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Posted at 2:28 PM ET, 12/15/2010

Where's plan B?

By Kareem El-Alaily

Caps Nation seems to be split down the middle trying to figure out whether this six-game slide is a fluke due to injuries and bad luck, or if the Caps really have core issues. This being Washington D.C., I’m going to straddle both sides of the aisle and say the answer is both.

First off, injuries and illness are certainly playing a factor in the Caps recent collapse. The Caps are without their top two defensemen and replacing a Green/Schultz pair with an Erskine/Fahey combo is a major drop-off in production. Second, the Caps are in an unusually unlucky offensive drought. The Caps have shot 3.5 percent in the past six games and have averaged a paltry 1.3 goals per game. With a league-wide shooting average around 9 percent, no team (let alone one with this much offensive talent) should produce numbers this poor on a regular basis -- especially one that’s been averaging an incredible 38+ shots on net during that stretch. So, yes, this goal-scoring slump is an anomaly and one that the law of averages says the Caps will climb out of – likely with a vengeance.

However, like many of you, placing the blame on poor luck and circumstance doesn’t quite cut it for me. Many are unconvinced that the Caps core issues are going to disappear with a fully healthy lineup and, as a result, fans are turning their focus on to head coach Bruce Boudreau. As tough as it is to criticize a coach who has averaged an incredible 111-point pace across three seasons it’s a justified response. The Caps have never had a Plan B when the shooting goes dry and have not demonstrated the ability to win when other teams dictate the style of game.

Let me try to explain the Caps with a basketball analogy. The basketball equivalent of the Caps is the team that plays a fast-break, run-and-gun, shoot-from-everywhere style. There is no setting up in a half-court offense and/or playing of an intense half-court defense. The goal is to simply run the other team out of the building with your superior offensive weapons. But when those shots don’t fall like they usually do – or when the opposition forces you into a slower tempo – this team becomes a fish out of water, unable to effectively play the traditional half-court, fundamental basketball that its opponents play. The Caps are the hockey version of that basketball team. That’s the reason you get guys like R.J. Umberger claiming that the Caps “play wrong”. Playing wrong includes Caps wingers that cheat on the breakout; forwards that turn the puck over in the neutral zone because they won’t dump and chase; defensemen that are routinely hung out to dry on odd-man rushes or not given proper passing outlets when breaking out; superstars taking excessively long shifts; cutesy passing; and lazy back-checking.

Consequently the Caps have developed a Dr. Jekyll /Mr. Hyde personality: when the Caps enforce their will on teams they win 80 percent of their games; when teams enforce their will on the Caps, the team gets frustrated and struggles. That’s why you get wild swings in the Caps’ performance. And that inconsistency is on Bruce.

Other coaches have got their players to “buy in” on how to play the Caps: clog the middle, challenge at the blue line, block shots, back-check and most importantly, limit mistakes in the defensive zone. To the Caps credit, they are getting playoff-level performances from their opponents a lot of nights. This is great on-the-job training for the playoffs, so long as Bruce adjusts accordingly and gets his players to buy-in on how to counter opponents' Caps-centric strategy: breakout cleanly, dump the puck, thump the defensemen, cycle in the corners, crowd the goalie, pay the price to earn your goals and back-check. Some might say it’s unbecoming of talents like Ovechkin and Semin to play that sort of game; I think it’s more unbecoming to have a team this talented only win one playoff series in three years. The Caps need to find ways to win when they can’t dictate play, even if it means tweaking the system or changing player roles and expectations. If there’s a Plan B in Bruce’s repertoire, now is the time to show it.

Bruce isn’t the only one who deserves the spotlight. George McPhee has not provided Bruce with the right pieces to the puzzle, a tough pill to swallow when you have a team that includes sublime talents like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Semin. The fact is that without a solid 2C – arguably your third or fourth most important player on a hockey team – opponents have figured out that if you stop Ovechkin/Backstrom, you’ve pretty much stopped the Caps. Without a second-line that can consistently generate pressure, finish their chances and punish teams for over-playing the first line, the Caps will continue to be out-schemed by focused opponents. One silver lining to this maddening skid is that it leaves no doubt that 2C must be upgraded by the trade deadline.

Despite the hand-wringing there’s plenty of hockey left to be played. It is very likely that nothing can change and the Caps can all of a sudden run off six or seven wins in a row. The team looked ugly in a pair of games against Boston earlier in the year and responded by winning eight of the next nine. That’s the nature of a streaky team - when the shots start going in, the regular season wins will come easy. But nothing comes easy in the playoffs. If the Caps are going to construct a team that can win in April, May and June it’ll take more than better luck and good health.  There will need to be tinkering to the team’s mentality and roster in order to replace the team’s characteristic streakiness with newfound consistency. Do the Caps have it in them to make those necessary changes? Or will it be business as usual once the goals start going back in?

By Kareem El-Alaily  | December 15, 2010; 2:28 PM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  | Tags:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  
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I have nothing against Duck`s , my concern what Caps can do to start playing like a team . I don't expecting Caps to improve so drastically in such a short time , this going to be very long - time consuming effort ; honestly I haven't seen them playing as a team for almost 2 [two] years now ; Caps was winning only because been lucky + individual performance of the players . If you take a note that every team in NHL has own face and stile - Capitals chaos and panic specially in defensive zone will never take them to the destination we all dreaming about . THE COACH is the main and most important link to make them play as a Team !! I love hockey for long time and became realistic and my message just my own opinion ; Hope - the Coach and my Caps will prove me wrong . Go Caps !!!!

Posted by: knopka | December 15, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

This is the first bit of solid analysis out of the Post in a while. The goalies are not the issue: it's the depth on the bench. Hang in there, boys, we'll get there sooner or later!

Posted by: grahamdumas | December 15, 2010 10:21 PM | Report abuse

A good analysis. My two cents: its tough to find a solid 2C in trade during the season. I would hardly believe that GMGM hasn't looked at this and fortunately he has cap space to work with. We'll see what happens come February as some of the teams start dropping out of contention for a playoff spot. Problem is that the West is so jammed right now, most of the teams out there will probably contend well past the trade deadline.

Posted by: prestoj | December 16, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Kareem is mostly right, but this analysis forgets a lesson from one of his earlier postings about heart. Pointing the finger at the Coach and GM is appropriate to a certain extent, but it is also too convenient. They need heart. They need to grind and find a way to win games. The only stat that matters is wins, especially playoff wins.

The Caps needed an veteran defensive defenseman with playoff experience. They got him. Now, the Caps need a Plan B? How about making Plan A work. They have enough talent that should let them dictate whatever style of play they want.

Besides, I am pretty sure that McPhee cannot go an acquire some heart for the Caps.

Posted by: amoore64 | December 16, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Nice article. Liked the basketball analogy, esp. since I do like the Suns. Over/under on when Ovechkin will score a PP goal at home?

Posted by: ramenooodle | December 22, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

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