Good morning Washington, D.C. and all friendly confines within range of the Congressional smoke signals and ritual throat-singing! Autumn has fully descended (fallen, if you will) in the capital, and the Washington Capitals have fully begun their 2015-2016 campaign for hockey hegemony. The season is off to a good start through a baker's dozen games, with three more on tap this week. Last week the Capitals went 2-1-0 for four points, and currently sit second in the Metropolitan Division.
The Capitals have a reunion with Mike Green and the Detroit Red Wings, a showdown with the Metropolitan rival Philadelphia Flyers, and a visit from southern Alberta's own Calgary Flames this week. With only two division points on the table, the Caps have a chance to fix some leaks and hit their stride with little to lose but pride. Let's look at how the home team can get up, get down, and get funky in this week's preview.
A LAICH-LY STORY
There are lots of things to be said about Brooks Laich. He's been a Washington Capital for a decade now, since your uncle was still complaining that Bush stole the election and John Kerry was robbed. He's been a Capital since the abovementioned conversation would have happened in person and not passive-aggressively on Facebook. He is one of the only remaining core players from the Green-Semin era, an epoch that only sounds like cause to visit a doctor. For many people, Laich has been a Capitals player as long as they've been a Caps fan, and that is both significant and worthy.
Brooks is by all accounts a fantastic guy. He is warm and friendly with fans, like a buttery Belgian waffle made into a man. He says all the right things about playing in Washington, about the fanbase and the leadership. He and his fiancee, "Dancing-With-The-" star Julienne Hough, are lovely and in-love, and scrolling through their Instagram account is like smelling an apple pie cooling on a window sill. The fact that Brooks looks like a 1:1 scale model of Adonis cut from marble doesn't hurt, either.
Laich made his name in Washington with the kind of play hockey fans love, and truthfully, love to love. Gritty, tough, fearlessly besieging the opponent's crease like ancient Jericho, Laich could also skate and shoot, possessing just enough talent to elevate him above "grinder" status to something approaching the whole kit 'n' Knuble.
This season and last, Laich has seen his production drop off (due in part to injuries), moving him from second-line staple to bottom-line bon vivant. This is not Laich's fault; he was never cut out to be a top-six forward, but Washington had a serious dearth of talent for a long time (think: "Let's trade Forsberg for Erat," or, don't). Unfortunately for the Capitals, contract time came a-calling while Laich was plugging a valuable (and expensive) hole, and as a result, made out with a $4.5 million per year contract that makes him the fifth highest-paid player on the team. His contract is not Laich's fault, either. As soothsayer Kendrick Lamar said, "Money trees is the perfect place for shade."
But a fourth-liner, overpaid or not, has responsibilities, and Laich has been up-and-down at best. Some games, like recently against the Maple Leafs, Brooks fills the role admirably, giving up his body to block shots and playing with an energetic dynamism that would make Con-Edison blush. Other games, Laich only feints at playing defense, hustling towards the puckholder but curling off or failing to finish his check when the moment of impact comes. Inconsistency is a hallmark of many NHL fourth lines, but Laich is not your ordinary fourth-liner. He is far more experienced and skilled than most, and if he wants to justify even a fraction of that juicy, fecund contract he's taking home, he needs to be better than his linemates, at least, almost every night.
WHISPER SWEDE NOTHINGS
Lots of excellent things in your everyday life are Swedish: your safe, sensible Volvo. Your economical yet strangely transient furniture. Your ballads of dancing queens. Many top-quality things come from Sweden, including NHL hockey players. The Capitals have lined up a threesome of Swedes jucier than a meatball sub from a home store.
At press time (i.e, at the time I pressed "Publish"), the Capitals' second line is a real case of Stockholm Syndrome: Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, and Andre Burakovsky. All three forwards are mouth-wateringly talented. The obvious standout is previous 100-point scorer Nick Backstrom, one of the top-10 centers in the league. That St. Nicklas was even bumped off the first line is a testament to the potency of the influx of talent the Caps experienced in the off-season/ the fact that the end of days is near and not but death's grim bosom awaits.
If you don't delight in the image of the three of them speaking Swedish out there while the defense is like wtf? then you don't know humor.— Jason Rogers (@HeyJayJRogers) November 8, 2015
Backstrom is always consistently excellent and excellently consistent, like a well-made cheesecake. His good play is no surprise. What is pleasantly ponderable is the positive progression of Marcus Johansson. He has improved nearly every area of his game, from his shooting - which used to be an educated guess netward - to his skating, which now often involves roaring into the zone to set up the offense, a service badly needed by this Capitals team. Johansson is tough, and I'll hear no talk otherwise. Watch him check and take checks. Watch him make the play that's there to be made, even if it means absorbing some pain. No coverage has been so unfairly labeled "soft" as Johansson's since wool sweaters (they're itchy - nothing else).
The real umlaut with a question mark next to it is Andre Burakovsky, talented young winger and the Capitals' most-touted European prospect since He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Traded-For-Erat. Burakovsky has shown flashes of brilliance, tantalizing tastes of times yet to come, but so far, nothing more. This has caused some consternation in Washington. But look: not every young prospect can progress at Evgeny Kuznetsov's rate. They just can't. They don't. It sets an unrealistic standard of expectations for Burakovsky, who before playing just one season in the juniors played only in the Swedish Hockey League, a path that left him less prepared and polished than Kuznetsov, as well. He is learning, and many of his mistakes are the result of positioning, and unfamiliarity therewith. He has the skill and the talent to excel in the NHL; he will learn the tactics.
Whether he deserves a spot in the top-six over Justin Williams right now is up for debate. Burakovsky will get better faster if he plays with more talented teammates. But sometimes, you can't afford to play the long game. You need wins now. We'll see which goal Trotz prioritizes.
And with that preview complete, we turn now to the segment that is polling very well in Iowa and New Hampshire but can't get on the ballot because it keeps giggling at the word "caucus"...LIABLE TO LIBEL: A BAKER'S DOZEN LIES ABOUT THIS WEEK'S OPPONENTS!
1. Despite his human appearance, slippery Detroit puck handler Pavel Datsyuk is actually more closely related to certain eels, and species of Russian lamprey.
2. Hard-hitting defenseman Niklas Kronwall doesn't even notice you when he wrecking-balls through you. All-in-all, you're just another brick to Kronwall.
3. When the Red Wings play at Verizon Center, Capitals coaches send Nicklas Backstrom into the visitors locker room in a Detroit jersey to gather some intel, hoping one more Swede will simply go unnoticed.
4. Mike Green fled Washington after one too many lawmakers complained about his lack of focus during tense committee meetings. "I could never stay in the zone during those power plays," Green said.
5. Fans and the Detroit media affectionately call forward Johan Franzen "the Mule," a nickname that the DEA finds very interesting, indeed.
6. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth told reporters he is fitting into Philadelphia just fine after years in Washington. "Philly is used to long streaks of inconsistent quality; they call it a cheesesteak."
7. Jakub Voráček's last name is always getting called for slashing.
8. The Flyers claim to have a defenseman named Evgeny Medvedev on the roster, but we are 99% sure it's Vladimir Putin in Alexander Semin make-up (pictured).
9. Like his hero Jean Valean, captain Claude Giroux continues the proud tradition of talented men with great hair and French names.
10. Flames forwards Mikael Backlund and Michael Ferland look forward to the team signing free agents Michal Leftland and Michel Rightlund.
11. Goaltender Jonas Hiller was glad to be traded to Calgary from Anaheim after studying old Caps tapes and learning that goalies were not part of coach Bruce Boudreau's game plan.
12. Left winger Mason Raymond was named after his grandfather, an investment banking firm.
13. Center Jiří Hudler won the 2015 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for being the NHL player with the most gentlemanly conduct. Hudler celebrated the announcement by curtsying, apologizing for the uncouth nature of his curtsy, and investing prudently in utilities and low-yield government bonds.
So there you have it, Caps fans! Washington can spend this week showing some exes that the best revenge is living well, while secretly trying desperately to figure out who they are inside. Hey, just like us! Whether divisional or not, these are six points the Capitals should be able to take and hoard for themselves. Let's hope they get greedy. Have a great week, and as always, Go Caps!