Sittin' at the End of the (Capitals) Bar: Auld Lang Syne, Part IV

Grant Halverson

Peerless and his cousins take a look at the end of 2013 and some things you might remember, others you might not, and some you might want to forget.

We've been looking back at what was 2013 for the Washington Capitals. There were the highs, like another Southeast Division championship and the return of Alex Ovechkin to the NHL's elite. There were the lows, such as yet another early playoff exit. Now, the cousins - Cheerless and Fearless - and I will take a look at the end of 2013 and what is the beginning of the 2013-2014 season.

Guys, what are we up to... September?

Cheerless: If that's the one after August, yeah.

Peerless: September is a season of hope, sort of alike a preview of Christmas. We have the presents under the tree - new free agent signing Mikhail Grabovski. There is the anticipation of a new season, wishing all of our dreams come true. There are rosy-cheeked fans singing carols, or at least chanting "Let's Go Caps!"

For the Caps, that first meant rookie camp, the first real such thing in two years. Six days of drills, thrills, and a scrimmage at the end of it against their rookie counterparts from the Philadelphia Flyers. As to the latter, the theme (at least from the Caps' side of the ice) was "play nice."

Fearless: A blow against hooliganism.

Cheerless: Yeah, what's this sport coming to, anyway?

Peerless: Well, it didn't quite turn out that way. And who was in the middle of it? None other than 2012 first-round draft pick Tom Wilson.

Auld Lang Syne, Part I

Wilson would have his own story line in rookie and then training camp. Would he, a 19-year old who was ineligible for assignment to the Hershey Bears in the AHL due to age, be kept with the big club or returned to the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League for his fourth season there? Wilson, who dressed for three games in the Caps' first-round playoff series loss to the Rangers in May, had a decent camp with three goals in six preseason games. It, and the lack of an AHL option for him, was enough for the team to keep him with the big club.

He might not have been the biggest surprise out of camp, though. That distinction would go to defenseman Connor Carrick, Wilson's teammate at Plymouth and a fifth-round draft pick in 2012. Carrick had a great camp, averaging more than 18 minutes a game over five games, recording a goal and four assists. He would be the Caps' other rookie kept with the big club heading out of camp.

Which brings us to October. Not having a Stanley Cup banner of their own to raise, the Caps had to settle for heading to Chicago for the season opener and the raising of the Blackhawks' 2013 Stanley Cup championship banner. They almost spoiled the party, too. The Caps' bright, shiny new toy - Mikhail Grabovski - had a hat trick by the 5:16 mark of the third period. It was the first hat trick of his career. The last two of those three goals, scored less than five minutes apart to open the period, gave the Caps a 4-2 lead.

Ah, but there is a reason the Blackhawks are the Blackhawks, and that the Caps are not. Chicago scored three straight goals in the last 12 minutes, the last one an empty-netter, to beat the Caps, 6-4, and make their fans happy.

It would be part of a theme. The Caps lost seven games in October. In four of them they held a lead, twice they held those leads in the third period. It made for a disappointing month, a 5-7-0 record that left the Caps in seventh place in the new eight-team "Metropolitan" Division (having decided against named divisions or those based on points on the compass, the league decided on a description of an urban agglomeration). Oh, and don't blame the rookies. Tom Wilson got little ice time (only once over 10 minutes in a game for the month), and Connor Carrick was reassigned to Hershey after three games with the big club.

Auld Lang Syne, Part II

But when there is Caps hockey, even in the first month of the season, there is Alex Ovechkin. Ten goals in 12 games, continuing the torrid pace he set to end the 2013 regular season. The flip side of that, however, was that Ovechkin had 10 of the Caps' 32 goals for the month. If a player is getting more than 30 percent of his team's goals, even one as prolific as Ovechkin (31.3 percent, in fact), there is a certain lack of secondary scoring.

Then there was Nicklas Backstrom, the mirror image of Ovechkin's output with ten assists in 12 October games. He was continuing quite a tear of his own. By the end of October, Backstrom had 48 assists in his previous 55 games, 25 assists in his most recent 25 games.

Then came November, and what a start to the month that was. Having lost their last two games in October with a trip to Philadelphia to start the month looming, things were not looking all that well in Caps Land as the new month dawned. Even when the Caps scored late in the first period of that first game of the month in Philly, one might have been forgiven for thinking, "we've seen this before." Giving up leads had become a staple of the Caps' game.

Then Joel Ward scored less than 90 seconds into the second period. Jason Chimera scored 80 seconds later. Nicklas Backstrom scored 65 seconds after that. By the time Ward scored again and Troy Borouwer added a goal, the Caps had five goals in the second period in what was becoming a laugher. Then, when Joel Ward added the extra point with his hat trick goal early in the third period to make it 7-0 (Ward's first career hat trick), things took a turn.

Eight seconds after the Ward goal, off the ensuing faceoff, the Flyers' Wayne Simmonds ran over Caps defenseman Steve Oleksy at the left wing boards. Tom Wilson jumped in to Oleksy's aid and squared off with Simmonds. Then it was Oleksy and Vincent Lecavalier trading fists. Alexander Urbom and Braydon Schenn doing the same. But the oddest, not to mention most lopsided, fight of the four that took place started when Flyer goalie Ray Emery, apparently insufficient exercised by fishing pucks out of the back of his net (four goals on 15 shots to that point), charged the length of the ice to challenge his counterpart, Braden Holtby, to a fight.

It was less a fight than it was an assault. Holtby, who with a 7-0 lead wanted no part of that nonsense, was more or less defenseless against the assault by Emery, an avid follower of boxing and himself a veteran of 13 fights dating back to his days in the Ontario Hockey League. Holtby, by comparison, had a grand total of one fight in organized hockey, that coming in 2008 when he was tending goal for the Saskatoon Blades in the Western Hockey League.

The fight led to the usual navel-gazing about fighting in the NHL, from which nothing happened (Emery received no supplemental discipline and, under prevailing rules, probably should not have), but for the Caps it lit the fuse on what would be their longest winning streak of the season to date. After beating the Flyers, the Caps would then dispose of the Florida Panthers, the New York Islanders, and the Minnesota Wild to run their winning streak to four games. After a couple of hiccups, a Gimmick loss in Phoenix and a loss in Colorado, the Caps won three more in a row and stood at the top of the Metropolitan Division with a 12-8-1 record.

That didn't last long.

Auld Lang Syne, Part III

Maybe it was the thought of turkey and all the fixin's, or maybe it was that the Caps just were not ready for prime time, but Washington came up short in a nationally televised game against Pittsburgh, 4-0. That set off a four-game losing streak (0-3-1) that dropped the Caps into third place in the division. It is probably worth noting here...

Cheerless: ...no it's not.

Peerless: ...that Pittsburgh is 15-4-1 since they beat the Caps, while the Caps are 8-6-4 since then. At least the Caps won their last two games of November, extra time wins over Montreal and the Islanders. Which brings us to December. If there is something that jumps out about December...

Fearless: You mean other than Alex Ovechkin scoring goals and Nicklas Backstrom getting assists?

Peerless: It is one-goal games. First there was the number. Seven of the Caps' last ten games of the month - of the year - were of the one-goal variety. Then there was the record. In those seven games the Caps were 3-1-3. On the surface that record looks rather good, nine points in seven games is a 105-point pace (and yes, small sample size). But don't let it fool you; it was not as if the Caps played well in them, as a rule...

  • December 10, a 6-5 Gimmick win over Tampa Bay. The Caps fell behind, 3-0, to the Lightning before coming back on the strength of an Alex Ovechkin four-goal effort (the last with 32.4 seconds left in regulation to tie the game) and a five-point effort by Nicklas Backstrom (1-4-5).
  • December 13, a 3-2 Gimmick loss at Florida. Against the then-13th ranked team in the Eastern Conference, the Caps twice fell behind by a goal and managed only 25 shots in 65 minutes on career caddy Scott Clemmensen, scoring twice but generally making Clemmensen look like Martin Brodeur. His counterpart on that night, rookie Philipp Grubauer, faced 41 shots and turned a way 39 of them to drag the Caps into the trick shot competition.
  • December 15, a 5-4 trick shot win against Philadelphia. The Caps scored first, then the Flyers roared back with four goals over a 24:26 span from the last minute of the first period to the fourth minute of the third period to take a 4-1 lead. It took another furious comeback - and another last minute Ovechkin goal - to push the game to extra time.
  • December 21, a 5-4 overtime loss against New Jersey. This time it was the Capitals' turn to wilt. Washington spotted the Devils a goal in the first period, then they came back with three of their own in the second period. It was the Devils, though, who would own the third period, outscoring the Caps, 3-1, to force overtime, where they won it 43 seconds in on a goal by Andy Greene.
  • December 23, a 3-2 loss to Anaheim. This might have been the most disappointing of the lot. With a chance to spoil the return of former coach Bruce Boudreau, the Caps started off intent on doing just that. The Caps scored twice in the first 12 minutes of the contest and then...stopped. After Nicklas Backstrom scored at the 11:37 mark to put the Caps up, 2-0, Washington managed only 12 more shots for the game, 48:23 of clock time. It gave the Ducks a chance to scratch their way back, and they did, scoring the game-winning goal with 5:36 left in regulation in a 3-2 win.
  • December 27, a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers. The Caps twice took one-goal leads in this game, only to allow the Rangers to tie the game each time, both times early at the start of a period - Benoit Pouliot 97 seconds into the second period and Carl Hagelin just 17 seconds into the third period. Eric Fehr scored late for the Caps to secure the win, but the Caps did not take full advantage over the opportunity to avoid facing Henrik Lundqvist in goal. Cam Talbot stopped 29 of 32 shots for the Rangers.
  • December 29, a 2-1 freestyle loss in Buffalo. It was one of those nights. Ryan Miller picked this night to shoot his final audition tape for the panel that would select goaltenders for the United States Olympic team. Miller stopped 49 of 50 shots in 65 minutes and all six attempts in the bonus round. It was the second time this season the Caps unleashed 50 shots at the opposing netminder, the second time they went to the Gimmick to decide things, and the second time the Caps lost (they lost in Toronto, 2-1, on November 23rd). The plus-33 shot differential was the most for the Caps since they were plus-31 in a 4-1 win over Tampa Bay on November 29, 2000. Adam Oates played in that game and scored a goal. So did Calle Johansson, who had two assists.

It was not all disappointment or iffy performances, but neither was it a thrilling end to the year. The Caps did finish 6-4-3 for the month, 1-2-2 in their last five games to close out 2013. Nicklas Backstrom put together a fine month, going 4-15-19 in 13 games, while Alex Ovechkin went 9-3-12. The 38 goals scored by the club was not bad (2.92 per game), and there was decent balance, all things considered. There were 14 Caps sharing in the goal scoring, seven finishing the month with three or more goals.

But the Caps allowed 39 goals for the month, and more ominously the Caps nominal number one goalie - Braden Holtby - finished the month 1-2-1, 4.92, .863, and was pulled twice in five appearances. Thank heavens for depth; the number three goalie on the depth chart - Philipp Grubauer - stepped in and went 5-3-2, 2.22, .934 for the month. He finished the 2013 portion of the season with the second best save percentage among rookie goalies.

It all made for an interesting month to end the year for the Caps. Like the rest of the year it had its ups and downs, its surprises and disappointments, and the consistency of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. In other words, a year that looked a lot like most any other recent year you care to mention, both good and bad.

Cheerless: Aren't you going to make any resolutions, cuz?

Peerless: Nah, but we do have some thoughts about what might have to change with this club heading into 2014.

Fearless: Another round?

Peerless: Another round.

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