A game starting out poorly for the Capitals is nothing new this season. The difference from seasons past is that the Caps have been able to take a measured, disciplined reaction to poor starts, like the goal Sean Bergenheim scored 2 minutes into Game 1.
The response was indeed good solid hockey, at least until the second Tampa goal 36 minutes into the game, a Steve Downie deflection off of Scott Hannan and over Michal Neuvirth’s shoulder. From that moment on, with the game at 2-2, well, Bruce Boudreau said it best:
“This wasn’t the way we play. It was reverting back to an older day.” To survive this season, Washington will have to maintain confidence in its style, forget the “older days,” and at the same time be willing to adjust to a difficult opponent. While that sounds like a contradiction…okay it’s a complete contradiction. Hey, if coaching hockey were simple, everyone would do it.
I am confident in the team’s ability to notice this and fix it. The players all seemed to get it in the postgame interview, acknowledging that a playoff game against Stamkos and Company is no place to revert to arcade-style chance-for-chance hockey. As much as he puts into every shift, Alex Ovechkin is in part to blame for the frantic sense of trying to make scoring opportunities out of bad situations. At this point in his career, the attempt-to-dangle-between-two-defenders move while coming up the wing is not exactly a novel idea. People see it coming, and they more often than not have spoiled the Great Eight’s opportunities when he goes that route. Sure, he’s scored some memorable goals that way, but spring hockey is not about making SportsCenter. In all of the goals Ovi has tallied this postseason, it’s been 100% right-place-right-time. They’re not things of beauty, but they’re what the team needs from everyone, even Ovechkin and Semin. No doubt Mike Knuble’s willingness to embody that spirit has been missed in his absence.
Moving to goaltending, if things go poorly in Game 2, I am not so confident that Michal Neuvirth won’t be the unfortunate scapegoat. Sure, Neuvy wasn’t at his best last night, but a goal change would be a move designed to spark the team into action more than a referendum on his play. If you recall, Semyon Varlamov got his first playoff start in the reverse situation. It’s a simple move, and a decent short-term gambit for igniting his team, but I personally hope Boudreau sticks with Neuvy and schools his team away from what he referred to as “river hockey” (which sounds like something ill-fated that would’ve occurred in the 1840s).
One element of the ’09-’10 Caps that seemingly has not changed at all is the frustrating power play. Tampa’s penalty kill has been lights-out in its eight playoff games, which is not coincidentally the same way I would describe the Caps’ power play: a complete power outage. Last night was another dud, with five PP opportunities, three of which came in crucial situations, that left Verizon Center hollow and grumbly. The team can score, we see it night in and night out on even strength. I have long defended Coach Boudreau, pointing out that he doesn’t exactly put on sweater and cycle the puck around and attempt to score. I also liked to point out the obvious refrain that echos George McPhee’s comment about luminary hockey analysts The Junkies: “If they knew hockey, they’d be in hockey.” Alright George and Bruce, I don’t know hockey as well as you, that is for certain. I do however, notice that your team spends much of its man advantage making long passes around the point area, and creates very few, if any, odd-man opportunities that don’t involve an Ovechkin or Green blast from the point that either results in a blocked shot or a clearance to the other end of the ice. I’m not a great enough hockey mind to devise and implement a new powerplay strategy (although I could’ve come up with “throw 5 forwards out there,” which is what the team has tried of late), but that is after all what Bruce is paid to do.
So, the Capitals, who sat pretty for six days waiting for an opponent, have now surrendered the first sheet of home ice to a Bolts club. It’s going to be tricky navigating out of the 0-1 hole, needing a commitment to what got them the #1 seed and some serious innovation when it comes to the 5-on-4 aspect of their game. To borrow some memorable words from the beltway: “Stay the course,” boys.