October 22, 2014

Washington Capitals Need to Turn Fast Start to Their Advantage

Tomas Vokoun taking warmups (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Hot off shellacking the best team in pro sports today, the Detroit Red Wings, the Washington Capitals are riding high as the only unbeaten team in the NHL.  However, they have to be careful heading forward to not waste the opportunity they have been given.

Washington now has the biggest target on its back in the NHL. At this point, the team is the gold standard for the best-of-the-best in hockey and teams will be gunning to beat them, which poses a problem. Mainly, because there is no way the Caps can keep up their current streak and when they do come back down to earth, they need to be prepared to play good hockey.

No team has gone 82-0 in a season and Washington is certainly not good enough to be the first team to do it. Instead of focusing on staying unbeaten though, they need to focus on improving their weaknesses so they can win when it matters in April, May, and June. By starting the season on this tremendous streak they have put themselves way out in front of the rest of the pack and don’t have to focus on staying in the playoff hunt. Essentially, it means they can afford to lose a few games here and there in order to win the important ones later in the year.

Their first loss could be coming pretty shortly too, as this team has got to give Tomas Vokoun a rest eventually. While yes, Vokoun is strong enough to be a number one starter night in and night out, you do not want to kill him this early in the season. It’s a very long season and at this point, the team isn’t exactly in the thick of things anymore. General Manager George McPhee is going to risk an injury or just simply fatigue Vokoun if he keeps throwing the top goalie in Washington out there. Plus, Braden Holtby could use a start or two here and there and will probably be an important chip when the trade deadline rolls around.

Moving past the issue of starting someone else in net, Mike Green has got to get his act together. Sure, he has lit it up offensively, but he has looked almost worse than subpar on the other side of the ice. His ability to pick up the play, move into the right position and break up rushes has been lacking this year and it will eventually cost this team.

Green has been an enigma with the Caps defensively for almost two years now. At first, he always the crutch that Jeff Schultz was holding him back, but with Schultz no longer on the top pairing, that crutch is gone and Green has no excuses. Roman Hamrlik is good, but he is not good enough to compensate for a blown play by his partner. Green is the leader of this defense whether he wants to admit it or not. This defense will only go as far as he takes it and it is a fact he will have to face.

Offensively the team seems to be firing on all cylinders and when guys like Matty Perreault and Marcus Johannson are scoring, how could a fan be unhappy? In fact, the forward lines have been so good head coach Bruce Boudreau only has to do one thing, leave them alone. The master tinkerer has a habit of changing lines for the sake of changing them. Sure, a line might not gel one game, or heaven forbid the whole team is off, but Boudreau needs to understand that it is okay and they will rebound. By overreacting and constantly changing lines, Boudreau sacrifices some much needed chemistry.

Truth be told, these problems with Green, Vokoun and the line tinkering seem like minor ones, but this team is in a very delicate place. More than anything, the Caps don’t want the peak of their season to be in October. After all, the ultimate goal is to perform in the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup, and managing their time well now is how they ensure their best hockey is yet to come.

The Washington Capitals couldn’t be in a better position heading into November, but they need to be careful. A fast start is a great way to kill a whole season by over-exerting and peaking early. At the same time though, it is also a great way to take some much needed time to self-reflect and improve. Hockey’s best organizations can do the reflection part; those who aren’t ready for the big time – see this year’s New York Islanders – won’t take this borrowed time to get better and will ultimately fail.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in 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

Comments

  1. Dumbest article I’ve read this week.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      You’re entitled to your opinion. Instead of being insulting though, how about respectfully pointing out where you disagree instead of a baseless shrug. Thanks for reading.

  2. Congratulations. You’ve just won the award for dumbest article of the year. Green worse than subpar? Holtby as a trade chip? Do you even watch the games?

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Thanks for reading Bill. As Editor-in-Chief of this website, I assure you, Andrew watches the Caps games. You’re entitled to your opinion as much as Andrew is, and I certainly don’t think it’s completely out of the question to consider Holtby a trade chip. Likely? Probably not. But he is a quailty player in a position of depth for the Caps.

      As for the “dumbest article of the year”, I invite you to write a feature-length article about the Capitals and I’ll post it here (email it to me at comments@districtsportspage.com). We’ll see after that experience if you want to continue insulting our writers. We don’t avoid criticism, but please do it respectfully.

  3. capsyoungguns says:

    This article is a real head scratcher for me, first and foremost in how you characterizes Green’s play, especially his defensive game. Enigma for the last two years? Last season he started off playing a much better defensive game and then was out for most of the second half due to a concussion. In the previous 2009-10 season (the President’s Trophy season) he was actually working hard on improving the defensive side of his game to the detriment of his offense. Your description of Green as “worse than subpar on the other side of the ice” is simply not accurate so far in this season. The Hamrlik/Green pairing is working on their communication with some definite miscues in the first few games, but that was due more to Hamrlik than Green, and in the last three games this pairing has been solid.

    My second main issue has to do with the goalies. First how is a workhorse such as Vokoun going to be exhausted with just six games plus a break of four days. There is no need to call up Holtby who needs to be playing down in Hershey for the experience. And why not let him ride out the streak for a bit. Neuvirth will get the net back shortly. 50 to 55 games for Vokoun and the remainder for Neuvirth, barring further injuries, is a good balance. What makes you think that Neuvirth is going to spend the entire season on the bench.

    Third, trade Holtby. Huh? The Caps just traded Varlamov. They need to keep Holtby. And why this season. This roster is about as complete as it could be and has some solid Hershey call ups. The only possible weakness is the second line center and so far Johansson has been filling it pretty well.

    Fourth, Boudreau isn’t changing up the lines at the present because they are working. And new players are finding their roles. In fact I think he is showing great patience with Brouwer on the top line and Knuble on the second, letting them develop chemistry with their line mates. During the 14 game winning streak (2009-10) Boudreau did not tinker much with the lines. If it ain’t broke….! So I guess you are worried about future tinkering, which will happen if the line chemistry is off or someone goes down with an injury. And that is a time when changes need to be made.

    Fifth, getting new players integrated, getting the team on board with the system changes, and getting off to such a great start can’t possibly mean that they are peaking too soon. Rather that this team is developing a great rhythm. I personally would worry more about peaking if the streak happened later in the season.

    Of course this winning streak will come to an end. And they will have some bad games. And they will lose some games that they should win. But that is the nature of hockey. It’s a long season. But what has pleased this fan thus far is how well they have played the last three game–as a team with discipline and consistency. I’m just pleased that they are banking more than points. They are banking good habits and system discipline that will serve them well in future games in which the bounces and deflections are not going their way.

  4. Regarding Vokoun getting “killed” this early on: The Goalie Guild tweeted about how Vokoun’s numbers historically get better as the season goes along, if memory serves. Despite his heavy workload. I’m not concerned. What we have to be concerned about is long-term fatigue, which doesn’t come from 10 straight games…more like 30 and 60 of 65.

    Green doesn’t play defense because, well, he hasn’t really had to. I think your eyes are really lying to you here. Neil Greenberg has Green-Hamrlik at 55% in scoring chances, despite the Caps sitting back with the lead at some point nearly every game. Boudreau even matched them (or was fine with Babcock matching them) to Datsyuk-Zetterberg the other night. The Capitals generate 35 shots per 60 minutes of 5on5 with Green on ice, only 27 without (they’re outshot without Green on ice, or Hamrlik, for that matter). He’s been great so far, especially considering how Hamrlik has had his struggles (majority consensus, it seems).

    I also don’t think Green has ever been an enigma. He’s had injury troubles, but how can you question a guy who blocks shots with his head (not shot, shots, plural)? He lays it all on the line for his team. Also, Morrisonn was an even bigger “crutch” than Schultz…amazing how good Green made Morrisonn look.

    “Sure, a line might not gel one game, or heaven forbid the whole team is off, but Boudreau needs to understand that it is okay and they will rebound”

    Even after seven games, same deal. Some guys start slow, some guys go cold or battle injuries they don’t tell the media about. We need to be patient to judge properly.

    “A fast start is a great way to kill a whole season by over-exerting and peaking early.”

    A lot of people use this argument. It doesn’t work. Who’s saying the Caps can’t be better in April than they are now? Knowing that a team “peaked early” can only happen after the fact. It’s much more valuable to have simultaneous analysis than post ad hoc. Sure, you’re probably right (since the odds of winning the Cup any year are so slim for any one team, even for the best), but it’s not like them being good now precludes them from also being good later on.

    If they win now, they can rest up and prepare for the playoffs in March and early April. Like after the winning streak last season, when Ovie and Arnott sat for a few games, Backstrom too if I recall. A win in the first game of the regular season is two points, just like a win in the last one. Might as well get those wins in lower-stress times.

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