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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 02/10/2011

A red road renaissance

By Kareem El-Alaily

The Ovechkin era has enthralled D.C. area fans, filling up Chinatown on game nights and elevating the Verizon Center into one of the toughest, loudest places to play in the NHL. Lest you think the Rockin’ the Red phenomenon is only restricted to the D.C. area, Caps Nation has also brought numbers with them for road games, a drastic change from the pre-Ovechkin era when you could watch the team play in other arenas and count the number of Caps fans on your hands and feet.

I’ve had the privilege of attending eight road contests in the past two years, including games in New York (Rangers), Pittsburgh, Newark (Devils), Philadelphia, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale (Panthers), and in all those cities Caps fans were well represented regardless of whether the game was afternoon or evening, weekday or weekend. Everyone knows about how Caps fans took over Pittsburgh for the Winter Classic, but even in notoriously rowdy Philadelphia on a recent Tuesday night, Caps fans were in force, taking up a quarter of my upper deck section and the one next to it. Times have changed.

Last Friday there were hundreds of Caps fans in the St. Pete Times Forum - with a few of them shouting the customary “Red” and “O” during the national anthem - including regulars that I recognized from the upper deck of the Verizon Center. Granted, we’ll never have a mega-sized fan base like the Leafs or Rangers but I can’t help to think that the Caps players notice this three-digit road support and feel a jolt of energy from seeing so many “friendlies” in the crowd. Keep up the good work, Caps fans!

Two more notes:

-- Last week I asked a poll question about what issue ailed the Caps the most. Twenty-eight percent of you either blamed “poor coaching” or “playing the wrong system”, two areas that point straight to Bruce Boudreau. I struggle with hoisting this year’s problems on coaching. On one hand, Bruce has not found consistency with this bunch like he did last year and he hasn’t figured out how to untrack his star players. Ultimately that’s on him, and if he doesn’t fix it and make a deep run in the playoffs his job status will be tenuous going into the summer. However, Bruce is also dealing with injuries, playing a lot of rookies and getting opponent’s best efforts on a nightly basis, and yet he still has managed to produce a team that sits at seventh in the NHL in points. (And they’d be higher if we were merely average performers in overtime.) Additionally, the man was vilified last spring (outside of D.C.) for playing firewagon hockey and not having his team prepared for playoff-style hockey.

So what did he do about it? He installed a “play right” system that focuses on clogging the middle, blocking shots, breaking out cleanly, dumping and chasing and working hard to earn goals. How many coaches do you know that have successfully installed a totally new system mid-season to address team woes? Not many. It’s impressive, and the only thing preventing it from being a runaway success would be if the entire team would buy in. (Right now, there are some top-liners that still won’t play this style all the time.) I know some fans want to revert back to the Run-N-Gun but that style was simply not producing goals for us before Bruce implemented his changes. I understand the angst among fans, but Bruce’s adjustments have made our talented-but-flawed squad competitive on a nightly basis. His final grade won’t be determined until the spring but right now the difficulties of this season should not be placed solely at Bruce’s feet.

-- There is a segment of the fan base that believes the Caps are good enough to beat anyone on any night and that it’s simply a matter of wanting to win. There’s partial truth to that. The Caps CAN win a single game against anyone in the league anywhere, anytime. The problem is that the team lacks the consistency to do it repeatedly when the pressure is on, a trait they will need to develop by playoff time. If we look at the six “big” games they’ve played this year – the three against Pittsburgh plus the last three games against Tampa -- the team is 3-2-1. Even when the team “wants it”, they’ve only won half of their games -- two coming this past weekend.

The Caps have never been characterized as a “mentally tough” team and Tuesday’s stinker against the Sharks – on the heels of an impressive weekend – regrettably doesn’t disqualify that description. So in addition to my pie-in-the-sky hope that we land an impact center, add one more wish to my Feb. 28 trade deadline list: a tough-nosed veteran player who has Cup-winning experience and an understanding of the mental toughness required to advance in the playoffs. And a bit of offense would be nice too! Perhaps something along the lines of the Brian Bellows trade that George McPhee engineered in 1998 or the 2008 trade that brought in Sergei Fedorov.

By Kareem El-Alaily  | February 10, 2011; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  | Tags:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  
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Next: Ignoring the burning wreckage, part 3: the midfield

Comments

I've never been on the fire BB bandwagon and don't see it as a constructive move at this point of the season. That being said, if, as you state in your piece, there are still some top line players not buying into the system and BB is not exacting a price from those players, it is on him and it is not good.

Posted by: prestoj | February 10, 2011 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Don't Caps fan know best? I mean befor BB became coach most of the "Fans" know didn't know squat about hockey.. They still don't, but they sure know how to coach hockey.. When you go from being one of the best offensive teams with tons of holes, be being one of the top defensive teams, with less holes people get frustrated, I do sometimes, but I also know this team can turn it on when needed. I bet the Caps will play great hockey come the playoffs and will benefit from these close games and losses... Mark my post!

Posted by: CapsBaby | February 10, 2011 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Great Post! The Caps have learned how to play in the playoffs and it might not show until then. Ovi and Backstrom need to step up and play like they play and things will show. The goals against is improving. At the other end, fly around and make stuff happen. Pass, Pass, Pass, Pass - Power play over. Shoot a bomb from the points and watch the damn puck bounce around and create a chance for you. Easy aimed half effort shots from the point are a dream to defense against.

Posted by: ballgame21 | February 10, 2011 4:16 PM | Report abuse

What do you mean that the "run and gun" style was not producing goals before the change? In the first two months of the season--right up until the losing streak started after the Dec. 1 game--the Caps average about 3. 33 goals per game. Not as high as last year, but still pretty strong. I call that producing goals. Yes, the team was still not playing great-they were taking periods off, losing leads, etc.--but they were scoring. They did suffer a few shutouts in that time frame, but they were more due to terrible efforts (games in ATL and NJ in November) than lack of goal production. Since the losing streak began, and then the defensive system was implemented, the team is averaging two goals a game. Sure, the goals allowed is down significantly, too, but they're also losing a lot more games than they were the first part of the year.
Yes, guys like Ovy and Backstrom were not that great early in the year, but they were still scoring more--and getting lots more chances--in those first two months. The idea that this new system is a reaction to a lack of goals early in the year just isn't borne out by the facts.

Posted by: TheFingerman | February 10, 2011 6:54 PM | Report abuse

@Fingerman,

Respectfully disagree. Your stance assumes that the Caps pre-Trap offensive situation was static. It wasn't. Yes, they averaged 3+ goals/game, but there was a key reality that surfaced in the first half of the season: teams figured out that Montreal's approach to shutting the Caps down wasn't a fluke and eventually followed suit. Teams focused on clogging the middle and shutting down Backstrom/Ovechkin. So once Alex Semin cooled off from singlehandedly carrying the offensive load the scoring slowed significantly.

Disciplined hockey is the Run-N-Gun's kryptonite. While opponents won't play it every game against the Caps in the regular season you can be assured that opponents will play Montreal's disciplined style of hockey in the playoffs. Consequently, Bruce concluded (appropriately, I believe) that the Run-N-Gun won't work in the playoffs. That's why he implemented his new system. In my opinion it's hands down the right decision.

One more note...the new system is not at fault for the Caps lack of scoring. The team is still producing 30.5 shots/game (since Dec 9), they're just not burying their chances. It's not a systemic issue.

Kareem

Posted by: topshelf_22304 | February 10, 2011 7:59 PM | Report abuse

Kareem,

I think your point is basically correct--teams had seemed to "figure out" the Caps in the first part of the season (although they still seemed to be able to win more often than not). But was there a way to alter the old, more offensively focused system to respond to that, rather than completely change the way the team plays by moving to a system that doesn't play to the Caps' strengths as a creative, offensively skilled team?

As for getting the same amount of chances and just not burying them, I'm not sure I buy that statistic. I've watched too many Caps games the last two months where the team does virtually nothing for a couple periods and then has a big flurry while trying to make up a deficit in the third (or has a great first period with a bunch of shots and then nothing the rest of the game). It may come to 25-30 shots a game, but it's deceiving.

The fact is, this team couldn't bury its chances in the Montreal series last year (they had 50 shots in game 6 and 40 in game seven, I believe, so the problem wasn't shots on goal), and they, other than a couple games here and there, haven't been able to score consistently for two months now--even with a man advantage. Part of the problem appears to be motivation, but there's something else missing, and I don't really understand what it is. And as a fan, I find it hard to have any real optimism that this team can win in the playoffs when they haven't looked right and seemed lacking in desire most of the season. I hope I'm wrong.

Posted by: TheFingerman | February 10, 2011 11:28 PM | Report abuse

@ The Fingerman wrote: The fact is, this team couldn't bury its chances in the Montreal series last year (they had 50 shots in game 6 and 40 in game seven, I believe, so the problem wasn't shots on goal)

-------------------------------------------------

This is because Montreal forced them to take low percentage shots. The Caps had to adjust but couldn't because they didn't know how. This is the main point.

The new system had to be implemented early enough this season that it could become a well oiled machine by playoff time. What you are witnessing now is the team struggling to implement a new system and finally getting it in a few recent games notably the Tampa and Pittsburgh wins. As Kareem noted, some of the players haven't totally bought in. I think Semin is the biggest obstacle in this regard. Yes he lead the team in shots against San Jose but they were again low percentage curl and drag moves with the D collapsing on him. If he keeps that up OV and others will be tempted to try that stuff too with detrimental effects.

The whole team has to buy in. The Caps need to gain more experience working the cycle in real games where the D is pushing back hard. Thats the only way they will start to get it. If Semin keeps rushing the puck and winding up from above the circles it will deflate the whole effort. I'm not btw putting it all on Semin, just using that as an example because we saw plenty of it against Montreal and again against San Jose and it didn't work. The same goes for the whole team.

Posted by: congero | February 12, 2011 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps not a mega-sized fan base, but when there's a homeless guy on your block wearing a caps shirt (in Australia), you've got to recognize at least a somewhat decent-sized representation.

Posted by: jamieg00 | February 15, 2011 4:23 PM | Report abuse

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