Mike Knuble is one of the Washington Capitals leaders in the room. Having your name on the Stanley Cup will do that for a guy. He’s also not afraid to speak his mind to the press. After last night’s crushing 5-2 loss to the Dallas Stars in front of a less-than-full and less-than-rowdy Tuesday night crowd at Verizon Center, Knuble kind of went off on what he thought was a lack of effort by the entire team.
His words, obviously, garnered a lot of attention by the gathered media, and no doubt will continue to, saying the team played like “clowns” and “losers.” You can read the full transcript here.
Knuble spoke about the team’s “urgency”, especially playing defense. “Defense takes urgency. Urgency in your play and it takes urgency in your mindset coming into the play. I don’t know if it’s because it’s November – there’s not that urgency yet.”
Knuble then furthed described a general lack of commitment that he didn’t notice early in the season. “We know what we’re doing, we talk about it, we watch film about it. And then it’s just a commitment to doing it on the ice. Maybe through the first five games I felt top to bottom it was a better commitment. Of late, I don’t know if we’re all committed. It’s sad to say and we all look bad because of the result – because we won’t all commit. We look great when we’re all committing; we look all like a bunch of clowns when we don’t. A very average team when we’re not all committed.”
While the criticism of last night’s play was certainly valid, from where I was sitting (in Section 104) the Caps problems had just as much to do with blown assignments as any lack of urgency, effort or commitment. Whether those blown assignments were triggered by the malaise Knuble spoke about is hard to determine. But they were obvious nonetheless. It’s easier for Knuble — or any player for that matter — to speak about intangibles rather than break down plays or blown assignments by his teammates.
If we take a look at all three Dallas third period goals, we can pinpoint specific blown assignments that lead to the score. Granted, the first two were power play goals, but assignment breakdowns are even more critical there than at even strength. Getting beaten on a play because you’re out-manned is one thing. But failure to do your job is something else.
On the Stars’ third goal of the night, just 24 seconds into the frame, Jeff Halpern cleanly won a defensive zone face-off with four seconds remaining in Dennis Wideman’s delay of game penalty that carried over into the frame. Roman Hamrlik broke into the circle to retrieve the puck instead of tracking where it went and it scooted right past him. Brendan Morrow then beat both Hamrlik and John Carlson to the wall and flicked a pass to Adam Burish, who snuck behind Nick Backstrom — who was tracking the puck instead of his defensive assignment. Backstrom recovered to get a piece of Burish but it was too late. That split second was enough for Burish to catch the pass and deke Michal Neuvirth to the ice and put a backhand shot past him.
Assignments blown: Hamrlik playing the puck and Backstrom tracking the puck, instead of tying up their respective defensive responsibilities.
The Stars second goal of the period came at 7:33, this time with Alexander Semin in the box for his second tripping penalty of the game, which earned him a benching except for power play time the rest of the way. Jamie Benn carried the puck into the Caps zone, right around flat-footed Jeff Schultz, and all the way behind the goal, completely unmolested. The puck was swung around to Sheldon Souray at the left point. When he shot, there were no Caps players between him and the goal, and two Stars players were parked in the crease and on the near post. Neuvirth made the first save, but the long rebound came back out to Benn –who skated right past Troy Brouwer in the high slot — at the top of the left circle and his one-timer went into an open net.
Assignments blown: Schultz HAS TO slow Benn down entering the zone. HAS TO. Brouwer was caught watching the play instead of finding his defensive responsibility in the high slot.
Dallas’ last goal of the game, which sent a large potion of the crowd home just 32 seconds later, was a tremendous individual effort by Eric Nystrom, who cut in front of Carlson on a breakaway and went sprawling, but got enough on the shot to beat Neuvirth short side. Neuvy slammed his stick to the ice in frustration, perhaps taking responsibility on the play. But it shouldn’t have gotten to that. Granted, the Caps were pressing being down two with eight minutes left in the game, but Hamrlik again got caught out of position on the forecheck, leaving Backstrom to retreat and defend the breakout.
Backstrom tried to play a high pass along the boards with his stick instead of his body and it went straight to Nystrom’s stick, who was at full speed in the neutral zone. Carlson, who had been at the opposite point, raced back to try to cut Nystrom off. He forced Nystrom to cut to the inside, but the Dallas forward eluded enough of the check to maintain control of the puck as he went flying through the slot on the cut-back. Neuvrirth might have been distracted by Carlson or the acrobatics, but it’s a goal he probably would like to have back.
Assignments blown: Hamrlik, again. It’s one thing to press, it’s another thing to leave your post. Discretion should have been the better part of valor on the play. And you have to fault Backstrom for making a less-than-maximum effort to try to keep that bouncing puck from getting through the neutral zone.
These were just the breakdowns of the three third period goals. There were, obviously, many more last night. Were the various breakdowns in assignment coverage due to lack of urgency or commitment? Were they simply the result of a lack of attention to detail? In some cases, were they missed due to insufficient talent for the assignment? As the Caps coaching staff breaks down the tape from last night’s game, maybe they can better answer those questions.