September 23, 2014

Identity Crisis

“You’d like to think that they’re trying their hardest.  But at the same time, when we’re not winning a lot of the [individual] battles, you gotta believe there’s more to give.” Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, after 5-1 loss to the Sabres.

Last night, after the Washington Capitals took a 5-1 drubbing to the hands of the Rochester Americans Buffalo Sabres, Comcast Sportsnet’s Alan May called the performance “pathetic” and “embarrassing.”  He was right.  The Caps were outskated, outplayed and outperformed by a team decimated by injury, losers the previous night to Columbus, the worst team in the league.

This comes on the heels of giving up six goals to the New York Rangers Friday night, who sometimes have trouble scoring six goals in a week.

May particularly cited the Caps failure to win physical one-on-one battles.  On the post-game show, he highlighted the defensive breakdowns, illustrated by Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom’s lack of attention to detail on their defensive assignments.  The problems have been going on for weeks, but last night was a perfect storm: the duo were both minus-four on the evening, including yet another breakaway shorthanded goal with Ovechkin at the point.

Coach Bruce Boudreau was pointed in his comments after the game.  His words were a condemnation of the maturity of his players, but they serve also to show his exasperation and desperation.

“Sometimes we’re not mentally strong,” Boudreau said. “This group has got to learn how to be mentally strong. It hasn’t had a lot of adversity in the last four years unless it was in the playoffs. The regular season, it seems like it was a walk in the park. We’ve reached, for 15 games now, some adversity and some guys are having a tough time with it.”

Maybe the problems that are manifesting for the Caps in the regular season are the product of an organization-wide mantra that the regular season doesn’t matter anymore; that the Caps should be judged solely by their playoff success.  Here’s a news flash:  the regular season counts.  That’s why they keep the standings.

“It’s got to come from within, I’ve got to believe,” the coach continued. “I’m hoping that’s got to come from within because if I’ve got to teach them how to be tough, then I don’t know quite how to do that.”

Boudreau described how the plan coming into the game was to play defensively, eking out a goal and playing it close to the vest.  When things got away from them, he had no choice to put the pedal down to try to score, leading to more odd-man chances for Buffalo.  For a team that has been giving out goals lately like it’s their job, that strategy might have been sound.  Except this team isn’t geared to play that way.  And the team they were playing were missing NINE regular starters, including their all-world goalie Ryan Miller.

There are three players on this team that think defense first: Jeff Halpern, Karl Alzner and Jeff Schultz.  That’s it.  Others are capable of playing defense, but everyone else on this team is geared for offense first.  It’s part of the identity crisis for a coach and team that have never played with a defensive philosophy.  Regardless, the talent level on this team is such that if they wanted to, they could be an excellent defensive team.  They had success the second half of last season playing that way, but even then, you could tell their heart wasn’t in it.

I wrote then that it was like asking a thoroughbred to be a plow horse.  I stick to that analogy today.  Defense is about want-to.  It’s about effort and desire and hustle.  It’s about being responsible.  It’s about committment.

If this team isn’t mentally strong, mature, composed; whatever word you want to use there, maybe part of it is that they are playing in a system that they don’t like, don’t believe in, doesn’t allow them to take advantage of their talents.  Maybe they aren’t tough enough because they haven’t bought into the game plan that seems to change on a daily basis.  Maybe it’s none of that.

But this is the same team that won its first seven games consecutively.  It’s the same team that utterly destroyed the Detroit Red Wings lass than a month ago.  It’s a team that despite all their problems right now, including a power play that’s given up more goals in the last two weeks than it’s scored, is still fourth in the entire freaking league in goals per game.  It’s a team that, though they rank eighth in the conference, are just four points out of second place.  Two games.

Boudreau and Ovechkin can talk all they want about committment and toughness.  This team has never had a problem talking about what the problems might be.  But changes need to be made.  In the end, it’s up to the players to affect change, or outside agents will have to do it for them.  Do they want to play?  Are they willing to commit?  If the answers are “no”, they might find themselves or a teammate traded, cut, or sent to the minors.

Or worse, it might end up costing a very good coach his job.

Quotes in this post were taken from published sources.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

Comments

  1. I know a couple of people that tend to be really negative. They walk around saying and thinking “what is going to go wrong next? I know something bad is going to happen”. Of course they also tend to do stupid things that cause or contribute to the bad things happening. The Caps as a team, remind me of those people lately.

    Over the past three weeks I have been watching most of the Caps games trying to figure out what it is they are trying to do. I think you are correct, their “identity” is changing from one game to the next. It appears they are not playing to their strength, but instead, worrying to much about their weaknesses, real or perceived.

    I don’t know about you, but if I am Boudreau and I know my job is on the line I want to go with my strength and with my teams strength. Open it up again. If he is going to lose games and get fired he might as well do it his way, meaning playing his style of hockey. Sort of like the relief pitcher that has the 100mph heater. If you have two strikes on a guy make him beat your best fastball, don’t throw him some off speed junk, go with your best pitch.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Thanks for the comment Rob. I completely agree re Boudreau. I’d want to go out guns blazing, get back to the style of hockey I’m most comfortable playing and coaching. This team is too talented to continue to play this way. It’s almost like they are thinking before playing, and you’re dead the minute you start doing that. They were just flat out-played by a bunch of “A” guys last night that just went balls out trying to prove they belong, and Boudreau admitted it was a goal of the team to play conservatively in the first period. Agaisnt that team last night, they should have tried to overwhelm them, not keep them down, IMO.

%d bloggers like this: