"If you play for one run, that's all you'll get."
Long-time Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver said that in his book, Weaver on Strategy. He's of course referring to baseball, but I think that little gem applies to what the Washington Capitals are going through right now, and last night's 2-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks in particular.
The Caps, still mired in an epic scoring drought from their best players, have changed their style of play from a wide-open attack to a more defense-oriented system. They are playing very well defensively, giving up just 1.7 goals per game since the middle of December, and are fifth in the league overall in goals against per game at 2.38.
Yet here they sit, in the middle of the pack of teams trying to qualify for the playoffs. Currently, the Caps are in fifth, just seven points out of first place. But they're also just nine points from eighth. They are treading water during the time of the season where you want to start ramping up your game toward the playoffs.
We saw an all-too-familiar script again last night. The Caps came out buzzing against the Sharks, dominating the offensive zone in the first period, but not getting enough quality chances on goal. And those that did make it through were being gobbled up by yet another average goalie, this time Antti Niemi. When the period ended in a scoreless tie, you could almost see where this one was going.
On cue, the Caps stopped doing the things they were having success with early in the game and satisfied themselves the rest of the game with mid-to-long range shots that were either off the mark or knocked down by defenders. Washington ended with 25 shots on goal (eight in the last 2:30), but had another 25 shots blocked and nine go astray.
Sounds like a few games last April, eh?
There's no margin for error playing a defensive style of hockey. If you make one mistake, you're toast. And that's exactly what happened at 11:55 of the third, when Michal Neuvirth let a soft wrist shot from Logan Couture get through him.
Look, it's hard to pin this game on Neuvy. He was excellent the first 51 minutes of the game. Both he and his coach knew though that's a stop he's got to make in a tight game. "They got a little bit lucky on that first goal," Neuvirth said. "It kind of surprised me. Goals happen. I got to be square next time.”
Coach Bruce Boudreau was more pointed in his critique.
"In the end, he played good for 51 minutes. But if you want to be a great goalie in this league, when the game is on the line, you have to be the one to stop those. I thought those goals were not of the variety that should have beaten him, but at the same time, I thought he kept us in for the first period.”
But that's what happens when you play with such a small margin of error. One mistake can cost you the game. And that's what happened last night.
Last year, if the Caps got down a goal or two, it was no big deal. That's the luxury of averaging almost four goals per game and having the league's top rated power play. My, what difference a year makes.
What kills me about all this is that the Capitals are allowing the media to dictate their style of play. They've bought in to the idea that "playoff hockey" is built around 2-1 games and that this team would never succeed in the playoffs playing the all-out attack of the last two seasons.
But a tiger can't change it's stripes.
The new system the Caps are employing certainly plays well for some of the personnel on the squad. Karl Alzner, Scott Hannan, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine; they're all flourishing in a slower, muck up the middle, defensive game. If the forwards bear more burden with defensive responsibility, it leads to fewer odd-man rushes and less stress on the defenders.
But it's neutering this team's biggest strengths. Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Brooks Laich. All on pace for drastically lower totals in goals and points than career norms.
The Capitals have been shut out eight times this season. EIGHT! It's hard to even fathom it.
The Caps are 17th in the league in goals per game with just 2.69. The power play is 18th in the league. Dreadful.
This change in philosophy for the Capitals is preparing them to play a bunch of 2-1 games come springtime alright. Just hard to figure right now which end they'll be on.