Thursday, May 14, 2015

What's Next?

100 seconds. That's how far away the Caps were from extending their season into the third week of May for the first time since 1998.

100 seconds and 5 days later, the season is over after what may be the worst of the numerous collapses in Caps history. We all know what happened yesterday, and I see no reason to harp upon it. What I do want to do, however, is examine where the Caps are and what happens next.

First, though, let's get one thing straight: the Caps did not choke.

The Caps choked against Montreal in 2010. They choked in 2012 against the Rangers. They choked again against the Rangers in 2013. In all of those series, the Caps were overachievers who had gotten to where they were in spite of themselves, not because of themselves.

This year was not those years, and this team was not those teams.

Oh, the media will definitely add this to the narrative about OV and the Caps being chokers. And lets be honest, the Caps deserve it, having been so close to the next round and watching it slip away.

But we, the Caps fans, should know better, as we always do. This team, our team, went toe-to-toe with the heavily favored defending Eastern Conference champs and Presidents Trophy winners in easily the best series of the playoffs so far. It hurts now, but we fans should realize how well this team played and we should be proud of the strides they have taken since missing the playoffs last year.

Let's start with OV. He will undoubtedly be the most scrutinized player in the aftermath of this loss. After Game 6, OV made his 'guarantee' that the Caps would come out strong and win Game 7. Well, OV and the Caps definitely came out strong. OV made his presence felt early and often. He was third on the team in individual even strength Corsi-for behind only Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jay Beagle, both of whom were on another level yesterday. When you add in the power play, which was absolutely abysmal again, OV is tied with Kuzya for first on the team. OV definitely backed up his words yesterday, and he is not to blame for this loss.

Let's be honest, however, the Caps are still responsible for their own loss. Yes, the bounces stopped going their way. Yes, they played very well at the end of Game 6 and in Game 7. But no team that blows a 3 games to 1 series lead can only blame luck. There were definitely other factors at play.

For one, the production from the Caps was consistently inconsistent in the series. OV led the Caps with 3 goals, two of them in Games 1 and 2. After him, three players (Joel Ward, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Andre Burakovsky) had 2 goals, and 3 players (Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, and Curtis Glencross) had 1 goal. The Caps only scored 12 goals in the series, 3 of which were in the Game 6 loss. If the Caps had gotten one more goal somewhere in Games 5-7, the series would have gone the other way.

Building off of that, the power play was absolutely horrendous. The Caps had the best power play in the regular season, but was only able to score once in the Rangers series, the first goal of the entire series. Considering that we blew three power plays in Game 7, that hurts, to say the least.

Building off of that, the penalty kill had to spend way too much time on the ice. Don't get me wrong, the penalty kill was phenomenal; however, the Caps were shorthanded way too many times, especially in Game 7 when it mattered most, with Mike Green sent to the box twice in a row thanks to dumb penalties, allowing the Rags to capitalize on the second one.

And that brings me to the last point about why the Caps lost: the defense. The Caps have one of the strongest defenses in team history, but when it mattered most, it faltered. John Carlson was not good yesterday, Tim Gleason was slow, and Mike Green was absolutely abysmal. It would be a real shame if this was Green's last game in a Caps sweater.

That's a perfect way to transition into the next part of this post: what should the Caps do moving forward?

It's clear that the Caps are still a piece or two away from being a legit Stanley Cup contender. However, the huge strides the Caps made this year compared to the previous season's disOatester are a source of pride and hope for next year.

I'm going to start with the back end for the Caps. Goaltending? Caps are sitting pretty with top-10 goalie Braden Holtby who I hope will sign a long-term deal in the 6 x 6 range.

Next, the defense. The Top 4 is all but set in stone, with Brooks Orpik, Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner anchoring a very talented, physical and dangerous D corps. That leaves two everyday playing spots and a plethora of options to choose from. With Tim Gleason obviously gone, the only thing left is to address the elephant in the room.

Should the Caps re-sign Mike Green? I'm going to say no, and it's not just a knee-jerk reaction to his horrible performance yesterday. The Caps have a plethora of talented defensemen in Hershey to choose from, with Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Connor Carrick and soon Madison Bowey ready to claim their spot with the big club. I love Green and he has been awesome with the Caps for nearly a decade. Still, I don't think the Caps are willing to shell out $5 mil + for a 5D especially with so much talent waiting in the wings.

That leaves the following as our defense entering next year:
Orpik - Carlson
Alzner - Niskanen
Schmidt - Orlov
Carrick

That is a very talented group capable of rolling three solid lines with enough depth to withstand the inevitable injuries we'll suffer next year.

And now, the forwards.

It's clear that the Caps do not have enough Top 6 talent to compete with the best of the NHL. The top priority for the Caps this offseason should be to find a first line Right Wing capable of playing a Mike Knuble role. The first line was best when OV and Backstrom were playing with Joel Ward who fits into that hard-nosed go-to-the-net role but does not have top-line talent. In my opinion, the best option there would be Tom Wilson. There is nobody in free agency who is capable of playing that role effectively. I truly believe he will thrive on the top line, and I was extremely impressed with how well he played in the regular season.

Here's how the Top 6 should look next year:
Ovechkin - Backstrom - Wilson
Burakovsky - Kuznetsov - Johansson

That leaves the bottom six, where the Caps need more depth. If there is one player the Caps have to re-sign this year, it's Eric Fehr, who was awesome last year. I also can't see Jay Beagle going anywhere, and Joel Ward has the Barry Trotz connection, and I'm OK with the Caps re-signing him as long as it's not 3 mil a year.

That leaves Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, Michael Latta and Brooks Laich fighting for the fourth line spot. Personally, I would like to trade away two or three of the guys not named Latta in that list, possibly for a better player or first round pick.

Here is how the bottom 6 could look next year:
Beagle - Fehr - Ward
xxx - Latta - xxx
*xxx is Brouwer, Chimera, Laich, someone from Hersey, or someone acquired from a trade

Hopefully, this will allow the Caps to build more forward depth.

Overall, the Caps are in a much better shape entering this offseason than they were entering last offseason, and once we fans get over our disappointment, I think we will all see that as well. I have been a Caps fan for all my life, but I must say that I have never been prouder of this team, to the point where I am willing to say the following:

The Washington Capitals will win the Stanley Cup in 2016.

I know we Caps fans say this every year, but I honestly feel that this is the best Caps team since the 80's. Better than any OV team, and better than any team in the 90's glory days.

Before I sign off, I just want to thank you, the people who read my rants and views over the course of this season. From the Winter Classic to an amazing playoff run, this was one of my most enjoyable seasons as a Caps fan, and I look forward to sharing the ride with you guys when next October rolls around.

Enjoy the offseason. Let's Go Caps.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Seinfeldology: Staying Serene

cbc.ca, pixgood.com
The last time I posted, the Caps had delivered an awful performance in Game 1 against the Islanders, leading to nightmares in Caps-land. Since then the Caps have steadily improved, and today are up 3 games to 2 on the Isles with Game 6 coming up tomorrow in potentially the last game ever at Nassau Veterans Coliseum.

With all the pressure on the Caps and Isles, fans may be feeling emotions run high and tempers flare. We all know that the Caps are not very good under pressure in the playoffs, and if the Caps struggle in Game 6, fans may be getting a sudden influx of bad memories.

So, to learn how to combat this, we turn once again to the greatest sitcom of all time, Seinfeld, to see what we can learn about staying calm in the face of adversity.

The Issue: Calm Before the Storm?

As explained above, the Caps are in a familiar position: they have the chance to win the series before Game 7 and move on to the next round. However, with a loss, the Caps would be put in an even more familiar position: Game 7 on home ice. Needless to say, the Caps haven't done all that well in Game 7's at home during the OV era.

Combining the pressure that inevitably comes with an elimination game with the ghosts of playoffs past creates a perfect storm that can lead us fans on an emotional roller-coaster the likes of which we have never seen or experienced before. We will need to decide how to stay calm and/or betray our emotions and accept the consequences that come with that decision.

How should we stay calm or express our emotions? What will happen if we bottle up our emotions versus showing them? Let's ask Seinfeld.

The Episode: The Serenity Now (Season 9, Episode 3)

One of the first episodes of Seinfeld's final season, The Serenity Now is a clinic in using a show's character's full potential. We have Kramer with amazing physical comedy, George feeling down and out, and of course Frank and Estelle Costanza, the greatest TV parents in history.

This episode centers around Frank, George's father, and his scheme of building and selling computers with the help of George and his formerly insane rival, Lloyd Braun. George has no interest in selling computers, but takes the job to beat Braun in number of sales. George, of course, couldn't sell pizza in a soup kitchen, so he ends up buying a bunch of computers and storing them with Kramer.

Frank is also told by his doctor to say "Serenity Now" before yelling at anyone so that he keeps calm and maintains his stress levels down. Kramer gets into the habit and becomes a believer, his anger "melting right away" in the process.


George wins the competition, but Braun warns George that "Serenity Now" just bottles up the anger, leading to an explosion later on. George doesn't believe him, but something else is brewing. Kramer, who is being tormented by kids in the apartment, ends up releasing all of his pent up stress at once, destroying the computers George was storing there.

There is another storyline with Jerry that complements the main point, that storing your emotions will just lead to you blowing up at an inopportune moment. But what does this tell us?

What Can We Learn?

If you haven't figured it out yet, the lesson here is that it is OK to express your emotions. Fan is derived from the word fanatic for a reason. We are deeply invested in the Caps, to the point that we consider it our team, not Ted Leonsis's team.

This is basically my long-winded way of telling you, Caps fans: let it all out tomorrow. If the Caps win, let it all out next series. If not, let it all out during Game 7.

Whatever the case, lay it out on the line and scream loud and proud, LET'S GO CAPS!!!!!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How the Caps can Win Game 2

The Caps stunk it up in Game 1 against the Isles Wednesday. They looked lethargic at the beginning, started to panic towards the middle, and eventually just gave up. It was probably the worst game I've seen the Caps play since the St. Louis game in November, a surprisingly terrible start to what should have been a good postseason.

However, what's in the past is in the past. The Caps realize they messed up and I have confidence in Barry Trotz that he will do whatever it takes to remedy the mistakes made. For the most part the errors the Caps made were basic: too many turnovers, rushed shots, poor positioning for passes and rebounds, etc.

Beyond that, what can the Caps learn from the Game 1 loss? Here's a look at some of the elements of the game the Caps need to improve:

SHOOT:
Courtesy of war-on-ice.com

As Caps fans (and all hockey fans) implore of their team, the Caps need to shoot the puck. They were being completely out-possessed and outshot by the Isles. I was at the game, and it was maddening to see the Caps try to force passes when the Isles defense was in perfect position to stop it from going through. The Caps made Brian Strait look like Shea Weber in Game 1, and that is not something that can continue going forward.

Looking at the shot attempts chart, the Caps also need to sustain consistent pressure like the Isles did for the most part. The interval from the Islanders first goal to the Islanders second goal saw the bad guys pull way ahead of the Caps in shot attempts. We already know that the Isles are a very good 5 vs. 5 team (one of the best in the league), but the Caps cannot continue to be outplayed at even strength like they were in Game 1. The Isles PK, although bad numerically, operated at a 90%+ clip in March and April, and yesterday they put pressure on the Caps PP and did an excellent job limiting the Caps to one shot attempt at a time. If that trend continues, the Caps really need to step it up 5 on 5 lest the season end very soon.

To be concise, the Caps just need to shoot more. Jaroslav Halak is not the kind of goalie who is going to stop every shot he faces, and if we hit him with a high shot volume, he is going to give up rebounds and struggle. Shooting more is the first thing the Caps need to fix.

Line Combinations:
Courtesy of war-on-ice.com

When I mentioned how the Caps were panicking earlier, I was mainly referring to how Barry Trotz was constantly switching up the lines at even strength to try to create a rhythm. Save for a few good shifts at the end of the second period and beginning of the third period, the Caps were being consistently outplayed at 5 on 5, as can be seen from this chart. Very few players were on the right side of the Corsi For/Minus line.

Alex Ovechkin is always going to be a force on 5 on 5 just based on the sheer volume of shots he produces. Therefore anyone can play with him and be above the red line, but that does not necessarily mean he is a good fit on that line (see: Joel Ward). What OV needs on his line is a playmaking center with a decent to good pass and a power forward who can muck it up and get rebounds. Maybe Curtis Glencross would be good in that role?

Nick Backstrom on the 2nd line was a tremendous idea from Trotz, as it allows the Caps to increase their scoring depth. However, Troy Brouwer is always a possession black hole, so it may not be a great idea to give him Top 6 minutes, especially seeing how atrocious he was last game. That means there is a toss-up between Jay Beagle and Brooks Laich for the 2RW slot. I hate to say it, but I think Beagle deserves it, and he also will provide a steady defensive presence for the second line. If you really want to switch things up, put Fehr on the 2RW and put Beagle at 3C, but I don't see Trotz doing that.

This is how I'd like to see the lines tomorrow:

Ovechkin - Kuznetsov - Glencross
Johansson - Backstrom - Fehr
Laich - Beagle - Brouwer
Chimera - Latta - Ward

I am extremely wary of that third line. Laich, Beagle and Brouwer all play the same vein of muck it up hockey, but unfortunately they don't do it all that well, thus leading to the poor Corsi differentials seen above. Still, this would allow a balance of depth, style and energy that will catalyze the team.

(Of course, playing Burakovsky over Chimera would also be a good idea, but let's not get too crazy now).

In conclusion, there are two main things the Caps need to do to win tomorrow: play clean and shoot the darn puck. If Trotz decides that the Caps need a push, then shaking up the lines would be a good start. (Although with Trotz you run the risk of putting Beagle or Chimera on the first line). Whatever happens, I expect the Caps to play much better in Game 2 than they did in Game 1, and I am standing by my prediction of Caps in 6 games.

Make sure to tune in to CSN tomorrow at 7pm for Game 2, and as always...

Let's Go Caps!