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?