Wednesday January 18th, 2012

After all is said and done, as goes Alex Ovechkin, so go the Caps. (Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

Yesterday, we looked at a Western team, the San Jose Sharks, who remain a perennial postseason disappointment although their recent record may be encouraging but also a bit deceiving. Today we'll look at a similar team in the East: the Washington Capitals.

Before being shut out by the struggling  New York Islanders, 3-0, on Tuesday night, the Caps had won seven of their last nine games and the hype machine had begun buzzing that Washington was back, or at least on the way back, to being an NHL powerhouse. But if you saw how lethargic and sloppy the Caps played on home ice -- taking only 17 shots against a more energetic team that was playing the second game of a back-to-back and is, after all, the 14th-place Islanders -- you've got to have some reservations.

The fans in Washington had more than reservations. They spontaneously formed a booing chorus to serenade the home team before the second period ended, a chorus that defenseman Karl Alzner called "100 percent...deserved."

If the fans' reaction seems a bit harsh for a club that has been winning, consider what Washington Post beat writer Katie Carrera noted on her blog after the game, that this "lackluster, flat showing against the Islanders provided a reminder that although Washington has won seven of its past 10, it’s been far from a perfect stretch.

"The Capitals were outshot (28-17) for the 12th time in the past 15 games and their combined shot differential in the past four games is minus-51. In addition to the struggle to find the offensive pulse, Washington’s play in its own end lacked polish. The Islanders benefited from plenty of odd-man rushes and created scoring chances off of sloppy turnovers."

Let's unpack that a bit. For this team to be outshot so regularly is rather mind-boggling. The huge gap in shots over the past four games might be, at least in part, the result of the recent concussion suffered by the Caps' top center, Nicklas Backstrom, who missed his fifth straight game on Tuesday.

But these are the Washington Capitals we're talking about, a team that two seasons ago was the NHL's unparalleled offensive juggernaut, scoring 318 goals (an average of 3.87 per game). Unfortunately, they didn't win the Stanley Cup -- or even come close -- while playing all offense, all the time. So they've tried adjusting. That didn't work under coach Bruce Boudreau and it cost him his job.

In came Dale Hunter along with a pledge to play more responsible defensive hockey. In some ways the Caps have done that. In the seven games they've won during this recent 10-game stretch, they’ve surrendered only nine goals. In the three losses, however, they gave up 13. Like so much about this team at this moment, the results are mixed.

The Caps are now 12-9-1 under Hunter, exactly what they were under Boudreau when he was fired in late November, so just how much they have rehabilitated their season with the former NHL antagonist as coach remains an open question -- especially when you look at the teams they've knocked off lately. That list includes the Hurricanes, Lightning, injury decimated Penguins, Flames, Blue Jackets and Sabres. They did beat the Rangers, however, and not too many teams have done that recently. Good for Washington that they won these games, but no one can say this was a killer portion of their schedule. Their losses came to the Kings and Sharks, and after how poorly they played against the Islanders, Hunter joined the naysayers in assessing his team.

“Just mistakes," he said (video). "And it’s costing us. They’re mistakes, people are getting beat — and the video don’t lie who gets beat or not,” Hunter said. “They’ll know their mistakes and giveaways. Two power-play goals where we didn’t get back to the net...We give 'em the goals the goals that they got.”

It's possible that some of those penalty killing problems might be on Hunter, whose system of coverage in the defensive zone seems to differ from what you normally see in the NHL these days. Most teams will collapse four players around the goal, be reluctant to break their formation, and make it hard to get shots through. But Hunter has the Caps being more aggressive, more spread out, while trying to force mistakes. It can work, but the downside is that when the opposition heads to the net, there can be less defensive coverage than you get from collapsing teams.

You can see that on the first period goal by John Tavares that proved to be the game-winner:

[vodpod id=Video.15973252&w=425&h=350&]

It happened on the power play goal in the third by P.A. Parenteau as well (video), the Isles drawing the Caps' penalty killers out high and exploiting their movement by getting the puck down low.

But this isn't all that ails the Caps. Let's take a look in the team clinic, where Mike Green resides. Washington's most talented defenseman has played only 10 games this season and is set to undergo abdominal surgery for a sports hernia. He'll miss 4-6 weeks. He's also had shoulder, knee, hip and head injuries during the last two seasons, playing in only 12 of the Capitals’ last 72 games dating to Feb. 8, 2011. Defenseman Dennis Wideman, who was surprisingly (even to him) selected to play in the All-Star Game, has taken Green’s role of producing points from the blue line and playing big minutes. Imagine how much stronger Washington would be with both guys in the lineup.

Backstrom's absence is equally crippling, although he may be back by the end of the month. But let's look at the forward lines the Caps have assembled lately:

Alex Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson, Alex Semin

Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer

Jason Chimera, Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward

Matt Hendricks, Cody Eakin, Jay Beagle

With Backstrom missing, Johansson, Laich and Halpern each have had to move up one spot, and the Caps' depth chart looks like one line of top six forwards and three lines of bottom six forwards. Strangely, Laich — a leader on the ice and in the room, whose two-way play was lauded by observers at the outset of the season — has been unable to plug the gap. In fact, since Dec. 13, he has only one goal and three assists in 15 games, and did not register a point in 13 of them.

In the end, it comes down to Alex Ovechkin, as it always does with Washington. As he goes, so goes this team. He looked somewhat lost at times without Backstrom out there with him on Tuesday, but he's also looked lost at times this season with him. He's doing a little better under Hunter than under Boudreau, but not much better and not enough to say he's back to being the Ovie of old or propelling the Caps to once again being a dominant club.

Ovechkin's 18 goals and 17 assists put him on pace for a 34-32-66 campaign, which is good for some players, but not for him. He has 10 goals, eight assists in the 22 games since Hunter took over. He’s in the plus department for those 22 games, however, and that’s better than the minus-7 he was under Boudreau. He’s playing over two minutes less per game this season than last, and is no longer overstaying his shifts under Hunter. But his crash-bang style, his joie de vivre, seem diminished.

So do the Caps. No team was more fun to watch grow in the post-lockout NHL, as it played racehorse hockey and challenged the rest of the league to keep up. But the Caps couldn't make the most of what they had. We understand -- and were not surprised -- that their defensive deficiencies did them in, but the consequence of trying to change is that the game's most entertaining team has ceased being entertaining. Now it appears to be turning into another safety first, vanilla bunch. Too bad no one in the organization could figure out a way for the Caps to be both responsible and breathtaking. Some great NHL teams have succeeded doing that in the past, but the Caps don't seem destined to be one of them.

Maybe that's why their fans were quick to boo on Tuesday night. So accustomed have they become to not merely winning, but winning with flair, that perhaps these more pedestrian victories their team had picked up while playing Dale Hunter hockey didn't feel like victories at all.

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