You won’t find criticisms of the Caps here these days because the team as we plan on following it in the postseason isn’t presently constituted. Which is to say, while it is fair to criticize mental errors (multiple players closing hands on pucks in a single game??) and effort no matter who is in the lineup, the Caps this month are so ravaged by injury that wins versus losses is a wholly unfair barometer.
Also: the effort in those final 5-plus minutes in Minnesota Monday night, down 4-0 against a white-hot goalie and when seemingly half the bench was in the trainer’s room, tells you all you need to know about how this team regards its Jack Adams coach and the ethos of this sport in the season’s first quarter. Recall, too, the final shift effort in New Jersey, when the breaks that night were also beating the boys, nine days earlier.
I shudder to reference it, but at this rate 2008-09 is beginning to take on the red hue of the Red Cross campaign of 1998-99, when the Caps lost what may have been a team sports record in man-games lost to injury for a season: an unfathomable five hundred and eleven. Patrick Augusta and Mike Rosati were pressed into sweaters in that stretchers-on-ice season.
That kind of red we don’t want to be Caps’ hockey.
That ’99 outfit, while enjoying defending Eastern Conference champions status, was veteran-laden, which is a polite way of saying old. It also had nothing approaching the strength of AHL affiliate Hershey to draw from that these Caps do. But it also didn’t have salary cap constraints. What is similar about the two teams is that layers of catastrophic injuries are arriving in waves.
We have learned in the last week what Mike Green’s value to this organization is. He is every bit the five million dollar man. Darren Eliot on Monday night’s Versus broadcast rightly pointed out what the absence of Green meant to the Caps’ power play: when a back-door, cross-ice feed went onto Viktor Kozlov’s left-shooting blade instead Greener’s rightie, it was a flubbed scoring chance, whereas one one-timed then by the Calgarian most often ends up in the back of the net.
This Caps’ club is a lot younger (in key positions) than the bad-luck band of ’98-99. Am I nonetheless concerned? You bet. Perhaps the worst injury a hockey player can sustain in-season is a high ankle sprain. This apparently is what is sidelining Sergei Fedorov. It’s marred, for virtually entire seasons, the likes of Steve Eminger and Steve Konowalchuk and Brian Sutherby. (I still wonder what a healthy Kono deployed against Fedorov in the ’98 Finals would have meant in the short but very competitive series.) None of whom were near 40 when hurt. Shoulder, wrist, hand, and knee agonies can be battled through, most often, but your feet are everything in this game.
Fedorov was playing great hockey, too, prior to going down. I was one concerned by minutes that nightly approached 20 for him (because he was playing so well) and what toll they might take on him over the course of 82 games in the twilight of his career. I don’t have that concern any more. Instead, I’m wondering if his ankle is going to make healing progress only to buckle again as it did this past weekend. He’s very much an agility skater, too.
I am whole-heartedly of the opinion that Michael Nylander and his East-West game is a poor fit for Bruce Boudreau’s North-South dash, and that trading him is a question of when rather than if, but Fedorov’s wonky ankle could alter that bit of bartering.
Alexander Semin will certainly fully mend, but once he returns he will be a targeted player in this his breakout season. Is Donald Brashear (alone) up to the task of defending the Caps’ litany of skilled forwards? Do not look for the league’s referees to afford Semin protection commensurate with his stature; his truth-telling of last month ended that luxury.
Green, too, is likely returned by the holiday weekend — not a moment too soon. Beginning tonight the Caps arrive at Verizon Center for some home cooking on home ice, where they’ve yet to lose this season in regulation play. All three remaining games this week are winnable with a modicum of healthy bodies in the lineup. The losing of late will get reversed; a more important reversal is the volume of labor by the team’s training staff.