The Boys from Chinatown have played a lot of poor hockey so far this postseason, and there’s plenty of blame to go around.
The New York Islanders came out Sunday morning with the same kind of fire the Capitals used to even the series on Friday, and they left the ice with similar results.
This is not unusual in strong playoff match ups, and fans rocking the red will be well accustomed to these nauseating roller coasters after no less than three straight seven game entanglements as their immediate playoff history. Game after game sees the previous tilt’s loser hit the ice with focus and desperation their opponent just cannot match.
The Caps certainly could not meet the intensity of the rebounding Islanders Sunday morning, instead they were complacent, as if waiting for the match to slow down and become manageable.
But manage it they did, finishing the second period down only a goal, no larger a deficit than that which stood before them with 20 minutes remaining in Game 2.
Just as in that second game, they were able to tie the game in third, though this time they were unable to score the game winner, losing in a flash in overtime. Certainly the loss was disappointing, but it was a hell of a lot better than the performance fans witnessed at the Verizon Center in Game 1.
However, upon closer examination, the problems seem more nuanced than a predictable differential in desperation and push.
Sure the Islanders’ were pushing harder for much of the game, but Washington was able to turn the tide in the third, sustaining pressure for almost 14 minutes to open the period, holding the Isles without a shot on goal for a nine minute span before Nick Backstrom tied the game through an Ovechkin screen.
Predictably, the Caps then pulled off the throttle while the Islanders upped their energy level, and reclaimed the momentum the Capitals made no move to keep. But Holtby and crew didn’t lose the game because of “Big Mo,” they lost due to poor decisions and sloppy puck management.
That last play is a good place to start because it encapsulates so much of what’s been wrong with the Caps so far in this series, sloppy passes and poor zone clears. Throughout the game, it felt like everytime Washington tried to get out of the zone their passes lacked a defined target, yet consistently found a way to land on their opponents’ sticks, leading to extended stays in the defensive zone and the game ending marker.
The Isles have apparently done their research and are ready for the Caps’ consistent plan of pitching the pick up the wall, and the ensuing push to a man flying up center. Over and over again the boys in blue were waiting for blind &/or sloppy passes to send back in the zone.
So looking at the way the Caps have played there’s reason to worry, but also room for optimism. The best news: plenty of easy areas to improve and avoid the swings of desperation.
1. Clean up the passing and work the change up: Those passes may sill be a viable option, but the passes have got to be better, crisper and with purpose, as well as awareness.
That being said, if the bad guys are going to sit on old faithful, it’s time to mix it up. You can pass it back to create space, skate in and dump off the wall second, flipping the script, or even just a deep dump towards the other end. Just don’t throw it right at your opponent.
2. Green light the Power Play: Ever since John Carlson took over the point on the man advantage, the rhythm of the group has suffered. In this series the Caps are a pedestrian 1 for 6 with the extra skater, and even that lone goal came from Backy off the rush, not a well set-up offense.
Before the playoffs started the lack of chemistry had already made itself plain. Sure there were some biscuits put into baskets, but again, many were off the rush and the 1-3-1 was pressing.
I love John Carlson and there is no question that Captain America has surpassed his two time Norris Trophy candidate teammate as the team’s leader on defense, but Mike Green needs to be at that power play point. Greener’s shot is lethal and his ability to consistently put the puck in OV’s sweet spot is the foundation of the best power play in the league.
3. Unleash the Young Guns: The Caps play strong, and it often works for them, but their 5v5 scoring struggles have been well documented. They need fire and secondary fire power. They have an answer already in New York, and they may be forced to use it.
Rookie Andre Burakovski made the trip to NY and when he plays, he brings the Caps much needed speed, puck control and offensive creativity, and though few would have chosen Eric Fehr as the starter to sit in Bura’s place, the decision may have been forced. Here is a chance to immediately add legitimacy to the scoring threat of any non-OV line, or maybe an opportunity to infuse the top line with the youth and jump it needs to turn the tide.
Bura, Kuzy, and Wilson, even Latta, can play with an energy level that turns play better than anyone not named Alex O’Backstrom.
If we’re not going to use strength and size to create space we need to add speed that can compete with an Islanders team just entering their prime. Our young guys need to see more ice in some facet if the steady, experienced crew are dragging heavy feet.
The Caps need to play better; the Islanders are fast and tough, they play a solid all around game, and so do the Rangers. The Capitals have their work cut out for them, there will be no easy series this spring.
If the Capitals want to make any noise over the next few weeks, they need to put themselves in position to win and there’s no time like the present.