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