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.