August 27, 2014

Washington Capitals have challenging decision on line combinations

Alex Ovechkin -Practice April 27(Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Alex Ovechkin -Practice April 27(Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Everyone’s favorite offseason activity is analyzing the roster and playing around with the line combinations. By now, Washington Capitals fans have realized no help is coming at center.

The hole left in the lineup by the departure of Mikhail Grabovski will have to filled by someone already on the roster. Brad Richards will not be coming to the rescue like a knight in shining armor, there will be no miraculous trade for Ryan O’Reilly; the Caps will have to make do with what the have.

In an interview with NHL.com, Barry Trotz was asked about his thoughts on the second line center.

“I’m going to let them play through the camp,” he said,” but my vision is that [Marcus] Johansson will play in the middle and [Evgeny] Kuznetsov or [Andre] Burakovsky will play in the middle and one will have to move to the wall. In today’s game, the more options you have the better off you are.” [Read more...]

MacLellan’s first decision not enough to judge him on

With the NHL offseason now officially underway, the window for compliance buyouts has opened and Brian MacLellan faces his first question as general manager of the Washington Capitals. He answered that question resolutely on Tuesday and closed the door on the possibility that the team would choose to use its second compliance buy out.

“I don’t think it would make sense for any of our players that we pursue that path,” he said. [Read more...]

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 Game 62 Recap: Caps fall in Philly 6-4

For some reason, this Washington Capitals team is incapable of playing for 60 minutes. Sunday at home against the Philadelphia Flyers, it was the last five minutes the Caps could figure out. Wednesday in Philly, it was the first 40, as the Caps fell behind 4-0 and never quite recovered, falling to the Flyers 6-4.

The Capitals managed just eight shots on goal in the first two periods.

It didn’t take long for the Flyers to get on the board. At the 6:48 mark of the first, Sean Couturier won a physical battle at the blue line against Jack Hillen in his first game back from the leg fracture that had him miss all but the first two games of the season.

Couturier pushed the puck to Claude Giroux, who had beaten Alex Ovechkin into the Caps zone. Giroux kept the puck away from Ovechkin, deked Braden Holtby, and put a backhander into the wide open net, all while Mike Green watched from the high slot.

Less than two minutes later, the Flyers tallied again. Troy Brouwer was trucked at the Caps blue line by Zac Rinaldo, Brouwer, clearly frustrated and now out of position, took a swing with his stick at Matt Read and was clled for slashing. With Brouwer in the box, it took just 13 second for the Flyers to light the lamp, with Jacob Voracek potting his 17th of the season.

Then, all hell broke loose.

Luke Schenn delivered a clean hit on Ryan Stoa, in his first game as a Capital. Tom Wilson, as he’s done on multiple occasions this season, stood up for his teammate and went at it with Schenn. In the ensuing scrum, John Erskine got tied up with Vinny Lecavalier and the two went at it, with Wayne Simmonds mucking things up grabbing Erskine while engaged with Lecavalier.

Erskine and Lecavalier were assessed game misconduct penalties, and Wilson an instigator and misconduct, while Simmonds received two minutes for slashing and another two for cross-checking. He should have received a misconduct for impeding Erskine while he was engaged with another player, but the refs didn’t see it that way.

Regardless, the Caps didn’t register a shot on goal in the ensuing power play.

The Flyers scored twice more in the second period, with Giroux netting his second of the game (23), after a turnover by Mike Green behind his own net, and Michael Raffl, his eighth of the season. Raffl’s goal spelled the end of the night for Holtby, who made 14 saves on 18 shots.

Philipp Grubauer relieved and made 10 saves on 11 shots the rest of the way.

The Caps finally got on the board at 14:06 on their fifth shot of the game, as Green’s wrist shot deflected off Joel Ward and Andy McDonald and past Steve Mason to break up the shutout.

Washington woke up in the third period, but it was too little, too late.

Ovechkin started the comeback attempt with a power play goal (44) from a nifty cross-crease pass by Nick Backstrom. Playing four-on-four, Troy Brouwer found the back of the net on a pass by Hillen, and it was 4-3 before the midway mark of the third period.

But another defensive breakdown put the Flyers back up by two. Eric Fehr lost Jakub Voracek in the middle of the ice and Mike Green did little but wave his stick at Voracek as he glided through the slot an beat Grubauer to make it 5-3.

The Caps didn’t fold, as Brooks Laich tipped a Green floater past Mason to cut it to 5-4.

The Caps pulled Grubauer with 70 seconds left and had an offensive zone faceoff to work with, but Steve Downie corralled a loose puck and sent it from his own blue line to make the final 6-4.

Ovechkin, Backstrom and…? Who should be on the top line?

Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin are two of the best offensive talents in the NHL, but there’s a problem: forward lines usually have three players. The question of who that third player should be for the Caps’ top line has haunted them all season long and they still don’t have an answer for it.

One of the reasons a top six forward remains a major need for this team is because they don’t even know who their top three is. Whether carrying the passive Marcus Johansson, trying to find a role for Martin Erat or hoping Brooks Laich can start living up to his contract, head coach Adam Oates has done just about everything he can think of to try and find the right mix for his top line.

With the Caps entering the final quarter of the season and still struggling to earn a playoff spot, inconsistency on the top line is not something this team needs. The perfect fit probably isn’t on this roster right now, but it’s time to make a decision and stick with it.

Given Oates’ insistence on playing left-handed players on the left side, that limits the choices to Jason Chimera, Aaron Volpatti, Marcus Johansson, Martin Erat and Brooks Laich.

Finding a top line winger means that player has to have the talent to match those kinds of minutes. With all due respect to Chimera and Volpatti, neither of them are top six forwards.

That leaves Johansson, Erat and Laich.

Finding a cohesive line, however, is about more than just talent. It is also finding the right mix of players and that’s where this gets tricky.

Those who worship the gods of statistics will say that Johansson is the obvious choice. So far this season, he has 38 points while Erat has 24 and Laich has 12.

Those numbers are inflated, however, since Johansson has had more opportunities. He started the season on the top line and is averaging 17:31 per game. That is more than Erat’s 14:44. Laich has a comparable 17:16 per game, but he is getting significant time on the penalty kill. Those kind of minutes won’t do much of your offensive stats.

Johansson has also played in more games (61) than either Erat (53) or Laich (47). The bottom line is that Johansson should have better numbers because he has played more and his ice time isn’t coming on penalty kills.

Johansson appears to be a good fit for the top line, given his style of play. He is a skilled winger whose speed forces defenses to account for him.

When you have Backstrom and Ovechkin on the ice and opposing teams still have to account for the third player on the line, good things will happen, or at least they should.

Johansson’s problem this season has been deferring completely to his superstar linemates. You can’t blame him for playing this way; those are two guys who should have the puck on their sticks as much as possible, but he becomes so passive in his play that it completely negates his role on the line.

He’s not supposed to be a third wheel.

When Oates switches the lineup and Johansson plays with the second or third line, he looks like a different player. He shoots, gets in front of the net and uses his speed to create opportunities. Yes, he is getting a lot of assists, but anyone could rack up points on a line with Backstrom and Ovechkin. Even Chris Clark scored 30 goals with Ovechkin on the top line.

In an ideal lineup, would he be a top line winger? No, he’s better suited for second or third line minutes, but few teams have three offensive superstars. Given the Caps’ roster, he is the guy who makes the most sense; the Caps just don’t have time to wait for him to become assertive.

What about Erat? No, stop laughing, I’m serious. People forget that Erat was a top six forward in Nashville. He’s a good player who never fit in with Oates’ plans for the team and his play and playing time have suffered because of it. That doesn’t mean that he’s not a top six guy.

Erat’s best season came in 2011-12 when he scored 19 goals and 39 assists for 58 points. That’s not bad. To compare, Troy Brouwer, who many Caps fans have mistaken for an offensive dynamo after his great 2013 season, has never recorded more than 40 points in a single year. Erat has seven times.

His style of play, however, does not lend itself well to the top line. Though not as skilled as Backstrom, their style of play is similar. They both use their offensive instincts to create plays and are more adept at feeding the puck to other playmakers than they are to scoring themselves.

These ‘quarterbacks,’ so to speak, are best spread out among the lines rather than placed together. While both players are capable of scoring, they make their living setting up someone else. Much like we saw with Johansson, if Ovechkin is the only guy scoring on a line, he’s the only guy defenses will worry about.

Essentially, having two quarterbacks never seems to work. Just ask the Redskins.

There’s also the possibility, though slim, that Erat may be on a different team come the trade deadline. It’s hard to build your top line along a player who may or may not be here in a few days.

Who does that leave? Surely the answer can’t be Laich who has only 12 points this season? He’s more likely to change a stranger’s tire than he is to record a point!

In an ideal lineup, Laich is a third line center, but again, no NHL team is working with an ideal lineup.

Laich brings something different to that top line. He’s a grinding, two-way winger. No, he’s not a sniper who’s going to light up the scoreboard, but he is someone who can forecheck, crowd the crease, and get those ‘garbage goals.’ He’s also a defensively responsible player which can help make up for Ovechkin’s…er, lack of.

Laich is also not afraid to shoot when he gets the chance. In a two-on-one with Ovechkin against the Panthers on Thursday, Laich rifled a one-timer past Tim Thomas. Laich didn’t immediately look for the pass back to Ovechkin, he fired the shot because Thomas was out of position. Would Johansson or Erat have taken that one-timer? I’m not so sure.

This is not a perfect fit for that the top line. It would be hard to play them as often as Oates may want since Laich is one of the team’s top penalty killers. He also is not as offensively skilled as either Johansson or Erat. Though he looked great Thursday recording a goal and two assists, he has not scored a point in either of the Caps’ two games since.

And let’s not forget the injury concerns. Laich has been dogged both this season and last season with a recurring groin injury. Could top line minutes cause this injury to flare up yet again?

Playing Laich on the top line is not ideal and this is something the Caps will need to address in the offseason. As a quick fix, however, with the team needing some cohesion for the stretch run, he might not be a bad option.

Washington Capitals Game 47 Recap: Caps play better but still lose in Pittsburgh 4-3

Early in the season, the Washington Capitals had a habit of not playing particularly well possession-wise and pulling out a win regardless, a lot of the time in a shootout. Recently, that trend has reversed as the Caps have played much better in the past couple of weeks, only to find themselves losing ground in the standings.

That pattern played out again Wednesday night, as the Caps played even with the Pittsburgh Penguins most of the night, but gave up two late goals in the third period and fell to the Pens 4-3 at CONSOL Energy Center.

For Pittsburgh, the win marks their franchise-record 13th straight win at home.

The Capitals (22-17-8) find themselves tied with Philadelphia at 52 points for second in the mediocre Metropolitan Division, just five points ahead of seventh place Carolina.

The Caps got goals from Brooks Laich (5), Jason Chimera (9) and Alex Ovechkin, his league-leading 34th of the season. But Jussi Jokinen tied the game at 3 at 11:35 of the third period, then Olli Maatta won it with his fourth goal of the season, shot through a maze of bodies just off the left post past Michal Neuvirth, playing in his second game since early December.

Though neither Penguins goal was a power play marker, late in the game the Caps had to be feeling the affects of three third period penalties — and playing their fifth game in seven days.

“You have to know how much juice you have left in the tank,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said. “We blew two leads. On both goals, I thought we should change, but we didn’t. We got caught a little tired and we made mistakes and they have great players.”

The Caps scored first — short-handed– as Karl Alzner took advantage of a rare Penguins miscue along the left wing wall and pushed the puck up to Laich, who walked into the offensive zone with Troy Brouwer on a 2-on-1. Laich tried to play the puck across to Brouwer but ended up toe-dragging around a fallen Pens defenseman and beat Marc-Andre Fleury with a wrist shot from close range.

The Penguins tied the game at 9:53 in the second, as a deft Penguins breakout against the Caps top line resulted in a 4-on-2, with Kris Letang victimizing Neuvirth (33 saves) for his ninth of the campaign.

Chimera’s tap-in, on a beautiful slap pass from Marcus Johansson, gave the Caps the lead back at 14:31. But that lead was short-lived, as Tyler Pyatt got inside position on John Erskine at the top of the crease and banged home a pass from Maatta to make it 2-2.

Washington grabbed a 3-2 lead at 8:35 in the third, playing 4-on-4. Mike Green fed Johansson along the goal line and he waited for Ovechkin to shake loose in the left wing faceoff circle. Ovechkin’s lethal one-timer escaped Fleury and gave Caps fans reason to hope that the cycle of well-played games would result in points in the standings on this occasion.

That was not to be the case, however.

Once again at 4-on-4, Dmitry Orlov lost track of Jokinen, who took a pass from Brandon Sutter on the right post for a slam dunk at 11;35, then Maatta took a handoff from Evgeni Malkin — who was allowed to skate unencumbered through and around the Caps defense — stepped up to create a double-screen, when whipped a wrist shot past the unaware Neuvirth for the final dagger.

The Caps continue their road trip Friday at 7:00 pm ET against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Caps at the midway mark: What’s right and what’s not

After the Washington Capitals 41st game of the season, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, their record stands at 20-15-6, 46 points, “good” for second place in the decidedly mediocre Metropolitan Division. Remember all the jokes that used to be made about the Southeast Division? Yeah, well the new Patrick Division has nothing to snicker about this season, as none of the teams except Pittsburgh would qualify for the playoffs at this point if they played in the Atlantic Division.

They are playing at a 92-point pace for a full season, which in most previous seasons would have had them on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

Fortunately for the Caps, they just have to be good enough to gain one of the top three spots in this motley crew of a division. Unfortunately, having lost their last three in a row, five of six and seven of 10, the margin between them in second place and Columbus in seventh is a mere six points. They are, as they say in finance, trending poorly.

Of the Caps’ 20 wins this season, only 12 have come in regulation or overtime — 25th in the league — with the other eight decided in a shootout, basically a crapshoot. Trim out the overtime wins, and the Caps have won a mere 10 games in regulation this season of the 41 they’ve played. That’s not just bad, it’s embarrassingly so. Remember how you felt about the Florida Panthers and their rash of overtime and shootout wins a couple of seasons ago. Yeah.

With all of this in mind, let’s now take a look at what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong so far this season. We’ll break things down into four categories: Offense, Defense, Goaltending, and Coaching/Administration.

OFFENSE

Overall, the Capitals are ninth in the league in goals per game with 2.85. That’s pretty good. But the power play, humming along second in the league at 25 percent, is masking the Caps dirty secret: their 5-on-5 goals for/against is 0.91, 22nd in the league, which gels with their generally crummy possession numbers at even strength. They are 12th in the league in total shots on goal per game — again, pretty good. But not great, considering the other side of the ledger. And again, the power play masks the deficiency at 5-on-5.

Individually, Alex Ovechkin far and away leads the league in goals scored with 31, 12 of which have come on the power play. He also far and away leads in shots on goal and total shots taken and is shooting at 14.4 percent, a not-unusually high percentage for him. Unfortunately, Ovi’s plus/minus says the exact same thing as his possession numbers: when he’s on the ice, both teams’ chances of scoring a goal raise dramatically.

The drop off after Ovi for goals is a steep one. Joel Ward is second on the team in goals with 12 — his third highest total already in his sixth full season in the league. Nick Backstrom is playing at an elite level, with 10 goals and 35 assists, good for fourth in the league. And late free agent pickup Mikhail Grabovski is 11-19-30 bouncing back-and-forth between three different lines, so he’s well on his way to earning a multi-year contract in the offseason after being the forgotten one at the dance last summer.

After that, things get murky.

Troy Brouwer took a long while to get going, but at 9-10-19 he’s right about where you’d expect him to be. He’s scored 40, 36, 33, and 33 points the past four seasons, so he’s right on pace. Anyone expecting more from him at this point is delusional. Eric Fehr, after being completely ignored in November, is 6-11-17 in 32 games, .531 points per game, a 44-point pace over 82 games. These are your second line wingers.

Marcus Johansson, who for a while was among the league leaders in assists, has completely disappeared again. Until Thursday’s two assist performance against Carolina, he’d gone five games without a point. The 23-year-old has three goals and six assists in his past 20 games. He’s not really all that young anymore, so we’re just about to the point where this is what you expect from him. It’s third-line production at best for a guy that’s spent the bulk of the season as the first-line left wing, usually a star’s position.

Brooks Laich has missed 13 of the team’s past 15 games, and has been completely absent on the scoresheet when he does play, with just six points in 27 games. Accumulation of injury has turned a once very useful and flexible player into someone the Caps simply can’t depend on right now.

DEFENSE

John Carlson made the U.S. Olympic team. Does that say more about Carlson or the U.S. Olympic team? In his defense, Carlson has made strides this season to being more of the two-way player the Caps envisioned he would be. His seven goals, four on the power play, have him on pace for easily the highest goal output of his career; he’s only two away from his career high of nine in 11-’12. He’s also become much sturdier on the back-end, teaming with Karl Alzner as the top penalty kill pairing, and has eliminated a lot of the silly mistakes that plagued his game as recently as last season. His biggest problem now is he’s not the greatest passer, but I think that’s more concentration than ability.

Alzner is a good, reliable, steady stay-at-home defenseman. He gets overrated in these parts because he’s the most adept on the team at that unglamorous task. He is not what they call a “shutdown” defenseman. He’s not physical or intimidating, and his strength at times leaves his work along the boards and in the slot lacking. But he’s positionally sound and a smart hockey player, making the most out of what he has.

After those two, however, come two players with major flaws and a group of others that quite frankly don’t belong in the National Hockey League, which is far and away the Caps’ biggest problem.

When Mike Green was scoring 70 points a season, you could overlook any other flaws in his game. He had a singular talent in the league for two seasons. But that, now, was a long time ago. Injuries have ravaged the player that was once one of the most dangerous in the game. Between his skill, speed and puck-handling, he was a unique talent. Now, he’s a shell of what he once was.

Third and fourth line wingers skate around him. He seems uninterested in playing his gaps and responsibilities. He routinely still leaves himself open to the big hit along the boards. And Carlson has eclipsed him as the lone defenseman on the power play. On top of all that, he’s taking penalties this season at a rate like no other time in his career, left to reaching and grabbing where before he could skate into position. He’s a liability almost every time he steps on the ice.

Dmitry Orlov is going to be a good hockey player. Will it be here in D.C.? Who knows. But he’s getting a chance to play now and with any young player (80 games in three seasons) he’s going to have ups and downs. He’s electric carrying the puck, something his current head coach and defensive assistant don’t like in their system. He’s prone to forget assignments and jump into the play instead. And he repeats mistakes, something that drives coaches crazy. But he’s one of the few Caps defensemen that can move the puck and make an accurate exit pass, and he won’t shy away from contact.

John Erskine is playing on one leg and is no longer an NHL caliber skater. Steve Oleksy was a nice story last season — the journeyman who finally got his chance due to multiple injuries — but there’s a reason he’s bounced around so long in the minor and independent leagues — he’s simply outclassed at this level. But unfortunately for the Caps, the rest of the defensemen on the roster are either not in any way ready (Schmidt, Carrick, Wey) or similarly flawed (Strachan, Urbom).

This team actually misses Jack Hillen.

GOALTENDING

Raise your hands if you had Phillip Grubauer as the team’s undisputed No. 1 goalie at the 41-game mark.

Liar.

Grubauer, the just-turned 22-year-old goalie has started 10 of the Caps last 12 games. He has a .932 save percentage and 2.20 goals against, so he’s acquitting himself well despite the Caps penchant for allowing more shots than they take. Will the .932 stand all season? No, of course not. But he’s playing well given the opportunity.

Braden Holtby, more than Grubauer, was victim to the sheer number of shots he faced much of the early season. Despite a .915 save percentage, he’s allowed 3.00 goals against per game. This is a result of seeing so many more shots a game. Of goalies that have played 20 games or more this season, he’s third in the league in shots against per 60 minutes at 31.3. He’s had his moments where he’s fought it, but he’s hardly the Caps worst problem. In fact, he held them in games the first two months of the season until late November-early December when he lost the coaching staff’s confidence. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s hiding or dealing with an injury either.

Michal Neuvirth is the invisible man. He’s played in just seven games, none since Nov. 22 despite being back on the roster the past two weeks. His trade value diminishes daily.

COACHING/ADMINISTRATIVE

Adam Oates drew a lot of praise last season for resurrecting Alex Ovechkin and the Caps’ power play. He also got good marks for his rapport with the media and for his hockey intellect. Rightfully so. He played the thinking man’s game and continues to do so as a coach. Now that he’s coached this team for a full season’s worth of games, there are positives to draw from but the jury is definitely still out.

The power play, despite struggling a bit in December, still is second in the league. At 5-on-4, the Caps skill has room to shine. At 5-on-5 though, that shine completely loses its luster. The Caps are 20th in the league at 5v5 goals for with 69 and 22nd in 5v5 goals against with 79. They are 27th in the league at 5v5 shots against per game with 32.2 and 20th in 5v5 shots for per game with 28.7.

That’s right, at 5-on-5 the Caps are one of the 10 worst teams in the league in all four categories, down with the dregs of the league that won’t qualify for the playoffs. We know the defense is bad… we can see it with our eyes. But the offense is just as bad 5-on-5, it just gets masked by the efficiency of the power play.

Consider it for a second. How can the same team that scores at a 25 percent rate with the extra man struggle even for shots at full strength? The simple explanation is that they don’t work hard enough at full strength to get into position to shoot. Or that they’re “too cute” and looking for the perfect play instead of throwing it on net and hoping for traffic, a redirect or rebound. Or yet, they haven’t mastered (or are suited for) the systems that Oates, Calle Johansson and Blaine Forsythe are trying to implement. Those are the simple answers. Are they the right ones?

As far as their own end, the Caps braintrust would rather defensemen get rid of the puck quickly instead of carrying out of the zone, primarily to reduce the amount of physical punishment by forecheckers, something the Caps have had trouble with. But the Caps lack the necessary skill with most of their blueliners to really make this strategy pay off and it reduces two of their players’ (Green and Orlov) strong suits. A lot of times, the defensemen are simply left to dump the puck to center ice, leading to turnovers and odd-man opportunities the other way, with the Caps forwards standing at the other blue line watching in horror.

As far as administratively, we’ve seen some curious internal personnel moves. Connor Carrick made the team out of training camp, but quickly proved he wasn’t ready at full speed. Martin Erat spent much of the first 25 games on the fourth line until his trade demands forced the team to play him with fellow skilled players in order to showcase him. Still without a goal, he has nine assists in his last 15 games since he was moved primarily to center. Dmitry Orlov was similarly buried, only in Hershey, until the Caps could no longer deny his existence — he’s now logging top-4 minutes. Eric Fehr spent most of the month of November eating nachos in the press box. As did Jay Beagle, who finally got a chance to play when Laich got hurt again. They are wasting a year of Tom Wilson’s contract playing him seven minutes a night.

And Aaron Volpatti continues to get a sweater despite everything else.

All the while, no outside moves have been made, other than claiming Alexander Urbom off waivers from New Jersey.

SUMMARY

The Capitals are fortunate to be in second place in the disappointing Metropolitan Division. There’s really no other way to say it right now. At full strength, they’ve been one of the 10 worst teams in the league. It’s due primarily to Alex Ovechkin, the power play, some timely goaltending and the shootout that the Caps aren’t looking up at the rest of the division. There’s a good bit of talent here, but it’s not enough to overcome the deficiencies in the roster, lack of execution and sometimes questionable utilization.

Combine that with the fact the team has played its last 23 games in the Eastern Time Zone and managed to lose ground to the first place team in the division and to most of the teams trailing them, and it only gets worse. The Caps play 10 of their last 14 games on the road. They’ve already missed their chance to put hay in the barn.

Unless the Caps play dramatically better at full and even strength in the second half of the season, it’s my opinion they are going to struggle to make the playoffs. And even if they do manage to get in, they certainly won’t have ample power plays and the shootout to fall back on.

Washington Capitals Game 41 Recap: Capitals lose third straight game, 4-3 in overtime to Hurricanes

Image credit: Patrick McDermott

Image credit: Patrick McDermott

 

In their first game of 2014, at home against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Washington Capitals came out swinging, but were down a goal before the first period ended. After a flurry of goals during the second period, and a scoreless third, Jeff Skinner completed his hat trick in overtime, and the Canes won 4-3.

On December 29, the Washington Capitals lobbed 50 shots at Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller (to his team’s 17), but only had one goal to show for it, and lost in the shootout. The next day, December 30, they were narrowly outshot by the Ottawa Senators, but lost 3-1 in regulation. Thursday night’s game was one where the Caps actually had goals to show for their efforts, but not a win.

It was the Capitals’ third straight loss, five in their last six games, and six of their last eight games. Through 41 games, the Capitals have only 10 wins in regulation.

“We had 40 shots. We did a lot of good things; we outshot them 10-0 at the start of the game,” said Adam Oates.

“Then we get a too-many-men penalty and then they get a 5-on-3 and score. We only had one power-play in the game which I was surprised at, but we did a lot of good things in the game.”

In the second period, five goals were scored within 3:45, three of those belonging to the Capitals. But they did what they’ve done 21 other times this season: allowed quick response goals against almost immediately after one of their own.

Brooks Laich called it “sort of embarrassing.”

“We know how to respond when we do score. We can’t let that continue to happen. That’s a problem that we have to fix,” said Steve Oleksy, who scored a goal in Thursday’s game, his first in 10 games.

“I think everyone in this dressing room, everyone that is a part of this team and this organization all know that we have to play better hockey,” Oleksy continued.

“We are not playing our best hockey, but we are finding a way to get some points in the mix. Obviously, we have had some games that we probably should have had two points, but you are still getting some valuable points. At the end of the day, we know that we have a lot more to give, and we are going to figure it out and we are going to turn it around here.”

Washington Capitals Game 25 Recap: Caps blow 3-1 lead in 6-4 loss to Ottawa

Entering Wednesday’s contest, the Washington Capitals hadn’t lost to the Ottawa Senators in D.C. since March 12, 2006, going 11-0-2 in their last 13 games at home against Ottawa. Make that 11-1-2 now, as the Caps frittered away a 3-1 second period lead, falling to the Sens 6-4 before a bewildered capacity crowd at Verizon Center.

Head coach Adam Oates was visibly frustrated in his post-game remarks, saying, “If guys don’t know that we let one get away, shame on them.”

The Caps got on the board first at 12:10 of the first period. Michael Latta carried the puck to the left wing dot, where he was upended by an Ottawa defender. Eric Fehr swooped in on the loose biscuit and lifted it cleanly past Craig Anderson for his second goal of the season.

Mike Green took a hooking penalty right after the goal, though, and the Senators made him pay, as Bobby Ryan tipped in a shot from the center point by Patrick Wiercioch to even it at one apiece.

The Caps got it right back. Moments after Zack Smith went off for hooking Nick Backstrom on a offensive zone faceoff, Alex Ovechkin passed to the crease. The puck caromed off Troy Brouwer and a defender and went right to Marcus Johansson, standing alone at the right post. All Johansson had to do was push the puck in for a 2-1 lead.

Washington extended the lead to 3-1 just a minute later. Brooks Laich won the puck in the left wing corner and knocked it to Jason Chimera. Chimera’s pass bounced off Joel Ward and with Laich moving to the net, he corralled the loose puck and slipped it five-hole on Anderson.

That’s when things got silly for a bit, and actually changed the momentum of the game. Senators’ forward — and noted pugilist — Chris Neil took a run at Nate Schmidt, delivering a big blow to the Caps defenseman. Neil was whistled for interference on the hit, but Tyson Strachan decided he needed to stick up for his fallen defensive partner and he fought Neil. Strachan was hit with an instigator penalty and 10 minute misconduct to go along with five for fighting, negating what should have been a Caps power play for Neil’s original infraction.

Strachan said he didn’t see the ref signal the original call against Neil and said he felt like he was “doing his job.” Both Oates and Brooks Laich defended Strachan stepping up for his teammate. But it’s undeniable that Ottawa got the better of the momentum from the exchange and that Neil, a veteran, took advantage of the situation to pump some life into his until then moribund team.

The fights carried over to the second period. Aaron Volpatti delivered a heavy body check on veteran Colin Greening, and Greening, who is struggling mightily this season with no goals and just three assists so far, retaliated with a slash to Volpatti’s thigh pads, then both players dropped the gloves.

The Senators then cut the lead to one at 6:36 of the second. With Eric Fehr in the box on a tripping call, defenseman Chris Phillips walked in on the left wing, wound up, and fired a slap shot past the glove hand of Braden Holtby to make it 3-2. It was Phillips’ first goal of the season.

Greening got that first goal a little later in the period. Immediately after springing from the box following his fighting penalty, Greening bore down the right wing and fired a laser past Holtby’s glove side to tie the proceedings at three — and leave the Verizon Center faithful with slacked jaws.

The Senators outshot the Caps in the period 19-3.

The Capitals’ penalty parade continued in the third, as Fehr went off for his second tripping call of the game. Ottawa made good on it right away, with Mika Zibanejad tipping in Jason Spezza’s shot from long distance as he skated through the crease unmolested.

Things continued to go poorly for the Caps for much of the third period, but they got a gift with 3:30 remaining, as John Carlson was hauled down by Zack Smith as Carlson was trying to keep a puck in the offensive zone. On the ensuing faceoff, Joel Ward won the draw and the puck came right back to Carlson at the point, and his wrist shot got through a maze of bodies and went over Anderson’s left shoulder to tie the game at four.

But the Caps couldn’t stand their own good fortune. Just over a minute later, Zack Smith split Mike Green and Schmidt and sent a wrist shot toward net that Holtby simply misplayed, and the Senators retook the lead at 5-4.

An empty net goal by Bobby Ryan with 12.6 second left provided the final margin of defeat.

Washington Capitals Game 14 Recap: It takes a shootout, but Caps down Florida 3-2

Playing without captain and leading scorer Alex Ovechkin for the second night in a row due to an upper body injury, the Washingt0n Capitals got a solid effort from goalie Michal Neuvirth and goals from Nick Backstrom and John Carlson — his first of the season — to force overtime and a shootout, where all three Caps shooters scored to take two points from former Southeast Division foe Florida Panthers. The resulting 3-2 win evens the Caps record at 7-7-0, good for third place in their new digs, the Metropolitan Division, with 14 points.

Neuvirth, starting in place of Braden Holtby, who played Friday night and went around with noted pugilist Ray Emery, saved 33 of the 35 shots sent his way, including 19 of 20 at even strength.  He allowed a goal to the first shooter in the skills competition, Aleksander Barkov, but denied Jonathan Huberdeau, which led to Nick Backstrom sealing the deal on the next shot.

Washington broke out on top in the first period with the refigured first line of Backstrom, Eric Fehr and Martin Erat. The Caps made an easy transition off a defensive zone faceoff through the neutral zone and into Panthers territory. Fehr brought the puck across the blue line and seemed to fumble it as he made his way into the slot.

But Backstrom alertly corralled the puck and whipped it past a seemingly stunned Scott Clemmensen for his fifth goal of the season, and third in the two games that Ovechkin has been absent.

In the second period, a very poor pass from Brooks Laich, who was covering the left point after Alexander Urbom pinched in on a play, led to Scottie Upshall springing Jesse Winchester on a breakaway. Despite Laich hooking Winchester the last 40 feet of the sprint, the Florida forward got enough on the shot to beat Neuvirth five-hole.

But just 36 seconds later, John Carlson took a nifty feed by Michael Latta on a controlled break and roofed it over Clemmensen’s right shoulder to give the Caps a 2-1 lead after two.

Midway through the third, the Caps had an extended offensive possession on the power play with several good chances, including Mike Green ringing one off the post, but could not get a shot to fall.

But former Caps have a way of haunting the current squad, and Saturday night would be no different. Old friend Tomas Fleischmann tied things up with just 2:38 remaining as the Panthers skated on a 4-on-3.

The power play goal against breaks the Caps streak of 35 consecutive penalty kills.

Despite the Caps getting a power play in the overtime, the extra session ended scoreless. Mikhail Grabovski led off for the Caps in the shootout and made a beautiful move, carrying in on his forehand, then faking a slap shot before slipping it to his backhand and getting the puck just out of the reach of Clemmensen.

Barkov used almost the exact same move against Neuvirth at the other end to even things up.

Brooks Laich was up next, and through he faked himself out — he missed the puck with his last attempt at a deke — the puck eluded Clemmensen five-hole. With the goal, Laich moves to 6-for-18 (33.3%) career in the shootout.

Neuvirth then made a glove save on second-year center Jonathan Huberdeau to set up Backstrom’s dramatic game-winner. Backstrom came in forehand all the way and simply beat Clemmensen without any trickery whatsoever to deliver the extra point to the Capitals.

The Caps have won 18 of the last 23 meetings with the Panthers.

Washington is off until Tuesday night, when they host the New York Islanders at 7:00 pm.

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