August 27, 2014

OPINION: First two games show Caps have long way to go

That home opener wasn’t exactly what we were looking for, eh?

It was bad enough when the Washington Capitals went down to Tampa Bay and had their doors blown off in the third period by the Lightning in both teams’ season opener. Everyone expected growing pains this season, with a one-week training camp, a third head coach in 14 months integrating his systems, and a four-month layoff due to the lockout. But after the Caps got the opener out of their systems, I think the expectations for opening night were higher.

The disappointment, then, of a 4-2 beating in the home opener by the Winnipeg Jets — the Caps second straight regulation loss to a division opponent — stings that much more. Combined with the lingering resentment about the lockout, if the Caps don’t right the ship quickly, things could spiral out of control quicker than they know what to do about it.

What’s worse, quotes from the locker room about lack of conditioning, energy, preparedness and communication are all the more troubling.

Right off the bat, new coach Adam Oates suggested that his skaters’ conditioning could be better. “The guys didn’t look like they had much in the tank. I’m sure that’s a product of this season and what happened and our conditioning levels which we talk about every day.”

Forward Matt Hendricks, who had a goal and a pair of fights, concurred. “I didn’t think we had the energy we needed tonight. One of our keys to success was to put them on their heels, put pucks in their end, get them to turn, get them to work. [Winnipeg] played [the previous] night and we didn’t make it look like that.”

Sure, one week isn’t much of a training camp. The Caps are further hindered by the fact that the largest part of their roster didn’t play competitively during the lockout. The only Caps defensemen to play anywhere before camp started was Tom Poti, on a conditioning assignment in Hershey for two games, and rookie Tomas Kundratek, who was on his way to the AHL All-Star game before being recall to replace injured Jack Hillen Monday.

Kundratek, with all of five NHL games to his credit, was immediately inserted into the lineup Tuesday, leaving veterans Jeff Schultz and John Erskine in the press box.

The rest of the defensive corps sure look like they have a lot of catching up to do. John Carlson had a puck go off his skate and into the net when he got caught between playing the puck or playing the man on the penalty kill. Later, he was simply abused by Evander Kane, who skated around the flat-footed Carlson after passing to himself off the left wing boards at center ice. Kane then fed Blake Wheeler who beat Karl Alzner — a step slow all night — to the crease where he tapped in Kane’s pass for Winnipeg’s third goal of the night.

The Caps gave the Jets five power plays, allowing two goals — Winnipeg’s first two goals of the night. For the season, the Caps have allowed goals on five of the staggering 12 extra-man advantages they’ve allowed. On the other side, they’ve scored twice on the power play in eight attempts. Both of those trends simply have to stop if the Caps are going to have any chance of turning around the rocky start they are now off to.

Want some more troubling numbers? Probably not, but here goes. The Caps were just 43 percent in the faceoff circle, with Nicklas Backstrom a miserable 9-of-23. He was 3-for-8 in the offensive zone, 3-for-8 in the defensive zone and 3-for-7 in the neutral zone. Faceoff wins lead to puck possession, and one of the primary problems the Caps have had in the first two games is the stunning lack of organized attack in the offensive zone. Part of it is that they don’t have the legs, part is that they don’t have the puck to start with.

And what of the Captain? Alex Ovechkin had an assist on the Caps first goal, a nice feed to Backstrom who redirected the pass to Hendricks, who was on the far post alone. But that’s Ovi’s lone point thus far in two games. In the home opener, Ovechkin managed four shots on goal, but had an incredible six shots blocked. If the Great Eight was supposed to bring some new tricks to the table this season, we haven’t seen them yet.

And what of Marcus Johansson, who started the season on the left wing of the team’s top line? Benched for the third period, save one shift on the opening draw of the frame. “I felt he could play better,” Oates said of Johansson. “You hope every guy uses his  strengths and one of Marcus‘ strengths  is his skating ability and I didn’t think he was skating. I was looking for a  spark, something else.”

Of course, Braden Holtby, he of the stellar playoffs last season, has allowed 10 goals in six periods of play. But it’s hard to judge Holtby’s play with the ragged defensive effort and sheer number of power plays the Caps have allowed in such a short amount of time. Of course, Holtby has not been able to save the Caps’ collective bacon yet either, something NHL teams expect from elite goaltenders.

Is it too early to write off the 2013 Washington Capitals? Certainly not. We’ve played just two of 48 games. But as the great Yogi Berra once said, “It gets late early around here.” This lockout-shortened season is not a marathon, but a sprint to the playoffs. It’s topsy-turvy in the NHL so far, with the Capitals joining Philly, the Rangers, Vancouver and defending champion Los Angeles all winless after at least two games.

The Caps have games Thursday at home against Montreal (1-1-0), travel to New Jersey (2-0-0) Friday and host Buffalo (2-0-0) Sunday afternoon. In fact, they don’t play another Southeast Division opponent until Feb. 9, 11 games into the season. Just five of their first 19 games are in the division. If the Caps want to make their March and April division games mean something, they better figure out how to fix what’s wrong against less-familiar opponents quickly.

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