Wow, so after going 14-0, the Washington Capitals lost three straight last week. Some may take solace in the fact that two of those losses were in overtime, but a loss is a loss.
They got two of a possible six points last week. That might be great if you were the last place team in the league, but when you’re riding high atop the NHL, two out of six doesn’t cut it. So what happened? Personally for me, I think the beginning of the end started with the emotional overtime win versus Pittsburgh.
After trailing 4-1, the Caps managed to battle back and win 6-5 and the celebration was akin to winning game seven. It was the second time the Caps had beaten Pittsburgh in their 14-game winning streak. After a bounce back like that, how could any team beat them?
I think the Caps began to believe their own press. Who needs defense when you can overcome a three goal deficit in the third period? When the Caps skated against Montreal, the Canadiens scored on their very first shot before the game was a minute old. The Caps didn’t get worried; they bounced back and scored one of their own. The Caps even took the lead to start the second period…but then they got sloppy. Montreal scored four goals in the second period and put Washington in a 5-2 hole. Sure, it didn’t help matters that the refs got together and waved off a goal without any form of video review, but when you give up four goals in a period, you have to recognize that you have a serious problem.
You wouldn’t pull your goalie for the whole game would you? Of course not! Why? Well sure, it gives you the extra attacker, and you have an offensive advantage, but it’s a lot easier for your opponent to score on you than it is for you to score on them. When you don’t play defense, and you’re not careful with the puck, you have left your goalie on an island.
The Caps went on their high scoring winning streak by being solid in their own end. It wasn’t just Theodore, it was defensemen being in the right position and sweeping rebounds into the corners. It’s not just the defensemen; forwards have to be back there to clean up the corners on the back-check. They can’t all be waiting at the blue-line for the outlet pass, they have to get back there and help clean up the boards.
In Montreal, the Caps made a last second score that forced overtime. Just like in Pittsburgh, they forced overtime through sheer will. They felt like the game was theirs for the taking…right up until Plekanec scored the game winner for Montreal with :08 seconds left in the overtime period.
So they lost, right? It had to happen sometime. The puck just didn’t bounce their way. They still bounced back from a three goal deficit, nothing to worry about, they’ll get ‘em next time, right?
Well, not exactly. Y’see, when the streak was hot, everyone wanted to be part of it. Now that the burden of the streak was over, they didn’t have all that pressure. So the next night when they went into Ottawa, they could make some changes. The Caps welcomed back Semyon Varlamov, and some guys with minor injuries decided to sit this one out. The Caps found themselves down 3-1 at the end of the first, but they rallied back to tie it 4-4 at the end of the second period.
It was time to turn on the offense. They had just scored three goals in Montreal in the third, and had scored two versus Pittsburgh in the third, and now they had their hot-shot goaltender back in net. Varlamov was 16-1-3 in the regular season, who needs defense when you’ve got him back there between the pipes?
Instead, the Caps gave up two goals early in the third, and even though Alex Semin became the third consecutive Capital to get a hat-trick in three consecutive games, Ottawa showed the Caps that the best defense is really to play defense.
The Caps had been handed their first regulation loss in 15 games; they lost 6-5.
The coach’s words were finally starting to sink in. You can’t expect to win if you let your opponents’ score five or more goals in a game. Sure it’s possible, the Caps had proven that versus Pittsburgh, but you can’t sustain it.
In the Caps’ final game (final game before the Olympic break) versus St. Louis, we saw more of a commitment to defense, but there were still some areas of concern; mostly in transition and puck protection. The Caps’ were turning the puck over way to many times in the neutral-zone creating odd man breaks going to other way. The defense was much more solid, but it’s hard to play defense when you give up a break-away or a two-on-one.
The Caps enter this Olympic break on a three game skid, so most of the team will have plenty to think about over these next two weeks.
Certainly, this isn’t the end of the world for Washington. They are still first place in the league, even if it is only by one-point. They still have a 13-point lead in their conference, and are in no danger of missing the play-offs. The Caps’ 27-point lead in their division is two points shy of being more than the combined margins of all the other divisions.
The Caps could lose more than half of their remaining games, and still win their division.
So, now we have the Olympics for the next couple of weeks. The media world is a-buzz about Team Canada. I’m so sick of hearing about Team Canada I’m ready to stick sharp objects in my ears to dull the pain. Personally, I’m wanting to hear more about Team Russia. With six current and former Caps on the team (Ovechkin, Semin, Varlamov, Gonchar, Kozlov and Federov) how could I not pull for them? Add to that Malkin, Datsuk, Kovalchuk, and Afinogenov, and San Jose Sharks’ (who happen to be second in the league) goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and it certainly looks like Russia is going to be hard to beat.
With the snubbing of Capitals defenseman Mike Green (the highest scoring defenseman in the league, mind you) and Vincent Lecavalier from Tampa in favor of “west coasters” I’m just this side of rooting against Team Canada. Who am I fooling; of course I’m rooting against Team Canada!
Sure, I’ll be happy if somehow Team USA surprises everyone and takes the gold, but my heart lies with the Caps, and Team Russia has the most of them. How could I root for anyone else?