For the Washington Capitals, a 13-4-1 start to this season – good for an Eastern Conference-best 27 points – is all well and good, especially a six-game winning streak that highlighted the team’s first 18 games of the year. But the only thing that really matters with the Capitals is the playoffs that begin in April.
The playoffs are about five months away from even beginning, with division races far from being officially decided, but realistically – barring serious injuries to the Capitals’ roster – they should comfortably win the Southeast Division despite significant improvements made by division foes and take a top-three seed in the playoffs. And whatever can be accomplished in the regular season, the Capitals did last year when they won the Presidents’ Trophy with 121 points.
But a Presidents’ Trophy means nothing once the playoffs get underway. Every team has to win 16 games to earn the Stanley Cup. Everything starts anew. Most of all, the style of play changes drastically, as the Capitals have found out in a difficult manner.
The Capitals’ 6-4 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers, as well as the other 17 games the Capitals have played, has shown – in some respects – how Washington has and hasn’t changed its play to better suit a playoff style. For the Caps, this regular season is as much, if not more, about their style of play as it is their point total.
In Sunday’s game against Atlanta, the Caps came out in the first period highly energized (winning puck battles in Atlanta’s zone, getting bodies in front, and out-shooting the Thrashers, 12-7, in the frame), which was somewhat surprising to see since they were involved in an overtime battle in Buffalo the night before. Alas, the Caps came out of the first period with a 3-1 lead.
Thrashers’ netminder Chris Mason allowed a goal to Alex Ovechkin due to a tricky bounce after he made the initial stop. Mike Green and Alexander Semin also added goals – Green’s was a power play tally which he fired from the high slot that was deflected within the traffic in front, while Semin’s goal came off a pretty cross-ice saucer pass by Ovechkin that Semin buried with a slick move across the goal mouth from right to left.
Last postseason, the Capitals struggled to get bodies to the front of then-Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak, and as a result, Halak got an unscreened look at most of the Capitals’ shots from the perimeter, and he gobbled up most of their shots from the perimeter. Little traffic in front also meant that the Capitals weren’t able to harass Halak and jam away at any rebounds he gave up. The Capitals were content to play a perimeter-style game, and never got Halak moving laterally on a consistent basis, a good way to beat a hot goaltender.
Semin’s goal was not only aesthetically pretty, but was the kind of goal that no goaltender, no matter how hot he may be, can stop. Ovechkin’s pass got Mason moving laterally, and Semin’s skill took over to bury the goal.
What the Capitals have to focus on for the rest of the season is improving the intensity of their forecheck – especially their top two lines – and creating turnovers off their forecheck. The top lines’ propensity to get too cute and try to stickhandle their way through a defense fails in the playoffs – the top two lines have to be able to dump the puck and forecheck. They also have to keep putting bodies in front, as they did on Green’s goal.
Green’s goal on Sunday also resulted from Green not forcing the puck to Ovechkin. Last postseason, the Canadiens shadowed Ovechkin throughout any Capitals’ power play, cutting off the Capitals’ go-to play on the man advantage – an Ovechkin one-timer on the left point off pass from Green on the right point. The less Ovechkin-dependent the Capitals’ power play – clicking at 21.9 percent so far this year – is, the harder it is to defend come playoff time.
Another goal which was a result of traffic in front was a goal by Matt Hendricks, who has turned out to be a terrific late-summer pickup by Caps General Manager George McPhee. (Hendricks brings toughness, quickness and a bit of a scoring touch to any third or fourth line – why was he floating around this summer as a player without a team for so long?) Anyhow, a Green wrister from the right wing in the second period left a rebound for Hendricks, who niftily put the rebound away from near the goal line to the left of Mason for the Capitals, which made the score 4-2.
Then, it happened once again for the Capitals. They blew a lead – quickly.
The Capitals were a little flat after they took a 4-2 lead, as Bryan Little scored a couple of goals to tie the game in the second period. His first was a puck that was re-directed to the slot after Anthony Stewart passed the puck towards the net from the right wing corner, and Little went uncovered in the slot. His second was when he batted in weird bounce off an Andrew Ladd breakaway opportunity, which stemmed from Ladd picking Ovechkin’s pocket in the neutral zone on a Capitals’ power play. Prime opportunities from Ladd and Rich Peverley followed shortly thereafter, and the Thrashers outshot Washington, 13-8, in the second period.
These kinds of breakdowns can’t consistently happen to the Capitals once they gain a lead – Stanley Cup-caliber teams lock down leads and keep their energy level high throughout a game. When the time comes to salt away games, forwards have to become more responsible defensively.
Although the second period is no time to stop pressuring your opponent — such as the case in this Atlanta matchup – the Capitals have also blown two-goal leads in the third period this year, such as on Nov. 3 and 5 against Toronto and Boston, respectively.
Possibly the most striking thing about this year’s Capitals team as opposed to last year’s version, though, is the improved penalty killing. Last year’s penalty killing was far too immobile, as the penalty killers got in a box in the defensive zone, never attacked the puck-handler and never forced the issue. The Capitals’ penalty killing was 25th in the NHL last season, as they killed penalties at a 78.8 percent rate. This year, the penalty kill, although it allowed a 5-on-3 goal on Sunday, is much more active, as the Capitals are attacking the puck-handler. It’s no longer a stagnant box. Washington has the 11th ranked penalty kill in the NHL this year, killing penalties at an 84.4 percent clip.
Alas, the Capitals still have some significant flaws in their game. Luckily for them, April is five months away.