming. On the positive side, Gudas is +9 and eating up PK minutes (although I didn’t like him leaving his feet on that 3rd Leafs tally on Tuesday – stay up!). In addition, Radko needs to continue to stand up for his teammates so that Tom Wilson doesn’t have to fill that role all by himself. There are several upcoming opponents that deserve a visit from #33 for their past discretions against Capitals players (Brandon Tanev, Josh Morrissey, and Warren Foegele, to name a few). Bottom line though, the game will tighten up in January and beyond so the Capitals can’t just “offense” their way to victories. They need to get much better with their team defense if they want to be legit Cup contenders.
Metro, Metro Men – The Caps have won four straight Metropolitan Division titles, but once again, they will have their work cut out if they want the top seed again. The primary competition will come from a young and improving Carolina squad, the talented Penguins, and the structured Islanders. After that trio, Philadelphia has a new coach in Alain Vigneault and made some quality offseason moves, so I expect them to be much better as the season goes on. As for Columbus, losing Artemi Panarin up front and Bob in net were big blows, but they are playing with house money and have some very good young talent. The Rangers added Panarin and Jacob Trouba while the Devils drafted Jack Hughes with the number one pick and also traded for P.K. Subban from Nashville. The division will absolutely be tighter putting more emphasis on team defense. When looking at goals against averages so far this season, the Penguins lead the way in the Metro at 2.38 GAA (4th in the NHL), the Islanders are next at 2.45 GAA (5th in the NHL) and the Hurricanes are at 2.50 GAA (7th in the NHL). The Penguins were at 2.90 GAA in 2018-19 so they’ve made some big improvements in that department. Matt Murray is also off to a hot start with a .923 save percentage. Simply put, if the Capitals are to win the division, they MUST improve their play defensively to limit opposing scoring chances. Washington has elite goaltending in Holtby and rookie Ilya Samsonov, but there have been too many quality looks for their opponents in the first 14 games.
Thanks again for the tweets and for reading!
Please pray for Alex Luey and his family.