Rink Roundtable: Pre-Postseason

[Ed. note: The season's not quite done, and the Capitals still have six games left on their schedule before the postseason gets under way, but the reality is that right now most fans - and most of the players - are eagerly anticipating the second season.  Naturally, that includes the Japers' Rink contributors, who sat down to discuss Washington's lackluster play of late, the trade deadline, and how they feel about the team heading in to the postseason.]

J.P.: Alright, let's cut to the chase: panic, moderate concern or no worries over the way the Caps have played lately?

David M. Getz: As a whole, I'm really not worried.  At all.  These guys are only human, and when you're playing your 75th game in less than six months, the results don't count for hardly anything, and you've gone through the whole season knowing that the real prize isn't going to be contested until spring, it's hard to get motivated.

That said, I haven't been real thrilled with the way the goalies have been playing, but how much of that can be attributed to that pre-playoff lull and/or general poor play is something I'm not sure of.  Since it wouldn't surprise me if the answer was "a lot", I'm not hitting the panic button quite yet.

Becca H:  I’d fall somewhere between ‘moderate concern’ and ‘no worries’. The way they’ve played lately has pretty much revealed all of their perceived weaknesses – defense, goaltending and penalty killing – and they look disinterested at times, unfocused at others and basically out of sync with one another. It’s troubling to see a team this close to the playoffs getting into such bad habits.

On the other hand, the Caps are basically playing out the string at this point, and doing so without benefit of a full, healthy lineup. Aside from the oft-maligned President’s Trophy, they don’t really have much to play for – and they’re facing teams that have a lot to play for down the stretch. Actually, I’d be more concerned if they were getting blown out in these games; the fact that they’re at least launching a comeback and trying to stay in games is promising, because it means they’re not completely mailing it in. And the thing is that even at 85-90% they’re still picking up points.

My sense last year was that the Caps simply ran out of gas at the worst possible time. Right now it looks like they’re consciously holding something back as a result, particularly guys like Ovechkin, and resting guys with bumps, bruises and tweaks now so they’ll be 100% by mid-April. A bit troubling, definitely annoying but not something that should cause panic.

Yet.

J.P.: I'm with you. People point to how the stretch run this year is mirroring that of last year, and while there are notable differences, I'd generally respond with, "So what?" Last year's poor March may have caused the Caps to stumble a bit at the beginning of the Rangers series (or was it a broken rib that caused the stumble?), but the Caps didn't lose to the Penguins because they were disinterested in March. Granted, a slow start in a seven-game series can make for a quick end to the season, but I have to believe that the team will be ready to go when the games matter again.

The reality check here is that the penalty kill is going to continue to stink. But focus should result in better discipline and fewer penalties to kill. The goaltending might be shaky. But motivation should result in better puck possession, fewer shots and more active and a more engaged blueline. The biggest problem of late - the slow starts - should all but disappear when the Verizon Center is rockin' and the playoffs finally arrive.

Tuvan Hillbilly: You've all nailed it square on. The guys are playing as if the remaining regular season games mean nothing. And, really, they don't. But while my head tells me that they're kicking back to be able to have more in reserve down the road, deep down inside I have that nagging fear of what Bruce brings up with his faucet metaphor-- if they turn off the mojo (or even throttle it back a bit), they might not be able to immediately turn it back on. Rational or not, I fear that nothing short of the Cup will rid this Damoclean sword from above my head.

Pepper:  It took our heroes two games to get to playoff speed last spring.  Which led to a seven-game first round series.  And which, maybe, led to being a little spent when facing the eventual Cup champion Penguins.  But the team is a year wiser, as well as more veteran from the trade deadline acquisitions.

DMG's pointed concern with the goaltending, though, is warranted.  I won't pretend to know what goes on in a goalie's mind, but generally it seems more difficult for a netminder to break free from bad habits, poor positioning, lousy puck, or just not feeling it, than for a skater to loose himself from a slogging effort.  So this combination trend of our two 'tenders letting in a few softies and being hung out to dry by some lead-footed defensive efforts needs to stop now.

JP: OK, so we're not quite ready to press the panic button on the team... but what about the goaltending? With a couple of shaky outings in a row by putative playoff starter Jose Theodore, has the window opened for Semyon Varlamov to grab that role from him?

DMG: Absolutely.  Boudreau's shown that he's willing to switch up who's in net and, like most of us, he probably figures Varlamov has the higher ceiling.  Ultimately, given Theodore's history of streakiness and the way Varlamov played last postseason, I'd have to think Theo's on a very short leash.

BH: I think Theo’s earned a bit of a longer leash than last year, but I’d agree that Boudreau has more faith in Varlamov, as well.

That being said, I’m not sure the window has opened exactly. Theodore’s had two shaky outings but I thought he rebounded nicely (and with little support) from a bad start against Ottawa – something that was to be expected after getting yanked early in the last game. His play after yielding three goals early was what allowed the team to claw its way back into the game and earn a point.

The funny thing is, the team as a whole isn’t playing all that great – but Theodore’s been one of the best players over the last two months, consistently making the stops he’s needed to make and some he shouldn’t be able to make. If Alex Ovechkin is allowed to "slump", if Nicklas Backstrom can take a dumb penalty in overtime, if the defense in general can look out of sorts, it only seems fair that we offer the same "playing out the stretch" explanation for the guys between the pipes.

JP: I think it's a little different for a guy like Theo, in part because he tends to run so hot or cold, and in part because he's the goalie; if Alex Ovechkin is cold for the first round of the playoffs, there's a good chance that the Caps can still win. If the goalie isn't (or aren't), I think there's a smaller chance of success.

That said, while the window may be open a crack, the fact of the matter is that Varly has had a save percentage above .889 in just one of his last seven appearances; Theo has been above .916 in six of his last ten. Varly has to have a couple more good starts before Gabby even thinks about switching up his number one netminder, a guy who still hasn't lost a game he's started in calendar year 2010.

TH:  The window has absolutely opened up a little wider but it's still not large enough for Varly to waltz through. While JP makes a very valid point with the save percentage numbers, if current trends continue for a few games those numbers could be reversed fairly quickly. I'll even go a bit further than David and say I'm not just ready to not panic, but at this moment I'm fairly comfortable with our goaltending, no matter who is first or second chair. Call it a hunch.

Pepper:  Varly looked sharp in the second and third periods last week in Carolina.  But other than that, he needs to markedly out-perform Theo down the stretch.  I think the #1 job, at this point, is not nearly so much Theo's to lose as it is Varly's to emphatically grab for himself.  And I don't put as much blame on Theodore for the three goals against in the first period against Ottawa on Tuesday as some of our readers have.  I chalk these up to defensive breakdowns and poor positioning.

JP: What's up with AO, and is there cause for concern with his recent inability to put the biscuit in the basket?

TH:  AO has had his slumps, just like every player, but he always comes out of it when it is most needed. I think that adds somewhat to his mystique, in that it is not only the magnificent way he scores, but he seems to score when it is most needed. I have no worries at all about him.

DMG: Obviously I'm not an authority on what goes in Ovie's head, but I will say that there have been a few times in his career - matchups with Crosby and the Penguins when the rivalry aspect really started to get played up, the start of the playoffs each of the last two seasons, the Olympics - where it looks like he's "gripping the stick too tight" as the expression goes, and isn't all that productive.  So part of me wonders if he's a little off from Vancouver or from his suspension, and part of me wonders if it's the waiting-on-the-playoffs thing.

In any case, I don't have any doubt he's going to be able to be productive in the postseason.  He's simply too good to not come around.

BH: Agreed. I think there are times when he gets stuck in his head, particularly in the games with a lot of hype as D pointed out; at the same time, he’s a big game player and loves the spotlight. It’s why he eventually became so dominant in that playoff series against the Penguins, and why he’s able to put the team on his shoulders when they need it. And it’s why there’s no reason to doubt that he’ll step it up in the playoffs.

But in answer to the question itself…nothing’s up with AO. I firmly believe that. In the past when Ovechkin has gone through slumps, he’s looked frustrated and annoyed with himself – I don’t see that right now. He looks very calm out there, and he’s still scoring enough to maintain his place near the top of the goal-scoring and point-scoring leaderboard. Two goals and three assists in his last five games and that’s a "slump", I love it.

To me it just seems like he’s taking a step back, conserving his energy and getting ready for the playoffs. He’s not coasting through games but you’re not seeing him barreling through guys ten times a night, either.

J.P.: Along these lines, I think that he tries to do too much at times and at those times doesn't make the best use of his teammates (beauty assist to Alex Semin on Tuesday aside). Look at the Ottawa game, for example - five shots on goal and another 15 that were blocked or missed the net. Against Calgary - where he did score - those numbers are seven and ten. Back a game earlier when he was goal-less against the 'Canes, six and 12. And so on.

To me, the high blocked/miss totals often coincide with the games where he's forcing it a bit and/or relying on his "go to" moves (like trying to cut across the middle at the top of the zone, using the D as a screen on the rush, etc.). He needs to find more space, and the only way to do that is to make better use of his other-worldly pivot and garbage-collectin' right wing.

Pepper:  I'm with you, J.P.  I see too many uses of the same "go-to" moves.  But like the rest of you pointed out, he's been in a slump before and will get out of it, particularly when he's most needed.  An October during the 2008-09 season that saw #8 score just two goals and three assists left many of us wondering if defenders had gotten wise to AO's predictable bag o' tricks.  Then came an 11 goal, 25 point November.

JP: Nearly a month out, was it a good trade deadline day for the organization?

DMG: Without a doubt, in my opinion.  Walker adds depth, Jurcina will if he's healthy, and Belanger gives the team an option that lets them play David Steckel on the fourth line where he can be most effective.

I admit that Joe Corvo has seemed a lot more like a guy nicknamed "Uh-oh" than the solid defender his numbers suggest he'd be, but I still see him as an upgrade over Pothier.

J.P.: I'm going to agree, though the upside at the moment isn't looking quite as high as it did to me three weeks ago. But given the number of players that moved elsewhere and the overall cost to the Caps of the moves they did make, I'm still comfortable with how it shook out.

Of course, the real answer is, "Ask me again in June."

BH: I think it'll still be a few more games before we really know what we have here. Boudreau really only had a few games to rotate guys in and out of the lineup at will before injuries started to pile up and lines/pairings were thrown together with whatever was left. For someone like Belanger, for example, that's meant no stability in terms of who he plays with; as the player with probably the toughest transition systems-wise, that can't be easy.

But the reality is, anytime you can improve the team without giving up a lot, the deadline is a success; how much of a success, as JP points out, will be revealed in June.

TH: Absolutely a good trade deadline. You always worry about what will happen when you throw fresh ingredients into a fairly well-seasoned dish, but GMGM wisely chose the rational, scientific approach to team enhancement rather than splashy, flashy gambles. More Alton Brown than Emeril. And this dish is pretty darn near perfect now. I'm confident the full flavors will come bursting out when the heat is on and it is thrown into the pressure cooker.

Pepper:  I think it was a good deadline day when we compare the results around the rest of the league.  There was no clear better option at any position amongst the players that were dealt.  It's not worth comparing the Caps' deadline day haul to those prized names -- like Dan Hamhuis -- that were so often discussed, when the acquisition price was too high for any GM, not just for McPhee.

And for the record, I find Alton Brown far more entertaining.

JP: Finally, do you feel any different about the Caps' chances to win the Cup today than you did one, two or six months ago?

BH: I'm not sure my feelings about their Cup chances have changed all that much over the course of the season, to be honest. I'm much more confident than I was 6 months ago because 6 months ago we really didn't know what we had yet, but other than that I remain cautiously optimistic - because this team is just such a rollercoaster ride to watch. The minute I start to think they'll never win again, their defense stinks, the goalies are a couple of sieves, they pull it all together and prove me wrong, whether it's just for a few shifts in an otherwise written-off game or a dominant win from start to finish. And then the minute I get overly confident, they remind me that no team is perfect and start passing it directly to the other team or scoring own goals off their rear ends.

It's those moments when everything comes together that keep me leaning toward the "optimistic" side of "cautiously optimistic", though. When they turn it on they just seem unbeatable. Putting aside regular season issues and lack of concentration down the stretch, I believe this team has the pieces to win the Cup and the ability to win the Cup. I think they addressed their biggest need, which in my opinion wasn't an upgrade at any one position but depth everywhere and veteran leadership injected into the room. If it all comes together at the right time - something any winning team ultimately needs to happen - they've got a great shot. 

TH: I would say my confidence grows slightly each game, even these last few. What I think is even more significant, however, is that my nervousness is a good deal less than it was before the trade deadline. While I do have the constant slight nagging feeling of impending doom (see 'Sword of Damocles' above), it is not the full-blown "Cardiac Caps" knot of despair I've felt in the past. To sum it all up, I really, really think this team can do it this year.

DMG: Much more confident on all counts.  The number of guys who have exceed my expectations this year - notably Fehr, Theodore, Schultz, Fleischmann, and Carlson - far, far, outweighs the guys who I've been disappointed in.  Actually, come to think of it, the only guy I can say I've  been a little disappointed in is Karl Alzner.

But between the guys who have been pleasant surprises, the trade deadline moves, and the way the lines seem to be building decent chemistry excites me, and I like the Capitals odds as much or more now than I have all season.

JP: Interesting - "much more confident" than you were 3/4 of the way through The Streak? Can't say that I'm quite there with you. At present, I'm confident that this team can beat anyone, but I'm also not sure there's a team they couldn't lose to, whereas during The Streak, they couldn't lose, no matter how hard they tried, and for most of that stretch they were every bit as good as the run would seem to indicate.

Over a best-of-seven, a bunch of teams to whom the Caps could conceivably lose drop out of the thinking, but combine a good team with a hot goalie and the Caps doing themselves in with poor discipline and poorer penalty killing and they may not be able to overcome it, even with all their firepower. On a scale of one to ten in which ten represents the most confident I've felt all season and one is a full-on panic attack, I guess I'd put my confidence at about an 8. Of course I would.

Pepper:  I believe that, unlike in any other season in which I've been a Caps fan (since 1989-90), this team has the talent to hoist the Cup.  And I believed that all season long, even before the trade deadline acquisitions.

I confess that the question of whether I am more or less confident now than at the start of this campaign in witnessing ultimate victory this June is one that I cannot answer by a rational assessment.  For me, it is too much framed with my personal, smudged lens coated with past heartbreaks and broken dreams.  When it comes to the Caps in the playoffs, I always dream of glory but expect nothing.

But at least I can say that the dominant skill-set of this team makes those dreams ever more vivid.  And for long suffering Caps fans, those dreams must not be deferred a moment longer.

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