"Losing the Room"

Posted by Dave Nichols | Friday, December 10, 2010 | , , , | 4 comments »

There's a lot of hang-wringing this morning in the wake of last night's embarrassing 3-0 loss to the Florida Panthers, in which the Washington Capitals dominated the first period, including outshooting Florida 18-6, then turtle-ing in the third period when things didn't go their way.

Coach Bruce Boudreau called his star players out in the media afterwards, and immediately a certain segment of the fan base started crying that the sky was falling -- that Boudreau's system was no longer working, that his message wasn't getting through, that he was "losing the room."

What I find laughable this morning is people saying "losing the room" that have never been there and have very little idea what they are talking about.

I carry credentials for the Capitals. I'm in the room after almost every home game.  I've been in the room before and after practices.  There's not a single player that pulls on the red that doesn't have complete respect for Bruce Boudreau. The Caps problems right now are what has plagued them in the past: trying to do TOO MUCH.

Stars like Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Mike Green aren't free-styling because they aren't invested in Boudreau's system.  It's that they are so immensely talented that they think if they play "harder" they'll have better success.  They take things into their own hands because that's what got them there in the first place.  It's how they've earned their success thus far.

Some lessons in life are just harder to learn than others. Much harder.

When they play within the system, as a team, they are much stronger than they are when they try to rely on their natural abilities and individual assets. Boudreau knows that. The players know that.  And the man that is in the biggest funk of all -- the Captain -- knows it all too well, as he told reporters last night:
"We know our strengths. When we play simple, when we do what we have to do, it works. When we play casual it doesn’t work."
This team -- and fan base -- is accustomed to winning hockey games by outscoring their opponents and being flashy doing so.  But it hasn't been that easy this season, despite the Capitals owning the league's third best record to date, tied for the second most wins and tied for fifth in goals per game.

You don't think New Jersey, Toronto or the Islanders would LOVE to have the Capitals problems?

There needs to be some realism injected into the hysteria. 

Are the Caps struggling on the ice?  Absolutely.  Four straight losses -- and just six goals in those four contests -- speak to that.  The last two games have been downright heartbreaking, losing a 4-1 third period lead to Toronto, one of the league's least talented teams, then last night's complete and utter surrender.  And make no mistake, that's what it was.

As Boudreau told reporters:
"But once it was 2-0 you could see the shoulders sagging and everything on the bench and they just didn't believe they were going to be able to come back tonight."
Are they distracted by the lights and cameras of HBO, filming their award-winning 24/7 documentary as the lead-in to New Year's Day's Winter Classic?  Perhaps.

Has the Winter Classic itself, meant to be a grand spectacle and showcase for the brightest and best talent this league has to offer, become too much of a burden for this team to carry?  It's possible.

Is their collective confidence, normally one of this team's biggest strengths, damaged and bruised right now, having lost seven of their previous 11 games.  Without a doubt.

Is the league catching up to Alex Ovechkin, realizing that with his skill he never feels the need to dump the puck into the opposite corner and go chase it down, rather than carry it across the blue line himself and try to make a play, as he has so many times in the past?  Almost certainly, as defenders crowd him at the blue line, two deep, standing him up and making him bang shot after shot into their shin pads.

Does the grind of playing an 82-game schedule, when every media member, fan and player themself are judging this season solely on success in the playoffs, seem meaningless, even if it's on a subconscious level?  It's not out of the realm of possibility. 

But is a four-game losing streak, while sitting third in the league in points and fifth overall in goals per game, the appropriate time to be calling for the coach's head?  The winningest NHL coach over the last three seasons?  The man whose system got the Caps here in the first place?  The man who every player in the room looks up to?

No.  It's not.

Fans in this market might be accustomed to the Redskins changing out coaches on a whim every other year.  Looks where that's gotten them.  Now is not the time to be contemplating a switch.  It's a four-game losing streak.  The team isn't playing particularly well.  It happens over the course of an 82-game schedule.

This isn't the NFL, where a four-game losing streak is the death of a playoff opportunity.

Maybe I'm being naive, but when the Capitals are in ninth place in the conference, looking up at the playoffs, give me a call.  Otherwise, let's let things play out.  There's too much talent here  to believe these system-wide struggles are going to go on for too much longer.

"But once it was 2-0 you could see the shoulders sagging and everything on the bench and they just didn't believe they were going to be able to come back tonight." -- Coach Bruce Boudreau on the third period collapse.

THE RESULTS:  The Washington Capitals pre-holiday slump continued at a stunned, discontented Verizon Center Thursday night, as the Caps were shut out by the Florida Panthers, 3-0.

Despite receiving five power plays and registering 18 shots on goal in the first period, the Caps failed to score.  It took the wind out of Washington's sails, and they were a completely different team after the intermission.

The second period saw more of the same, with the Caps free-lancing instead of sticking with the game plan.  The game stayed scoreless until there was one second left, when Alexander Frolik banged home a third-effort shot between four Caps defender in the low slot.

Deflated, the Caps should have just stayed in the dressing room instead of putting on the debacle that followed in the third, as Florida scored twice more against out-of-position defenders while forwards played individually and failed to back-check at all.

For the game, the Capitals ended up 0-for-8 on the power play, including 1:53 of five-on-three play.

After the game, Coach Bruce Boudreau left in no uncertain terms how he felt about his team's effort, and veteran forward Mike Knuble was no less certain in his assessment of the state of the team.

"Our intentions were good at the beginning," Boudreau said, "Then when you don't score on the power play when you have the opportunity you could see at the end of the first period that we started to try to do things as individuals instead of collectively.  And when that happens, you know, it's tough.  But it's no excuse. 

After the first period, we were talking about how often this happens [when a team drastically outshoots its opponent], then the other team comes out and they're going to get power plays in the second period and it usually turns.  And I thought we did a really good job of holding them off on the five-on-three and the penalty, but you got four guys down there [on the first goal] and nobody touching anybody and they're gonna score."

"Once [Florida] believed that, at the start of the third period, they dug in their heels pretty good.  They were a determined group and we were looking like we were feeling sorry for ourselves."

“My thoughts were our top six forwards weren’t very good. But our bottom six forwards were working their hardest and getting opportunities,” Boudreau said. “So I wanted to put at least one of those guys on with the [top] guys and maybe it would rub off, the energy would rub off.

"But quite frankly, if your best players aren’t your best players – and we’ve been shut out three times in the last 11 games, which has never happened - you’re not going to have success.”

"You have to get production out of your best players and it's not happening right now.  Alex has two goals in eleven games, Semin hasn't scored in seven or eight games, Mike Green hasn't gotten a goal in I don't know how many games, same thing with Nick Backstrom...if they're not gonna score, and the power play's not gonna work, then you better win the game 1-0."

"They aren't playing good enough right now to score goals."

"I came in between periods, second and third, and everybody was hanging their heads and we were down 1-0.  My job at that time is not give them crap, but let them know they're good -- and don't feel sorry for yourselves.  Don't put your head down.  Dig your heels in and come back and it's one shot."

"But once it was 2-0 you could see the shoulders sagging and everything on the bench and they just didn't believe they were going to be able to come back tonight."

Veteran forward Mike Knuble was pointed in his post-game comments. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)
Mike Knuble had a different take on the situation, insisting that the team can't solely depend on the team's stars to carry them every night.

"You can point the finger in this game a lot of different places.  Fact of the matter is through 40 minutes it's a tied game.  And the power play didn't holdup its end of the bargain at all.  I don't know if we're fragile enough that if things don't go well on the power play that it's gonna creep into our five-on-five play.  I don't.  But we were playing a tight game and it didn't seem like we were comfortable with it."

"We didn't muster a whole lot there in the third, and when we went down two...a lot of nights it's in the cards for us but tonight it wasn't.  Usually we can draw on something and get something going but we couldn't."

"We've been doing teams a lot of favors lately, letting them pull out of slumps and helping teams feel good about themselves and frankly it's getting pretty tiring.  We're supposed to be a top team and we're letting teams come in and feel good about themselves when they leave.  Nobody is more embarrassed than the players today."

"I think some of our players have flown under the radar as far as their play.  Myself included, probably the number one culprit.  We just all have to be better.  It's not all on Ovie, it not on Nick.  And it's not on our top guys all the time.  It other guys that need to help out.  We've all got to be better."

"Usually it comes pretty easy at home.  If we're down a goal, frankly, we've got the horses to come out and win the game, but tonight it wasn't there.  And it can't be on our horses all the time.  It's gotta be on other guys too."

Both men are correct, of course.  When a team that is one of the most prolific scoring teams in the league scores six goals in four games, you can bet they were all losses, as they were.  And the trouble is systemic right now -- top to bottom.

But this team has has losing streaks before.  It's a long season and it's going to happen.  Fans can -- and should -- voice their displeasure, both at the game and on message boards and social media. 

But those calling for heads to roll are both short-sighted and incorrect.  Caps fans have been spoiled lately into thinking this is an easy game; that the 82 game regular season is nothing more than a long tune up for the playoff and the Caps should win games like tonight easily.

And maybe some of the players themselves have let that thinking set in.

But this is the NHL.  Nothing is easy.  And the Caps are one of the most talented and well coached teams in the league.  I needn't remind anyone that's been a fan of this team for more than just a few years what a poorly coached team looks like.

Let's all just step back, take a breath, and remind ourselves that losing streaks will happen over an 82-game schedule.

THE GOOD:  Semyon Varlamov played well for most of the game, though he had very little help.

THE BAD:  Too much to mention.

THE UGLY:  Fans streaming out of Verizon Center, justifiably booing with full lungs, after Florida scored their third goal.  Let's hope it's a long time indeed before we see that again.

THE STATS:  No goals.

NEXT GAME:  Saturday at 7:00 pm against Colorado Avalanche at Verizon Center.

CAPS NEWS NETWORK THREE STARS

3.  Eric Fehr.  Five shoots on goal in first period.  Fourth line in the third.  Huh?
2.  Scott Hannan.  He knows the right place to go instinctively.
1.  Semyon Varlamov.  Could sue for non-support.

Caps Fans New Year's Eve Party in Pittsburgh

Posted by Dave Nichols | Thursday, December 09, 2010 | , | 3 comments »

Caps fans, are you travelling to Pittsburgh for the Winter Classic?  Looking for a Caps-centric, cheap, beer-filled good time on New Year's Eve?  Have I got the solution for you!

Join Caps News Network, Japers Rink and Hogs Haven at the Hofbrauhaus in Pittsburgh New Year's Eve to ring in the new year before the Winter Classic.  There's NO COVER, no frills, no effort; just show up and drink with tons of other Washington Capitals fans in a friendly, non-hostile atmosphere.

We don't want any Caps fans wandering the streets of Pittsburgh New Year's Eve in search of entertainment, that's for sure.

The Hofbrauhaus is a large venue with live music, just one mile from downtown Pittsburgh (a very short cab ride from the downtown hotels), and offers a HUGE selection of fantastic, homemade beer.  Best of all, there's NO COVER.  You pay for what you consume, that's it!  You've already shilled out a month's salary for your ticket and transportation, no need to get gouged again paying to go to a party!

And you never know, we may just have a surprise or two up our sleeve.

Hope to see you at the Hofbrauhaus on New Year's Eve!

Third (or fourth?) Time the Charm for Perreault?

Posted by Dave Nichols | Tuesday, December 07, 2010 | , , | 0 comments »

"It's just one game now and I gotta do it next game and for the rest of the year so I can stay here." -- Mathieu Perreault, after Monday's two-goal game against Toronto

I'm going to go out on a limb right off the bat and frankly state that I like Matthieu Perreault.  From my limited exposure to him, he's been nothing but engaging, sincere and accountable -- good or bad.  As a hockey player, he's proven to be a dynamic, hustling, talented playmaker at the AHL level, with two consecutive 50 point seasons.

(C.Nichols/Caps News Network)
And he was well on his way to surpass that in this campaign, as he had eight goals and 17 assists in 25 games for Hershey this season, tied for 10th in the AHL in points (25).

I just wonder if he's got the chops for the big leagues.

Several occasions he's been called up, and in the first game or two he'll do what he did Monday night:  score, buzz around on the forecheck, add life to a young (but veteran) team.

Then, after a couple games, he'll disappear.

"Every time I get called up seems like the first game I'm flying and now it's just a matter of doing that every night," Perreault told reporters after the Caps devastating 5-4 shootout loss to Toronto Monday night.

So far this season, in four games he's got two goals and two helpers, in two different stints.  Well, that's not really a clear picture.  He had two goals Monday, and two assists in his first game this season, Oct. 23 against Atlanta.

He didn't score in the next two games, and Perreault was returned to Hershey.  Of course, that was while the team was still conducting the "Tomas Fleischmann at Center" experiment.  Perreault was a victim of numbers as much as production.

Last season, Perreault had a two-point night right off the bat, Nov. 4 against New Jersey.  Eighteen games later he had not produced another one, and was held off the scoresheet altogether in 12 of those 18 games and was demoted.  For the season, he played 21 games and had five goals and four assists.

Perreault needs to produce points at the NHL level if he's to stick in this league.  He's a good skater, so he can be effective on the forecheck, but other than that, his role is limited.  He is small (NHL.com generously has him listed at 5'10", 175), so he really isn't much help along the boards or with checking. 

And his stature is perhaps an explanation to why he's been unable to consistently produce for the Capitals; he just gets worn down playing against bigger, stronger competition night in and night out.

NHL history is dotted with "little guys" excelling.  Stan Mikita, Theo Fleury and Martin St. Louis were all vertically challenged and all were/are dynamic NHL players.  But they were all elite skaters with very high motors.  Perreault is a good skater and quick -- two of his strengths -- but I don't think he's in a class with the three mentioned above.

There is a gaping hole at center on the Caps second line, and Perreault has shown to mesh with Alexander Semin in the few opportunities he's had this season.  The job is there for the taking, and it looks like Perreault is going to get every chance to hold onto the spot. 

Perreault even skated in overtime with Semin during four-on-four Monday, and unexpectedly was the second shooter in the shoot-out, as Boudreau by-passed Nicklas Backstrom in the situation.

"It shows they have confidence in me and they're not scared to play me in a big situation."

If GM George McPhee and Coach Bruce Boudreau don't see consistent production from Perreault in the next 10-15 games, I think we should expect McPhee to address the situation with a veteran two-way player as we approach the trade deadline.

But I'll definitely be rooting for the little guy.

"It's frustrating anytime you give up a 4-1 lead in the third period.  You're gonna be angry.  It doens't happen and it's not supposed to happen."  Coach Bruce Boudreau


THE RESULT:  The Washington Capitals fairly dominated every minute of the first two periods, skating circles around a vastly inferior team, skill-wise, taking a 4-1 lead into the second intermission.  Beat writers were already writing their stories, just waiting for a final score.

Unfortunately, the National Hockey League still asks both teams to play three 20-minute periods.

As good as the Capitals were in the first two frames, that's as poorly as they played in the third, and allowed the less-talented Toronto Maple Leafs to tie the game in regulation and eventually win in the shootout, 5-4.

"We quit playing in our zone," said Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau.  "We just wanted to play safe.  You can't just allow a team to come into our zone all night long.  When they were in our zone, our positioning -- by both defensemen and forwards -- was really bad."

Washington (18-8-3, 39 points) had problems with Toronto's forechecking all night long, from the first shift of the game until the last.  But the Leafs had trouble moving the puck, connecting on passes, and whiffing on shots -- until the last three minutes of the game when Toronto scored twice in 59 seconds, with the game-tying goal at 18:36 by Clarke MacArthur.

MacArthur was a pain in the Caps' side all night long, and he really appeared to get under their skin.  Early in the first period, the gritty winger took a high shot at Nicklas Backstrom that was not called, and for the rest of the affair different Capitals, including Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera and Matt Bradley all challenged the winger.

But MacArthur had the last laugh, as his wrist shot beat goalie Michael Neuvirth to even things up with less than two minutes to play.

If the Caps had exerted as much energy in the third period playing defense as they did trying to chase down MacArthur, the final might have been 7-1.

Captain Alex Ovechkin was at a loss for words after the game.

"I don't know what happened the last ten minutes,' he said.  "Four to one lead after two periods is pretty big.  Losing a game like this is pretty bad for us.  It's a lesson and it's good we have another game soon."

To add injury to insult, defenseman Jeff Schultz was injured in the second period and did not return.  After the game, Boudreau revealed Schultz sustained a fractured thumb and will miss four-to-six weeks.

The loss and injury put a pall over the locker room, and detracts from the great game Mathieu Perreault had upon his recall from AHL Hershey.  The diminutive center had two goals and provided much-needed spark in his first game back. 

Perreault has a history of having good first games.  "Every time I get called up it seems like the first game I'm flying," Perreault said.  "Now it's just a matter of doing it every night."

Perreault even got ice time in overtime -- and the second shot in the shootout.  "It shows they have confidence in me and can play me in the big situation."

"I felt good tonight.  It's just unfortunate that we came out with a loss here.  In the third we got away from our game and it cost us."

Boudreau praised Perreault's effort, but used it to take a backhanded shot at the rest of his team.

"He brought great energy tonight, like we thought.  If some of the other forwards had played with as much energy as him, we wouldn't have been in the situation we were in."

THE GOOD:  Mathieu Perreault had a great game, centering Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich.  He displayed the energy and skill the Caps really love from the little guy.  So many times he seems to step in with these games, but then disappears. The Caps could really benefit from him finally clicking and sticking around this time.

THE BAD:  Schultz' injury could be devastating.  It makes the Scott Hannan deal look even bigger now, but puts the Caps right back where they were before the trade -- thin on defense with a bunch of lingering injuries.

THE UGLY:  The comeback started with Mikhail Grabovski's goal from the high slot at 4:15 of the third.  Alex Ovechkin seemed to lose his positioning on the play, looking for a pass instead of back-checking. 

Asked if Grabovski was Ovechkin's man, he replied, "It was exactly where he should have been.  When it went out to the blue line he was going out -- I think he was looking for the redirect and to go, rather than to come to the slot, just in case something like what happened, happened."

On the game-tying goal, MacArthur was all alone at the far post.  The closest Capital to him:  Ovechkin.

THE STATS:  Mathieu Perreault (1) from Tom Poti (2) and Alexander Semin (15) at 2:55 of 1st.  Mike Knuble (5) from Nicklas Backstrom (20) and Tom Poti (3) at 14:58 of 1st (PP). Mathieu Perreault (2) from Brooks Laich (12) at 6:46 of 2nd.  Alex Ovechkin (12) from Tom Poti (4) and Nicklas Backstrom (21) at 13:50 of 2nd.

NEXT GAME:  Thursday at 7:00 pm against Florida Panthers.

CAPS NEW NETWORK THREE STARS

3. Mike Knuble.  Picked up his own rebound on the power play and scored for the second time in three nights. 
2. Tom Poti.  Three assists in the game for the first time since he was patrolling the blue line for the Islanders.
1. Mathieu Perreault. The diminutive center-iceman scored his first two goals of the season and provided a much needed spark in his second stint with the club this season, much like his first call-up.

CAPS NOTES

D.J. King fought Colton Orr in the second period.  It was just King's third fight of the season.

Ovechkin scored his 12th goal of the season, giving him goals in back-toback games after going nine games scoreless.  He has points in six of the last seven games (two goals, seven assists).

The Caps won 57 percent of their face-offs, and have won 50 percent of more in 15 of their last 16 games.

Washington was three-for-four on the penalty kill and are 21-24 (87.5%) in their last six games.

GAME HIGHLIGHTS