41 down, 41 to go. The Capitals 2011-12 season has been at times a callback to the dominance of recent years and at other times a farce nearing the woeful Capitals of the late 1970s. The result? A statistically average club that can’t seem to decide which way it’s trending from one week to the next.
We’ve had a six-goal loss, a six-goal win, and a coaching change. To me, that sums to it up better than any specific analysis, but here’s some of that anyway.
Love In A Phone Booth
It doesn’t take Neil Greenberg to realize that the Caps are great at home (73.8% of possible points collected) and a trainwreck on the road (37.5%). In the second half, the Caps have 21 road games on the slate, 12 of which I’d deem as “tough” opponents at this juncture and 9 I’d call “teams the Caps should beat.” If the team keeps playing lights-out at Verizon and crappy on the road, they will make the playoffs. If they can even things out a bit, they will still challenge Florida for the all-important (for playoff seeding) division crown.
The Second Annual “What’s Wrong With Ovi” Discussion
Alex Ovechkin spent the first five seasons of his career scoring a very quick 269 goals. A lot of these goals were scored in one of five or so methods that teams finally became wise to during last year’s disappointing 32-goal campaign. Ovechkin hasn’t picked up his numbers by much (my guess is he finishes at 37), but for the first time in a while, we’ve started to see a few “Vintage Ovi” moments creep back onto the scoresheet. My theory is as follows. When you are scoring 50-plus goals a season, you’re not really questioning your methods too much. Why would you? Only when faced with the fact that he has more of his shots blocked than any sniper in the league and is neutralized very early in his trademark burst up the left wing boards has Ovechkin adapted. The process is obviously taking sometime. When the goal drought struck last year, Ovechkin was used less on the point on the powerplay and also spent a lot of time in front of the net whacking away at pads for goals. This season, he’s been sneaking in late in the play behind the forecheck, making the extra pass, and seeing more angles than before. And, surprise, when you try a variety of new ways to skin a cat, the old methods are more effective.
The epidemic of head injuries and talking about head injuries and confusing/intertwining fighting and head injuries and overall dramatic statements about head injuries has finally touched a Capitals star in a meaningful way. Rene Bourque’s dirty elbow to Nick Backstrom’s head has thrown much into question about the Capitals’ season. The most obvious question being “what happens to the team’s production without its top playmaker?” Another question one might pose is, “why was Rene Bourque not jumped immediately upon leaving the penalty box after his two minute elbowing minor?” It’s very easy to sit in a comfy chair and dictate how and when other men should fight. Tony Gallagher found that out the hard way. Perhaps nobody on the Caps bench saw it clearly. After all, Backstrom did finish the game. There are certainly teammates of Backstrom’s capable of equating justice. It’s not like Matt Hendricks has ever said “no” to a fight. Perhaps it’s some form of solace that Bourque was traded to Montreal today, and will face Backstrom’s teammates on Wednesday. Marcus Johansson will need to continue to step up in Backstrom’s absence, and the Capitals will have to take every precaution with their young star center.
Bought And Sold
Not much to argue with on the Caps offseason yet, is there? Goaltender Tomas Vokoun started off slow, but has come on of late and at such a bargain, is already outperforming his contract relative to a top goaltender’s salary. While Colorado refuses to inflate the value of the 2012 1st round pick they surrendered for Semyon Varlamov, it seems that general manager George McPhee sold high at the appropriate time for Varlamov. Vokoun’s numbers are distinctly better than Varly’s, and at a cap hit of $1.5M versus $2.8M, who can argue? Speaking of 1st rounders, the pick that the Caps traded for Troy Brouwer has been looking like an extremely productive move. Brouwer brings a great mix of grit and scoring touch (4 game-winning goals), and has filled a variety of roles from the top line, to the power play to killing penalties. Hey, speaking of all that stuff, bringing back Brooks Laich may have been costly, but the Capitals best and most consistent forward line this season has been Laich flanked by Jason Chimera and free agent acquisition Joel Ward. Last but not least, your second 2011-12 Capitals NHL All-Star: Dennis Wideman. In the gaping hole left by Mike Green’s absence, Wideman has stepped in to become the team’s resident defensive puck-mover and sharpshooter.
If the Capitals were an extremely young team like the Avalanche, I wouldn’t just like to have Dale Hunter as head coach, I’d insist on it. If they were a group of almost exclusively wily vets like Detroit, I’d probably be more indifferent about the change. The Caps are right in the middle in terms of age and personality. It’s too soon to say much definitive about whether firing Bruce Boudreau and hiring Hunter was the “right move.” It was probably the “necessary” move.
If the playoffs began today, Washington would (barely) be invited. Everything we know about this era of Capitals hockey tells us they’ll be far from the bubble come springtime. They don’t seem like a fundamentally “broken” team, but they’re certainly not beyond catastrophe. My money would be on something better than an 8th seed, but the question that eats at the back of my mind is simple:
Did we just watch the better of the two halves of the 2011-12 Capitals season? I’m afraid of the answer.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com