Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are happy Caps.
Quick, name the top two teams in the Eastern Conference with the lowest Goals Against Average for the season. Did you go with Boston Bruins, the New Jersey Devils (but this year?), or maybe the Flyers, the Canadiens? Or Lundqvist's Rangers, with his 9 shutouts? Did you forget Ovechkin's boys on the Potomac?
With 14 games left to play this season, the Washington Capitals and their 2.38 GAA is second only to Tim Thomas and the Bruins for keeping the puck out of their own net.
What a difference a year makes. The Washington Capitals, since the installation of Coach Bruce Boudreau in November 2007, had earned the reputation as offensive marvels, with the foot speed and the stick skills to overwhelm the best defensive pairings out there. In years past, Alex Ovechkin's troupe, featuring young center Nicklas Backstrom, veteran wingman Mike Knuble, the booming shot of Mike Green, and occasional cameos from sniper Alex Semin, knew how to score, and do so early and often.
Despite all the regular season success, these hot shots had also developed a habit of disappearing way too early come April. The team's stunning collapse in the 7-game series against the 8th seed Montreal Canadiens in the first round of 2010 turned out to be the coup de grace of the run-and-gun.
That's when Boudreau took a long hard look and decided if he was ever going to see his team etched on the Stanley Cup, it would require a different set of tools. Maybe hockey isn't simply about scoring goals after all. Huh. Now what? He set about to re-invent the machine.
The Caps this season have been a fascinating study for puckheads near and far as we watched the familiar goal factory morph under the bright lights of media hype, saw them struggle to define a system that addresses play across all three zones of the ice, and particularly in their own end. Their play was more subtle, less thrilling, and worked in a variety of gears. Theirs was no longer to be a pure possession game.
The 24/7 series on HBO over the holidays added to the perceptions of club dysfunction and frustration. But despite that 8-game losing streak, the Caps were never really down and out of playoff contention. But they sure seemed lost. One blogger observed mid-season that those champions of fast and loose had resorted to the bottom level of hockey strategy: The Trap. For their fans, this was as painful to admit as it was to watch.
Defense by Committee?
Quick - which team in the East has now won 6 straight? Not Kovalchuk and the Devils. The Capitals, with their resounding 5-zip beat-down of the Edmonton Oilers last night following a couple squeakers in OT over the Lightning and Panthers, are starting to look like their old cocky selves. Winning 8 in their last 9, they are back on top of the Southeast and 2nd in the Eastern Conference. After months of stories posted throughout the NHL built around the question "what's wrong with Ovi?", his surprise tweet last week, "@ovi8 im back!!!!" seemed to tell the Caps fans what they desperately needed to hear.
How so? In the last 6 games, Ovi has put up 3 goals, 7 assists, and earned the game winner 3 times. Helping out, the man who's face appears next to "enigmatic" in the NHLPA directory, Alexander Semin, is just a step behind with 4 goals, 2 A's and is +6 over the same 6-game streak. He even chipped in 2 clutch game winners with the wickedest wrister on the planet. Even better, Sasha seems as enthused about playing hockey as anyone can remember.
In front of three rookie goal tenders, the Caps full roster and Coach Boudreau, who by his own admission has never ever had a season with lows as low as this one, appear to have figured it out. Nothing against that triumvirate, but we all know Tim Thomas is a big part of the Bruin's defensive success this season. The Caps don't have any that singular a presence in net, nor any dominant defenseman, but as a group have cobbled together their assignments quite well, even in Mike Green's absence while he recovers from a UBI. Like they say about sausage, you may not want to know how it got here, but if you focus on what you're seeing now, it actually looks pretty good.
The Caps recent win streak has been helped a bit by the quality of competition, with 5 wins coming against teams essentially out of contention for the playoffs. The only real challenge came in Tampa Bay on a tough back-to-back Monday night. Having barely escaped from Sunrise with an OT winner (from Semin!) vs the Panthers Sunday, they held on in a tight grinding game with the Bolts, to secure the top spot in the Southeast Division. The starter in net, Michal Neuvirth, took a shot to the mask and was replaced after the first intermission by call-up Braden Holtby, who was perfect for the remaining 45 minutes, before making all 3 saves in the shoot-out. Back in the Verizon Center last night, Holtby solidified his NHL record (6-2-2, .926Sv%, 1.95GAA) with his first career shutout versus an uninspired Oilers team.
Winning when it matters
Friday night the Caps will host a desperate Carolina Hurricanes team whom they have beaten in all 4 previous matches on the season. The Canes are hovering at 9th in the East, tied in points with the 8th place Buffalo Sabres. Unlike the opponents faced in the 6-game winning streak, the Canes are playing to secure a spot in the postseason. When they last faced a team with so much at stake, the Caps went down 6-0 to the New York Rangers February 25th.
No question but that the Capitals well-earned return to the top of the Southeast this week has been a long slow process, but looking forward they will face greater challenges that will test how far they really have come since bottoming out in December. Will last year's President's Trophy winner continue to display this new-found admixture of discipline and energy that has solidified the last couple weeks? Will we see them celebrating their game in ways all too familiar to their fans and detractors from years past, or will that awkward doubt creep back into the room?
Following Friday night's contest, the Caps host a Sunday matinee against an equally hot Chicago Blackhawks, with "Toews vs Ovechkin" as the ready-made storyline. Then Boudreau and company head out for a 6-game roadie, including 2 encounters with last year's nemesis, the Montreal Canadiens in the Bell Centre. Their other stops include top-tier teams like the Red Wings and the Flyers, as well as Lemaire's New Jersey Devils.
We'll know a lot more about the character of the new Capitals by the time they return to host the Canes one last time March 29th. Will Ovechkin and Backstrom still be smiling? If so, and the team has found the formula that earns its wins, even within the grueling pressure cooker of the NHL's post season schedule, Boudreau and his club should enjoy a more satisfying result in 2011. As excruciating as this season has been for them, I bet they'll say it was worth every eff-ing moment.
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