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Weekly Preview: Bubble, Bubble, Staying Out of Trouble

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As the Washington Capitals sweep through the Eastern Conference this week, they'll have to make sure some bad habits don't become major problems. Jason Rogers takes a look at this, plus "Liable to Libel" in his Weekly Preview.

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Happy November to the Capital City, symbiotic suburbs and federal environs! The first month of hockey is in the books, and Washington Capitals fans are trying not to judge this tome by its front cover. This Once Upon a Time is a good start, but it's the summertime Happily Ever After this team is after. Last week the Capitals went 2-1-0 for four points, and currently sit first in the Metropolitan Division.

This week sets a slate of three Eastern Conference clashes for the Capitals in the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, plus a showdown with the New York Rangers for control of first place in the Metro division. If the Caps want to keep the good vibrations flowing, here's what they'll have to nurture and what they'll have to nix in this week's preview.


The Washington Capitals, like the Globe Theater, are capable of making some beautiful plays. The no-look backdoor pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov. The spin-o-rama assist from T.J. Oshie. The one-timed bunkerbuster from Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals' offense can really create some compelling magic.

The line between beauty and catastrophe is narrow, however. Like the difference between a mole and a wart or the gulf between vanity and one more Twitter follower, the line is often small, and tough to see until its been crossed. There are warning signs: the extra pass that leaves you screaming at the TV, "Too cute! Too damn cute!" Or the barely perceptible drop off in production that accompanies a hardly noticeable increase in odd-man rushes for the other team. Beauty can become the beast when the animators - those setting things in motion - get sloppy.

Beauty can become the beast when the animators - those setting things in motion - get sloppy.

Fancy passes are great because when they work, they work because the defense just did not expect you to make that move. NHL blueliners are smart (citation needed), and there isn't a formation or a rush or a scheme in the book that they can't recognize and defend. But when Evgeny Kuznetsov is diving behind the net with the ill-advised velocity of a peregrine falcon, defenders just don't expect his wrists to secede from the directional momentum of his body and flick a clandestine little suggestion of a nugget back the other way for a waiting Andre Burakovsky to bury high over the blocker. They don't expect it, because not many players can do it. Or at least, not many players can do it consistently enough to try it in a game when there are other, more conventional options available.

The most dangerous thing about pretty passes, though, is that they are a siren's call for the lazy. "I could either work hard, move my feet, and exhaust myself trying to win this one little battle with my defender, or I could lay down a slick two-line pass that will make the highlight reel and not cost me a damn calorie." It's late in the third period of the second game of a back-to-back; which are you going to choose? Many times, the latter. And that makes you a bad hockey player, friend-o.

The most dangerous thing about pretty passes, though, is that they are a siren's call for the lazy.

The knock against the Capitals in previous years has often been, "they just don't look like they want it as much." That's a brutal crucifix of an accusation to level against a hockey team, but there it is, and I stand by it. They haven't always looked like they were willing to work as hard as their opponents. This lethargy of labor, this dearth of drive, this abdication of application, often results in lots of what I call "hopeful passes." As in, "Boy, I sure am tired, but I hope someone else will make a play. *Pass*" The Caps have begun to develop an ugly little habit of trusting their talent too much, counting on their skill to win the day when the wheels fall off the fundamentals. This is a real quick route to a mid-May tee time, and if they want to keep the offensive fireworks a-popping, they'll need to work to pack more primer.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images


As good as the top six forwards have looked, the basement has been a bit of a turnstile. A veritable whirling dervish of changing faces including Michael Latta, Chandler Stephenson and Stanislav Galiev (the guy who ate scorpions and a cobra heart on Instagram) have all taken their turn, both on the ice and on social media.

The Capitals, like a good stroganoff or the ice moon Europa, would rather have fluidity at the bottom than the top. It's a fairly normal, fairly sustainable situation, across the NHL. It's common for hockey teams and bears to have a healthy scratch. But while a bit of churning on the fourth line isn't the worst thing, there are a few aspects of the Capitals' situation that could be cause for concern.

A scrappy fourth line can frustrate your opponent's skill lines, meeting their ballerinas and entrepreneurs with bullies and saboteurs.

First, it's important to have a good fourth line, whether those fat-cat one-percent super-elites on the top line admit it or not. A scrappy fourth line can frustrate your opponent's skill lines, meeting their ballerinas and entrepreneurs with bullies and saboteurs. Shutting down your opponent's offense is good, but doesn't happen by accident. Fourth lines practice just like any other, with set schemes and strategies and recognitions to execute. The more this line is able to build chemistry and understanding and gel with one another - especially important in a defensive-minded role - the more it is able to already be standing in the right place, in the way, when the offense comes a-knocking. Managing this with a roulette wheel of players is tough-to-impossible.

Secondly, I hate to beat a beloved yet deceased horse, but one of the players poised for some time in the press box as a healthy scratch is Brooks Laich. His play has been uninspired but fine, like Paul McCartney's solo catalog. He plays with a passivity and reactiveness that is the virtual antithesis of what the high-energy, big-pop, get-things-going fourth line should be. Laich is not, perhaps, worse than Latta, Stephenson and Galiev each, but the fourth line is, more than any other, not a sum-of-its-parts proposition; what matters is the effectivness of the line together, as one weapon to throw out there when the game's attitude needs adjusting. A lackadaisical and loping Laich does nothing to help this team or that line win.

Add to that the fact that Laich takes a bigger divot out of the salary cap than any player not named Ovechkin, Holtby, Orpik or Niskanen ($4.5 million this year, good for eleven Lamborghini Aventadors), and the Caps have a few bottom line wrinkles that need straightening out before they become pressing.

And with that preview complete, we turn now to the segment that state legislatures seek to legalize but the federal government maintains has no medicinal value...LIABLE TO LIBEL: A BAKER'S DOZEN LIES ABOUT THIS WEEK'S OPPONENTS!

1. New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is extremely difficult to beat five-hole, over the glove or in a double-breasted Armani number that tapers at the waist.

2. Unlike his Cup-winning brothers Jordan and Eric, Marc Staal does not possess the Shining, but rather a dull sort of hum that his mom and dad tell him some people would rather have, anyway.

3. Rick Nash leads all Canadian forwards in names that sound like a guy who manages a Blockbuster to fuel his dirt-track racing habit on the weekends.

4. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh still can't break the habit of slamming a teammate's phone closed when their booking agent calls. "All Coach Tortorella taught us to do was block shots," he explains.

5. Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara's pregame meal always consists of two chicken thighs, a culvert of potato salad, and the blood of an Englishman.

6. If you open Siri and toss a timpani drum full of baby carrots and change down a stairway, it will think you said "Tuukka Rask."

7. If hockey doesn't work out, Brad Marchand has a backup career lined up as a spokescharacter for General Mills.

8. Despite his reputation for dirty hits, center Zac Rinaldo always plays fair, both in hockey and in his other habits: identity theft, defrauding pet shelters, and underground London-rules Knifey Stabby.

9. A common misconception, the parents of Kevan Miller and Loui Eriksson each thought their hospital maternity bills depended upon the number of children born with the same first name spelling as theirs. Just ask their siblings, Jawn and Marye.

10. Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock always responds to reporters' questions about forward Michael Grabner by mock scoffing, drawing up his face into a caricature of incredulity, and snorting, "GRABNER? I barely KNOW her!" and then scanning the room for high-fives.

11. Sure, you know tough guy defenseman Dion Phaneuf for his hits, but what you haven't heard are his ballads and B-sides.

12. Winger James van Riemsdyk was sick of Philadelphia's media and its vitriolic mood swings, unrealistic expectations, and adversarial nature. That's why he was so glad he was traded to Toronto.

13. Joffrey Lupul was named by both George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling during a drunken feud over Corsi stats.

So there you have it, Caps fans! There are a big six points at stake this week, including the chance to take two from the de facto beta organism in this divisional ecosystem, our hockey remora fish as it were, the team from New York. A hot start through the first ten games is great, but keeping it up through the next 70 is why we're all here. The Caps have a chance to spend this week cleaning up the conference. Let's hope things get messy. Have a great week, and as always, Go Caps.