caps suffering from an identity crisis

(photo by Kevin C. Cox)

Now that the all-star festivities have come and gone, it’s time to turn our attention to the second half of the NHL season.

More specifically, it’s “go time” for the Washington Capitals – who continue to frustrate their fanbase despite the fact that they’re on pace to finish the regular season with more than 100 points and are a lock to qualify for the playoffs for the fourth-consecutive season.

While there is plenty to be content with when it comes to hockey in our nation’s capital, the truth is the Capitals are a flawed team currently suffering from an identity crisis. And unless the players, coaches and talent evaluators can resolve the situation sooner rather than later, I fear another disappointing finish is on the horizon.

The Capitals currently stand in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 27-15-9. Now, that sounds fairly impressive until you remember that the last two categories are both the same thing – games Washington lost.

So while the team gets a point in the standings for overtime and shootout losses, the Caps are actually 27-24 this year. Doesn’t sound nearly as imposing, does it?

It took me a little while to figure this Caps team out, but I think I’ve finally gotten there. Pretty much since the day Bruce Boudreau took over the coaching duties in Washington, the Capitals have had one of the most dynamic offenses in hockey.

The defense had good days and bad days, but the high-powered, run-and-gun offense was always good enough to carry the load and keep the Caps in games. Now though, the offense isn’t nearly as imposing and that scares the hell out of everyone involved.

The team’s identity crisis comes into play because goals are no longer automatic, so by necessity, the Caps have become more defensive minded. Instead of trying to return to form and outscore opponents, it’s as if Boudreau and friends are trying to be something they’re not.

They’ve given up. They’ve resigned themselves that the good old days of “fire wagon hockey” have come and gone and now they need to try and morph into the 90’s New Jersey Devils or something.

But that’s not who this team is. That’s not what these players with this specific set of skills are best equipped to do. So what you’re seeing now is guys trying to be something they’re not. Instead of letting the game come to them and reacting naturally, they’re over-thinking things and second guessing themselves.

Far too often now, games are clunky and entire periods of play are unwatchable. Even at their worst – when Caps skill players looked as if they were figure skating out there and being too cutesy with the puck – at least they were putting on a show.

Now the Capitals are no different from the stale brand of hockey on display in Nashville, Florida or Phoenix. They’re hoping to limit their mistakes and lull the opposition into giving them one or two quality scoring chances a period.

And that’s unacceptable. A team with skill players such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green isn’t built to play a defensive trap or left-wing lock. It’s meant to be the Phoenix Suns.

They need someone to step up and say, “We’re not going to let off the gas until the final whistle blows because we know there isn’t another team out there who can trade scores with us.”

Let Steve Nash run the show and the first team to 100 wins. Some nights the offense might be off, but more times than not the sheer talent and the aggressive mindset will carry the home team to victory.

And honestly, the Suns aren’t even the best comparison out there. The most obvious match is the Indianapolis Colts.

For as long as Peyton Manning has called Indianapolis home, the Colts have had one of the best offenses in football. Only twice in his 13 seasons have the Colts not ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in total offense. And only twice during that same timeframe has the Colts’ defense ranked in the top 10.

Since 1998, Indianapolis has lived and died with an offensive mentality, but you know what? They’re always relevant. Manning might only have one Super Bowl ring to his name, but they’ve made the playoffs 11 times and are always considered among the league’s elite.

Three head coaches – Jim Mora, Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell – have called the shots during Manning’s career, but each of them realized there’s only one way to be successful with those players on that roster. So instead of fighting it, they each embraced it.

It’s why a recent NHL player’s poll listed the Capitals as the league’s most overrated team. They became relevant by outgunning their opponents into submission. But now, they’re content to try and bland teams to death. No one fears this Caps team anymore. If nothing else, it’s time to regain their swagger and show the rest of the NHL that this offense is back in business.

Let me put it another way – would you rather be great at one thing or pretty good in a few different areas? Nobody remembers the mediocre kid who skates through life getting C’s on everything. No, people only remember those who set themselves apart from the pack.

So stop fighting it. Stop pretending you’re something you’re not. Embrace that these players are best suited to run and gun and get back to when hockey was fun for those playing it and those watching it. That philosophy got you this far, so stick with it.

Are Caps fans spoiled? Has the bar been raised to unreasonable heights? Shouldn’t we just be happy one team in this town is capable of putting on a show worth the price of admission? Absolutely. I don’t think I can really argue against any of these points.

But one could argue that these days the Caps aren’t putting on a show worth the price of admission. They’re routinely getting shut out by mediocre teams with mediocre goalies. They’re going through the motions hoping to stretch the fight out a full 12 rounds so they can win by decision, but they’re not even good at that (as evident by the nine losses in the last 10 games that have required overtime).

Nothing against Matt Hendricks, who is a quality grinder who absolutely deserves to be a third-line player on an above-average team, but when he’s providing your scoring punch something is wrong.

Consider this my plea to Boudreau and friends that once the Caps take the ice Tuesday night, they revert back to the style of play that made them nationally relevant. The first half of this season was an interesting, little experiment, but it’s time to embrace who you are – warts and all.

Your fans know it. Your peers know it. Now it’s time for the Capitals to accept it.


  1. Jack Anderson
    January 31, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Boom. Sock it to them, murf. Good stuff.

  2. Ex KiwiKrol
    January 31, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    I saved this quote from some message board last April, so I know not who it is, but he agrees, and his fear (and mine) has happened…..

    All I read about Caps is absolutely ridiculous, so they loose 4 games to a team that was
    practically laying in the net for the entire series and had luck in scoring goals. To
    legitimize this as a sporting event is beyond pathetic. This wasn’t a series by any
    stretch of the imagination, it was boring to watch, painful to see, and disgusting to
    I think Ovie tried to say that after game 6, but his English is not at that level
    yet. Of course, some of Caps players didn’t produce, but even then, to call this a series,
    com on, you gotta be completely detached form what hockey is all about. Of course, any
    sport is about winning, but hockey is more than that and I thank the Caps organization for
    being bold enough to go this route. Personally, it’s the only reason I play and watch
    hockey, and I don’t know how many of us are still left, or will be left after this defeat,
    but I sincerely hope (although doubt a bit)
    Caps can keep on going and prove that they can
    still win by playing a highly entertaining game. I hope that for the sake of the sport.

  3. guest
    February 1, 2011 at 8:38 am

    the correct team to compare the caps to is the mid-90s detroit red wings. steve yzerman was scoring 100+ points a year, as was fedorov, and had offensive forces in larionov, kozlov, etc. the red wings won the presidents trophy but were not playoff performers until they adjusted their game defensively. yzerman never scored 100 points after the mid 90s but led the wings to 3 cups. which would you rather have?

    and saying someone needs to step up and say lets play run and gun because no one can keep up with us is absolutely ridiculous. teams kept up and beat them when they tried that (flyers, penguins, canadiens). this adjustment is supposed to pay dividends come april may and june, not january february and march. i would rather have playoff success than be regular season heroes.

  4. Larry Finger
    February 1, 2011 at 9:19 am

    I totally agree that they are thinking too much and not utilizing their superior offensive skills. On the other hand, I believe that they lost to the Penguins two years because the Penguins were more responsible defensively – without losing their offensive capabilities. The Red Wings won multiple Cups because they were offensively scary and defensively strong. There are two problems here and they are both named Boudreau. They went to the defensive approach because the league figured out how to stop them offensively and Boudreau had no response. but, Boudreau has never played or coached defensive responsibility so he doesn’t know how.

  5. Caps fan
    February 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    I don’t care how they play, I just want to see this team get to the finals and hopefully win a cup.

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