So where was this Capitals team for the first month of the season? Two goals in the first 3:10, which chased Panthers’ starting netminder Jacob Markstrom. Then two more on Scott Clemmenson to make it four goals on their first eight shots. Three points each for Alex Ovechkin, Mike Ribiero, and Wojtek Wolski; two points for Steve Oleksy in just his second game; plus ratings handed out like Halloween candy; and a confident performance by Braden Holtby just one bounce shy of a goose egg.
At the time of their fourth goal tonight, the Capitals had scored eight goals in their past 45 minutes of playing time… not bad, not bad at all.
Is this turnaround for real? “We don’t want to be a .500 team, we want to be way above .500,” Karl Alzner said after the game. “We started so badly, it’s a big hole to climb out of… hopefully we can get a bit of confidence from a game like [tonight’s].”
The Capitals are on an 8-3 run; they’re just one win away from a point-per-game pace for the season. That’s hardly a glowing statistic, yet it’s an impressive climb (part-way) out of that big hole.
A portion of the blame for the Capitals’ slow start, of course, can be attributed to lockout fallout. Besides Adam Oates, only Edmonton Oilers coach Ralph Krueger started this terribly abbreviated season as a new head coach and as someone who had never been an NHL head coach before. Even Krueger had some familiarity with his roster, as he’d been an associate coach with Edmonton since 2010. Not so for Adam Oates; no coach’s chances of early success were more harmed by the lockout than his.
A good coach—which Oates seems to be, though time will tell—can take a team like the Caps and instill discipline, play to its strengths (and compensate for its weaknesses). With enough time and luck, he could mold the team into a playoff threat. But thanks to the lockout, the shrunken “time” variable imbalances the equation; with each game roughly doubled in importance this season, the team’s 2-8-1 start is a much heavier anchor than it would be in an 82-game campaign.
The Capitals were hit by a perfect storm this season: a laughably brief training camp/ preseason, a shortened season, a brand-new coach, and a roster lacking a few key components.
The Caps’ overall skill level is good, not great. No objective observer would slot their current roster talent among the top teams in the league; neither are they among the worst. They’re firmly ensconced in the middle of the talent bell curve.
The Caps have a few key injuries, though nothing compared to teams like the Caps’ opponent tonight. But consider: when the absence of Brooks Laich has so clearly impacted the team, one can safely say their roster isn’t the deepest. That’s not a slight to Brooksie: he’s this team’s Steve Konowalchuk (one of my all-time faves), a valuable guy you can count on to crash the net and get those tough goals. But Washington lacks six players worthy of consistent top-two-line minutes, and no one on the blue line can be considered a shut-down defenseman. Neither of those issues is exactly new.
Tonight, though, the team can celebrate a comfortable blowout on the heels of an impressive comeback two days ago. Oates made sure to emphasize keeping the team’s focus during the first intermission: “Your first concern is that I don’t want to see one of my guys get hurt because you’re not mentally or physically engaged.”
While Oates clearly enjoyed the win, he didn’t feel that one should read too much into such a lopsided game. “You’ve got to throw that tape away. The league’s not that easy… we’ve got two games [this] weekend, let’s get back to work.”
After the slow start, Oates seems to be hitting his coaching stride; the team is, for the most part, doing the same. “The guys are playing better,” said Oates after the game. “All in all, in the last three weeks we’ve only had one bad game.”
Will it be enough to squeak into the playoffs? Perhaps… either way, Coach Oates is hitting all the right notes, and Capitals hockey has become fun again.