Late-Game Wilting: Surmising Its Causes and Cures

Cup'pa JoeAt 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.

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This entry was posted in Joe Finley, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Milan Jurcina, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Late-Game Wilting: Surmising Its Causes and Cures

  1. Ben Raby says:

    Great analysis… No question the ‘finesse vs. physical’ d-men discussion will continue as the season rolls on, or until the issue is addressed…

    Not sure about Caps leading in 2nd period every game though… there was the 3-2 OT win on Long Island in which Caps overcame 2-0 deficit…

  2. Hateoffseason says:

    Well, it certainly is an argument against finesse defensemen, but without a little more information, it really isn’t proving a point.

    Capitals forwards have committed more penalties in the offensive zone than in the defensive zone (25 to 21). I don’t know what part of the when during the game those penalties were taken though. With a little research this may completely support your post if those defensive zone penalties are taken in the third period. But I doubt it, how often are we cursing at forwards taking stupid penalties in the offensive zone in the third?

  3. j-man says:

    An OFB article that mentions Joe Finley? Never seen that before..

    And what are all the whiners going to whine about when this team does get a big toughguy defender and it doesn’t help at all?

  4. DMG says:

    “Moreover, a finesse style of defense necessarily does little to physically wear down the opposition”

    I’m going to have to disagree with that. What makes someone physically exhausting to play against is how hard they make you work and how hard someone makes you work when you’re trying to score goals isn’t so much a function of how often they hit you as it is a function of how good they are at preventing opposing players from scoring. Having to endlessly work to get an inch of productive space or to forecheck relentlessly to even have a to create something is what wears a team out, and in my experience it does it more effectively than hitting.

    The most active hitters in the NHL only hit 2-3 times a game. Now if they can lay a big hit on you, maybe that serves as a deterrent but the odds of it making a substantial difference when it comes to physically exhausting someone aren’t that big. Contrast that with a team that cycles effectively, forechecks hard, and keeps possession of the puck. If the other guys are in control of the game and you’re forced to chase them around it takes a toll on you every single shift, and that does a lot more to wear out a team than a 20% of being hit one more time does. Because of that, for me what always determined how difficult a defense was to play against was how well they cleared the zone, kept the puck in my team’s end, disrupted passing lanes, kept pressure on in the offensive zone, and so on. In short how effective a player was at keeping the puck away from the high scoring areas in their own end always seemed to make up about 95% of what made them easy or difficult to play against. After all, the vast majority of NHLers will take a hit to make a play and you can’t hit someone if you can’t catch them.

    Personally I think most of the onus for wearing down the opponent falls on the forwards. Defensive is inherently reactive; attack is inherently proactive. The defensemen can only react to what the opposition gives them, while the offense can dictate the pace of the game by doing things like dumping the puck in and forcing the other team to retrieve it. Plus hitting will often take you out of position and that’s luxury defensemen don’t have. You can be a foot or two out of position behind the opponent’s net and it’s not a big deal – the same can’t be said of your offensive end. Honestly I feel like there’s no excuse for offensive players not to be hitting because they’re the ones whose game allows them to go out and seek contact whereas defensemen have to pick their spots and take what’s given to them.

  5. NHL Fan Favorite says:

    The Washington Capitals are still overrated and over promoted. I am tired of ESPN and other outlets giving them so much attention over other teams (no offense). I am tired of hearing about Ovechkin. He is an amazing talent and fun to watch. However, I keep hearing and seeing he is the best player in the league and that there is no argument.

    I will give you an argument. You are not the best player at anything until you can win a Championship. Just ask Michael Jordan. He is the greatest at his sport. For hockey, look to Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, and guys like Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby.

    You may not like any of these names or their teams but they all have one thing the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin do not have….a Stanley Cup Championship! That makes you great.

  6. Patrick says:

    Why must there always be one of these guys hovering on Capitals’ discussion boards, looking for a verbal altercation? Go back to your own team board please, we are discussing an interesting topic.

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