Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rangers-Caps Game 6 Preview

It should come as no surprise to anybody who has ever read my blog that I am somewhat of a Caps naysayer. I have had very little faith in this team since about Game 5 against Montreal. My lack of faith is something that many find disturbing, and I can only assure you that it is not because of the players on the team. Rather, it is because of the management and coaching staff. With the Bruins losing to the Caps in seven games, and should the Rangers do the same, nobody will suggest blowing up the teams or changing their game styles, yet that is what happened in 2010 with the Capitals. The hockey we are seeing today is the direct result of that, and I think that it is a bad thing for the organization.

I find it disingenuous to say that the Capitals are now playing a more defensive style of hockey while allowing the second-most SA/60 of the remaining playoff teams, allowing about 33 shots per game. This does not include the blocked and missed shots, of which there are many. The Caps have actually blocked more shots than any other team in this year's playoffs. Blocking shots is great, and demonstrates a great commitment to the team, to Holtby, and to winning. But great defense would lead to a decrease in shots blocked, shots against, and missed shots, because great defense actually prevents the other team from getting those shots in the first place. A lot of what we as Caps fans have faced over the past two seasons is nothing but lip service, a lie. The defense is as bad as ever. The goaltending during the playoffs, and the team commitment to shot blocking, is what is keeping the Caps going. It cannot and will not last forever. Look at Montreal. Do we really want to emulate their "success?" They beat the Caps and the Penguins in 09-10, and then... what? Oh right, nothing. Their system failed as soon as their goaltending stopped being unstoppable, because the defense really is not that good. This system leads to injuries, fatigue, and if you're lucky, razor-thin goal margins where any mistake by either team could be their last of the season.

Washington should absolutely keep their commitment to shot-blocking, it has served them well (Game 5 OT goal notwithstanding). But that should not be mistaken for defense. There is more to it than that. There is clearing the puck out of your own end, stick and body checking, clogging passing lanes, creating turnovers. There is also the defensive side of offense, such as preventing turnovers. The body checking has been superb of late, as well, and should also continue. The rest of that defense? Average in some areas, depressingly bad in others, especially the preventing turnovers area.

My Caps keys for success tonight? Here's five:
  1. Hit hard, hit often. Wear their guys down. Hendrick, Brouwer, Laich, Chimera, Ovechkin... this team can hit. They have the strength and endurance to outlast and brutalize the other team. They'll need it. Make them regret receiving that pass. Make them regret going after you along the boards. Make them regret lacing up their skates today. Make them "hear footsteps" every time they have a scoring chance. The Rangers are a great hockey club, it won't be easy, but nothing in the playoffs ever is.
  2. Shoot. The. Damn. Puck. On a night where the Rangers allowed multiple odd-man rushes, and Lundqvist had an off-night, stopping less than 90% of the shots he faced, the Caps only took 18 shots on net. They also had fewer shots miss the net and fewer blocked than the Rangers. Ovi, Backstrom, Green, Semin, and Laich, not to mention career-year Chimera and underrated threat Hendricks, and oh yeah, Knuble... they should be able to score against King Henry on a bad night. Half of them should be able to score on a good night, too. But you can't score if you don't shoot. Even strength, power play, shorthanded, it doesn't matter. Shoot the puck, shoot it often, shoot it from everywhere. Most of the Caps goals have actually come from the point. Imagine if they crashed the net and took hard angle shots, too. Shoot the puck.
  3. Limit Johansson's ice time, don't limit Knuble's. One of these guys has been a liability and had a pretty lackluster playoffs. The other is Mike Knuble. I really like MoJo on the wing, and I thought he had a pretty good year, much better than I expected from him. But he is so not a first line guy. His propensity to turn the puck over, whether it's an ill-timed drop pass, an ill-timed clearing attempt around the boards, an inaccurate pass, or bobbling a clean pass from someone else, has really hurt the team. Yet he logs some of the highest minutes at 20:01. He is a forwards-worst -6, behind only Wideman and Schultz for the team worst (they are both a -7). Knuble, on the other hand, has as many points as MJ90 in three fewer games, is a +3, and averages a pathetic and mind-boggling 9:37 per night. He is ridiculously more effective than Johansson, and his minutes really need to start reflecting that immediately. I would not be against sitting Marcus tonight in favor of Perreault or Halpern. He just is not getting it done. Any of it.
  4. Avoid the defensive shell. These are the playoffs, and the opponent is the top team in the conference. You cannot be happy with a one goal lead. Hell, a two goal lead is apparently not even remotely safe. Hunter cannot force the team into the shell to end all shells yet again if the Caps take a lead. They need to keep pressure on Lundqvist and wear out their players. Make them play the two minute shifts for a change. A goal or two is not enough. Every offensive zone faceoff needs to have at least three of the following: Backstrom, Ovechkin, Semin, Laich, Green, Carlson. Every one. Beagle should never see an offensive zone faceoff, ever. He has no offensive abilities whatsoever. Face it, move on from it, and accept it. He has been shockingly effective at moving the puck into the offensive zone, but not so great at doing anything when he is there. Don't leave him there, especially since HE HAS YET TO TAKE A SHOT IN THIS SERIES. Offense in the offensive zone, it really should not be a novel concept.
  5. The powerplay. Make it happen, cap'n. Dive. I don't care what anyone says, the Caps need to draw some penalties. And since diving penalties are apparently back out of style this postseason, do it. Pull a Marchand or two or seven. Find a way. Bite your lip in a scrum. These are the playoffs, and this could be the last game. Pride doesn't win you a damn thing. Don't think for a second that the Rangers won't do it. And when there is a powerplay? Wideman, Green, Hamrlik, Carlson. Those are your point guys. No forwards on the point. Period. Carlson and Green on the first powerplay, and on the point. Crazy successful there. Don't ignore it.
So what do I realistically think will happen tonight? A blowout, in true Caps fashion. 5-2 Rangers. That's less severe than the dream I had last night where the Caps lost 7-4 and had to use the Predators' backup goalie to finish the game.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Let's Have Some Common Sense

Rather than spout off endless tweets on the subjects, as I have been doing as of late, let me write a quick blog post about this: Jay Beagle is killing the Caps in these playoffs. Well, Dale Hunter's use of Beagle is killing the Caps in these playoffs. Jay Beagle, as many have written, is the feel-good story of this year's postseason. A hard-working kid who struggled to make even the fourth line, who got knocked out early on in the season, is now logging more time on ice than Alex Ovechkin. The Caps beat the Bruins and have held strong and even against the Rangers. But as the title of this post says, let's have some common sense here, people.

Jay Beagle is far and away NOT the reason the Caps are where they are at. Braden Holtby is the SOLE reason. That's it. He is this year's Jaroslav Halak. There is no other reason the Caps have won even a single, solitary game out of the past ten, let alone five of them. Hunter's use of Jay Beagle, on the other hand, is a major contributing factor to why the Caps lost last night, and why nine of the ten games have been one-goal games.

Beagle is absolutely not a player who will win you games. Anybody who tells you different, simply put, is an idiot. Even people who played with him will tell you as much when they're being honest. He is the kind of guy you put on the ice when you are playing not to lose. You know what is not a big story this year? How Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have their ice time limited when the Kings take a lead against the Canucks or Blues. You know why? BECAUSE IT DOESN'T HAPPEN. They score goals. They generate offense. Offense is how you get points, which are what actually win games, not defense. Defense helps because it prevents the other team from scoring, but a 1-0 loss is still a loss. Ask the Kings, they would know. Then they got Jeff Carter and started working on offense. The Caps need to take that lesson, as absolutely ludicrous sounding as it is to say that on a team with Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Mike Green, Mike Knuble... well the list of offensively talented guys goes on and on with this team.

I'm not knocking on Beagle. He has played far above my expectations for him. He has absolutely locked down the 4th line center role for next year, and that is an accomplishment for him. That's still an NHL job requiring NHL talent. But a guy who set a career high in games played with 41 and points with FIVE is not someone who should be logging top-three minutes. In these playoffs, Beagle has been on the top line. Your top line is not who you say it is, it's who you play as such. But he is a fourth-line guy with barely fourth-line skills. His effort is not to be questioned, ever. His love of the game and desire to win is not to be questioned, ever. His hockey skills absolutely need to be, but apparently are not, ever. Tim Thomas is a two-time Vezina winner. Lundqvist, based on his Hart nomination alongside his Vezina nod, is a lock for this year's Vezina trophy. You need to play your offensive players against these guys. ESPECIALLY when you are the lower seed. If Mathieu Perreault is healthy, then he has to be in these playoffs. Mike Knuble should not be playing (literally) half as much as Beagle. Beagle, of 2 points and a +1, averaging 18:47 of TOI a game, with one more SOG than Karl Alzner.

Beagle's ice time is indicative of a much larger time management problem that the team has suffered under Dale Hunter. Marcus Johansson's ice time also fits in, as he has looked fairly overwhelmed and mistake-ridden, yet logs an average of 20:31 a night. Keith Aucoin continues to play, despite a team-worst 43.2% in faceoffs, a -1, and having just two assists. While it is nice that Beagle is playing, and we should all be proud of him, we should all be furious that he is getting so much ice time, not simply pushing the issue under the rug and saying "well as long as they're winning..." The more Beagle plays, the longer these games get drawn out. The less the Caps score. The less confident they feel about scoring. The more they hold their sticks too tight and clang off post after post after post. The more time they are playing one goal games and blowing two goal leads. The more time they are scrutinized about why Ovechkin isn't playing more.

If the Caps were playing the Senators, or Devils, or even the Flyers at this point, maybe it wouldn't matter as much. But going against two of the top defenses and goalies in the league, and completely shutting down the offense with one goal leads and sky-rocketing Jay Beagle's ice time is a strategy for losing. Lucky for the Caps, nobody told Holtby. But somebody needs to tell that to Hunter. The Caps need to play to win, play to score more than one or two goals in a game, play to use all of their talent rather than holding them back. Beagle needs to actually play fourth-line minutes, or else this team will lose. Winning with this strategy could very well be the worst thing for the team, because this is an organization that undervalues goalies. They undervalued the contribution that Halak had in beating the Caps, and they undervalue the contribution that Holtby has now in getting them this far. They are goalies who win DESPITE the play of their team and the play of the opposition, not because of it. Washington nearly matched the Rangers shot-for-shot last night. Imagine if Semin and Knuble had more TOI than Beagle did. Would it have even gone to triple OT? Would the Caps have scored that elusive second goal? Who knows? I'll tell you what, Beagle didn't help. It's very hard to score when you are the only player on the team who does not take a shot on goal.