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Posted at 12:54 PM ET, 01/ 6/2011

Caps: contender or pretender?

By Kareem El-Alaily

We’re at the season’s halfway point and, if you’re like me, you’re not quite sure what to make of the Caps. I see a team in flux, one learning to fight through adversity, trying to forge a new identity and hoping for its star players to regain their form. Like many of you I’m left scratching my head wondering what this means: can the Caps really contend for this year’s Stanley Cup? Or will my wistful dreams of June parades crash down to earth as they do every spring?

Let me start by saying that I see two clear-cut contenders in the East: Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Neither team is perfect. Philly has solid defense, strength down the middle, grit, experience, and if you believe the Flyers faithful (at your risk, of course), a significant improvement in net with Sergei Bobrovsky. Meanwhile, the return of Jordan Staal makes an already-strong Penguins team much more difficult to handle, as the Crosby-Malkin line no longer has to carry Pittsburgh’s entire offensive burden. Like it or not, both of these teams are ready-made to compete for the Cup right now.

I see a few Eastern Conference teams that are good enough to make deep runs in the playoffs but who do not have the horsepower to win an outright Cup: Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Boston and Montreal. With a few bounces and some timely over-achieving, any of these teams could find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals, just as the Canadiens did last year.

Then there is our beloved enigma: the Washington Capitals. Heralded as a pre-season Cup contender they responded by coming out of the gate strong and building up a sizable lead in the Southeast. But cracks surfaced. Atlanta and Boston followed the disciplined gameplan that Montreal used last spring to repeatedly stifle the Caps early in the season. Other teams noticed the success and eventually followed suit. The Caps goal scoring eventually dried up and an ugly losing streak ensued. So the Caps responded with a new, defensive-minded approach, going as far as using (gasp!) a trap late in games to preserve leads. They started winning again and clawed themselves back into the Eastern conference race. That’s where we stand now: fifth place in the conference with 52 points, one point behind Tampa for the Southeast lead and three points out of first place in the East.

View the first 41 games holistically and it’s debatable that the Caps belong in the “Contender” category with the Penguins and Flyers. On one hand the offense has dried up with the main culprits being the top three forwards – Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom. That $21M trio collectively averaged 3.89 points per game last year; this year they’re at 2.85 ppg, a 27 percent decrease in production. Additionally, the team’s identity (“Run-N-Gun” or “Defense First”?) remains in flux, they have no battle-tested second-line center and they’ve been inconsistent both offensively and defensively. That doesn’t inspire confidence.

On the other hand, the Caps are a respectable 9-6-3 against the top eight teams in the East. More importantly, the Caps have recently shown the discipline and desire to play proper defense, evidenced by their ascension to ninth in goals allowed per game and third in PK percentage. The young goaltending duo has played well, quieting the needless cry to upgrade the goaltending. Guys like Matt Hendricks and John Erskine are filling last year's toughness void. And the team has shown resiliency in the face of a season that has not gone as expected, highlighted by a gutsy Winter Classic victory.

That said, if I were a betting man I’d struggle putting money right now on the Caps to make it out of the Eastern Conference. We simply don’t know what we have as the team is still a work-in-progress – not quite a full contender but talented enough to certainly become one. Here’s what I think needs to happen to get us to full contender status:

  • Bruce Boudreau needs to continue with the transformation of the team. We all love the Run-N-Gun but we know that it won’t win us games in April and May. Bruce has done a great job of recently getting most of the Caps to buy in and “play right”, which means back-checking, not cheating on the breakout, clogging the middle defensively, etc. He needs to get the entire team on board now, including high-profile forwards that aren’t used to playing system hockey.
  • George McPhee needs to acquire a second-line center by the Feb. 28 trade deadline. The issue with the Caps offense this year is partly a structural deficiency. When opponents focus their efforts on stopping the Ovechkin line there really is no other line that can take the pressure off. I love Mathieu Perreault’s game and believe he’s going to be a solid NHLer, but not at 2C for a team that wants to win a Stanley Cup this year. If the Caps are going to be a fundamentally solid team then the 2C has to be solid defensively, and that’s just not MP85’s game. Washington needs someone who can hold his own when he gets matched up against the Penguins’ trio of elite centers (Crosby/Malkin/Staal) or the Flyers centers (Richards/Briere/Carter). Please George, find him and find him quick.
  • Finally, Alex Ovechkin needs to start playing like Alex Ovechkin. This isn’t a simple plea for additional offensive output, although it would be nice to see him revert to scoring at a 1.50 ppg pace. What I’d really like to see is the captain showing the team that he can adjust his game in the face of adversity, the same way Bruce Boudreau has bit the bullet and implemented more disciplined systems over his preferred Run-N-Gun. I’d like to see Ovi occasionally dump the puck and chase down scared defensemen, not just carry the puck in the zone and look to shoot. Only when the team’s captain and best player has 100 percent bought in to the system, adjusting to what opponents throw at him and re-establishing his dominance, will this team be ready to go four rounds with the best the NHL has to offer. Otherwise, if Ovi can’t improve on his so-far mediocre play this season (by his standards), the Caps have no shot at contending for the Cup.

My heart wants to believe that we’re contenders. It loves the fact that the Caps walked into a lion’s den and beat Pittsburgh last weekend; it appreciates that Bruce feels that the team can beat anyone, anywhere, anytime; and it implores me to hold out hope that the offense will rejuvenate itself overnight, allowing the Caps to resume their high-scoring ways while playing stifling defense when needed. But my head says “don’t kid yourself”. Right now, the current incarnation of the Caps can do some damage in the playoffs, but they’re not going to win a Cup. Getting to full contender status is going to take significant effort from all parts of the organization: coaches, management and players. Unlike other contenders that are built to win now, the Caps still have several pieces of the puzzle that quickly need to fall in place. They can get there but the first piece needs to fall by February 28. The clock is ticking.

By Kareem El-Alaily  | January 6, 2011; 12:54 PM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  | Tags:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  
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Comments

Now that Mr. Boudreau has stopped coaching an all-star team and started coaching a playoff team, how will his outcomes be any different from those experienced by his predecessors? It's not like he's the first one to put them in the schoolroom when they wanted to go out for recess.

Posted by: WalkOffBalk | January 6, 2011 2:03 PM | Report abuse

poop in his hand ....POOP IN HIS HAND NOW DANG IT GET YOUR HEAD OUT YOUR BUTT OV !

Posted by: doggydodo | January 6, 2011 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Kareem...STOP IT! This team does have the talent and potential to BEAT anyone anywhere, anytime....it's desire. NHL Hockey before the new year MEANS NOTHING!

If last year taught you ANYTHING, the playoffs are a different season....just make the damn playoffs...look at Motreal as an example....there is a lot of time to iron out all issues...just STAY HEALTHY!

Talk to me in March.....

Posted by: arioch666 | January 6, 2011 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Being challenged within their division is thebest thing to happen to the Caps. The year Pittsburgh won the Cup (with Crosby) I believe they were 4th in the conference and 2nd in the division. Having 28-30 extra games that are tough to win is going to set the team straight. I'd like a second line center too, but I'm also inclined to give Perrault til the deadline.

More than anything, I think they need to bring in some one who already has a ring. Knuble has one, yes, but as a spare part to Detroit. A Fedorov-type acquisition would do wonders again for the team.

Posted by: GFisher1 | January 6, 2011 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Would anyone here have a problem with the Caps aquiring Zach Parise? I say trade Sasha and one Hershey prospect to the Devils for Parise. Not sure if the Devils would want another high flying Russian, though, seeing how Kovi isn't working out.

Posted by: jcreech1 | January 6, 2011 3:48 PM | Report abuse

I am willing to roll the dice with the team as is for the playoff run. Whatever happens, happens. If the caps want to win, they can win. No guts, no glory!

Posted by: DCSportsfanatic1 | January 6, 2011 4:19 PM | Report abuse

I tend to agree with Kareem. How strong do we look down the middle? We look VERY THIN in my eyes. What cup contender can you think of that had one legit #1 or 2 center, and that's it?

OV? It seems he has NOT figured out how to adjust yet. I love the guy, but he's just not taking his all-around game to another level.

Is this BB's fault? Maybe a little, but not entirely. It's the GM's job to give the team what it needs to push itself further up the ladder. I think GMGM has done a "good" job, but there's nothing "great" about the team he's assembled.

If we want to win a cup THIS YEAR, he will address the 2c issue sooner rather than later (this point has been discussed ad NAUSEUM!) and maybe address some "grit" issues sooner rather than later (perhaps Langenbrunner for a softie forward?).

Is management shooting for a long term contender, or a CUP THIS YEAR? Looks to me like maybe we're shooting for the long-term. I would like something about that to change. We can worry about the long-term after we've won our first cup ever, but let's go get our FIRST cup THIS YEAR.

Just sayin...

Posted by: sca187 | January 6, 2011 8:25 PM | Report abuse

Great article and certainly some valid points...but I just don't feel quite as worried as to wonder if they're a contender or not

There is no doubt in my mind that not only are they A contender...they are THE contender, in my opinion of course.

While it is true that they aren't scoring 5 goals every game this year, and ovie's offense (as you mentioned; by his standards) is off by pretty considerable amount....they do still have one of the best records in hockey. Even with that 8 game blip. Chicago, if memory serves me correctly, had an 8 game losing streak last year, and they won it all!

They are playing a much more rounded and balanced game. Their defense and especially goaltending has REALLY stepped it up so far this season. Varly has played more consistently (when he's been healthy of course...another consistency, although not the right kind), and Neuvy has impressed the heck out of me. As this article points out....they are 9th in league in goals against...and 3rd in the penalty kill!

I infact have never been more hopeful that this could finally be our year. Everything you have heard from the coaches, players, anyone else from within the organization, media, 'pundits', 'experts', etc etc have all maintained the exact same position as to the teams' focus: its ALL about the playoffs. Especially after last year's debacle (although I seem to be in minority in believing it was less caps playing bad and much more of a ridiculously hot goalie who stole a series virtually single-handedly in Halak) I see that mentality in the way Caps have been playing their games. Much less of the 'run-n-gun' and much more of the nitty gritty that is required to go far in the postseason. They're doing the small things that don't get on the highlight reels...they're grinding it out, they're fighting for and blocking more pucks. They're crashing the net more, they're more conservative in the neutral zone. All of it adds up to a team that is focused and ready for a satisfying and long posteason journey this year

The one aspect that truly does worry me, however, is the power play. I keep hoping for it to suddenly wake up and convert at a 30-40% clip for a chunk of calender at a time...but been waiting a while now! Im not quite sure what's going on there other than what the hbo series showed bruce stressing...put more pucks on the net and less passing. If they can get their powerplay going like the #1 ranked PP unit of last year at the right time, namely in April-June; then that would leave me with NO worries about their chances to finally bring a cup to Washington DC!

Go CAPS!!

Posted by: pjmorin20 | January 7, 2011 12:28 AM | Report abuse

"The Caps lack a battle-tested second line center"

We're not in the playoffs yet. There's 41 games left. 41 games to further battle test Perreault and Johansson. You could equally argue that the Varly/Neuvy combo hasn't showed across a full season that it can deliver - maybe because we're only half way through! These things will work out over time, but we have to remember that rookies develop over the course of the 82 game season. We can't just look at them after 41 games and say they're not good enough for the playoffs.

Basically it's called a learning curve.

Posted by: ajcb | January 7, 2011 8:26 AM | Report abuse

If the most negative blogger in all of Caps fandom is saying maybe, then I think we'll be all right.

Posted by: kittypawz | January 7, 2011 8:31 AM | Report abuse

Contender.

Ovechkin may be becoming less relevant. Or maybe, The Need For The Old Ovechkin may not be so great anymore. Which can only be a good thing, as it can free him up to be what the team needs, which is not so much goalage from him if they're playing defense.

"Battle tested" (ask the Canadiens) is what you get when you don't spend half the season wondering by how many points you will win President's. The 1-0 OT loss to TB was a great sign, not a bummer. Scoring Machine Gets Zero in Regulation And No We Don't Mean The Caps was the story of that game. Secondary story: Caps Hangover From Winter Classic. And still the game took so much out of TB that they got utterly crunched by the Pens - who must have been majorly pumped to win that one - and openly said afterward that was why.

I'm not worried about this team. They're back, but now they're back with D. That was the Missing Ingredient. I wouldn't touch a thing. "Battle tested" will take care of itself.

If a 'burgher or Phillyite were writing this, one thing would change. OK, yeah, the details would be about their team. But here's one sentence that would change for absolute sure, to absolutely this:

"Let me start by saying that I see two clear-cut contenders in the East: [insert Philadelphia/Pittsburgh here] and Washington."

'Cause that's the way it is.

I understand. Sports fans get like this about their teams. A lot of us wrung our hands about the 1991 Redskins too. Read up for how that one turned out.

Posted by: poorskins | January 7, 2011 4:12 PM | Report abuse

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