Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Stars are Producing, But Heart is the Issue

The Caps won a must win game versus the New York Islanders tonight. They played with more desperation, but it is not encouraging that this team cannot rise to the level of intensity that characterizes teams that win playoff series and Stanley Cups. The knock on the Caps have been that their top stars, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, have not performed and they must make lots of noise if the Caps are to be successful in the playoffs.

Ovie’s playoff stats of 33G-31A-64P puts him at just over a point per game although his last couple of playoffs have not been as productive as the years 2008-2011 when he had 41 points in 30 games. He’s also plus-9 over his 62 playoff games. Ovie, however, shows up for the playoffs and this season is no exception. He’s hitting and he’s a force on the ice.

Nicklas Backstrom, on the other hand, is 18G-31A-49P in 61 games, with anemic production during his last three playoffs of 13P in 29 games. Those stats for the #1 center are not good enough for the Caps to hold a shiny silver cup, but his first star 3P performance in game two and his overtime game winner tonight is what the Caps need.  Both Ovechkin and Backstorm scored and assisted on each other’s goals.

The stars are producing, but heart is the issue. Do the Caps want to win enough to throw it all out on the line? That’s not evident, at this point. Other teams slugging it out in the playoffs, right now, seem to have more heart than the Caps. The Caps seem to do enough to get by and that’s not good enough to win a Cup. They will play a strong game in game 2 to lose game 3 in horrendous fashion 15 seconds into overtime, when New York Islands John Tavares threw the puck at Washington Capitals goalie, Braden Holtby, multiple times, and the last one squeaked past the goal line. That shot sent the Caps to a 1-2 deficit in their first playoff series in two years. It felt like a huge letdown after Nicklas Backstrom finally tied up the game 1-1 at 13:54 in the third period.

In game one, the Caps were outmatched mentally and lost the game 4-1. They showed jitters early, but never stopped making stupid passes in the neutral zone or everywhere else on the ice during their 11 giveaway night. On a night Holtby felt ill, the Caps should have been able to help him out, but they could not stop helping the Islanders out instead. It was not a good start to the playoffs.
In game two, it took the Caps until 11:26 in the second period to score after the Islanders already scored two goals. This game started with Cal Clutterbuck when the 4th line grinder, who scored his first NHL goal against the Caps (he’s one of many, many players with that dubious honor), scored on an odd man rush at 5:14 in the first period. The Caps first goal came courtesy of Karl Alzner and Nicklas Backstrom netted his first point on his way to a much needed three point night.

In some respects, the Caps are winning some battles, for faceoff wins and hits, but in other respects, they are losing, grit and perseverance, for instance. The intensity of the hockey being played in the NHL and the heart of the teams playing, right now, is crazy versus Caps-Isles. The difference is palpable.

Let’s go Caps!

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Is Trotz Ovie's Bowman?

Alex Ovechkin scores! 50 times this season Caps fan heard that. It is the 6th time in Ovie’s career he’s reached that goal, one of only six players ever. That list – Wayne Gretzky (9 seasons), Mike Bossy (9), Mario Lemieux (6) Marcel Dionne and Guy LaFleur (6) - includes kings of the game. Ovechkin belongs with them and surely punched his ticket to Toronto last night to join them in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He has a 10 goal lead on everyone else this season and he’s doing this in an era where goalies are much better, players are bigger and quicker, and everything about the game, including coaching, has advanced. Ovechkin is special and Caps fans revel in watching his highlight reel goals, game winning goals, power play goals from the same spot he’s tortured goalies for 10-years, ferocious hits and taking the Caps on his back to another win.

The knock on Ovie has always been his leadership and unwillingness to play defense. But, this season there’s a new defensive mind set to his game. Last season, Ovie heard widespread criticism for his lack of defensive play after he ended the season a minus-35, good for 3rd worst in the league. To be fair to Ovie, plus-minus is also an indication of the team surrounding the player and the Caps have had some bad defenses during his tenure, but everyone has also seen Ovie ease up when he shouldn’t.
This season, Ovechkin is a plus-11, good for 87th in the league out of 826 players. Quite an improvement and that doesn’t include the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, like not seeing Ovie loaf around while the play transitions to the defensive zone. He’s joining in the defensive side of the game and playing hard from end-to-end. He’s 1st in goals, 1st in shots, 1st in game winning goals, 1st in power play goals and 2nd in overall points.

The best change from last season, however, is that Alex Ovechkin became a true captain by leading the way on the ice, sacrificing his body for blocked shots – yes, it’s scary to watch and not something he should do unless absolutely necessary – and tying the score or getting a game winning goal, when needed. That’s the real treat.
So, what’s the difference? Two things changed. One, General Manager George McPhee’s understudy Brian MacLellan became General Manager after telling owner Ted Leonsis, among other things, that the Caps defense needed an upgrade, a request that seemed quite obvious since Ovechkin arrived here. MacLellan plugged that hole with two Pittsburgh Penguins, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. Orpik’s veteran leadership on the bench focuses the players. It sounds like his “glare” is something to avoid.

The second thing that changed is Barry Trotz became the coach of the Washington Capitals. Is Trotz Ovie’s Bowman? Can Trotz do what Scotty Bowman did for Steve Yzerman, the hall of fame Canadian center that captained the Detroit Red Wings from the age of 21 during the 1986-1987 season. It took Yzerman 10-years to win his Cup in 1997 and then he won two more, all three under Coach Scotty Bowman who started with Detroit in 1993.
After leading the Wings to their first division title in 23-years, Yzerman did not lead them to the Stanley Cup finals until 1995. The New Jersey Devils swept the Wings. Yzerman was 4-8-12 in 15 games with a minus-2. In 1996, they lost the Conference final series to the Colorado Avalanche, 4-2.

Before the 1996-1997 hockey seasons started, noise started in the media questioning Yzerman’s leadership capability. He struggled under Bowman’s coaching and his back-checking expectations for his forwards. Yzerman didn’t want to play defense and the pair’s relationship deteriorated to the point there was talk of trading Steve Yzerman, the longest tenured captain of the same hockey team ever, to the Ottawa Senators.
It clicked for Bowman and Yzerman in 1997, when they ended their season by sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers for their first Stanley Cup. In 1998, they did it again making the Washington Capitals – sigh – their victim. In 2002, the Wings beat out the Carolina Hurricane’s 4-1 to cement Yzerman’s place in hockey’s history books. Yzerman holds many individual accolades, too, including the Conn Smythe in 1998, the Lester B Pearson for outstanding player in 1989, and a Selke for best defensive forward in 2000.

Caps fans can only hope that the dream of seeing Ovie raise the Cup comes true. If they make the playoffs, they don’t have all of the pieces they need to make a deep run. It would be great if they defied expectations, as strange things happen in the NHL playoffs, like the 8th seed winning the Cup, but Trotz has created a good foundation for the team sand, so far, Ovie can still score 50 goals.

Let’s go Caps!



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