As a Capitals fan I knew this was going to be an epic series. If you go back to the early days of the Caps the Isles were a fierce Patrick Division rival who we faced down and lost to an awful lot in the playoffs.
In my years as a fan first the Penguins and then more recently the Rangers have been a source of impending heartbreak. But, truth be told, despite the Isles less than winning ways over the last few decades there were always older fans around who lamented those early Isles losses by the Caps franchise.
You knew there was a big story to be had here. There was the fact that the last time these two teams met was 22 years ago in the playoffs, representing the last playoff series win for the Islanders. You knew there was bad blood between the teams with everything from the triple OT Easter Epic to the unfortunately run in between Hunter & Turgeon. You knew there was going to be amplified emotion from the Isles and their fans because of the tearing down of the old arena. And, of course the budding NHL superstar rivalry between Tavares and Ovechkin (you know, because everyone who isn’t a goalie is a rival to Ovechkin in the media’s mind).
I am a fan of hockey first and foremost. I follow several Capitals blogs and I spend a lot of time lurking around the rest of the SBNation blogs as well as occassionally in the comments on places like NHL.com and Yahoo.
My research into the teams leading up to this opening round series led me to a fairly popular Isles Blog. Like many sports blogs I visit, for the most part, the moderators are pretty level headed, analytical, intellectual and mostly on point with the predictable level of bias. I wasn’t as impressed with it as say, Japers Rink, but I really did like the presentation and much of the early level of discussion about the Isles franchise early on. Surprisingly, I looked forward to my several times a week trips over.
That was until the series was about two games old, then some of the shit in the comments was beyond disgusting. Yeah there are some random trolls, caps fans and otherwise, who are instigating some of the vitriol and assinity but even independent of that I was overwhelmed with the level of garbage coming out of so many posters mouths. It was embarrassing as a fan of hockey, as a New Yorker and as a human being that the vile that was being spewed was even being allowed (no offense to the moderators, they did a great job trying to reign it in, but by fellow readers who egged it on rather than tamping it down themselves).
So, anyway, when I could get past some of the horrid remarks I noticed a few theme popping up among the Isles fans and it got me thinking. Going into this series there was a lot of talk about the Isles being fast. Not just fast, but wiley quick, with lots of hockey IQ and finesse, where they could maneuver on the fly and outgun in the ability to use different looks in their top six and roll four lines deep that included one of the more dynamic fourth lines. How they had some great use of the transition play and quick feeds off the D to springboard their forwards.
Reminded me a lot, actually, of the old Caps Team from the Bruce Boudreau President’s Trophy years in the late aughts … Albeit lacking that special something the Caps had back then to utterly dominate the league on offense during the regular season, this young Isles franchise are the closest to that former Capitals young guns identity right now in the East. While everyone else has gone a different direction trying to emulate the build of recently Cup winners, like say Chicago or LA, the Isles have stuck to their own as a finesse team that thrives on offense first. There aren’t many teams that are doing it right now and the biggest proponent of the style is the Ducks out West under, of course, the direction of former Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau.
I bring this up for a reason. We all know how the Caps faired with that type of lineup in the playoffs … they lost.
There are always lots of reasons that are thrown around in post-mortem. The biggest assumption is always their superstar laden offense of Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom & Green weren’t gamers, weren’t clutch and were too easily shut down in the playoffs. While, it’s obvious that Ovechkin’s 1.05 Points Per Game wasn’t the problem, it is true that Semin, Backstrom & Green have less than stellar playoff numbers. Part of that is that they disappeared because the style of hockey necessary to win in the playoffs was different than the kind of game they’d been so adept at through the regular seasons. The reason why their styles didn’t carry over was as much their own issues as players as it was about the franchise makeup at the time, from General Management to Coaching to on ice personnel makeup.
The team lacked a consistent second line center for many of those years as well as for a large portion a 1RW counterbalance for the top line. They lacked defensive depth, particularly a quality stay-at-home type to anchor the top four. The lacked a heavy checking line and generally the ability to play a physical game as a team up and down the roster. They lacked experienced longer term veterans, especially those with Cup winning experience to balance out the emotion in the locker room. They lacked that top-tier goalie, and thus were dependent on the streak of their homemade goalie carousel. They believed the could simply score at will and when it didn’t happen they lacked the collective understanding of playoff hockey to adjust, and not just in coaching but as players too.
The core of the team essentially remained the same year after year despite attempts at adjusting. Some guys left, some were brought in, but essentially the pieces were fairly interchangable and didn’t address the underlying roster problems. Boudreau tried to make an offensive juggernaut play defense and it didn’t work because the complexion of the team wasn’t designed as such. They brought in Hunter who’s speciality is grinding defensive play and again they lacked the personnel to execute. They brought in Oates who was a tactician but still lacked depth and defensively responsible players and lost again.
Then, the fired the GM and brought in one with a different franchise building philosophy. They fired the inexperienced coaches and brought in a 15 year veteran with a 200-foot game methodology. They invested in personnel on the ice that addressed the biggest concerns.
I’m not insinuating this Caps team is by any means perfect. It’s not.
Nor do I believe this team, as is this year, is destined for a Cup. It’s probably not.
But, I think contextually, the things that changed in the team this year compared to who they’ve been over the last decade are the difference so far in this series The Caps, in many ways, are playing their former selves in the Isles.
I bring this up because reading the Isles board they are obviously lacking the Cardiac Capitals history, and our naturally despondent attitude, where even we win, we’re still down on ourselves. It’s one thing to not have experienced heartbreak in a generation, it’s quite another when pretty much every year other than the short rebuilding in the mid-aughts was pretty much just the weight of playoff level heartbreak. Going into the series there was a reservation of if we could win and playing game seven the aire of inevitability that despite winning the Corsi battle, the physical battle and pretty much the emotional battle on the ice that we were one bad bounce away from being bounced, yet again. The collective breath holding of a penalty in the waining minutes seemed to all but ensure an overtime and of course, heartbreak loss.
It didn’t materialize. I don’t know what the response was on other Caps boards but the ones I frequent were primarily a gasp of relief and of course a healthy does of skeptical criticism on how we go there.
The overwhelming consensus by the Isles fans, who thankfully had toned down the vitrol after their own heartbreak, was:
a) the Caps team the Isles are struggling against is a carbon copy of the former Caps teams that coughed up wins over the last decade – categorizing the Caps as dirty, as having the league on our side and so on.
b) that the failures of the Isles are because Cappy is the problem as a Coach and not that the franchise design as a whole is.
For point A. I believe that the Caps are hardly a shadow of their former selves this season. While a well seasoned Caps fan can still point out parallels much of the narrative is lost in the actual facts.
While for point B. I believe Cappy to be a good coach, otherwise, the Isles wouldn’t be where they are. Most of the complaints lodged are pretty stereotypical and for those I’ll defend him. I have no idea though if he’s necessarily the right coach for the franchise though in the future.
Isles fans say the Caps are a dirty team. Maybe we are, probably we’re not. This is something new for us though. We were the finesse team in the past and lacked both the personnel and the playoff identity to be physical with anyone, forget about being called a bully. Although we collectively began hitting under Hunter’s defensive system during the playoffs but it was hardly a counter-balance to what we experienced by our opponents and it didn’t translate into the seasons under Oates.
In the past, apart from some exuberant Ovi moments, we’re usually the team complaining everyone else is dirty. For years, I remember complaining myself and reading on our boards the oh, woe is me lines about how our guys were being run over.
The Isles are the Caps of yesterday in that regard. They’re smaller in stature (both average height and weight) and play a much more finesse, much less physical contact style of hockey. The players and the fans aren’t used to nearly as much contact in general, such as during the regular season, and are mostly unfamiliar with how cranked up it becomes in the playoffs. Guys finish checks much harder with much greater follow through once the regular season ends and it’s all on the line. A cursory look to teams like the Kings, Bruins, Rangers or Blackhawks and you see that heavier style of play as a key component to their success.
We complained, valid or not that other teams were taking runs at our guys (especially Mike Green) and liberties with our goalies. You don’t hear that much chirping from Caps fans this year about it though. We believe, and rightly so, that up and down the lineup we can play a physical game. Guys are taking the body, they are finishing checks, they are being aggressive unlike anything we’ve seen in at least two decades. The checking and the all around physicality of the Caps is wearing down the Isles and frustrating the heck of them them and their fans. That frustration comes from being too small, from not being used to have to play a physical game, in not having playoff experience to know that they playoffs are indeed this physical in general, etc.
The Isles, although they were credited with a lot of hits during the season and have a few bigger guys, aren’t naturally a physical team. The hits where padded specifically through their extended use of their forth line, the so called best forth line in hockey, who got a lot more playing time than even most designed third line checking lines normally would. The top of their lineup and the depth of their defense though aren’t thumpers and it shows even in this series on who is doling out the hits and the quality of the hits themselves.
The Caps for many, many years, weren’t a physical team. Yes, we had Ovechkin who can throw the body like no power forward in the league has done in ages, but as a whole, as a team, the only players we struck fear into were pee wee leaguers before this season. Then, between a combination of Trotz’s desire to play a more physical game and changes in the personnel we finally could. Gone was Big John Ernskine timidness standing up at the blue line and the fragility of Mike Green’s groin, enter Orpik and an age of blue line physicality where he and Carlson, Alzer and Nisky all are not afraid to go for the body. Even Green under less pressure with heavy minutes is throwing better quality checks now. Gone was Ovechkin being the sole checking forward and enter a new improved middle six mentality of following through led by Ward who earned himself top line minutes in the old Mike Knuble spot and our fiesty sophomore Tom Wilson who occasionally takes 1RW duty providing that same power grit up top as well. But it’s the improved physical nature of vets like Brower and Chimmer along with a healthy Laich (and for most of the season Fehr) as well as the inclusion of Latta and GlenX in the lineup. Even the development of our smaller forwards like Mojo and Kuzy to learn the physical side of the game and be responsible for their contributions to it helped. No one is asking Mojo to level guys any more than we want Backstrom doing it, but it’s moreso putting physical pressure on overall, working the forecheck, working the boards, being aggressive with their bodies.
I understand how for a team and fans who aren’t used to anyone wanting to push them around that suddenly facing down physical play gets intimidating quickly. I get it, but take it from a Caps fan who was on the receiving end of that style for many, many seasons, if you want to succeed in the playoffs you’re going to have to get used to it. the Caps are going to get it given back to themselves pretty hard facing a gritty Rangers lineup that includes our nemesis’ of Girardi & McDonaugh.
I think it’s one of the biggest points to make. It means in the coming seasons to learn how to play “heavier” as part of the rounding out of the Isles game. It could mean philosophically moving from simply being a run-and-gun offense driven team to being something more two-way responsible. It could mean teaching guys how to be more physically aggressive as part of the team identity beyond relying on the forth line as checkers. It could mean going out and getting some different thumpers to round out the lineup. It could even be something else entirely.
The Caps checking, for the first time since the 1980s/early 90s with Langway, Stevens, Hatcher, Hunter, Konowalchuck, Nikolishin, Iafrate, etc., actually felt deliberate and unforced and balanced through the entire lineup, beginning with Ovi and Ward on the first forward line and running clear back through the last defensive pairing with Gleason’s thuds. It was a nice return to the Caps roots of earlier franchise success along with a nice change of pace from the high event hockey the Caps were running around for nearly the last decade.
But, please, Isles don’t try and turn it on now, it won’t work with that roster, as evidenced by game five and to a lesser degree in game seven. The Isles matched nearly hit-for-hit with the Caps but the difference was the Isles checks felt like guys literally running around checking anything not wearing the blue-and-orange sweaters with no rhyme or reason. And, they were forced to run their forth line out WAY too much in order to check that much. If your forth line is out there taking bodies that means JT and the rest of the snipers are not out there trying to score.
Nearly every play that’s come up as questionable on the Caps hitting someone can easily be countered with an Isles move that was just as questionable (and after some of the recklessness at the end of the last three games, that might even be out-of-wack). Caps hit hard, they check through you, and, they also have nearly 15 lbs of weight and an inch of height on a team average over the Isles. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is.
In a microcasm, Willy is 6’4″ 210 lbs and has decent speed for a 20 year old aspiring power forward. Viz is only 5’11” and 185 lbs of a 37 year old vet that has a history of injury. Even in a best case scenario that’s a completely uneven matchup. Viz knows there are younger, bigger, healthier forwards he’s going to have to match up to every night when he gets on the ice. He and the coaches take that chance that the matchup won’t work to his favor every single time he goes out for a shift. It has caught up to him several times in the past two seasons and it did yet again the other night.
If the hit really were dirty the league would have done something about it. They would love nothing more than to send a message to the players while not actually removing a super start from the ice (aka the lack of the Subban suspension for his slash), making Willy the exact type of player to send that message with. They didn’t. You can debate the hit itself all you want and I’m more than willing to, I thought it was questionable for a number of reasons but not deserving of a suspension, or depending on your point of view even the initial two minutes but focusing on that while ignoring the greater context of the checks and physical play overall during the series actually misses the point.
The fact is size makes a difference and in nearly every “dirty” hit the Isles have pointed out so far has the common overriding factor. Bigger, taller, stronger guys skating to finish checks and to follow through were hitting smaller, shorter guys who were more or less ill prepared to absorb such a hit while involved in the general play of the game. No where in the rule book is there anything about checking different depending on the size or skill of the target, and the Caps by way of their size simply are hitting everyone equally but those blows look and feel more impactful on the substancial number of smaller guys the Isles currently have. Again, go back a few years and you’ll find the Caps dealing with a similar problem overcoming these types of mismatches.
Coaching versus Personnel
And then there’s it’s all Cappys fault. As if it’s all a coaches problem alone. I find this hard to believe only because of the reasonable success Cappy seems to have had with most of these players thus far.
No, to me it’s because the team, as it exists under Garth Snow’s watch, isn’t quite there personnel wise yet. That’s no disrespect to either Snow or the franchise as a whole, as it’s a good, young group of players with a huge upside to their future.
There’s a lot of complaining about the makeup of the lines and defensive pairings, how the players are deployed and specifically, playing veterans over youth.
First and foremost, there are very, very few fans who aren’t in a rush to blame the coach for shortcomings in execution. It’s so common it boarders on cliche, but the truth is if any of us couch coaches really were as smart as we would like to assume we are then we would have the million dollar coaching job and not be typing on a message board. We only see what the television cameras show us during the games and not everything else that goes into making on-ice decisions.
Furtherore, As a Caps fan, I get it. Totally. You think you’ve had coaches making bone-headed personnel decisions? Try going back and reading the Caps boards about the Hunter and Oates experiments. Some of us are STILL shaking our heads in confused disgust over them.
What Cappy has done with the Isles youth this year though isn’t uncommon at all. Capitals fans are not unknown to complain about Trotz in the same way. Honestly, Cappy, and Trotz, aren’t the only coaches that function that way. Torts did. Iron Mike did. Blysma did. Therien does it. Babcock does it. Etc. And, they all won. So, it’s hard to argue with coaches decisions not being a coach myself.
And, for example, Trotz has done it to the Caps all season. We have Kuzy, Burt, Latta and Shilling as our big four rookies this year. That’s one helluva rookie class talent wise. Add in Willy and Carrick as second years. And, our backup-to-the-backup 20 year old goalie extraordinaire Grabauer. You know where they spent a lot of time? With limited minutes on less than desirable assignments. In the press box. A few of them, extended shifts in Hershey. That’s what happens to young kids. There is only so much room for youth in any franchise. You have to balance playing time for development with winning now. You have to allow the vets you are paying for to earn their keep against the cap while ensuring you have a functional franchise in the future when the vets leave or retire.
Just ask the Caps about overselling their own home grown youth. They’re the only team in the last several decades to literally skate a fully home grown front five + the goalie when they skated over the course of the last two seasons and part of this one the combination of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Johannson with Carlson-Alzner and Holtby. Roll it back and you can replace Carly with Green or Mojo with Semin or Hotlby with Varly or Neuvy. They’re the only team in the last several decades I researched who had more than half the team under the age of 25 and nearly every one of those kids were developed within the Caps system. Unlike the Oilers, the Caps were able to do the heavy lifting development wise successfully and reach the playoffs 7 consecutive seasons using primarily young, franchise developed personnel. And, some of that overtly youth driven development is paying off as guys like Laich, Fehr, Ovi, Backy, Greeny, Carly, Alzner, Mojo, Beags and the Holtbeast have matured together so far.
Was our lineup always the model of actual success? Nope. That’s why we struggled in the playoffs so often. It’s part of the reason we still struggle now at times. Even with the most brilliant coach, there is only so much you can do with certain personnel combinations.
Cappy is balancing the pieces he has. It can be head scratching in the same way that Trotz would sit Burt but staple the possession black hole and constant wide-of-the-net shot of Brower to 2RW. Or drop Willy, who plays an aggressive at-the-net style in the vein of Lucic and Knuble to the forth line while using an undersized, undertalented center in Beagle who is a possession anchor on the 1RW opposite Ovi and Backy. Then again, Trotz has helped teach our young kids like Kuzy to be a center, provided Burt with the opportunity to be a three position forward, created a scoring threat out of Mojo, allowed Wilson to grow into being a power forward rather than just a knuckle dragger and gotten something out of Holtby even the most excited of us weren’t expecting. It might not always have made sense along the way over the past year but he’s doing what he can with what he has.
I get the fans think some of the kids on the Isles have stupendous talent. It’s true, they absolutely do. But, one has to seriously ask if talent alone is enough to warrant them over vets who might bring less skill but more knowledge and experience to the table. Would those kids skills really change the complexion of any of these games so far? I can tell you that the Rink guys did a great analysis of using the rookie Shilling over the lead foot skating vet of Gleason and you know what, even with all of Glea’s diffencies they couldn’t argue it making enough of an actual difference in a single game or a short series (over a season the net effects are a different story). Same with using Burt over Chimmer, Brower or GlenX. And, to whit, we have done just that, as Burt was in and GlenX out yesterday. Didn’t make a bit of difference at all having Burt in. And, had Burt been in instead of Chimmer or Brower that’s several goals from yesterday that might not have materialized the same way ,if at all. As bad as those two can be sometimes they managed to perform while the rookie didn’t end up on the score sheet and played mostly sheltered minutes.
Although JT seemed to have blossomed overnight for the Isles (and especially, again, considering the Oilers who have similar talent and can’t seem to do anything with it) but for the most part a lot of the young guys are going to take time to develop and throwing them to the fire might not result in the development they, or fans, actually deserve.
There’s no way the silver arrow is swapping out as many guys as are being advocated for with youth will work, especially considering this next part…
There’s a lot of complaining about the decimated D as well. I can absolutely understand that. After the top pairing of Leddy-Boychuck there’s nothing left back there except inexperienced kids. Sounds a lot like former Caps D pairings only we never had anything close to the Isles current top for skill. That’s because for the Isles, from what I can see, all the focus on the team the last few years was in building the forwards out. It was how the Isles drafted, how they developed, how they handled free agency and how they traded. Getting their top two this season was the first time I can remember since this rebuild began they focused at all on D.
The Caps spent the last five years or so drafting and developing guys, that’s where Alzner and Carlson came from (and Greeny before them, though, he’s in a conversation all his own) and it’s why we have Shilling, Carrick, Wey and Orlov waiting in the wings. It’s also why the Orpik-Nisky moves in the off season had that much greater an impact than the Leedy-Boychuck ones did. the Caps were already four deep, just the wrong four. Adding two more gave us six deep and a developmental spot was pushed down for a seventh guy. The Caps for the first time in years were able to add balance to the D-corp, unlike the Isles who are still trying to actually fill theirs.
Even with the entire Isles D healthy they were still only four deep, at best, at any given time and trying to fill holes in the back two. D-men get injured all the time. The Caps know this (listing off injuries to our D is futile) and found out what it’s like to not have enough talent. The Flyers experienced this. This year’s Penns team knows this all too well. And the Isles are finding out this now too.
Given some of the names that should be available this offseason as well as the development of young guys like deHaan over time, the Isles will become formidable both in skill and depth. Right now though, due to the type of forward talent the Isles possess they were able to win a lot of games with sub-par defense. Holes in the back six are more easily covered up during the regular season, especially with quality goal tending but those holes were exposed in the playoffs.
Granted, at first glance it seems like the defense overplayed during the series, which they absolutely did as a mostly five man unit. Props to them for limiting shots and scoring chances when they did to swing the Corsi pendulum away from the Caps. Specifically, great work by the Leedy-Boychuck pairing for effectively neutralizing a lot of Ovi and Backy’s magic on the ice. The heavy focus on the Caps top two opened other secondary opportunities, but it did mean those two didn’t completely run over the decimated defense.
Two-way forwards versus no-way forwards
The success of the Isles limiting the Caps attack though was in no small part because the forwards had no choice but to become a patchwork to fill in the gaps on defense. and thus it negatively impacted what the forwards had done well all season, which was play offense.
Systemically, the Isles are not built strong enough on the back end, but the bigger problem hurting them isn’t the thin D corp alone, it’s in how their top nine forwards are built.
The top nine forwards in the series shift-in and shift-out had to play two-way hockey, something many, if not most of them probably aren’t of the skill set for. After all, this is a team that featured 230 Goals Against, highest among playoff bound teams. They let up a lot of shots on goal as a team, particularly though the middle forwards and produced generally high-event hockey overall. Sure, they featured three forwards with over 20 goals and eight in total that broke double digits which is quality for a team that put up 252 goals for, tied for second in the league. How many of them though do you think of being two-way threats and performing shut down roles though?
JT is considered a quality two-way center with good responsibility in his own end. Lee hits a lot, Kulemin kind of does to. Kulemin and Nielson aren’t afraid to lay out in their own end either. But past them in the top nine it’s a mixed bag at how the guys are necessarily limiting events against.
With a thin defense and not a lot of forward depth in the middle six to rotate in to help it puts pressure on having to go with a Power-for-Power matchup of top lines. If you’re asking JT to match power-for-power always against the opposing team’s top lines you’re not providing him with the opportunity to express his magic on offense. He’s hemmed in by his defensive responsibilities to neutralize the other teams offense while generally also facing combinations that are above average in their own defensive responsibility.
And, it shows in this series. The only time JT has been free to be especially creative is when he was able to gain the mis-match in Game One facing an absolute shit-show of execution from Alzer-Nisky and the Caps rotating “third line.” The rest of the time JT was forced to face the first line and primary defensive pair of the Capitals. It’s not a good matchup as that group of five, apart from Orpik, skates very well and, apart from Backy, hits very hard. While JT’s line is able to help neuter the offense of Ovi, Backy and to a lesser degree Carlson it’s also neutering JT’s offense too. The combinations cancelled out.
Then it comes down to the back nine forwards and back four D for each team. The mismatch there occurs because the Caps back nine all play defensively too. While some Caps forwards better than others in the task, the Caps were able to generally neuter much of the Isles secondary offense by limiting scoring chances, or even the ability to move up ice apart from some odd-man rush transitions.
Meanwhile although the Caps secondary scoring struggles in general, the Isles are so weak in their middle six defensively it puts all the pressure on their back four D to stop the Caps second and third lines. Asking the middle six to step up made them be more aggressive defensively which isn’t there strength opened them up for more mistakes and limited their own ability as the middle lines to generate as much scoring as they were used to. The breakdowns then put added pressuring on the already thin defense and on Halak. While, for the most part, the Caps scoring from their bottom lines was able to be stopped, it provided opportunities for breakout successes and threw the Isles further off their rhythm. Mostly, the Caps middle lines could just slog through focused on slowing down the Isles attack, forcing faceoffs which the Caps were mostly able to dominate, forcing turnovers and generally just tire out the Islanders rather than letting them get a good transition up the ice going.
This then allowed the Caps to put together the Mojo-Kuzy-Chimmer line that could be matched to go speed-for-speed and eventually a version of that broke through for scoring. Furthermore, it also frees up the Caps D to do things like pinch on plays (resulting in Alzner’s goals), or take blasts from the point (like Carly and Green and Nisky), or springboard the forwards through the neutral zone to create rushes (you know, assuming the passes connect, which they didn’t ALL game one, ugh!).
The forth line of the Isles causes some mismatches and presented a serious problem for the Caps whenever they hit the ice with fresh legs but with the deficiencies of the middle six actually forced the forth line into minutes they otherwise would not have taken had the middle six forwards been better defensively regardless of the defensive liabilities due to injuries. While the Caps middle six or rather bottom nine were no where near perfect, most of what they were doing was slowing down the Islanders aggressive neutral zone play and in wearing the Isles speed out over time creating odd opportunities for their own secondary scoring.
If some of this sounds like a familiar refrain from the Caps past…
Everyone always pointed to Ovi as the Caps Achilles heal as a forward, but until this season the Caps both lacked the talent and the coaching for the top nine to support our D corps at all. The Caps leaned far too heavy on Laich (to the point where we injured him) and Backy and to a lesser degree Ward to do act as two-way players. Now, we have more options to the point where one could argue with have a dirth of bottom six guys designed to grind and check. It’s a change in the way Chimmer plays despite being a third liner for the Caps for some time and to a degree better responsibility by Brower and Fehr as vets as well as going out and making a deadline move for a chippy Glencross, but in the younger guys Beags, Latta and Wilson as well as even Mojo and Kuzy pitching in and the Caps turned that traditional position of weakness into something on par with at least the league average. The Caps have a long way to go before rgwt are both truly defensively responsible and able to generate enough offense to have real secondary scoring. But, you can see how playing better defense is paying off for the Caps everywhere.
As good as that Isles forth line as been at generating offense, if you’re aligning your strategy to winning on forth line output because you lack the personnel to defensively neutralize the other teams scoring threats in the middle, you’re screwed. And, that’s what’s happened.
Everyone thought the Isles speed and ability to generate deeper secondary scoring would play against the Caps very thin secondary scoring, but the Caps ability to use any line in a defensive role has really taken away a lot of space from the Isles attack. And, that wears down the Isles allowing the Caps thin secondary scoring to even exist.
Beyond the Big Gun
But, on that note too … think about this – and there might not be a right answer to it, but is the pairing of Tavares-Okposo at the same level as Ovi-Backstrom, Crosby-Malkin, Datsuk-Zetterberg, Toews-Kane, Getzalf-Perry, the Sendins, etc.? Or, is part of the missing piece some way to balance the offense around JT different than how it is right now.
Yes, I get all those teams have greater depth than their top two, but to me, I kind of look at the Isles in a situation more like what say the Flyers are struggling with in Giroux-whomever you want to put there or the Habs with Pax–whomever you want to put there. Although both teams have found a balancing point for their big gun in this case, the Flyers were generally unable to capitalize on it consistently enough as a franchise to win and the Habs for all intents-and-purposes overcame the same type of problem on the back of Carey Price.
It’s not a question of balanced scoring. The Isles have more than proven that scoring itself isn’t necessarily an issue in the regular season.
However, when your team struggles several times in a short series to adequately put sustained offensive pressure on (and thus only fires three SOG from your forwards in a game seven) it comes down to something other than a wide net of secondary scoring options. With JT effectively shut down by the Caps in a power-on-power matchup there wasn’t that other guy that could go in and make magic happen and reinvigorate things. The Caps were able to use Backy’s creativity to use the focus on Ovechkin to feed Ward with more opportunities and open up the ice in different ways in this series and the threat of separating them as was done at the end of the season only complicates team’s approach more. Okposo wasn’t able to necessarily accomplish the same thing either playing with our away from JT. Maybe Okpsos grows into that role more in time and it gives the Isles a flexibility they weren’t as able to leverage in this series?
Strategically, if there isn’t a good enough foil to your superstar then team’s will focus on really having to just shut one player down. Success dependent on one guy is a lot to ask.
Finally, there’s a contingent of fans who say the league is going to make the Caps win.
It started with the notion that the refs are somehow on our side. This is also news to us as Caps fans because we know from the past that the refs are really on no one’s side. The Caps are used to being the bad guys who the officials hate, and, to whit, so far this year, we’ve received a lot more times in the box than our opponents have, mostly on clutch and grab type calls.
But the thing is, for as many calls as have gone against us, there’s been plenty we were lucky to have as well. What’s always hurt more haven’t been the blown calls it’s been the execution. Take a bad call and run out our medicore penalty kill which in turn gives up a goal and blows a game or a series for us. Or, have a non-call give us some kind of perceived advantage only to not be able to use that momentum to our favor. Or, be fortunate enough to have a pentalty call go our way only to no convert on the ensuing power play. Hey, that last one should sound very familiar to the Isles who managed to convert exactly zero power plays in the series.
There have been several dissections of the officiating in the playoffs over the years and very few correlation actually exist that are even remotely demonstrable for a team either being targeted or forgotten by the refs. As inconsistent as the officiating might be, the adage that it all evens itself out seems to prove itself true over the seven game sample size and even moreso over the entire course of the playoffs themselves.
As for the league somehow beyond the officiating wanting the Caps to win …
Sorry, I just threw up a little bit in my mouth. Seriously? Although Caps fans refer to the red-white-and-blue, stars-and-sticks theme as the good guys I think most NHL fans will be ready to remind everyone the Caps are the bad guys. The oft-xenophobic nature of league commentary targets Russians especially but that’s been completely thrown on its head by the exuberant nature of captain caveman Alex Ovechkin who also happens to be one of the greatest generational scorers of all time. Especially when he came into the league with a natural rival, Sidney Crosby, who represents a more traditional Canadian style, on a team that has a history of traditional generational players and some impressive Stanley Cup wins. No, if anything, the narrative has always been and outside of Islander la-la land continues to be ‘selfish Russian won’t win.’
What would a Caps win produce for the league? More Ovi hatred? There’s more than enough of that going around every single time he breaks some kind of scoring record. Ovi’s going to keep breaking them and the dissenters will keep undermining it and everyone in the press will be happy because it drives clicks which drives ad revenues. Ovi supporters will continue to buy merch regardless and there’s plenty of money to be made there.
No, the league if they wanted to play up narratives aren’t at a point were ensuring Ovi, or the Caps, win a Cup as Ovi’s not as old as Borque when his finally came nor are the Caps as desperate as say what St. Louis as a franchise is having never won or Toronto is being the remaining drought member of the original six. This assumes, of course, you buy into hockey being completely rigged to begin with. Caps fans often joke about the league having the preference against us, but I don’t think most of us actually take the joking all that serious.
I personally laugh that there’s Isles fans that think the league would be against them with a) Tavares and b) the final year at the Mausoleum. The league has to love that a storied franchise is making a comeback in the last year at their infamous barn and being led by a young talented Canadian with first pick pedigree. There’s no way IF things were actually fixed by the league they would allow the Caps to win against that. Especially since it would also align a huge metropolitan rivalry in the second round as the Isles face the Rangers and potentially a great matchup after that depending on who else managed to advance.
The thing is, even if the Isles somehow got past the Caps in 7 games they would face a Rangers team that’s built to hit just as hard and to grind just as relentlessly as the Caps. And, they have the secondary scoring depth the Caps don’t necessarily have which will make the mismatches even more pronounced. Then what? Spend another whole series complaining about the exact same things just changing the opposing teams name? The league wants the Rangers to win because why, they’re an original six team and the senior NY franchise? The Rags players are all dirty as they bump and grind all series? Cappy’s refusal to play all the kids was subduing the impending miracle break out series?
No, see, all the same questions would come into play about the team makeup, their experience and so on because that’s just who the Isles are. For better or worse, like every NHL team they have weak spots and those weak spots were exploited this time. 15 teams are going home empty handed in the playoffs. For the Isles, just making it was a huge step in their maturation process. Pushing the first round to seven games a testament as to how bring the future can be.
The teams despite absolutely divergent styles of play, with absolutely different complexions in team makeup and philosophy were pretty evenly matched, not only on paper, but on the ice through most of the series.
A mistake riddled game one in the old days would have not only sunk the typical Caps fan but all things being equal the team’s chances in the series itself. That didn’t happen. The whole series was made up of primarily close games, both in the Corsi battle and in the overall war for the scoreboard. But not for the possibility of an odd bounce or soft goal (hey that tying goal in game seven comes to mind) always looming the series could have turned out much differently.
The Caps though this time were something they have not been much in the past – resilient. After a stinker in game similar to that of game one there are plenty of examples of the Caps packing it in for a series. There are plenty of times where an overtime loss, like the JT goal in game three, was the dagger for doing in the effort in a series. And, there’s always been that kind of emotional swinger like game six that could have cost the Caps everything.
To me, even when the Caps looked like they were playing a poor possession game because of strong Isles play, were lacidazical in their assignments, or were just plain unlucky the Caps still seemed like they were in control of their destiny. Rarely did a goal against, or an injury, or a scrum unravel things and even then never completely, as the Caps would just pick right back up and do what they had been learning to do all season long at some point. The lows were controlled, which is why the highs were also not these huge swings for them, rather, everything except perhaps the breakout of the rookie Kuzy in the series was more, or less, subdued from the Caps camp.
The Isles on the other hand looked like the Caps of old. They rode too high a high out of game one. They swung to a position of frustration in game two. They managed a big win in game three but never recovered from the challenges of game four. By the closing period of game five they were becoming completely unhinged taking game misconducts for their raucous behavior. The emotions of game six ran high enough for pentalties to spill past the final whistle. By the time game seven rolled around the emotional roller coaster the Isles had been on through the series probably took as much of a toll on them as all the physical play of the Caps.
And, honestly, in the past, if the other team had had a meltdown like what the Isles had, the Caps probably would have been dragged right along into the emotional boiler. Thankfully, at least for now, it didn’t. They remained mostly even keeled and workmanlike in that sense (the other mistakes and mental lapses notwithstanding, of course).
Call that the coaching philosophy of Barry Trotz who’s advocated it all season. Or the outside voices of Orpik and Nisky on the clubhouse. Or the maturity of the original young guns having been through it one too many times in the past. Or some naivety on the part of the new guns to even get caught up in it having never experienced the Cardiac Caps collapses in the past. No one knows. And, no one is quite sure how long that resiliency will remain to be sure. But, there’s no doubt, at least in us old school Caps fans minds that it played a huge role in the team overcoming the deficits they dug for themselves throughout the opening series.
Who knows, for the Isles, maybe this is the kind of loss that becomes defining to their future growth (and not the kind of loss that Caps fans always fear will parlay into the recurring narrative of being post-season chokers). I hope the Isles can enjoy a 100 point season and trip to the playoffs and as fans believe that, in time, the franchise plugs the wholes, overcomes the deficits and eventually finds a way to win. Till then, as a Caps fan who experienced nearly all the identical weak spots in the recent past in my team, I get it, you have my empathy, my sympathy even. And, most importantly, you have my rivalry … because nothing is more important in sports than being driven by that of a good rival.
the Next Round
If Halak, and game seven, weren’t enough stress for a fan… the Caps are by no means out of the woods yet. The disappointment factor of second round losses is impending as we managed four inside of an eight year run and only have two appearances in the Conference finals in our 40 year history. And, we’re about to do battle with a foe who comes with a new set of demons and challenges for the Caps to overcome.