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Posted at 10:34 AM ET, 02/ 7/2011

On Hockey: Can one weekend turn around the Caps' season?

By Tarik El-Bashir
Tarik El-Bashir

Introducing a new weekly analysis from former Capitals beat writer Tarik El-Bashir:

With 28 games and two months remaining in the NHL's regular season, it's too early to call this weekend a turning point. But if the Capitals finally live up to their immense expectations this spring, we'll look back at Friday's triumph in Tampa and Sunday's shutout against Pittsburgh as just that.

The Capitals played with intensity, discipline and focus against their biggest rivals. And after they blanked the Penguins, Coach Bruce Boudreau and his players sounded like they, too, are starting to believe, once again, that they're capable of contending for the Cup -- even if this isn't the same run-and-gun, lead-the-league-in-every-offensive-category outfit fans embraced the past couple of winters.

"The adjustment wasn't that difficult," Boudreau told me as he left the building Sunday. "It's just creating offense from it gets frustrating when you're used to going the other way attacking."

"The problem is," he added, "everyone thinks we should win 6-1, and we're not."

Those days are gone. Sunday's grind-it-out, 3-0 decision over Pittsburgh reinforced that fact. So get over it, Washington.

Brooks Laich, the locker room's unofficial spokesman, spoke Sunday about playing "committed" hockey and rediscovering "our identity." Boudreau, meanwhile, fired a shot at his club's many critics, saying, "We're not that destitute team everyone thinks we are once a week."

During that season-threatening, eight-game losing streak in December, Boudreau confronted the fact that the power play and many of his star players weren't producing as they had in the past. He responded by tightening up his system's forecheck and neutral zone in an effort to compensate for a goal-per-game dropoff in scoring.

Forwards are now a little more responsible, defensemen are more certain of the opposing player they're supposed to contain and, as a result, the number of odd-man rushes against is way down and Washington's goalies are experiencing fewer anxiety attacks. (I can only imagine what Olie Kolzig and Jose Theodore mutter under their breath as they watch the Capitals from afar these days.)

The adjustment has taken some time, and perhaps a little convincing in closed-door meetings, but it now seems all of the Capitals, from Alex Ovechkin on down, have bought in.

In the 20 games since the switch, the Capitals have yielded 1.7 goals per game (not counting shootout goals) and are hockey's fifth-best team in goals allowed per contest (2.39).

The bottom line is, for the time being at least, they're winning.

They halted Steven Stamkos and the Lightning's winning streak at six games, and in the process, whittled Tampa Bay's lead in the Southeast Division to three points. And they humbled their fiercest rival before a national television audience for the second time in five weeks. Sure, Pittsburgh didn't have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. But the Capitals didn't have Alexander Semin, Eric Fehr, Tom Poti or, for the final 40 minutes, Mike Green. (Semin, by the way, told me in the press box that he hopes to return Tuesday from a groin muscle injury that's sidelined him the past 12 games.)

It's an admittedly tiny sample size, and there are problems still to be sorted out. The inability to win in overtime and the lack of consistent contributions from the second-line center position rank as Nos. 1 and 2 in my mind.

And the schedule doesn't get any easier, either, not with San Jose and Los Angeles set to visit Verizon Center and a five-games-in-eight-days road trip after that.

"We can either start making up some ground and getting back to being one of the top teams in the East, or you can find yourself in the playoff 'hunt,'" Laich said, "just trying to get into the playoffs."

The upcoming stretch will be the Capitals' most important of the season. It also figures to show whether they have in fact turned a corner, or if this is just another peak in a season defined by ups and downs.

By Tarik El-Bashir  | February 7, 2011; 10:34 AM ET
Categories:  Bruce Boudreau, El-Bashir On Hockey, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning  
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Next: Mike Green not on the ice for Capitals' practice

Comments

I can only imagine what Olie Kolzig and Jose Theodore mutter under their breath as they watch the Capitals from afar these days.)


Hahahah! I bet!

Posted by: capscoach | February 7, 2011 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Great to have you back, Tarik.

Posted by: JWJr | February 7, 2011 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I have been critical of this system the past few weeks, but I gotta admit that it's been great for building the confidence of 2 young goalies as they are giving up less than 2 goals a game recently. The more confidence they get, the better they (and the team) will play.

I was at the game yesterday and it may have been the most complete game I have seen them play in a long time. It was a great win!!

Posted by: MattBradley10 | February 7, 2011 10:52 AM | Report abuse

The worry is not "oh no why don't we score 4 goals/game anymore!" The worry is the inconsistent efforts, the lack of production from the Big Guns, and the stagnant power play. None of those things have ANYTHING to do with the new defensive system.

Those are the three most worrisome things, and the last two games suggest they are being corrected.

Posted by: ThisGuy | February 7, 2011 11:05 AM | Report abuse

The team played well yesterday. I think part of it was MP and MaJo were able to both play against players that arent as good as them. It allowed us to keep posession of the puck more and create turnovers in the neutral zone.

The defense played very solid, especially with only being with 5 guys for 40 minutes.

The only part I didnt like about the game was Steckel agreeing to fight at the time he did. It was very poor timing. 2 goal lead, with around 12 minutes left. Gives them a little shot of energy and we lose one of our better PKer and faceoff guy. Then not shockingly we take the bad penalty but luckily were able to kill off that penalty. But that decision by Steckel was pretty dumb in my opinion.

Posted by: ThePat | February 7, 2011 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I enjoyed the jeering the caps got as they stalled for time behind their own net for a quick minute during the game. I'd like ot think it was Pitt fans, mad at the Caps slowing down the pace, but I'm sure there were plenty of Caps fans joining in. Sigh

Posted by: GFisher1 | February 7, 2011 11:14 AM | Report abuse

None of my posts were ever "held for review" by Tarik, but I haven't been able to post anything longer than 1-sentence since last week......what gives?

Posted by: vermontcaps | February 7, 2011 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Weekly analysis -- just in time Tarik!
Katie's fine, but I miss your insight, so am happy you're back.
Glad Semin is finally able to play.

Posted by: ophelia2 | February 7, 2011 11:18 AM | Report abuse

It's great to have Tarik along presenting OPINIONS!!! Is there a full fledged sports columnist in the making???

Posted by: SuperG5 | February 7, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Knuble/Laich on the PP yesterday was looking really good. OV on the point, not so much. Move Carlson to the point, please. Overall, the PP looked much better: less passing, more moving without the pock, more traffic in front of the net and more shots.

Posted by: doughless | February 7, 2011 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Tarik! Good to see you back even if it's just occasionally.

Posted by: farmgirl19C | February 7, 2011 11:25 AM | Report abuse

@doughless

Carlson is on the point with Green when they were both out there. Not sure what you were watching. Only reason Ovi was on point was because Green got hurt.

Posted by: ThePat | February 7, 2011 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Katie's been doing a fine job, but I agree that it's nice to see you do an article on the Caps...Thanks Tarik!

Posted by: Blueline | February 7, 2011 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Wow, that one got posted so let's go for two in a row...

How come nobody here has called #55 out for his no-show after Cooke's knee on Ovi? It seemed like he gave Cooke a one-handed slash to his skateblade, then stood as far away as he could while Backstrom (of all people) went after Cooke.

Hopefully, everyone remembers his debacle in Dallas when he failed to support Ovi after Majo was creamed by Ott. Twice now, the largest man on the ice stood meekly by as a teammate writhed in pain after absorbing a questionable/cheap hit. And to think his spot in the lineup is all but guaranteed....jeez!!

I say when Poti returns, he should be reunited w/Erskine and Hannan should skate w/Green...****55 should spend some time in the pressbox thinking about what it means to be a teammate.

Posted by: vermontcaps | February 7, 2011 11:28 AM | Report abuse

But even after Green got hurt, I'd much rather have Ovie down low than on the point, even if that means putting Alzner [or somebody] back there, I'm sure he and Carlson would do fine. Carlson for sure needs to be on the #1 unit, as he was yesterday.

I may not agree with Milbury on much - but the guy played, coached and managed for a long time in the NHL - and he sounded befuddled that Ovie would see any time whatsoever, back on the point. It's just not a good fit, other teams have adjusted and he hasn't. Let him put that power and physicality to use, down low.

Posted by: Timbo_1 | February 7, 2011 11:30 AM | Report abuse

TEB - can you make this a Daily as well as Weekly Update? It is great to get some real news for a change.

Posted by: MReilly9 | February 7, 2011 11:30 AM | Report abuse

How come nobody here has called #55 out for his no-show after Cooke's knee on Ovi? It seemed like he gave Cooke a one-handed slash to his skateblade, then stood as far away as he could while Backstrom (of all people) went after Cooke.
--------------

Just re-watched the replay clip of that - you do speak the truth, sir.


Posted by: Timbo_1 | February 7, 2011 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Nice to see you writing regularly on the NHL again, Tarik. Hope the less travel intensive columnist roll fits your family schedule better than the Caps beat reporter gig.

The L.A. game will be interesting. Disclosure: I'm a Kings fan first, and the Kings seem to have a decent record winning at Verizon. They come to play, and given the tightness in the West, they have to. We'll see if the Caps can get up for a non-conference game.

Posted by: oldtimehockey | February 7, 2011 11:38 AM | Report abuse

ThePat:

I guess my point is that OV should not play point. Just doesn't work.

Posted by: doughless | February 7, 2011 11:43 AM | Report abuse

So Semin actually talked with a reported? Please bring Tarik back.

Posted by: chatton | February 7, 2011 12:12 PM | Report abuse

It's wonderful to have Tarik writing about our Caps. We have sorely missed you this year. I think they should bring you back. Your writing ability and your knowledge of hockey and the Caps is missing. We need you Tarik.

Posted by: coachgranny | February 7, 2011 12:14 PM | Report abuse

all - question? am I wrong? Should the cooke knee been 5 minutes? I watched it twice and it seems intentional, especially since the steckel / crosby situation at the WC.

as for #55 i can't agree more and no idea why he doesn't do SOMETHING. could be biased but i feel like our guys were getting totally smacked yesterday by their "big guys" and our guys were throwing wimpy hits. ovi shouldn't be the one to go for the energy charging hit!

Posted by: blur991 | February 7, 2011 12:14 PM | Report abuse

(I can only imagine what Olie Kolzig and Jose Theodore mutter under their breath as they watch the Capitals from afar these days.)

Actually, Theo was on HNiC Radio a few weeks ago and talked about the Wild's D and how well they communicate with G. That he did not have that in the past.

Posted by: ljo211 | February 7, 2011 12:19 PM | Report abuse

(I can only imagine what Olie Kolzig and Jose Theodore mutter under their breath as they watch the Capitals from afar these days.)

Actually, Theo was on HNiC Radio a few weeks ago and talked about the Wild's D and how well they communicate with G. That he did not have that in the past.

Posted by: ljo211 | February 7, 2011 12:20 PM | Report abuse

@Tarik,

Great to read your analysis...

And, Semin - English or Russian speaking?

Posted by: dezlboy1 | February 7, 2011 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Tarik, You are great and so is your reporting. I want to join those who are thrilled that you will be making a weekly effort to give a fuller picture of what is going on with the Caps.

I still think that the power play hasn't come around yet in spite of your reporting. It looked better yesterday, but still not much to show for the chances that they had.

Posted by: Landshark | February 7, 2011 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Awesome to have you back Tarik. We missed you!

Posted by: madflava | February 7, 2011 12:52 PM | Report abuse

It was a good weekend, but I'd like to see them keep up that consistency for good string of games before I say that they have solved their problems. I've been tough on BB, but he definately out coached Nichols on Friday. Most importantly the team stuck to a plan for the whole 60 minutes and shut them down in the third.

Posted by: akmzrazor | February 7, 2011 1:32 PM | Report abuse

"The problem is," he added, "everyone thinks we should win 6-1, and we're not."

-BB

Is that really what everyone thinks? I suspect not. I suspect most folks are more concerned with inconsistent play and winning than blowing out the other team 6-1.

Posted by: BetterOffWithFedorov | February 7, 2011 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Tarik !Tarik! Tarik!

Posted by: Capitals8 | February 7, 2011 1:37 PM | Report abuse

TEB!!!!! You're right. Our PP still looked horrible though.

But, if we can score shorthanded - can we just take one of our men off the ice when a penalty is called on an opposing team?

Posted by: CF11555 | February 7, 2011 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Welcome back, Tarik! Terrific to have your informed analysis *at least* once a week (and I hope once-a-game come playoff time if not sooner). Won't hold my breath waiting for your editors to put your columns in the print edition, but this is a heckuva lot better than relying on your hockey-challenged Post columnist colleagues (Katie excepted, of course).

Posted by: jhershb | February 7, 2011 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Welcome back, Tarik! Terrific to have your informed analysis *at least* once a week (and I hope once-a-game come playoff time if not sooner). Won't hold my breath waiting for your editors to put your columns in the print edition, but this is a heckuva lot better than relying on your hockey-challenged Post colleagues (Katie excepted, of course).

Posted by: jhershb | February 7, 2011 1:39 PM | Report abuse

You missed us!! This is a great compromise to the improved balance I hope you've found in your life. Great to have your excellent analysis back.

Posted by: vafan3 | February 7, 2011 2:12 PM | Report abuse

@ThisGuy

"The worry is not "oh no why don't we score 4 goals/game anymore!" The worry is the inconsistent efforts, the lack of production from the Big Guns, and the stagnant power play. None of those things have ANYTHING to do with the new defensive system.

Those are the three most worrisome things, and the last two games suggest they are being corrected."
----
Surely, you must understand that hockey isn't football, where the offense and defense take turns playing. Everyone on the ice is playing both sides of the game all the time - just some more than others (in each direction).

So, yeah, the new DEFENSIVE system does in fact impact how the OFFENSE performs, because those guys are playing defense too, following the new system.

Posted by: KnubleEveIt | February 7, 2011 2:28 PM | Report abuse

6-1 is a two way game!

Posted by: JunkGoal | February 7, 2011 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Great to see Tarik writing about the Caps.

Posted by: NovaCath | February 7, 2011 7:24 PM | Report abuse

Tarik come back,let her cover wizards.

Posted by: 23rough | February 7, 2011 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Tarik come back,let her cover wizards.

Posted by: 23rough | February 7, 2011 9:38 PM | Report abuse

"So, yeah, the new DEFENSIVE system does in fact impact how the OFFENSE performs, because those guys are playing defense too, following the new system."

No, not really. Tarik is WAY too quick here to give praise. Yes they played well over the weekend but how quickly people have already forgotten the multiple shutouts this year, the boring, stagnant 2-1 losses. Weak efforts and sloppy play. Sure they're doing better, but honestly does anyone think they can beat someone like a Philadelphia in a 7-game series? With a PP that's awful and an offense that comes and goes when it likes?

This team and its coaches, management, ownership like to act like this is some major dynasty, instead of a team that's advanced past the second round of the playoffs once in fifteen years. Don't tell us to "get over it" Tarik. We don't need 6-1 games but we'd like to see a tough defense with a half-coherent offense. They can play both when they want to, as they've shown this year. But many times, the effort just isn't there.

Not suprised Green is wussing out for tomorrow night. So much for "I'll be fine and will play." Hopefully he won't take a month and a half off "recovering" like Semin has. Knuble would be out there...but he's tough.

Posted by: jollyroger2 | February 7, 2011 10:55 PM | Report abuse

Not suprised Crysby is wussing out for tomorrow night.

Posted by: fakedude2 | February 7, 2011 11:00 PM | Report abuse

Welcome back Tarik!

I will be on the record for not buying into this defensive scheme. Sorry to disagree with some here. It is not why the Caps lost to the Habs.

For me to be convinced that the Caps have turned the corner, I need to see the top two lines producing more. The Caps can not depend on secondary scoring to win series. The top line of the Caps needs to put in one goal a game, either at even strength or on the PP. Until I see the top 2 lines doing it consistently, Im going to hold out my believe that the defensive quasi trap glove does not fit yet and perhaps never will with the personnel the Caps have.

Posted by: cirrus_nine | February 8, 2011 12:15 AM | Report abuse

"TEB!!!!! You're right. Our PP still looked horrible though.

But, if we can score shorthanded - can we just take one of our men off the ice when a penalty is called on an opposing team?"

___________________________________________

Lol, I believe wed have to take two players off of the ice in that situation in order to get a shorty....4 on 3 not 4 on 4....

Posted by: opticlguy | February 8, 2011 10:19 AM | Report abuse

"...it now seems all of the Capitals, from Alex Ovechkin on down, have bought in."

All except Alexander Semin that is. Yet to be seen how his return will effect the new chemistry but I don't think he had fully or even partial bought in pre-injury. Hopefully he has seen the light.

Posted by: congero | February 8, 2011 12:07 PM | Report abuse

It's funny to me that everyone freaks out because the Caps haven't locked up the Eastern Conference yet. If you look at where this team was at this point a year ago, the only real difference in terms of success is that they can't close out games in OT or shootouts (which partly explains the 8 game losing streak...partly). That's also the only reason they are behind TB. Tampa is much improved, but they RARELY lose in OT, whereas the Caps are completely snake bit. If you all remember, the Caps still won a lot of games by one goal last year...it was just 5-4 as opposed to 2-1 as has become the norm this year. I was a little skeptical at first about changing the system, and it's taken some time for me to come around, but I truly believe that this team will be much better prepared for success when/if the playoffs come around. Also, let's wait and see how the second line does once Semin is back. Part of the problem with the lack of production of that line has to do with his absence. 28 games to find some consistency...let's hope BB knows what he's doing!

Posted by: emc7x | February 8, 2011 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Way to fix the power play = Take Ovechkin off the point. Yes, we all know he has a wicked slapper, and so does every other player in the NHL, we're not fooling anyone anymore. Put him back down on the wing and put Green and Alzner/Carlson up there. Put Backy, Ovie and Perrault out there then roll out Johannson, Laich, and Semin on the second line with Hannan and Carlson/Alzner. Create more down low, we have been better when we grind around the net. Team is playing well right now. Seem to be really confident and it looks like the AS break really helped this team thus far.

Posted by: smfoster3 | February 8, 2011 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Don't you think this new defensive style of play for the Caps is better suited to play-off hockey? I think last year's offensive, free-wheeling style showed a lack of discipline, which proved to be a disaster in the play-offs. This year's December slump was the best thing for the team if it taught Bruce and the boys that they needed a fundamental change of style to make a deep run in the post season. They're getting the benefit of a couple of months to practice it and learn their roles. Now if they'll just continue to muck it up in front of the net to create screens and knock in rebounds (so-called cheap goals) they might actually be ready to challenge for the Cup.

Posted by: 20ike | February 8, 2011 1:39 PM | Report abuse

20ike:

The Caps offense produced 3 one goal games versus the Canadians. The offense didnt get it done.

Ya Halak was amazing but the Pens scored up a bunch on him. The Caps offense did not create enough traffic around the net. Caps needed more dirty goals and a better forecheck on a smaller but faster team. Their power play was also a downer there.

So the Caps reaction to this? MORE DEFENSE!

Say what?

Posted by: theAnswerIs42 | February 8, 2011 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Crapitals can beat the Pens every year during the regular season (just like last year). But until you beat them in the "Playoffs" it doesn't matter. The question really should be, can the capitals EVER shake the Pens?

Posted by: jackm4070 | February 8, 2011 6:50 PM | Report abuse

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