With expectations for the Caps high as usual, all eyes are on Alex Ovechkin. (Warren Wimmer/Icon SMI)
By Stu Hackel
The NHL preseason ended Sunday for teams in North America (the four clubs opening in Europe -- Kings, Ducks, Rangers and Sabres -- each have a game left to play over there) and things will get going for real on Thursday. The Blackhawks-Capitals tilt on Sunday, a 4-1 Caps victory that was closer than the score indicated, gave us a chance to see two clubs who some believe could meet in the Stanley Cup Final, and it wasn't bad entertainment for a preseason game at all.
But Caps coach Bruce Boudreau wasn't happy with the way his team played or the results of their warm-up games, in which Washington went 3-3-1. “We didn’t play like Stanley Cup champions all preseason,” he said (video) -- a rather strange statement about a team that has won only two playoff series during his four-year tenure -- and he called the Caps' performance on Sunday "sloppy."
With that, Boudreau seems to have abandoned his jolly round fellow persona of seasons' past. "If there is one thing we have come to know about Bruce Boudreau, it’s that he doesn’t sugar-coat anything," wrote Chuck Gormley on CSNWashington.com, who just moved south to DC after a number of years covering the Flyers. He'll get to watch Boudreau more closely during a season in which the coach's job could be jeopardized if the expectations of fans and those above him aren't met.
Expectations around the Caps have been high for a few seasons. They tried outscoring all their opponents and that didn't work. They tried to tighten up last season and that didn't work. Some day -- maybe even some day next June -- they might hit on the right balance, but so far the weight of expectations has crushed the Capitals every spring.
Boudreau has some justification for being unhappy with his club's play on Sunday night. Chicago was without many core players: Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Dave Bolland and the injured Patrick Sharp. The Caps, meanwhile, had most of their regular team dressed. But this game's outcome wasn't clear until the late stages.
The plotline, for what it's worth as a preseason encounter, really boiled down to the Hawks getting into penalty trouble and allowing Washington to dominate most of the first half of the game. When they finally got moving, the Blackhawks played well, but goalie Michal Neuvirth held firm. Chicago ran into more penalty trouble in the third period and the Caps took advantage to put the game out of reach. Mike Green, who is coming off an injury-filled and inconsistent season, looked very good with the puck all night, setting up Mathieu Perreault's first goal with a big shot (video) and scoring on this nice little backhand drag move, changing the angle of his shot for the tally that made it 3-1.
Brooks Laich, one of the NHLs most underrated players, also played a strong game, scoring on this wrister in the first, after playing give-and-go with Joel Ward:
Ward, who had a strong playoffs with Nashville last spring, is one of the new Caps who were brought to improve the team's character. Both the Caps and Hawks went out early in the postseason, and during the summer both teams made notable changes to their rosters to address what they thought was missing. Both needed depth and toughness, but the Caps also felt they had to add character, so perhaps it's no surprise that they acquired one of the players the Hawks had to surrender, Troy Brouwer, who was in Washington's lineup last night.
While the character guys will be important, however, the Caps are still going to rise and fall on the basis of their star players, and especially their top forwards. On Sunday night, the line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin was only good in spots. Considering the diminished lineup they were facing, not skating against Keith, Seabrook or Toews, you expected this trio to buzz all over the Chicago zone. It didn't happen.
All three Caps were something of a disappointment last season. Backstrom vanished for long stretches. Semin's play and demeanor has long had Caps fans not only wanting him traded, but willing to drive him to the airport. But it's Ovechkin, still the game's most exciting player, whose drop-off in goals (and to a lesser extent, physicality and creative energy) remains the most worrisome case for this club.
“I think he did better than he did last year,” Boudreau said Sunday, assessing Ovechkin's preseason. “He’s in better shape, he’s working harder and he’s more consistent. He played more games, so he’s more game-ready. He wasn’t averaging two goals a game or anything. But that wasn’t the concern. It was more getting game-ready and doing the right things, changing [lines] at the right times and not getting into bad habits. I thought he did a lot better job with that.”
After three consecutive seasons of over 50 goals and a five-year career in which his low point was 46, Ovie fell to 32 in 2010-11. He went long stretches without scoring -- five games in October, nine in December, and only two goals in a nine-game run to start January -- and just didn't seem Ovie-like. He said all the right things -- how all he cared about was winning, not scoring -- but if he doesn't score, the Caps' chances of winning decrease. His offseason was filled with pledges that he'd be even more committed amidst concern that a video on the Caps website made it seem as if he was auditioning for the Michelin Man, giving six-pack abs a whole new meaning. There were concerns last season, too, that he was carrying too much weight.
"My shape is 100 percent right now," Ovechkin told Gormley in a new interview for CSNWashington. "This year I changed a lot. I changed my workout stuff, I changed my mentality. I know if I can do that, this team can do it this year. I talked to lots of guys and this is a huge opportunity for us to build a team that can win the Cup this season."
There are those expectations again.
Well, it's a bit silly to be overly concerned about one meaningless preseason game in which the players just tried not to get hurt, although Green did take a shot off the hand and Semin got clipped by an elbow from Hawks rookie Peter LeBlanc, which sent him spiraling to the ice (video) and earned LeBlanc a match penalty. It doesn't appear on the replay as if contact was made with Semin's head; he came back out for the power play. We'll see if Hockey Ops sees it that way or whether LeBlanc's extended elbow, contact or not, allows him to join the list of the suspended.
Regardless, the calendar page just turned to October. Let's wait a bit to see how the Caps fare and how sharp Ovie looks as we move a bit further away from the autumnal equinox.