After just eight games, some truths about Washington’s hockey team emerge
All good things have to come to an end, and that’s exactly what happened last night in Edmonton as the Washington Capitals saw their season-opening seven-game win streak snapped by the Edmonton Oilers thanks to a 2-1 loss on enemy ice. A few weeks back, I cautioned everyone that worrying too much about how the Caps played during the regular season was something of a fool’s errand, as all that really matters at this point is whether that success in the regular season can be replicated in the playoffs.
Still, after just eight games, there are a number of patterns that we can already identify:
- It’s not all on the “young guns” anymore: As Katie Carrerra noted earlier this week in The Washington Post, Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau is going out of his way to parcel out ice time far more evenly than he had in the past. Instead of asking his big four of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green to carry out-sized loads, Boudreau is doing his best to consistently roll four lines of forwards and four defensive pairings — a move that helps keep legs fresh in the third period now, while also avoiding the sort of wear and tear that can build up around playoff time.
- General Manager George McPhee’s plan is coming together: While every NHL coach would like to roll four lines of forwards and defensive pairings, the fact is most can’t because they don’t have nearly enough talent on the roster. But thanks to the acquisition of Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern and Roman Hamrlik in the offseason, the Caps finally have more than enough quality personnel to pull it off. Toss in the further development of forwards Marcus Johansson and Mattieu Perrault, and it’s easy to see why 14 of the 23 players who have appeared in a Caps uniform this season have managed to score a goal. A lot of the credit here has to go to the team’s shutdown line centered by Brooks Laich with Ward and Jason Chimera on the wings, a trio that’s combined for seven goals and 13 points thus far.
- This is Tomas Vokoun’s team: The last time we checked in with the Caps after their second game of the season, I wrote that it was likely that Boudreau would go with Michal Neuvirth in goal after Vokoun laid an egg in the home opener against Tampa Bay. Unfortunately for Neuvirth, he picked the wrong time to suffer an injury, and Vokoun has made the most of the opportunity, winning five straight before suffering his first loss last night. Better still, Vokoun has come up with a number of highlight-reel saves in critical situations, just the sort of performance the team has been lacking in recent years.
- The power play is off the milk carton: One of the more disappointing parts of last season was the performance of the team’s power play. What was once one of the league’s best units with the extra man looked positively pedestrian last season, clocking in at 16th overall. That’s all turned around this year, with the team cashing in on power plays more than 25% of the time, good enough for 3rd place overall in the league. The big change: moving Ovechkin off of the point and moving him to the half-boards, a spot where he is far more dangerous.
- The Screen: In past seasons, the Caps talked a lot about parking themselves in front of the net and paying a price, but I’ll be damned if I saw it too often. But with the addition of Brouwer and Ward, there’s clearly a far more solid commitment to making the enemy goalie’s life more miserable. Watch for the Caps to start taking some penalties for goalie interference as the season wears on. For the most part, I’m guessing the penalties will be worth the price.
Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.