September 18, 2014

Washington Capitals: Effort alone will not be enough against the Bruins

There’s absolutely no questioning the effort of anyone involved for the Washington Capitals in Thursday night’s loss in Game One of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Boston Bruins. None. For 61 minutes and 18 seconds, every player dressed for the Caps exerted all the effort and energy they could muster. It was heartening to see how hard everyone worked, how they stood up for each other, how much they apparently cared.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.

Throughout the season, fans, bloggers and regular media alike bemoaned the Caps “care” level on occasion. I think it’s a fair critique. At times, some of the guys dressed in red didn’t look like they were fully invested in a particular game, period or shift. In fact, it’s a comment heard frequently around these parts as the “Young Guns” have risen from fresh-faced teenagers to the high-priced or free agent-pending veterans they are now. Sometimes I think it’s a lazy and easy critique. Sometimes I think it’s earned.

Regardless, there is no critiquing that aspect last night. The effort and energy on display were apparent. The Bruins felt it. The fans in the Garden felt it. You could feel it through your television or monitor.

Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough.

The Capitals fought an uphill battle all night long. There’s an expression in hockey when one team is dominating the other: the ice was tilted. Thursday night, it was tilted for the Bruins almost all night long. The Caps had a mere five shots on goal in the first period and added just two more in the second. Some of that was the function of killing penalties off in the first six and a half minutes of the second frame, but that still left more than half the period to catch up. It was not to be.

It wasn’t until the latter stages of the third period that the Capitals started to press Boston goalie Tim Thomas. Still, the Caps only put nine shots on goal in the third period. Alex Ovechkin used to do that himself per game. We can talk about The Captain a little bit in this regard; Ovie managed just one shot on goal, a one-timer on a power play from what used to be his “sweet spot”, just below the left wing dot. He used to bury that shot with shocking regularity. In Game One, not only did Thomas get over to make a nice play on it, he almost over-skated it. Regardless, Ovechkin only had one more attempt all night.

That just isn’t enough.

You have to credit Ovechkin for his physical play against Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg as Ovie led all skaters with four hits. But its unconscionable that someone that’s led the league in shots on goal three different occasions only attempted two shots all night. He has to do a better job of  finding space or forcing his will into the situation. The Caps won’t win a game with Ovechkin only managing two attempts per outing.

Here’s the other thing about the lack of shots: the Caps got just two shots on goal from their defenseman, none from Mike Green. They had ten attempts (three from Green), but only two made it through. Rebounds (and deflections, and bad bounces, and mistakes) come from shots from the point, but the Caps weren’t able to sustain enough pressure to get the defensemen involved in the offensive zone. In contrast, the Bruins had eight shots on goal on 14 attempts from defenseman. And their defenders were no less shout on defense than the Caps’ were.

In the dots, Boston had the better of it, but by a very close margin overall (33-32). The glaring exception, though, was from Brooks Laich, who took the lion’s share of draws against Boston’s top center, Patrice Bergeron. Laich was, to borrow a phrase from the kids, “pwned” by Bergeron. Laich was 2-for-5 against Bergeron in the offensive zone, 1-for-6 in the neutral, and 3-for-11 in the D-zone. Ouch. Offense starts with simple possession, and Laich didn’t couldn’t match up.

Nick Backstrom, it should be pointed out, was a perfect 5-for-5 in the offensive zone, but just 1-for-4 in neutral. He did not take a defensive zone face-off.

One last thing. If experience is such a big deal in the playoffs, why did the Caps leave much of theirs in the press box last night? It seems to me in the greasy, grinding, hard-checking atmosphere of playoff hockey, you’d want guys that have been there and are more suited to play that game.

There’s (hopefully) a long way to go in this series. The Caps should be proud of their effort in Game One. They let the Bruins know they’re coming for them. You just hope that this wasn’t their best shot to “steal” a game, behind the excellent work from their inexpereinced goaltender. Because the Bruins — the defending Stanley Cup Champions — are going to fight back even harder now. You can bank on that.

Again, there’s no doubting the care level last night. Everyone knows the stakes, and it showed. That’s good. But there’s a huge difference between effort and skill, and it showed again last night. This Capitals team just doesn’t have the skill, top-to-bottom of the roster, to hang with the Bruins if the Caps’ best skill players can’t come through for them on the offensive end.

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Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.

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

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