April 18, 2014

What went wrong with the Washington Capitals, Part 2: Coaching

The Washington Capitals were officially eliminated from the playoffs last week, something few fans and analysts anticipated at the start of the season.

By failing to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007, the Caps were clearly one of the more disappointing teams this season. This is part two of a three-part series looking into what went wrong for the Caps. Last week, we looked at general manager George McPhee.

This week, we’ll look at the man behind the bench, Adam Oates.

One reason why this season was such a disappointment is because of the success Oates had in his first season as coach. After a 2-8-1 start to the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, the Caps rallied to win the Southeast Division and make their sixth consecutive postseason.

This was especially impressive given the fact that Oates did not have the time in the offseason or a camp to instill his new system and coaching style with the team; he had to take control on the fly and the team responded.

Oates’ initial success made everyone believe the team would thrive in his second year with a full offseason.

That didn’t happen.

So a first-year head coach was able to take over an NHL team with no offseason and lead them to the playoffs, but in his second season the team flounder even with a normal offseason schedule. Doesn’t that seem backwards to you?

Indeed Oates took a huge step back this year with baffling personnel decisions, a stubbornness to change or acknowledge those things that weren’t working and his complete inability to give this team any sort of identity.

Oates got things started early in the season with his handling of Tom Wilson.

Wilson averaged less than eight minutes a game even though McPhee made clear at the beginning of the season that he wanted him to receive significant minutes.  About the only thing Wilson has been allowed to do this season is fight.

Part of the reason he was brought to the NHL was to protect him from players targeting him in the OHL to make a name for themselves. Luckily Oates was there to protect him from those 18 and 19 year olds by throwing him to the wolves in the NHL.

If we are going to talk about personnel, we have to talk about Jay Beagle.

Perhaps the most curious move Oates made this season was moving Beagle to the top line to play with Alex Ovechkin at a time when the team was in desperate need of points.

Just one year ago, Oates stuck Ovechkin with Beagle and Joey Crabb when Ovechkin wanted to move back to left wing. It was a not-so-subtle hint to Ovechkin that if he did not commit to the switch to right wing, he would be stuck with a line he could not produce with.

In one year Beagle went from a ‘punishment’ center to the actual top center. Take a guess as to how well that move worked.

Ovechkin’s line was allowing more goals than it was producing and Oates added Beagle, a more defensively responsible forward, to the top line in an effort to fix the problem.

Dale Hunter’s solution for this was to simply bench Ovechkin, so I applaud Oates’ effort to find a more viable solution, but this move was doomed from the start.

Beagle is a ‘defensively responsible’ forward because he can’t produce offensively. At all. His career high in points is nine, set this season. Even though he played more games this season (62) than he has in any other season in his career and spent time playing with the best scorer in the world, he still managed only nine points.

What really bothers me about this move other than the fact that it didn’t work was that it vilified both Beagle and Ovechkin. Beagle is everything you want in a fourth line player; he works hard, he has an imposing frame which he’s not afraid to use, but he is a horrendous option for the top line. Continually throwing him on the top line where he doesn’t belong exposes his flaws and does not endear him to the fans. He does his job well, but by asking him to do more than he is capable of Oates made Beagle look and feel like a detriment to the team. That’s not fair and it’s not right.

Ovechkin also came under intense scrutiny in the back half of the season as his plus-minus continued to drop, but he can’t improve his plus-minus if he’s skating with someone who can’t produce offensively.

Did the top line allow as many goals with Beagle? No, but they didn’t score any either.

Ovechkin did not score a single point while skating with Beagle. Instead of allowing more goals than they were scoring, the top line just stopped scoring.

And yet Oates would not back down. This experiment should have lasted only a few games, but it went on for two weeks. When asked, what did Oates have to say? “I thought that line hasn’t hurt us.”

What team was he watching?

It was this kind of stubborn refusal to acknowledge any of his team’s struggles or make necessary changes that made this season so frustrating.

The team needed a top six forward and Oates kept Martin Erat on the fourth line until he was traded. The roster is very weak on the left side, but Oates put Dustin Penner on the fourth line after the team traded for him. Oates kept Dmitry Orlov cycling back and forth between Washington and Hershey so many times that he demanded a trade. Oates rode Philipp Grubauer into the ground and refused to play Michal Neuvirth even though that was the only way to raise his trade value. Oates continually played Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer on a line despite the fact that they are two players with two similar playing styles and did not produce offensively together.

McPhee’s hands were also tied in terms of building a roster given Oates’ insistence on playing each player on their shooting side, thus limiting McPhee’s options. Even when he did bring in players that seemingly fit what the team needed, Oates refused to use them.

McPhee may be at fault for not bringing in players that Oates would want to use, but Oates is at fault for not utilizing an optimal lineup.

You can’t convince me that it is better for the team to have Beagle on the top line and Erat and Penner on the fourth. I can’t quantify what giving players like Erat and Penner more time would mean in terms of the standings, but the Caps ended up only three points behind Detroit for the final wildcard spot. Keeping good players on the bench for much of the year could very well have been the difference between a playoff berth and an early summer vacation.

The only way Oates could have justified his puzzling line combinations would be if these players better fit the team’s identity, but there’s a major problem with that argument:  the team doesn’t have an identity.

Can anyone tell me what this team’s identity is? Are they a run-and-gun offense? A defensive stalwart? Grinders and hard-workers? A trap team? A two-way team? Opportunistic? They are none of these.

The fact is even after 82 games I don’t know what they are.

The ultimate failure of Oates this season is that he was never able to instill an identity into the team, unless you believe that identity was bad-turnovers leading to odd man rushes and a complete reliance on the power play. Given that this isn’t Oates’ first season with the team, that is a particularly egregious failure.

The only way you could characterize the Caps this season is by what they did poorly. They could not hold on to two-goal leads, constantly allowed goals after scoring, could not score at even strength, and literally could not win without scoring three goals or more, going 0-25-7 when scoring two goals or less.

These are mental and systematic mistakes that all reflect on the coaching.

Given the roster Oates was handed to start the season, the Caps should be in the playoffs. Is it a championship caliber roster? No, it had some holes, but it was better than how they played.

Oates is a great assistant coach, but that may be his ceiling. He was hired because he was the architect of New Jersey’s power play and had ideas on how to resurrect Ovechkin’s offensive prowess. He accomplished both feats and put together a productive third line, but he did little else.

Ovechkin, Brouwer Jason Chimera and Joel Ward all had great offensive numbers under Oates’ tutelage. Ovechkin even led the league with 51 goals this season.

Before you hail Oates as an offensive genius, however, consider this: 24 of Ovechkin’s 51 goals were scored on the power play where he continues to play on the left side. Nearly half of his goals came on the side Oates moved Ovechkin away from.

Oates didn’t fix Ovechkin, he fixed the power play.

Oates can believe in whatever theories or ideas he wants, but the results from his first full season as a head coach have been downright awful. He is the definition of a meddling coach, tweaking everything from playing side, stick curves and even goaltending style. When things went bad this season he blamed everyone else throwing players like Ovechkin and Jaroslav Halak under the bus all while sticking to his guns on the questionable decisions he himself had made.

In his first season, Oates showed Caps fans a lot to be hopeful for, but that was just not the case in year two.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the players to see what went wrong on the ice.

Caps clearout day provides more questions than answers

Washington Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates addressing media during Clear Out Day at Kettler, 4/14/2014 (Photo: Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Washington Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates addressing media during Clear Out Day at Kettler, 4/14/2014 (Photo: Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

The Washington Capitals conducted their clearout day and final media availabilities with the players on Monday, following the final day of the regular season, having been bounced unceremoniously from playoff contention with three games remaining on the schedule. None of the questions that were present before the day started had been answered before the day was over.

As in, who will be directing this organization going forward and who will be this team’s coach?

General Manager George McPhee is squarely on the hot seat. Head coach Adam Oates and his coaching staff’s status probably hinges on McPhee’s job security. On Monday, there was no resolution to the situation.

During the day, news that McPhee had met with owner Ted Leonsis and President Dick Patrick surfaced and that McPhee would not meet with the media during the day. But later, while the media was meeting with Mike Green, McPhee surfaced briefly, only to tell the assembled media that he would talk “in a couple of days.” It was a surreal sidebar to an already stressful day.

McPhee had no reason to appear in this instance, with the media already having been informed that he would not speak. Yet, here he was — very briefly — telling the media what we already knew and nothing more.

Never, in his 17 years, had McPhee not addressed the media on clearout day.

Later, when Oates was made available to the media, the head coach indicated that he had not spoken with McPhee or Leonsis yet, and that he did not have any indication of his continuing status with the team. He did indicate that should he be retained, he would return his entire coaching staff. Oates also said that though he had talked to a couple of players individually, he had not met with the team as a group since before Sunday’s finale and did not have formal exit interviews scheduled for any of the players, though he had hopes that would still happen.

“Some of the decisions are above me that have to be told, and I haven’t been told either way,” said Oates.

“I would say that me and my staff, we really enjoy coaching here, love coaching the guys. I feel that we’ve started a little process in terms of what we want from them in terms of how they’ve got to improve. We’ve got to improve,” Oates said. “Of course I want to coach the guys. But whatever happens, whatever’s best for the organization. That’s fine.”

Oates, for his part, answered every question directed his way by the assembled media in earnest. But as with McPhee, he’s twisting in the wind.

While Leonsis and Patrick contemplate the future of the franchise, both McPhee and Oates remain in limbo.

There are many ways this scenario can play out. The most obvious is the team is deliberating whether or not to retain McPhee and they needed some time after Monday’s initial meeting to decide. Another possibility is that McPhee was given the option of whether or not to return and it is he who is undecided. Yet another possibility is that the team has invited McPhee back with conditions — an assistant GM or executive between McPhee and team President Dick Patrick — and McPhee is deciding if that’s a situation he’d find tolerable.

But all of these scenarios are simply conjecture. We don’t know anything, much like how we went in. All that we know is McPhee met with Leonsis and Patrick, there is no resolution, and Oates hasn’t spoken with anyone about anything, including his players.

Opinion: Washington Capitals five biggest changes needed for 2014-15

The Washington Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. There wasn’t enough talent on hand, the talent available was mismanaged and there was discord between the front office and the on-ice staff. Missing the playoffs should finally be motivation to make the changes necessary for the Caps to truly contend for the Stanley Cup.

Here are the five biggest changes needed by the Caps as they enter what could be offseason full of change and drama.

1) Settle the General Manager and coaching situations.

It’s widely rumored that GM George McPhee’s contract expires following the NHL Draft. Adam Oates has another year on his contract. There’s plenty of evidence (Martin Erat, Dustin Penner, Dmitry Orlov, the goaltending situation, Tom Wilson) that McPhee and Oates’ talent evaluation doesn’t mesh. Somewhere between Ted Leonsis, President Dick Patrick and McPhee, the Caps need to decide who’s going to be in charge of this latest reboot. [By the time you read this on Monday, changes may already have been made.]

Oates’ insistence on players skating on their strong side has handicapped the organization. He’s tried to switch wingers to center (Martin Erat, Eric Fehr) and centers to wingers (Mikhail Grabovski). He played the world’s greatest goal scorer with Jay Beagle as his center on purpose. He’s banished players that were traded for by McPhee to the point of rendering them useless. His systems are indecipherable. In short, the Caps have been a disaster on the ice, much less than the sum of their parts. That falls on Oates.

McPhee is far from blameless. In fact, the collection of defensemen McPhee provided for Oates to employ this season was embarrassing, After the top combo of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, every single defenseman the Caps played this year was flawed. Mike Green isn’t nearly the offensive weapon he was during his back-to-back Norris Trophy finalist days. He still drives play, but his defensive shortcomings and gaffes often lead to bad goals. Orlov is a work in progress — talented, but raw and impetuous. The rest simply aren’t yet, or are no longer, NHL caliber. And it’s been like that the entirety of Ovechkin’s illustrious career. That falls on McPhee.

Either or both could be replaced for 2014-15, and it’s imperative the Capitals figure it out before the draft.

2) Seriously upgrade the defense.

People have said for years the Caps need a “stay-at-home” defenseman, responsible for shutting down opponents’ top lines. But the problem lies deeper than that. The Alzner/Carlson duo are good, but not great. They are a No. 1 pairing in name only. That results in a trickle-down effect. The Caps have some young talent (Orlov, Connor Carrick, Patrick Wey, Madison Bowey), but only Orlov is really close enough to the NHL level to contribute meaningfully next season, despite the experience Carrick gained this season.

The Capitals need to acquire 2-3 legitimate NHL defensemen, including a puck mover. If they can acquire a true top-pairing defenseman — probably via trade — they should do all they can to make that happen, then fill in the other spots with veteran free agents.

3) Improve play at 5v5.

The Caps were one of the worst teams in the league in puck possession, and has gotten consistently worse throughout Oates’ tenure. The team is lackadaisical and sloppy in its own end, the breakouts are unorganized, team defense suffers from lack of structure and focus, not to mention talent level.

One of the biggest problems for the Caps is one of the simplest: attempting to exit their own zone with the puck. Oates and Calle Johansson have instructed the defensemen to get rid of the puck within a second and a half of gaining possession. The idea is that if the puck is being passed, the defensemen aren’t putting themselves in danger of having their head separated from their bodies. While those instructions might have provided better health for some of their blueliners, it also neutralizes much of what makes those players effective.

Mike Green, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov — hell, even Jack Hillen — are puck-moving defensemen. McPhee drafted or obtained these players with the idea that these guys are strong skaters and can carry the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone, therefore setting up the offense.

But Oates’ and Johansson’s instructions to chip the puck to the neutral zone has instead stymied the offense. Wingers now have to battle for pucks in the neutral zone instead of setting up the attack. Instead of even attempting “dump and chase”, the Caps end up playing “dump and change”, so tired from fighting puck battles that they have to dump and go for a line change.

Either the players or the system has to change.

4) Reduce the team’s salary burden ever further.

McPhee did a great job at the trade deadline to reduce the Caps salary constraints next season by dealing Martin Erat and Michal Neuvirth. He — or whoever will be in charge — should go even further by buying out Brooks Laich (pending health) and/or trading Mike Green.

The Caps already have a good deal of cap space next season, currently $14.2 million. But Laich accounts for $4.5 million against the cap and Green’s hit is a staggering $6.083 million. Neither player is anywhere near what they were when they signed the deals.

Laich was — emphasis was — a 20-goal scoring two-way player. He was equally adept on the power play as he was on the penalty kill. He could fill a center or winger role on a scoring or checking line. But a groin injury sustained while playing abroad during the lockout has destroyed his past two seasons. When he has been able to take the ice, he’s been completely ineffective.

Green was — emphasis was — a two-time Norris Trophy candidate. He possessed singular skill at the position, producing back-to-back 70 point seasons. But again, accumulation of injury (concussions, groin, shoulder) has reduced Green to a shell of the player he once was. His nine goal, 29 assist season wasn’t bad, but the production pales in comparison to the expectation — or paycheck.

Buying out Laich and trading Green would free up another $10 million plus against the cap, giving the Capitals even more flexibility to go about rebuilding this team.

5) Inspire and motivate Alex Ovechkin — or trade him.

Alex Ovechkin is the most valuable asset the Washington Capitals possess. He registered 51 goals in 13-14, but had one 5v5 goal in the last two dozen games. Some of that has to do with Oates’ curious choices for his linemates, some of it was the result of the Caps’ systems, and some of it lies with Ovechkin himself.

His revitalization the past two seasons has occurred on the strength of the Caps prodigious power play. But the team’s inability to drive play at 5v5 has crippled any chance of this team to be successful. While Ovechkin has never played defense with the enthusiasm he utilizes on offense, at times this season he showed open disdain playing in his own end.

Ovechkin himself said the team pays him to score goals. That much is true. But it also pays him to sell tickets and the brand. And he can’t do that cruising through the neutral zone while his man streaks through the slot en route to another goal. This organization has to find a way to motivate Ovechkin to at least make consistent effort in playing defense. He doesn’t even have to be good at it. But as the captain of the team, he at least has to look like he’s trying.

At this point, Ovechkin is part of the problem. No, he isn’t going to be confused for a Selke finalist. But as captain, he needs to be more involved in all aspects of the game. He needs to show effort in every facet of his game. He needs to be a leader. It’s always been said that Ovechkin is a “lead by example” type of leader. Right now, the example he’s setting to Evgeny Kuznetsov and other young players is that defense and accountability doesn’t matter — that he’s above the rules. That’s not acceptable.

It’s simply not enough for Ovechkin to score 50 goals for this team. If it was, they’d have won multiple Cups by now as Ted Leonsis promised they would. If Ovechkin isn’t able or willing to invest the requisite effort to provide a better example to follow, then the organization should seriously consider trading him to a team where he wouldn’t have to carry that burden.

Washington Capitals eliminated from playoffs; Plenty of blame to go around

Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals were officially eliminated from playoff contention. There will be no second season when the 2013-14 regular season concludes on Sunday. It’s the first time since 2007-08 the Caps haven’t taken part in the tournament for Lord Stanley’s Cup. It’s a drastic, severe and unexpected wake up call to the entre organization: the status quo is no longer good enough.

There have been plenty of pixels generated already — enough to kill a virtual forest — about the demise of this once-proud franchise. Most articles try to isolate the single determining factor contributing to the Caps missing out on this year’s playoffs.

But there’s plenty of blame to go around.

We can start back in 2010, when the Caps were bounced form the first round of the playoffs by Jaroslav Halak and his teammates with the Montreal Canadiens. It was the result of that playoff series loss that general manager George McPhee and then-head coach Bruce Boudreau allowed the Canadian media to dictate how the Caps should play. It was, in effect, the beginning of the end of this franchise’s identity.

Boudreau tried to instill a hybrid of his high-flying offense with the left wing trap, and it was a disaster. It was akin to asking a thoroughbred to pull a plow. The team was disjointed and distracted, and eventually Boudreau paid for his indecisiveness with his job. He said later, while coach of the Anaheim Ducks, that it was the biggest mistake of his coaching career, allowing others to influence how he should coach his players.

McPhee went overboard, bringing in Caps Mt. Rushmore member Dale Hunter to take the helm. Hunter had terrific experience guiding major juniors with the London Knights, but had no NHL coaching experience whatsoever. He promised a balanced system between offense and defense, but no such thing happened.

Hunter’s ultra-conservative approach and lack of tact and communication with his players led to a practical revolution. For Hunter’s part, he bolted the minute the team was bounced after a second-round loss to the New York Rangers after playing three months of coin-flip hockey.

Enter Adam Oates. Oates came to town promising to fix the power play and reinvigorate Caps superstar Alex Ovechkin. He succeeded in both, but little else.

Oates got a pass during the lockout season, but even after a full training camp and full season under Oates’ tutelage (along with first-time NHL assistants Calle Johansson, Blaine Forsythe and Olie Kolzig), it’s still almost impossible to decipher Oates’ systems.

The Caps were mired all season on the wrong side of possession metrics. Their breakouts resembled little more than defensemen — instructed to carry the puck no longer than two seconds at a time — chipping the puck to the neutral zone and hoping the forwards could recover loose pucks. The idea of “dump and chase” became “dump and change” as the Caps spent too much time getting out of their own end all they could once they did so was to go for a line change.

Meanwhile, Oates, buoyed by the success Ovechkin was having nominally playing right wing, insisted playing wingers and defensemen on their natural wings, to the detriment of many. He exiled top-six forwards Martin Erat and Dustin Penner – traded for valuable assets — to fourth line duty, driving Erat out of town in less than a season and neutralizing any benefit Penner might have brought to a playoff chase.

The team carried three goaltenders for six weeks over the winter, turning to untested minor leaguer Philipp Grubauer for a long stretch, completely ignoring Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby at times. Eventually, Neuvirth was shipped out unceremoniously at the trade deadline and alienated Holtby, who should be this franchise’s future between the pipes.

All the while, the defensive crew McPhee gave Oates to work with was not up to NHL caliber. The team shuttled AHL journeymen, over-the-hill has-beens and teenagers through the defensive ranks all season long. Rookie winger Tom Wilson made the team, but was relegated to less-then-fourth line minutes, averaging fewer than eight minutes a night, often doing little than punching and getting punched while burning a year off his ELC.

It’s so bad, last week when Alex Ovechkin notched his fifth 50-goal season, it was little more than a footnote — or a punchline — instead of something to celebrate as the “Great 8″ has been a victim of scorn all season as the only man to lead the league in goals and plus/minus as pundits conveniently ignore the fact that Ovechkin’s linemates have a shooting percentage lower than four percent.

And as for that infamously negative plus/minus, Ovechkin has done himself no favors being lax on defense to the point of gliding thought the neutral zone while his man streaked into the slot to score last week. Ovechkin remains engaged and motivated in the offensive end of the ice. In his own end, it’s a crapshoot between distracted and outright contempt for defense at times.

Where’s the joy of the gap-toothed superstar leaping into the glass after a goal, or wearing an oversized floppy hat and sunglasses in an NHL All-Star skills competition. We haven’t seen many glimpses of that Ovi around here for quite some time. He may never be back.

We haven’t even mentioned Ovechkin and his Russian teammates’ spectacular failure on their home ice in the Olympics, or Nicklas Backstrom’s “doping” scandal, where his team-prescribed allergy medicine got him embarrassingly dumped from Team Sweden’s gold medal game.

Like I said, plenty of blame to go around.

Where do they go from here?

Well, following Sunday’s season-capper against Tampa Bay, it will not be surprising to hear that the Caps expect to replace the entire coaching staff, or at least the head coach and defensive coordinator. In addition, the ownership and executive committee may very well want to relieve McPhee of his duties — if McPhee, who is rumored to be in the final year of his contract anyway, even wants to return.

Owner Ted Leonsis famously said once this team, this organization, was built to contend for multiple Stanley Cups — that it was only a matter of time. Time is running out. The Caps this year wasted another year of the primes of Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom. A new coach or new GM may decide that Ovechkin is part of the problem. Wanting to put a new stamp on the organization — especially if the new regime is bent on a disciplined system — Ovechkin could very possibly be shipped out as well.

At this point, nothing is off the table. This is a franchise at a crossroads. The next week or two could bring many changes to an organization that has tried to maintain a status quo of making the playoffs and taking their shots, but eventually bowing out before many thought they would — or should.

Stay tuned. Things could actually get worse before they get better.

Washington Capitals Game 78 Recap: Caps rally to beat Islanders in shootout, 4-3

With their chances at the postseason dwindling to almost nothing after Friday’s loss, the Washington Capitals headed to face the New York Islanders in the first of two back-to-back games they will play in the next week. The Capitals rallied from a two-goal deficit to tie the game late in the second period and take the game to the shootout, winning 4-3.

Braden Holtby started the second game of the back-to-back games, a smart coaching decision by Adam Oates. Holtby was stellar, and stopped 33 of 36 shots faced in regulation and overtime, and stopped all Islanders shooters in the shootout as well.

The Capitals let the Islanders dictate the pace of the game in the first period, allowing 17 shots in the 20-minute frame. They were fortunate to escape the period only down 0-1.

Lack of urgency has been an evident problem for the Capitals lately. They simply have not looked like a team that wants to win games and secure the postseason. During the second period, they only managed 4 shots on goal through 10 minutes.

In that span, the Islanders scored two goals and the Capitals one. Down 3-1, it looked over for the Capitals, but they have a penchant for comebacks in Long Island.

Adding to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s early second period tally, Nicklas Backstrom scored his 15th goal of the season. Joel Ward sweetened the pot with his 23rd of the season, late in the second period. The most notable thing about this game was not the comeback, but the fact that each Capitals goal was scored at even strength. They went 0-for-5 on the power play.

Mike Green and Jason Chimera collided during the first period in what will likely go down as the worst breakout of all time, causing Green to sit out the rest of the game, and forcing the Capitals to roll five defensemen. Not ideal, but Holtby kept the Capitals in the game, as he has many times this season.

The chances of the Capitals actually making the playoffs are still statistically very slim, even if the Leafs lose the rest of their games. If they’d pulled a point or two out of last night’s game against the Devils, they may still have a pulse, but the postseason is probably out of reach for the Capitals at this point.

Washington Capitals Game 77 Recap: Capitals lose hard to Devils, 2-1

A lackluster showing during their homestand and on the road against the Nashville Predators left the Washington Capitals even more desperate for points and the postseason. They knew heading into Friday’s game against the New Jersey Devils that they simply had to win – no other result would be acceptable. The Caps watched their hopes slip away with a hard-fought 2-1 regulation loss to the Devils.

After Adam Oates’ uncharacteristic indictment of Alex Ovechkin “quitting” on a play that led to a Nashville goal, it was clear everyone was feeling the pressure. Ovechkin cut the tension a bit by scoring the game’s first goal, his 27th even strength goal, and 49th of the season.

Oates blew up the Jay Beagle experiment after six games (probably six games too long) and reunited Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom, and a now healthy Mikhail Grabovski. It took Ovechkin about 10 minutes of being separated from Beagle to score an ES goal, where the Caps have struggled much of this season.

The Capitals let off the gas in the second period, and allowed the Devils back in the game. They only managed seven shots during the period, while the Devils doubled up on that.

Cory Schneider handily stopped a Capitals chance at one end, and the Devils took it back and scored. The goal was officially credited to Tuomo Ruutu. Schneider was brilliant in net for the Devils, allowing them to remain spotless on the penalty kill all night.

Jaroslav Halak was equally as capable for the Capitals, keeping them clean despite five Devils power plays, and facing 31 shots.

The third period remained knotted at 1-1, until Ryan Carter took advantage of a bad defensive break by the Capitals and beat Halak for the go-ahead goal.

With the Capitals loss, New Jersey has now jumped ahead of Washington in the Metropolitan Division and the playoff race.

They face the New York Islanders on Saturday, and continue the road trip to St. Louis on Tuesday, and Carolina on Thursday. Barring huge failures by Columbus, New Jersey, and Toronto, if the Capitals can’t pull together points, they may miss the postseason for the first time since 2006.

Washington Capitals Game 74 Recap: Caps start slow, lose to Bruins, 4-2

Entering Saturday’s contest against the Boston Bruins, the Washington Capitals knew the door to a playoff spot was ajar. Toronto and Columbus both fell to their respective opponents the night before and subsequently failed to gain any ground in the race for a Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. All the Capitals needed to do was step over the threshold, and they’d be that much closer to the postseason.

It was almost as if they didn’t realize the chance they had. A slow start; a third period flurry; a 4-2 loss.

Braden Holtby, who has a history of good starts against Boston, did his best. But the rest of the team did not. He made a number of crucial saves, including a robbery of Chris Kelly in the first period, but the rest of the team could not deliver what they needed most – goals. Or, at least not enough when it mattered to win.

The best forward line for the Capitals of late has been the “third” line of Jason Chimera, Joel Ward, and Eric Fehr, and they were the ones who delivered the team’s first goal, while they were already mired in a 3-0 hole. Chimera scored his 14th of the season with 10 seconds remaining in the second period.

In the third, the Capitals seized a bit of momentum back. It was the way they wanted to play, but it was too little, too late. They need to begin games this way, not find their rhythm while attempting to chip away at a two-goal lead.

“I thought that most of the third period, we took the play to one of the best teams in the league. That’s a positive for us,” said Fehr. “Definitely don’t want to take that long, but we know they are a good team, and in our own rink, we should be able to use momentum and create chances.”

Once again, in the dying seconds of the third period, a puck found the back of the net for the Capitals. Young hope Evgeny Kuznetsov scored his second goal of the season, but it was too late. The Capitals had found the recipe, but they were already cooked.

Washington Capitals Game 73 Recap: Capitals fall 5-4 to Kings in shootout; Kuznetsov scores first career goal

After a surprisingly successful west coast swing, the Washington Capitals faced the Los Angeles Kings for the second time in a week, this time on home turf. After running off with a lead to start the game, the Capitals couldn’t hold the Kings comeback, and lost 5-4 in the shootout.

The Capitals got off to a great start (on the power play, as it were). Alex Ovechkin scored his 47th goal of the season, assisted by John Carlson and Troy Brouwer.

Less than five minutes later, Ovechkin scored on a power play again, his 48th goal of the season assisted by Brouwer and Nicklas Backstrom.

While the first period was all Capitals, the second period belonged to the Kings, who spent much quality time in the Caps zone, and had something to show for it. Mike Richards scored on the power play, and the Kings continued to chip at the Caps lead.

In the meantime, Chris Brown, Troy Brouwer, and Nicklas Backstrom each had their turn going down the tunnel for various ailments. Brown and Brouwer returned to the game, but Backstrom did not. Capitals coach Adam Oates told reporters post game that Backstrom is not undergoing concussion protocol, and called it an “upper body injury”.

Dustin Penner scored his first goal as a Capital late in the second, assisted by Brown, who’d just returned to the bench. The assist marked Brown’s first NHL point. The momentum didn’t carry to the third period the way the Capitals would have liked.

The Kings scored three unanswered goals to take a 4-3 lead halfway through the third period.

John Carlson took a hooking penalty with a minute left in regulation, but the Capitals iced a penalty kill that Karl Alzner called “desperate”. So desperate, in fact, that it led to Russian youth Evgeny Kuznetsov’s first career goal, a shorthanded tally that sent the game to overtime.

Alex Ovechkin scrambled to the goal line to retrieve the puck for Kuznetsov, and the crowd began throwing hats, because they thought he was the one who scored.

“It was a big goal that actually got us a point,” coach Adam Oates said. “Shorthanded. It was a good play. We won a draw, Orly [Dmitry Orlov] makes a nice run up the ice, which gives us a chance to get the goalie out. We dumped it in, and then I’m sure they relaxed just enough; it’s a weird situation. Sometimes those goals go in. It was a big goal for him and us; it gets us a point.”

The Capitals fell in the shootout, but got a little help from the Toronto Maple Leafs, who fell 5-3 in regulation to the St. Louis Blues.

Ovechkin collided with Jack Hillen in the neutral zone during overtime, which appeared to render Hillen unconscious. Hillen was able to stand and leave the ice, and Ovechkin returned to play despite looking a little shaken up after the hit.

Two points were what they needed, but they had to settle for one. There’s still work to be done if they want to make the playoffs, and their next obstacle is the Boston Bruins on Saturday. Maybe the Leafs will help the Capitals out a little more in the meantime.

Is Jay Beagle the answer on the top line?

Alex Ovechkin has a new linemate and it’s a curious match.

Jay Beagle is not the kind of player you would expect to see centering the top line, but he’s been playing with Ovechkin for four straight games much to the dismay of most Caps fans.

Beagle has 13 goals and 15 assists in his career; not exactly the type of numbers you would expect from a top line player. He was also a healthy scratch for 18 straight games in the beginning of the season and has played in only 52 of the team’s 72 games.

All of this begs the question, why? Why has Oates moved a fourth line grinder up to be his top line’s center?

The answer is defense.

The three players with the lowest +/- on the team are Ovechkin (-31), Nicklas Backstrom (-20) and Marcus Johansson (-16). While you should never put too much important on +/- as a statistic (remember Jeff Schultz?), it is telling the three players with the worst +/- have spent most of the season playing on the same line together. That means the Caps’ top line was giving up more goals 5-on-5 than it is scoring.

That’s a problem. It doesn’t matter how much Ovechkin scores if the other team is scoring more with him on the ice.

Dale Hunter confronted this problem by simply keeping Ovechkin off of the ice. It was maddening and had every Caps fans screaming at their TVs, wondering why the team’s best player was riding the bench. Hunter was a defensive minded coach so his solution for players who were defensive liabilities was to simply not play them. It was his biggest weakness as a coach.

You have the best goal scorer in the league in Ovechkin, but instead of forcing opposing teams to stop him, Hunter did it for them. Oates is trying something different.

This is where injuries to Brooks Laich and Mikhail Grabovski as well as the team’s need for a top-six forward really hurts. With these injuries as well as the combination of Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward playing so well, Oates is really limited in what line changes he can make.

An easy fix for the top line is moving Grabovski up. For the season, Grabovski has a +4 in the +/- and the third line is playing well with Fehr at center. I think it would be safe to assume that when he is his healthy, he’ll replace Beagle.

But he’s not healthy, the Caps need points and Oates needs a solution.

Has Beagle on the top line worked so far? Yes and no.

Beagle has played with Ovechkin and Johansson for four games and the Caps have gone 3-0-1 in those games. The top line, however, is not producing. Ovechkin and Johansson have combined for one goal and two assists, all three of which came on the power play, meaning without Beagle on the ice. Beagle meanwhile has no points.

The +/- also has not improved. Oveckin is -2, Johansson -1 and Beagle is an even zero in their four games together.

The Caps have played well in their last four games, but the top line is not producing at all and is still giving up more goals than it is scoring. Pointing to the team’s recent success as evidence that Beagle’s promotion is working would be to discount how well the third line has played, something Beagle has nothing to do with.

The bottom line is that it’s not working and depending on the third line and the power play for all of the team’s offense is not a good plan. The top line has to start producing points.

There are other options. Though Oates has seemingly deemed Dustin Penner to be the next Martin Erat, he is a top six forward and was a +22 in Anaheim this season prior to the trade. Oates could put Backstrom back with Ovechkin and add Penner at left wing (there must be some reason McPhee traded for him, right?).

If he is worried about Penner’s lack of speed, he could mitigate that by moving Johansson back to center with Penner on the wing. Johansson’s speed makes up for Penner’s lack of and center was Johansson’s original position. Even if you like him better on the wing, you can’t tell me Beagle is a better option at center.

The point is, there are other options for the top line and Oates needs to find one. Somehow he has to figure out how to get Ovechkin’s line to be productive at even strength. Putting a fourth line player on the top line is definitely not the answer.

Washington Capitals Game 60 Recap: Capitals scrape by Panthers, 5-4

After a two week hiatus, the Washington Capitals got back in action against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Florida. They managed to squeak out a 5-4 win after losing a two goal lead twice throughout the game.

The Capitals got off to a strong start. They scored two quick goals, Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich respectively, and managed to hang on to a one-goal lead at first intermission.

Mikhail Grabovski, sidelined with an ankle injury for several weeks prior to the Olympic break, went down awkwardly in the first period, and appeared to reinjure his ankle. He did not return to the game.

Playing a team with the worst power play percentage in the league certainly worked to the Capitals’ advantage tonight. The Panthers had 6 power plays, and the Capitals were perfect on the penalty kill. Braden Holtby was obviously a big part of this, and made 30 saves on 34 goals against the Panthers.

The Capitals were also perfect on their own two power plays, with both goals scored by Troy Brouwer.

Alex Ovechkin scored the game winning goal, had two assists and was among two other Capitals with three-point nights, Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich both had a goal and two assists apiece.

This game looked as if it was all Capitals for a while, but the Panthers snuck back into the game twice, scoring two quick succession goals to tie the game 4-4 with 10 minutes left in the game.

The Panthers were a lowly opponent the Capitals should have been able to put away easily, but instead blew several leads and allowed them to creep back into the game. If the Capitals do end up in the playoffs, they aren’t going to be able to get away with these types of games against better teams. Their fortitude will certainly be tested during their upcoming schedule.

 

 

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