A red road renaissance
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.
| February 10, 2011; 12:30 PM ET
Categories: Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily | Tags: Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily
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