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Let’s Change The Capitals Losing Formula

By Rodger M. Wood

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The Caps looked like they wanted to beat the Panthers last Tuesday at the Verizon Center. They dominated the opponent with outstanding forechecking, goal tending, power play, penalty kill, hard play, demonstrating all of the elements necessary for a NHL team to win the big games. With the 4-0 win, they regained the division lead and looked like they were on their way to the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a chance to win.

But then two nights later, the roof caved in. They were beaten at home in an overtime shootout with the Winnipeg Jets 3-2, lost to the Rangers 3-2 in a 12:30 Sunday matinee in the Big Apple on national television, and were outmuscled at home Monday by Western Conference San Jose 5-3..

The Caps are now sadly back in ninth place out of playoff Eastern Conference playoff berth contention, trailing four points behind Florida for first place in the Southeast Division, Toronto Maple Leaf by a point for the last Eastern Conference playoff position with the Jets a mere three points behind them for even that lowly position. If they keep waiting to play and win like the Caps of old during the regular season, they might have to wait until next season.

With or without center Niklaus Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green, this year’s version of the Washington Capitals is inconsistent in their play and don’t seem to have a complete roster of players, who want to be winners, especially when their star player Alex Ovechkin takes most of the game off like Versus commentator Mike Milbury said he did in the New York game.

The chemistry is just not there every game. Maybe, it’s because the large number of European players do not blend in with the Canadiens or Americans on the team, or the rough and tumble hockey style that is typically played by good NHL teams on the smaller North American ice surfaces. Maybe it is the lack of leadership from the captain or the veterans. There are a number of possibilities, but the bottom line is the Caps star players are not working hard every game, especially away from home.

The team’s play may get better if Backstrom and Green come back. Maybe they’ll win a playoff berth, but they’ll still not win in the playoffs playing like they are. Rather than hope they do, team management needs to make some major dramatic personnel changes now, if they want to be winners, especially in the playoffs. To win in the NHL consistently, a team needs mental toughness and top effort from their stars and top paid hockey players every game. Maybe GM McPhee, Dale Hunter, and the coaching staff need to go back to the drawing board, and acquire some star players who will put out the effort to play their coach’s demanding system every game.

Friday, the Caps go on a four game road trip against Florida, Tampa, Carolina, and Ottawa, which could determine their 2012 playoff fortune. Let’s hope the head chemist changes the Capitals losing formula.

Should the Caps Be Buyers or Sellers

By Rodger M. Wood

Matthieu Perreault

After losing to Tampa in overtime and Florida in regulation last Tuesday and Wednesday, and falling out of first place in the Southeast Division into 9th place in Eastern Conference playoff hunt, Caps management faces the dilemma of should they become buyers or sellers before the NHL February 28th trade deadline.

At the end of the first half, Caps’ balanced play was getting playoff worthy. Before the losses in Florida, they won 5 of their last eight games with one loss in overtime against Pittsburgh. In their last game of the first half, they beat last season’s champ Boston in a dramatic 5-3 win. Centering a line of wingers Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansen, Caps second year center Mathieu Perreault scored a hat trick and started making the fans forget they were missing three of their four top scorers on the ice.

The bottom line is Niklaus Backstrom is still out with concussion symptoms, which if as bad as Sydney Crosby’s condition, could keep him out the rest of this season. His blatant elbow in the head nemesis Rene Bourque should have been suspended for as many games as Backstrom was hurt, but the Brandon Shanahan system does not consider injury to a player in its award of punishment as his 3 game suspension of Ovie for a non-injury check demonstrated.

Until banished for three games for his hit on Penguins’ defenseman Zbynek Michalek , Ovie was scoring and hitting like the “Great One” of olden days. While not penalized in the game by the referees, he was cited by NHL disciplinarian, Brandon Shanahan for rising up on his skates and targeting Micalek’s head with a hit. The three game suspension is negligible as long as the punishment does not make Ovie a pansy on the ice again.

After Ovie returns against Montreal Saturday, the Caps will still be missing Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green’s potent offense. While Green is starting to skate again after his operation, hope is eternal, and fans should remember Caps Tom Poti, who has been out the better part of three seasons with a groin injury.

In the next week or so, Caps Vice President General Manager will have has to bite the bullet to decide whether Perreault will do the offensive job long term or should he buy another center and defenseman to replace the injured players before the 2012 playoffs or just chalk everything off and sell off some core players for prospects, who they believe can help win all the marbles next season.

If you’re into fantasy hockey, maybe the lowly Islanders would be interested in giving up center John Tavares for defenseman Jeff Schultz, forwards, Alexander Semin, Joel Ward, and a prospect or draft pick, or fighting for a playoff position, maybe Western Conference Nashville Predators would be willing to give up All Star defenseman Ryan Suter, who is a free agent this summer, for a package of players, which gives them more offensive punch in the playoffs.

With a tough schedule coming up in the home stretch, the Caps need to do something. They can’t rely on Backstrom and Green coming back to get them out of trouble.

They face off against Montreal away Saturday and come back home to face Boston in a matinee game Sunday at the Verizon Center..

Caps Lose Two On West Coast

By Rodger M. Wood

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Looking good after starting the New Year off with a four game winning streak against the Rangers, Sabres, Blue Jackets, and Flames, the Caps couldn’t continue their winning ways on the road against tough Western Conference competition, losing back to back games 5-2 to San Jose and Los Angeles.

With 44 points overall, the team has fallen to 10th place, out of playoffs in Eastern Conference.
standings.

Although Marcus Johannsen tried to fill the void with his 8th and 9th goals against the Kings Monday night, with Niklaus Backstrom and Mike Green out of the lineup again, the Caps couldn’t muster enough offensive power to do the job.

While Calgary’s Rene Bourque serves only a five game suspension for his elbow to Backstrom’s head, it seems unjust that Backstrom’s injury was not avenged in like by another Cap taking out the offender. I’d hate to be Bourque if I had hurt a Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins player or even a Capitals player during the day of Coach Hunter or defensemen Rod Langway and Scott Stevens.

With the exception of Jason Chimera and Matt Hendricks, the Caps continued to lay down against the tough Kings competitors. Hendricks took Kings tough guy Colin Fraser down in the first period and Chimera defenseman Willie Mitchell in the 3rd for cheap shots on him and teammate Joel Ward in the 3rd period.

Caps defensemen also laid down in the defensive zone both games, exposing Caps goalies, Vokoun and Neuwirth to 39 shots in the Sharks game and 35 in the Kings.

Until the Caps learn to stand up and be counted on the road as they do at home, they will continue to lose dismally and look down to the ground.

The Caps return to the ice against Pittsburgh away 7:30 Wednesday.

Is Hunter Making The Right Moves!

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By Rodger M. Wood

Even though they’re only a modest 3 – 3 W- L under his tenure, Coach Hunter has pushed the right buttons to jump start the Caps onto a winning streak the past two games at Ottawa 5-3 and home with Toronto 4-2.

Midway through the second period of the Ottawa game, Caps down 3-1, he started triple – shifting Alex Ovechkin, effectively communicating to the super star he could bring the team back to the victory circle.

Skating fast and hitting hard the past two games, using different moves and shots to break a dry spell by scoring a goal, becoming a playmaker on offense with three assists, and getting back to help the defense with back checking, Ovie may have been restored to the “great one” again.

Whether the reason was injury, poor play, or a combination of both, Hunter kept Alexander Semin and Roman Hamrlik out a couple games, with the results being a rejuvenated forward and defensemen when both returned to the ice last game against Toronto.

When Semin returned, Hunter put him back on his old line with Niklaus Backstrom and Ovechkin and the resulting high powered line scored a goal and three assists their first game back together.

Hunter has kept Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera, and Joel Ward on the same line, and the trio has rewarded him by shutting down the opposition’s top line and racking up the points.

In the six games under Hunter, Laich has scored three goals and three assists, Ward, two assists, and Chimera, two goals and an assist and Chimera has become the Caps top goal scorer with 11.

With Mike Green still out of the lineup, Hunter has given Dmitry Orloff and John Carlson more playing time. In the last four games against Toronto, Ottawa, Florida, and Ottawa, Orloff has assisted on two goals, and Carlson has scored a goal and seven assists.

Until last game, the Caps power play hadn’t produce a goal in the last 17 power play opportunities, but looking like Bobby Orr against Toronto, defenseman Dennis Wideman scored two power play goals, and forwards Nicklaus Backstrom and Brooks Laich one each to improve that statistic quickly.

Hunter was rewarded for giving John Erskine a regular shift on defense when Erskine punished Aaron Asham with three hard rights to the head for taking Jay Beagle out of the lineup the past 16 games with a knockout punch in the first Pittsburgh game, and ridiculing him in the battle scene afterwards.

It looks promising that Hunter has the Caps on the right road with some good coaching moves and effective few words motivational talents, but the Caps aren’t in the playoffs yet.

They have another big test coming up Tuesday when they face the Broad Street Bullies at the Verizon Center.

Get Rid of the Real Problem

By Rodger M. Wood

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Newly Announced Washington Capitals Coach Dale Hunter    Image by Rodger M. Wood

After a debacle 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres Saturday night, GM George McPhee announced 200 NHL-game winner Coach Boudreau had been fired and named former Capital forward Dale Hunter to take over the team.

McPhee was quoted as saying, “The players weren’t responding to Bruce, and when that happens, you have to make a change.”

Translated, his statement, “not responding” means star player Alex Ovechkin, who was -4 in the Sabre game, a -7 for the first 20 games of the season, and other star players have been “shaving effort,” just like basketball players who shave points to let the opposition win games.

And Ovechkin sets the tone for his buddy Alexander Semin, who was in Coach Boudreau’s dog house all season for taking foolish penalties and benched one game recently for lackadaisical play, and line mates Niklaus Backstrom, who was also a – 4 culprit against the Sabres and is a -6 for the season, and Troy Brouwer,  a -3 for the game and even on the season .

His influence may also extend to defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who was a -3 for the game and a miserable  -10 for the season, Dennis Wideman, -3 and -6, and goalie Tomas Vokoun, who saved only 23 of 28 shots in the Sabres  game.

The +/- stats and save %  indicate these players are either underperforming or aren’t the big stars they are said to be.

Boudreau made the mistake of trying to make a $9 million “super star” and a few other highly paid prima donnas accountable for their performance.

By firing Boudreau, Caps management abdicated the throne and gave Ovechkin the crown.

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A Struggling Alexander Ovechkin      Image by Thom Wood

You have to believe in the fairy godmother if you think these players unleashed from Boudreau will ever play the kind of hockey needed to bring home a Stanley Cup now.

But maybe new coach Dale Hunter will be the Caps new fairy godmother.

He played 1,407 games in 19 seasons with Quebec, Washington, and Colorado and never once, even in bad times, took a shift off.

I can remember how he built up game intensity an hour before the game under the stands at the old Capital Center sitting outside the dressing room on a bench by himself.  You wouldn’t dare make a peep or distract him in any way.

I will never forget seeing him hit Pierre Turgeon from behind when he scored a decisive goal in game six of the 1993 Patrick Division Semi Finals between the Capitals and Islanders.

The game meant a lot to him and he paid the price for the Turgeon hit with a 21-game suspension.

With 3, 565 penalties minutes, he ranks second highest in NHL history.

He was tough on himself, but was always the first player to come to practice, was gentle to his teammates  and gave all of himself in every game. His coaches called him “the perfect player.”

Judging by his own standards, Dale Hunter will not put up with an under-performing player and is tough enough to back up his value system.

Ovechkin and his sidekicks had better be aware that what they wished for may not be what they have gotten. Hunter will not put players on the ice if they don’t perform.

It’s not too late for Capitals management to resolve the real problem. They can bite the bullet and trade Ovechkin now before he decides to get back at Hunter for trying to coach him.