September 2, 2014

OPINION: Washington Capitals slow start has them behind eight-ball in short season

With a 3-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators in the first of two games north of the border this week, the Washington Capitals have put themselves in the unenviable position of starting the season 1-4-1 after six games. Now, during a normal 82-game slate a 1-4-1 record over a six-game period wouldn’t be a death sentence. Teams withstand losing streaks and survive to make the playoffs all the time.

But this lockout-shortened 48 game period is a different story. Six games represent an eighth of the entire season. The Caps already find themselves seven points behind Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division. While the pragmatist will point out the Caps, despite their horrible start, are only three points out of the eighth spot in the conference and that six games means nothing in relation to the final standings, it’s the way the Caps have gotten to where they are that’s even more concerning than their bottom line.

The Capitals are a next-to-league-worst minus-9 in goal differential over six games. The only team worse in goal differential is the only team worse in the standings, the 1-5-0 Florida Panthers, losers of five in a row, including a 5-2 decision to the Lightning Tuesday evening.

The Caps have lost in every way possible. They were blown out. They have fallen apart in the third period. They’ve lost in overtime. They got shaky goaltending from their playoff hero. Their leading goal scorer this season had a total of six last season. Their best player, a former 65-goal scorer, has one lone goal, a power play marker to boot.

The power play has been largely ineffective and the penalty kill, while getting better, had no place else to go, allowing seven goals in their first 18 opportunities. They have allowed the eighth most power plays in the league.  They have surrendered the most power play shots and the next-to-most power play goals.

I could go on. None of the stats favor the Caps.

In Tuesday’s loss, the Caps came out and played probably their finest two periods of the season, taking a 2-0 lead over a rested Ottawa team with one of the hottest goalies in the league, Craig Anderson, who’d allowed a grand total of two even-strength goals all season.

Then, in the third period, they allowed the Senators to dictate the play. The Caps stopped skating and started reaching. A breakdown on a crucial faceoff midway through the third in the defensive zone led to a soft goal which tied the game against a surprised Michal Neuvirth, who had been steady — if not spectacular — in four consecutive starts.

In a tie game late in regulation, after leading 2-0, anything can happen. This time, a bad penalty call — a high-sticking against Joel Ward on a follow through — led to the Caps demise. It shouldn’t have gotten that far.

This Capitals team, and by “this team” I refer to all the teams since Alex Ovechkin’s ascension, have been criticized as “soft”, unable to finish the job and unwilling to do what’s necessary to be considered an elite team in the NHL. They’ve wasted conference championships, spoiled season-long achievement and fallen short when greatness was within their reach. They’ve already shown this season the lack of fortitude necessary to lock down third period leads. Players on the team have used the words embarrassed and pathetic. The coach said they made mistakes of “pure effort.”

Last season, they valiantly came back from the verge of not even qualifying for the playoffs to advance to the second round, playing the role of underdog. Then-coach Dale Hunter dumbed the game down to its most base elements, playing for tie games and the luck of the bounce late in the game and overtime. It worked for 13 games, but at the end of the second round, Hunter had exactly what he was playing for: a 7-7 playoff record. Coin-flip hockey.

Adam Oates wants to play a more beautiful game. He is in favor of playing “north-south”, trying to prove the point to Ovechkin by putting him on a line with two of the more offensively challenged players on the roster. Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb have a role in the NHL, but that role is of “grinder”, a player that wears down the opposition’s best players simply by playing hard all the time.

Oates is hoping that Ovechkin will either be motivated by — or embarrassed by — Beagle and Crabb’s effort and Ovi will rediscover what made him the “Great Eight” to begin with. So far, that’s led to one goal and one assist in six games. No one expects Ovechkin to be the 65-goal scorer anymore. The 50-goal plateau is a pipe dream. The truly great players have been able to adjust their games as they got older.

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.

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards. Previously, he wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network and spent four years in commercial 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.

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