(photo by Brian Murphy)
No team may be looking forward to All Star weekend more than the Washington Capitals.
After dropping three in a row for the second time this season, the Caps have begun to show a few chinks in the armor. With only superstar Alex Ovechkin participating in the All Star game, here’s hoping coach Bruce Boudreau uses the time to watch tape of the Caps’ recent play, figures out what’s wrong and makes the necessary adjustments.
While we’ve never claimed to be experts, there are two fairly apparent issues with this offense. The first, and this has been a problem all season long, is that there is very rarely traffic in front of the net. With no one willing to stand in front of the goalie and provide a screen, more times than not what we end up seeing is a shot from the blueline by the Caps that is easily thwarted by the opposing netminder. Because no one is blocking his view, the opposing goalie typically makes an easy save on a low-percentage shot. If the goalie doesn’t make the save cleanly, then there’s no one standing on the doorstep to bang home the rebound.
Don’t believe us? Then how else can you explain how seemingly every night the Caps take the ice of late the opposing goalie ends up with monster numbers. Let’s take a look at the last three home games:
Last night, Edmonton Oilers goalie Dwayne Roloson was the game’s number-one star after posting 34 saves (a .944 save percentage) in a 5-2 win.
Last week, Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason earned the game’s top star after shutting out the Capitals for the second time this season. For the game, Mason stopped all 45 shots he faced in the 3-0 win over the Capitals.
Even though the Caps won 2-1 via shootout, Philadelphia Flyers goalie Martin Biron made 33 saves (.971 save percentage) and earned the game’s third star for his strong outing Jan. 6.
Have the Caps run into a string of smoking hot goalies? It’s possible. But from where we’re sitting, this has way more to do with the Caps than whoever is lined up on the other side of the rink. Over these last three home games, the Capitals have scored just three goals on 115 shots, meaning opposing goalies have a ridiculous .974 save percentage against the Caps at the Verizon Center during the span.
Until players are consistently willing to roll up their sleeves and do the dirty work, the Caps are going to struggle to put points on the board. Even during a man advantage, the Caps haven’t been able to capitalize on their opportunities. During the same three-game span, the team has just two goals in their last 15 powerplay chances.
While much of it has to do with the lack of players willing to crash the net, there’s also another problem – too many times Caps players pass up the safe, routine play in favor of high-risk, high-reward variety. During powerplay situations, it’s common to see a Capitals forward try to force a puck through a defenseman’s legs or through traffic in hopes of connecting with a teammate on the back side of the play. If it works, then the play ends up on the highlight reel. If not, the opposing team gains control of the puck and clears it out of the zone with ease.
We had a chance to talk with future Hall of Fame center Sergei Fedorov this week and asked a fairly simple question – what is the current mindset of the younger players on this team and what do you guys have to do to take the next step forward to consistently compete for the Stanley Cup? We were surprised by the honesty in the veteran’s response.
“They’re very anxious to score goals,” said Fedorov of the younger players. “Sometimes they want to, a little bit cut corners and get to the net faster instead of just making the extra play and get it 100 percent in. They go for screen shots and dangerous plays, dangerous passes. For example, on a powerplay they always try to make that flashy, dangerous play, which is normal [for player’s their age]. They’re going to get it and understand eventually what they really need to do to win. And they’ll know that maybe that pass isn’t good to make. That’s called experience and paying attention to the details.”
The good news for the Capitals is that, for the most part, this has been a terrific season. The Caps are still among the top teams in the Eastern Conference and hold a comfortable lead over the Carolina Hurricanes for the division. But at the same time, there are a few areas that could continue to haunt the Caps through the rest of the season. Much has been made of the goaltending situation and questions have been raised about the sometimes erratic play from Capitals defensemen, but this might be the first time the offense has been called out.
To become a truly elite team, some changes in philosophy need to be made. Don’t take our word for it, listen to Sergei Fedorov. There’s a reason he’s won multiple Stanley Cup championships and has the most goals ever scored by a Russian player, and it’s not because he cut corners or worried about making some highlight reel.