Identity Crisis (cont’d.): Greyhounds, Masquerading as Huskies

If you have a kennel full of greyhounds, can you make sled-pullers out of them? And: should you?

An individual NHL game in midseason is but a proverbial snapshot in time — a single frame in a long-running motion picture. Macro-meanings about it aren’t there for the divining. Generally. But some games are bigger than others, and last night’s at Verizon Center surely qualified as one. The revamped and improved Tampa Bay Lightning were in town, and with their 51 points entering play last night they were tied with the Caps for first in the Southeast. They will qualify for the postseason this year, and many in media last night noted that Tuesday night’s absence of scoring and generally ugly style of play was playoff prescient. If all this is true, we can take away one macro-meaning from last night.

These in-midseason-evolving Capitals aren’t where they need to be for spring.

The team’s forwards especially don’t yet look comfortable in Bruce Boudreau’s revamped attack. Your best players have to be your best players on the journey to prosperity, and it’s an extended narrative of intrigue and concern now: Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstron, Alex Semin — none look themselves these days, and haven’t for quite a while. It’s early still in the evolution, this new approach of Gabby’s, but it just doesn’t seem to be labor much in the nature of the big dogs.

They need to be out running together, in a great gallop, no?

Saturday’s skate in outdoor squalor was tailor made for this new approach, but the rest of the way the Caps are going to have to get it done absent any aid from the skies. And while the results of late have been encouraging overall, Tuesday night offered perhaps the best preview to date of what it takes to enjoy success in the postseason. Tampa with its new goalie and commitment to eliminating time and space for the Capitals’ skilled forwards, and perhaps most importantly, with just one line of impact skill and a whole lot of muck around it, looked poised and battle-ready and comfortable in its own skin. It was the Capitals who looked out of synch and very out of character. They looked like greyhounds at an Iditarod instead of a Florida racetrack. And Tampa with its one-line attack will not pose the greatest threat to Capitals’ postseason prosperity.

That Iditarod comparison may be particularly apt, too; it’s a long, tough slog through mighty adverse conditions in the NHL postseason. You need game-changing skill and thick-coated uglies (wolves, virtually) for the NHL in spring.

There wasn’t much of a hound’s bark from the Caps on the attack last night. And there hasn’t been in this evolution. Thirty four shots on Dwayne Roloson last night (21 in the second stanza alone), but few of them were exceptionally threatening. In its former flow game the Caps were difficult to defend because with speed and lethal skill they attacked in waves, horizontally and vertically. Still they try to find a pinching Mike Green or a sleuthing Alex Semin in small space, but hardly ever off the rush — for there is no rush any more — and consequently there’s a forest of opposition sticks allowed to set up and defend, deflecting most cross-ice passes out of harm’s way.

There are positives here to tout: the team has allowed just 14 goals in its last nine games, and Semyon Varlamov is looking mighty no. 1 in net now. The penalty kill is a top-five performing unit. Additionally, by adopting a trapping style of play the Caps are decreasing both the pressure placed on its solid if unspectacular blueline during 5-on-5 play and the volume of quality shots their netminders nightly face.

But you still have to score goals, and the Caps aren’t scoring them.

“We’re not scoring goals right now. Thank god we’re getting good goaltending and playing defense,” Bruce Boudreau noted in the postgame last night.

On some level there is the air of capitulation with what the Capitals are doing in the middle of this hockey season. The promise of what George McPhee has spent much of the past decade drafting and refining, and what Gabby has grafted together with it, was fundamentally antibiotic to the NHL’s malady: boring hockey (ask ESPN) — or at least stylistic servings not likely to lure in newcomers to our game’s rinks and before the TV. To put it succinctly: you don’t amass a Red Army with trap hockey. Ask the New Jersey Devils.

And, to no small degree, the Capitals’ participation in this year’s Winter Classic — after NBC snubbed them in favor of the Flyers with last year’s game — was premised on Washington delivering a markedly different aesthetic than what the Bruins and Flyers did in Fenway Park (a three-hour sleeping pill). Weather played a role, and the night-time start Saturday was a saving grace, but these evolving Caps weren’t ready to carry that out in Winter Classic ’11.

There is a sense of surrender settling in here, and at least on this laptop, it’s disquieting. Hockey shouldn’t be about surrender, about joining the pack. Winning hockey that broadens the sport’s appeal should be about breaking away from the pack.

Maybe this evolution is borne of desperation, too. If Gabby wasn’t on the brink of firing 15 days ago, he was close to it. Desperation often times breeds desperation tactics. This capitulation, this surrender, looks inorganic, unauthentic, forced and ill-fitting. Even if growing pains with it are the culprit for its offensive shortcomings to a degree, it’s time-tested nature is ugly. What do we think of that?

Yes the Devils won Cups with it, but not with greyhounds masquerading as huskies.

Perhaps this uglification is merely a Band-Aid to better times, or perhaps it’s actually a partially installed hybrid, one that will eventually be refined so as to better showcase this roster’s speed and skill. But what if it isn’t? What if this Capitals club is now led by a coach whose bread-and-butter approach has been proven beatable by all in the big leagues, and in its place he’s deploying a system he hates? If the coach hates it, what is the likelihood of his skilled players embracing it?

Maybe at the end of the day this really is an existential question: would you take winning ugly, winning the New Jersey way, and emptying your rink by half along the way, or be bold and re-unleash your top dog and the greyhounds around him, unsure of when you’ll cross the finish line?

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This entry was posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Bruce Boudreau, George McPhee, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, New Jersey Devils, Nicklas Backstrom, Southeast Division, The Red Army, Trap hockey, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Identity Crisis (cont’d.): Greyhounds, Masquerading as Huskies

  1. Tre Kronor says:

    You can’t have it both ways – greyhound offense and strong defense. The greyhound strategy does not work and it’s amazing it’s taken this long for the Caps’ brass to figure it out. Shame on them for implementing this now instead of after the first round exit against the Flyers 3 years ago. If you want the exciting offense of years past, more power to you but don’t tell me it will get us a Cup or that it will succeed in any playoff round. Traps, defense and strong forecheck will spring enough goals eventually. Call it the Devils or what you want but I’ll take the system the Devils succesfully implemented – how could you not like a proven Cup winning system? The most telling improvement (and the one that no one seems to talk about) is how much improved the PK is – last year, our PK was horrible and foretold of another early round demise. I’ll take my chances with this system over the run and gun and porous defense of years past (assuming we score enough to get to the playoffs that is).

  2. red army soldier #1337 says:

    How could I not like a proven winning strategy? ZZZZzzzzz wake me up when the game ends. As a converted fair weather fan, I love the excitement of the old system. I also like the reliability of the new system. Surely we can figure a way to.combine the two…

    Ill tell ya, the new system can be exciting.. I see glimmers of it, but not yet.. to those who love hockey, sure the trap works for them. Because they love the intricacy of each play. To the new fan… it feels like a prevent defense in football. Who wants to watch a team play prevent all day?

    This rambling brought to you by droid, and wearing off day-quil due to the classic.

  3. sonja says:

    As I write this I am watching the US play Sweden in the Bronze round of the World Jr. Cup and the announcers are droning on that Peter Allain (the U.S. coach) is having the same problem … the US team is great defensively, but he can’t get them to work up any offense (it’s period 1 and the score is 0-0). What are the chances?

    I saw a number of interesting things on the ice last night. One of them was that Semin was a terrier. He may not have scored, but Tampa could not shake him off the puck, no matter where it was on the ice. He was fierce! I don’t know if that transformation will be good (in the long run) or not, but it was very interesting.

    It’s been noted that Carlson/Alzner are holding their own against some of the top scoring lines in the NHL right now. I wonder if that slump was just a beginning. It’s been said that it takes time to turn an oceanliner around, so perhaps this is more like putting pieces in place one at a time. Now that the so-called Karlzner line is working, that allows the other defensive pairings to become more solid. That in turn allows the staff to begin work on offensive strategy. It seems to me that there is a painstaking process underway here that we are not privy to, but ultimately that process going to allow the team’s best talents to shine. I just cannot see GMGM or BB misusing such talent having gained it. That would be counter-productive. No?

  4. Avtopilot says:

    There was no offense to sacrifice when trap was deployed. Caps allready were in a losing streak with very low production. So, it was the only way to survive – to bolster defence.
    Now it’s time to think about offense, but i see no reason to blame BB or the players – let’s wait for a couple of games and see, if they get used to the new tactics.
    Sorry, i had enough of run and gun – i’d sacrifice it for the Cup.

  5. OvieTracker says:

    I expected a bit of post-Winter Classic hangover but really. If the Caps are getting by in survival mode because their offense, especially the power play, is MIA, then there’s something rotten in the state of DC. Can they hope to survive in the SE division, to say nothing of going deep in the playoffs, if Ovie, Semin and Backstrom can’t find the back of the net for extended stretches? They might get by…for a while. But as RED ARMY SOLDIER noted, how long can the Caps go on employing hockey’s version of football’s prevent defense? Also as RAS noted, why do we have to choose between offense and defense? TRE KRONOR suggests we have to choose, and I say nyet. You can be strong offensively and still be sound defensively. You don’t have to give one up to have the other. IMO it starts with the Caps power play which has all but vanished. Getting goals on the PP will go a long way to jump start the offense without sacrificing defense.

  6. Colin says:

    Two things: The Caps are still getting good chances and are not hitting the mark as much as usual. As a hockey fan, the games of the past week have been thrilling. It is not your Devils trap.

    Second: My best guess is that this system, while dropping the odd man rushes in favor of defense, is predicated on the “Greyhounds” actually doing something on the PP. With any success there, these 2-1 and 1-0 games quickly becomes 4-1 and 5-0. A successful PP not only provides points and gets us leads, it makes other teams wary of hooking, tripping and interference calls, thus opening up some ice for the “Greyhounds” to shine at even strength.

    No one is afraid to take a penalty against us right now. If the PP clicks, and I think it needs to be revamped, then we will make life miserable for a lot of teams.

  7. OvieTracker says:

    @COLIN: Earlier I posted on Japer’s Rink almost exactly what you said about the Caps PP, how teams aren’t afraid of taking penalties because they know they won’t have to pay the consequences. Getting the PP back on track is the key to jump starting the Caps offense–and as an added bonus it won’t involve sacrificing the defense.

  8. Colin says:

    @OvieTracker: you got that right. all the necessary O without giving up any of our hard earned D. Win-Win for the good guys!

  9. mark buttram says:

    your first poster has it dead on. the Caps were in a mess of trouble in December. They also were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs 3 straight years as the higher seed. So BB, out of desperation and wisdom, did what very few coaches will do. He admitted that his way was not working and changed. Now , after 7 games without a regulation loss, you are going to give him a hard time or complain about how the hockey is played?? Come on. Be real. As a fan since inception of the team, trust me, I will take the wins any way they come. While some goals would have been nice the other night, it was a compelling back and forth exciting game. IT was well played and frankly there were plenty of rebounds and chances for both teams. Just have a little patience with the new system and give it time. We have 40 games left. This system will eventually produce goals and wins, not April heartbreaking results. They could consider permanently putting AO, Backstrom, and Semin together and letting them play a different style while the other 3 lines stick to the system. I just don’t trust Semins defense or his heart. Ideally if we could trade him for 2 guys that fit the system (or Brad Richards straight up??) the team would probably thrive even more. Give BB a chance and just wait till the end of the season to make any judgments.—or at least till they lose in regulation again.

  10. Jack says:

    Adapting to the changes in the system will take time. Once the top line gets more comfortable with it you could see more balance. The Caps are going through an identity crisis and it will be interesting to see what kind of team emerges.

  11. Jack I think has honed in on the key consideration — the issue of identity, and it’s one I’ve addressed two or three times already this season. And which, I might add, no reader has yet to suggest is an unfair or misplaced topic. I’ve asked before and I will again: if pressed to identify an identity for this hockey team, what would you say? “Identity crisis” I think is a fair surmise. And when Jack here adds “it will be interesting to see what kind of team emerges” [from all the fashion changes], his thoughts are well aligned with mine.

  12. Icebat says:

    “Alexander the Great” scored 76 goals in his 3rd season in the NHL. But it was EIGHT years and his third team later before he won the Stanley Cup- in a year where he scored 33 less goals. He won that Cup with the Devils, playing their style of hockey.

    Ovechkin has said he is honored to be referenced using Alexander Mogilny’s nickname. And for good reason:

    - first Russian player to defect from the Soviet Union
    - first European to lead the league in goals scored
    - first Russian to be named to the NHL All-Star Team
    - first Russian to be named captain of an NHL team,
    - second all-time Russian scorer in the NHL.
    - second Russian player to score 1000 points in the NHL
    - won Olympic gold medal
    - won World Championship gold medal
    - won Stanley Cup

    …….

    The core players went from Hanlon making them fill out a permission slip before they could chase down a loose puck on the PK, to Bruce saying “get it to the forwards and shoot.” It’s long overdue to implement some sort of systematic discipline regardless of the specific system, but employing proven techniques would certainly seem to be a pretty reasonable course. I’d expect the goals to start flowing again sooner or later.

  13. Gabi says:

    Their 5 on 5 play is fine. Its the PP thats horrible. Ovi needs to get off the point and play at the half board like all PP producers around the entire league play. The point on the PP is the “quarterback” thats not fitting to Ovi’s skill set.

  14. Anga says:

    I want BOTH! I want to see exciting hockey, I want to see the Caps pushing other teams back on their skates and making them scurry around trying to defend against and offensive onslaught! I also want to see the D shutting down and irritating the hell out of the NHL’s top scoring lines and keeping everyone out of our zone. The TB game was a snooze fest the other night and that was evident by the endless drone of conversation all around. While some may believe that the Caps can make it to the playoffs with this system I totally do not. Anytime you change something so dramatically to the point where it completely takes the offense off the boards there is a serious problem. Who’s to blame, I don’t know. What I do know is that some hybrid better be born from this and soon. The coaches and the players have to find a way to bring the two together to make one kick ass dog that can out run the pack and has a coat so thick the elements won’t matter!

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