April 23, 2014

OPINION: Left for dead, Washington Capitals head to playoffs with new lease on life

No one thought we’d be here 11 games into the season. No, we were all writing the obituary of the Washington Capitals for this season, and some went so far to declare the Ovechkin Era Caps dead altogether. You know who you are.

For my part, I certainly had my doubts whether the team GM George McPhee put together this season for new head coach Adam Oates was built to succeed. Really, in the beginning, it looked like the team was incapable of competing — players cobbled together as a contingent if the lockout didn’t ravage the entire schedule.

They looked old and inexperienced all at the same time. There was little perceived direction. Systems looked out of whack. The power play and penalty kills were both atrocious.

And their best players, including Alex Ovechkin, looked lost, uninspired and past their primes.

Bloggers and pundits alike called upon the organization to “blow things up.” Trade anything that wasn’t nailed down for prospects and draft picks.

The players, the coaches, the general manager and the owner were all subject to criticism, from local press and bloggers to the national and Canadian media.

On Jan. 30, I wrote the following:

This franchise’s future is tied to Alex Ovechkin. This team takes its cues from their captain and they are only going to be as good as he lets them. If Ovechkin can’t figure how to lead his team and inspire them to win, things could get ugly quickly — and for a very long time.

A week and half later, Feb. 7 to be precise, the Capitals hit rock bottom. With a 5-2 loss to the arch-rival Penguins in Pittsburgh, the Caps fell to 2-8-1 in their first 11 games. Back at Kettler the next day, McPhee made a rare, non-transaction related appearance before the media, addressing some of the things he saw as problems in the early season.

“With respect to the way we’re playing [with regards to] systems, I like the way we’re playing,”  McPhee said.  “I think if you’re watching, our team has really adjusted to the system pretty quickly — we wanted it right away, but it’s quicker than we were hoping for.

McPhee added, “We’re going to make good decisions. We’re not going to do anything short-term. We’re not going to blow anything up.”

Bold words from the architect of the team that at that point was dead last in the NHL.

Since that day, though, the team’s play has backed up McPhee’s opinion of them. All they’ve done is go 25-10-2, a regular season pace of 115 points, to earn the final Southeast Division banner and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Casual fans may still be wary of the quality of the Capitals as champs of the “Southleast’, but learned people know: this team has talent, has gained focus, has mastered the coach’s systems, is balanced, and is the hottest team in the league entering the playoffs.

It’s a dangerous combination.

The list of positives for the Caps starts with their captain. Left practically for dead early in the season, Ovechkin has been subjected to the ridicule of the broadcast media on more than one occasion this season. The particularly harsh criticism during one NBC Game of the Week by Mike Milbury stands out, when Milbury ripped Ovechkin on his play, leadership and manhood.

“When you have great talent it comes with great expectations and accountability,” Milbury said on NBC Sports Network. “If you put him up to those two standards tonight, he fails the test miserably.”

“God almighty, that’s just so disheartening to see a player with that kind of talent fall that short in terms of effort.”

Hard to imagine Milbury was referring to the same player that just finished the season as the league’s Rocket Richard winner, given to the top goal scorer in the league. Ovechkin has been nothing less than a Russian Machine, scoring 23 goals in his last 23 games and 32 in the 48 game season. Ovechkin’s been so good, the media that was burying him two months ago now might vote him as MVP of the league.

Seems I was right after all. This franchise’s future is tied to Ovechkin, who has regained his status as The Great Eight.

Ovechkin has done a lot of that damage on the power play, which is the top ranked unit in the league, and it’s not really close.

The Caps are the fifth highest-scoring team in the league at 3.04 goals per game — and that includes the putrid start. They have the No. 3 and 5 assist men in the league in Nick Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro. They have the top goal-scoring defenseman in the league in Mike Green, who scored his 11th and 12th goals of the season in the finale against Boston. Oh, and Green played just 35 games. Troy Brouwer picked a pretty good season to enjoy a career year. Shoot, even John Carlson, maligned much of the early season, ended up in the top three in the league for blocked shots.

And let’s not forget the job Braden Holtby did in his first full season in the league. He established himself as the No. 1 goalie on this team, putting up very good overall numbers and downright carrying this team at times until it found its legs.

There are still gaps in the talent on this team, particularly at off-wing on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. They could use a little more muscle on the blue line. But amidst all the hand wringing and gnashing of teeth during January and February, they found some kids that could play. The play of Steve Oleksy and Jack Hillen fairly well relegated Dmitry Orlov and Tomas Kundratek to Hershey for the most part. One has to think that both the players and the team will benefit from that in the long run.

McPhee will have to decide what to do about Ribeiro’s contract, but that’s a discussion for another day.

For now, the Capitals enter the playoffs as “The team no one wants to play.” They square off against a familiar foe — the New York Rangers. Former and future division rivals, the Caps and the Rags have met in the playoffs four of the last five years. The Rangers ended the Caps season last year in the Game 7 heartbreaker in the second round. The Caps would like nothing better than to exact a little revenge on the Blueshirts.

In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, anything can happen. A goalie gets hot. A team gets a bounce here, a break there, and all of a sudden that imperfect team can find itself hoisting the coolest trophy in all of sport, passing it from teammate to teammate as they dance around the rink. Hot teams surprise in the playoffs all the time. The Caps didn’t start the season looking like they’d qualify as a candidate for that mantel, yet here they are, winners of 11 of their last 13 games, unquestionably the hottest team over the past two months.

Flawed, yes. But also true: playing as well as anyone in the league. So why not? They were left for dead once this season, so anything from this point on is gravy, right? No pressure. No expectations. Just keep going out there and punching the next team in the mouth. That’s what they’ve been doing since Feb. 7. Why not just keep it up for another two months or so?

____________________

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards. 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.

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