We’re Going Ugly (Cause We Have to)

Remember that infuriatingly frustrating box-and-block system Jacques Martin and his Habs hatched on the Caps last spring, the system that somewhat subsumes individual skill within a collective ethos of defend, stymie, and counter-strike? Remember all those clogged shooting lanes last April, all those pucks bouncing off of Canadien shinpads and into the abyss of corners and back out into the neutral zone? Well, guess what style the Caps employed last night at Verizon Center to snuff out Montreal 3-0? Not quite that sag-and-snore setup, but a cousin to it.

More and more it appears that the high-octane, high-scoring Capitals of 2008-November 2010 are morphing into a substance-over-style squad. Henceforth the nightly returns in Chinatown will be more of the 2-1/3-2 variety. Might as well get used to it; that’s what’s required of teams in spring.

“It’s a new way for us to play,” Bruce Boudreau told media last night.

We’re trading in our Ferrari for a Subaru.

Beauty is becoming a beast.

Once we wooed only the pretty girls; now we’re chasing heifers.

We’re going ugly, gang, ’cause it’s the best bet for next spring.

* * * * *

This is a big deal. This is a cultural transformation — both on the ice but especially for the Red Army. Capitals hockey the past three seasons has been about coveted admission to razzle-dazzle on ice. No more.

Once the Caps secured a 2-0 lead last night, guess how many skaters they consistently had clogging the neutral zone? Five. That’s called a trap. How spectacularly ironic: in these teams’ first meeting since last April’s upset, the Habs last night were frustrated to death by a trapping Capitals club.

Credit the braintrust of the most storied and revered franchise in hockey history for hatching the scheme to defeat Bruce Boudreau’s career-defining attack last spring. The rest of the league caught on this fall. Now Gabby is attempting to redefine his career — and save it in the process — by re-engineering his system. Radically.

Montreal needed a miracle to topple the league’s best team last April. The Habs found two: Jaroslav Halak and 20 skaters willing to buy into Martin’s stifling system. On Tuesday TBD identified the Caps’ first-round upset at the skates of the Habs as Washington’s most disappointing sports news story of 2010. Hard to argue with that.

And so it was fascinating on Tuesday night to watch Bruce Boudreau’s collection of highly skilled forwards purposely shoot wide of Montreal defenders, retrieve the pucks dumped behind them, and get their noses dirty in tight. Pucks went deep, hungry lunch-pailers went hunting after them — worth noting, many of them were on recall from Hershey (more on that in a moment) — life in front of Carey Price was congested and chock full of confusion, and ugly hockey blossomed before our eyes.

* * * * *

And did you notice . . . how quiet Verizon Center was last night? It was as if a Southeast tenant had arrived for an October friendly. Instead it was the hated Habs. But ugly hockey doesn’t breed painted faces, and it certainly isn’t likely to unleash any fury. This is going to be an adjustment, gang. Big time. To my friends Goat and Horn Guy: 2011 is going to bring your biggest challenge to date.

* * * * *

When the Capitals acquired Scott Hannan I theorized that ultimately he was destined to be paired with Mike Green and afford Greener a stability and reliability of partner our back-end engine’s never known. The last three games have perhaps afforded Capitals’ fans a preview of precisely this. They’ve been Hannan’s three best games in a Capitals’ sweater. He’s been partnered with Green. They’ve logged a ton of minutes. They are beginning to look quite good together.

But so, too, are John Carlson and Karl Alzner. That duo was over 20 minutes each Tuesday night. The Caps at long last could possibly have a quality top four they’ve yet to compete in the postseason with under Bruce Boudreau. And if the third pairing is a Schultz-Poti-Erskine combo, that’s hardly a huge dropoff in reliability.

* * * * *

If Jay Beagle’s played a better game than Tuesday’s in his professional hockey career, I’d like to have a DVD of it.

“There’s a guy making a great bid to stay here,” Bruce Boudreau said of his hound dog afterward. “His work ethic is second to none.”

The Hershey reinforcements, the coach noted, “are pushing our practices.”

More and more this thought is marinating in my head nearing the midpoint of this hockey season: if this is a regular season of indeterminate meaning and motivation for the Capitals’ contending core, among which so, so many are slumping for so protracted a period, this team may already be indebted to its recall ranks for saving the season. And breathing much-needed life into it. Who seemed to save the season in Ottawa 10 days ago? MP85. The very next outing, against the bottom-dwelling Devils, who among the hosts shined brightest? The Jay Beagle-Dave Steckel-Andrew Gordon line. Matty struck again to get things started in Carolina on Sunday night before exiting with injury after just two shifts. And Tuesday night Jay Beagle was a beast. The Caps have won four of their last five games, and in all four wins Hershey reinforcements have played star- and hard-hat-earning roles.

* * * * *

Interesting question, I think: how good a fit—short term and long—is Alexander Semin for this Capitals’ evolution?

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29 Responses to We’re Going Ugly (Cause We Have to)

  1. JG Wentworth says:

    Semin’s a good fit, so long as he is on board for this new system. That MP85 goal, in the Carolina game, you speak of…if Semin doesn’t make that pass, that goal doesn’t happen. Marinate on that.

    Pre-slump Semin was incredible to watch. I sincerely hope he gets into that groove again.

    Re: Bears

    If this is what we can expect from Hershey call-ups, then open the flood gates.

  2. Pingback: Mike Green Is All Smiles | Clydeorama.com

  3. Ken says:

    This is a great write up on last night’s game and what appears to be the new Caps, thanks.

  4. michelle says:

    I agree with everything JG Wentworth said :) (Also Semin is excellent on the PK)

  5. Lars Rover says:

    I like heffers.

  6. Rob/STC says:

    Great post! And could you finally be seeing the light on
    Semin? There’s no way he fits in this system — especially for the
    money he’s seeking. See ya, Sasha!

  7. sonja says:

    I think MP85 is just the center that Semin needs … he is far more predictable when Matty is centering him than he is with any other center. That’s where the chemistry is.

    It’s good to see the guys playing as a team rather than as a group of highly skilled individuals.

  8. 4capitals says:

    Obviously you haven’t comprehended that Semin is one of the best defensive forwards on the team so I see no problem with him fitting into this style. Actually, he may fit into this system better than Ovie. I think if Perrault can continue playing the way he has, he and Semin will form a good duo. Caps would be making a huge mistake if they don’t resign Semin IMO.

  9. Dougeb says:

    Excellent — in my very humble (and somewhat limited) opinion, this is the best article you have written. This is a transformation and I’m hoping the main stream media soon starts to write about it.

  10. TG says:

    Systems don’t win games/championships, players do. You still need skill. So suppose you get rid of Semin, the goals have to come from somewhere. He’s a good penalty killer, he doesn’t seem to be hanging out in the neutral zone waiting for the breakout pass. I think he’s fine.

  11. ZL says:

    Semin may be one of our best defensive forwards, but the two-way, 2nd-line center we get in return for him via a trade would become one as well.

    Semin is maddening to watch, and it’s because of how great he looks at times. But in the midst of another goal-less streak like the one he’s currently in, it’s too many blocked shots and too much dangling instead of taking what the defense gives you.

    I wouldn’t be disappointed at all if we resign Semin, but I think we can get some quality quality return on him that would pay huge dividends if and when we make a run at the cup.

  12. Hittman says:

    I drive a Subaru Legacy…with spoiler!

    Fastest man on the ice last night wearing red: Aucoin. Whatever these guys bring to the team, it’s working. I still think Boudreau should have been fired, but they’ve won 5 out of the last 5*, so whatever.

    *Green scored, and we all know it.

  13. @ HITTMAN: The choice of a Subaru is no accident — not nearly as flashy and luxurious as a Ferrari, but still plenty of power and speed. :)

    Regarding Semin, there’s no question he’s vital to the team’s chances of a deep playoff run this year. Long-term (if the dollars work out, of course) he’d be a fantastic pair with Matty or MJ90 for the next 5-10 years, as JG & Sonya point out.

  14. I completely agree that Matty and Semin have some MoJo, and this was a topic among the bloggers in last night’s press box. (My new media colleagues see it , too.) I want to see more of it. But ultimately it’s going to come down to price with Sasha, and big money may be better spent elsewhere — like perhaps on two more burly bodies to make this new used car we’ve purchased battle-ready for off-roading.

  15. The Horn Guy says:

    Last night did seem to be much more tame of a game compared to the Caps’ usual tilts but I couldn’t put my finger on why. You’ve cleared it up most effectively.

    Admiral Ackbar may be here for a while. It’s not the most compelling brand of hockey to watch but it worked for New Jersey a couple of times. I’m alright with it if it means this team can compete in the post season as effectively as they are known to do for the first 82.

  16. @The Horn Guy The Wind for wins is within you, I just know it.

  17. McKinley2 says:

    I go back to the Caps days of Tommy Williams, Yvon Labre, and one of my boyhood favorites on the Scooter Line, Doug Mohns. Sadly, I fear that the Caps new style will enchant the local area for one deep run this year, successful or not, towards Lord Stanley’s Cup. After that, I’m not so sure. Even worse, the detested Penguins may be the model to which the Caps will need to aspire…strength up the middle and some star power accompanied by dirt and grime. I like what Semin can do in this system but wonder if his salary expectations will match GMGM’s willingness to match them.

  18. Goat says:

    Winning is fun. Losing games 6-5 is still exciting, but it’s not as much fun as watching them play hard and win.

    As mentioned in the post, it just takes some adjustment.
    However, if the power play comes through on a regular basis, the potential for gaudy scores is still there. The way they played last night certainly got them plenty of time with the extra man. Just have to convert.

  19. Eddie says:

    Good stuff here. The crowd was tame last night and perhaps were as lulled to sleep by the Caps D as was Montreal. Or perhaps the fan base was made up of more UVA type fans than VA Tech fans?? I’m just sayin. Great question about Semin and the “new” style. Semin can buy into the system and his talent is top shelf. You can’t have old school grinders like Matt Bradley without a mix of brilliant talent to keep the other side on their toes. What I like about Semin is that he has a bit of a dark side in him. No Lady Bing trophy in his future.

  20. Colin says:

    I think the Bears are being very successful because they are willing to buy completely into the system to stay here. Now I see most of the regulars buying in also and it is starting to work. Like others said, if we can get the PP dangerous again (and I think it’s close), then we will frustrate a lot of teams.

    As for Semin, he is probably the most talented but most inconsistent player on the team (on both ends). If we can get a windfall trading him, I would not be opposed. But I think it’s unlikely and so the better course is to try and resign him for a reasonable amount.

  21. katzistan says:

    Hmmm, not so sure. The Caps’ troubles on the power play have little to do with their willingness to play a grinding defensive game. While it’s great to see this team play responsible defense – and the last 4-5 games, they really have – you have last year’s PP out there last night, and you’re writing a completely different article today about a 4-0 or 5-0 all-around dominant blowout.

    The Caps’ 0 for 8 on the PP is *exactly* the same team we saw in last year’s playoffs, and until Bruce is willing to make an adjustment – he kept sending the same personnel out there last night, time after futile time – these close squeakers can go either way, dependent on a couple bounces. I’m happy with last night’s result, but you have a couple Habs shooting slightly more on target, and we’re back to teeth-gnashing this morning.

  22. Darla says:

    Ummm, you do realize that a heifer is basically a virgin cow, right? ;=>

  23. Grooven says:

    One-timers and backhands. The coach should be running drills on both of those. That’s what the players seem so reluctant to do on the power play, both out at the blue line and in close crowding the crease. The hesitation of both allows the goalie and defense to adjust. Take the shot; take it fast. That’s also part of the missed rebound opportunities. (See how well it works for Beagle?)
    And also in addressing the power play, there needs to be some change made. The problems just getting established to begin with is a huge burden. And once set up, there’s so little movement in general that the defense is hardly ever forced to move out of position to compensate which in turn leaves so many passing and shooting lanes blocked.

  24. aphid69 says:

    It appears to me that BB tried all sorts of things to wake up the moribund Caps of Dec. And I think that includes all the Hershey call-ups–not only bringing energy and guys already familiar with this system, but perhaps putting some pressure on veteran “passengers.” Certainly there were key injuries and illness, but, after all, if the boys from Hershey can get it done so well, perhaps Caps mgt starts looking at some more trades. Hmmm?

    I concur with what @katzistan wrote: the PP needs immediate attention.

    I’m all for taking the long perspective. Try new systems and new personnel during the long season, even during bad stretches. And give each a chance, even if they’re not quickly successful, before making further adjustments. But I’m not seeing the problems with the PP being addressed. The PP seems to be languishing. As @katzistan wrote, it’s the same personnel, doing the same thing, even when unsuccessful.

    It may be a case of coaches and players focusing on other aspects of play. And goodness knows they’ve had considerable room for improvement all over the rink. And as bad as the PP has been, everyone’s commenting on it. So I hope we’ll see some evidence of attention and improvement sooner, rather than later.

  25. Gabi says:

    Twice in the last two games BB tried using Ovi as a winger on the PP rather than on the point. Those were the best two PPs the Caps have had in a long time. I don’t get why BB is so stubborn and keeps moving Ovi back to the point.

  26. McBride says:

    Quick off-topic question:

    Can I assume Caps fans will all be wearing white on Saturday? I’m planning my attire for the game.

  27. Gary says:

    Neither my snow nor rain coat is white … the sweater underneath will be.

  28. DarkStranger44 says:

    Admittedly, Semin is in a goal scoring slump this month. So is Backstrom whose last goals were on Dec 1, the game after Semin’s last goal. Even though they’ve both provided key assists, as of late. On the health front for those two guys, both had the flu at the same time. Semin has also been dogged by a lower body injury as well.

    Power play needs some drastic changes for it is not working at all. Either new personnel, new system or both.

  29. Matt says:

    @McBride…Nope will be sporting the red #85 Perreault game-worn. GO CAPS!

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