At the one-quarter mark of the season, a glaring character flaw has perniciously and persistently permeated the Capitals’ young season: the team weakens as the game goes along. Leads are often acquired early and disconcertingly — alarmingly — lost late. The cold, hard, and amazing reality in this: the Capitals have led in the second period of every single game this season (26 times) but closed out the deal in just 15 of those situations. Only final-10-second, 6-on-4 heroics from Eric Fehr in Montreal Saturday night bucked that troubling trend, allowing the Caps to escape with a shootout win after losing a 2-0, second-stanza lead. Organization-wide concern should remain.
A 15-5-6 record hardly seems a standing to get in a snit over, on its face, but with a modicum of final-frame discipline combined with a bit of make-’em-earn-it grit in their own end, the Caps well could be sitting at something like 20-3-3, even beat up as they have been, and fairly be pulling away from a fairly unimposing Eastern conference. NHL.com’s John Kreiser has taken notice; in his overview of the Caps’ late-game struggles he points out that the Caps have been shorthanded “nearly twice as much in the third period as the first, and have allowed 14 power play goals in the third period” and beyond, while surrendering just a single power play goal in 26 first periods.
It looks much different late in Capitals’ games relative to appearances earlier on. The question is why?
My diagnosis begins with the reflection that there is no single scapegoat in this matter. The Capitals this season are skating perhaps the most talented roster they’ve boast since the mid-1980s. The very fact that they’ve led solidly into the middle of every game thus far is a testament to their overall skill level.
The defense isn’t especially porous: the Caps are surrendering an even 30 shots against a game — hardly impressive — but that places them 17th in the league, or in about the middle of the pack. Similarly, the team’s goaltending is lodged in about the middle of the league (18th), giving up 2.85 goals-against. And the play in net of late appears to have strengthened appreciably, with Semyon Varlamov staking a serious claim to the no.1 guy’s job. There’s nothing in these stats that inherently suggests that every slim lead in every third period ought to breed white-knuckle pessimism in Caps’ fans.
My theory then is that the Capitals’ collection of finesse rearguards, lacking a true crease-clearing, jaw-cracker of a cuss, or two, is ill-suited to reliably withstand three full periods of sustained and desperate attack, night in and night out, and as desperate teams pinch in from the point and double shift stars in the final frame trying to even things up, finesse defenders are apt to wear down a bit, their aiding forwards apt to take penalties. Moreover, a finesse style of defense necessarily does little to physically wear down the opposition — the calling card of the Caps’ rearguards isn’t making opposing forwards pay a price in their end. It was true last season most particularly in the postseason against Pittsburgh and it is true again this season.
We know that the Capitals are a well-conditioned hockey club; one need only observe two or three days of a Bruce Boudreau training camp to appreciate the premium he places on conditioning. I think what we’re seeing as games wane this season isn’t so much the Capitals running out of gas as their foes having paid too little a price early on in the Caps’ end, and feeling ‘too fresh’ in the final frame. The best way to stake a claim to controlling play in a game’s final 20 minutes is to have made an opponent pay a high price physically in the opening two periods.
The Pittsburgh Penguins lead the NHL in hits with 752, and they boast four skaters in the league’s top 30 of hitters. The Penguins are 11-1 when leading after the first period and 12-2 when leading after two. The Caps come in at 15th in the league with 539 hits, but that’s a bit deceptive as their best hitter is on their first forward line and ranks among the best in delivering impact hits in league history. Ovi ranks 44th in the league in hits. No other Capital ranks in the top 75. Shaone Morrisonn has 45 hits in 20 games and ranks 79th in the league. It says a lot that as physically imposing as Milan Jurcina is, and as fearsome as some of his hits in a Caps’ sweater have been, he’s yet to overtake Shaone Morrisonn in the thumping department. Now take a look at the Caps’ rank relative to the rest of the league when playing with leads.
There’s always some roster achilles heel for the general manager whose team has yet to reach play in June. When play resumed from the lockout at mid-decade the rebuilding Caps had plenty of weak areas — an aging vet in net (Olie Kolzig) and a young stud on left wing and a whole lot of needs everywhere else. In the past three years George McPhee has commendably bolstered all four of the Capitals’ forward lines, dramatically upgraded the starter talent and overall depth in goal, and improved the overall talent level on the blueline. But coming out of the lockout the Caps weren’t blessed by a bevy of brawny blueliners, and the entry draft since has delivered to the Caps mostly an abundance of skilled, finesse defenders and skilled forwards.
The good news when it comes to bringing some black and blue to the blueline? Help is on the way. The moment John Carlson is inserted back into the Capitals’ lineup for good — the guess here is some time next spring — he instantly becomes the best hitting talent on the team’s blueline. Perhaps you thought it just good luck that he led the team in hits in his NHL debut 10 days ago. It wasn’t. The young man has elite instincts for playing the game of hockey, and they include being in position to deliver meaningful blows in his own end. Karl Alzner, while not in the same category of physical presence as Carlson, is an elite talent whose presence on the Capitals’ blueline will upgrade the unit overall.
Our ice wet dream in this regard would be some late blooming from Big Joe Finley.
This leads me to the view that there is likely only modest improvement to be hoped for in the near-term pipeline. Meaning: management would do well to use December and January as a pivotal period with which to assess the market for acquiring a grizzled piss-n-vinegar vet on the blueline. Somebody with serious snarl with which to say hello to Sidney next spring. He needn’t be exhorbitantly costly, either. Another Joe Reekie with some gas in the tank would do just fine.