The Manic Depressive Capitals, and the Slow Road to Recovery

Adam Oates has the Caps moving in the right direction. In theory. (Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE)

Adam Oates has the Caps moving in the right direction. In theory. (Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE)

When Bruce Boudreau was named Head Coach of the Capitals in the Fall of 2007, it marked the beginning of a new era in Washington: An Era of Extremes. From high-powered offense, to slogging, mind-numbing defense; from unbelievable highs, to hopeless, existential lows, the Caps have spent the last six years becoming intimate with the most distant reaches of the hockey spectrum.

It began when Boudreau decided to “let the young guns loose”. Instead of continuing to shackle the obvious talent that the team possessed, Boudreau opted to let offensive stars like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alex Semin do what they do best. To nobody’s great surprise, what they did best was score a ton of goals.

Also unsurprising, however, was the general ambivalence they felt towards playing in their own end (one could almost feel the boredom oozing out of Ovechkin as he coasted along the defensive blue line, biding his time until one of his teammates gained control). The Caps didn’t care if they gave up a bunch of goals, because they believed that they could score a bunch more (and frequently, they were correct). But after several, devastating early-round playoff exits—coupled with an underwhelming start to the 2011-2012 season—it was decided that a change needed to be made.

And along came Dale Hunter.

Dale Hunter Capitals coach

Dale Hunter imposed a defense-first (only?) approach on an offensive powerhouse. (Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE)

Under Dale Hunter’s leadership, the Capitals undertook a radical transformation. From an unstructured, freewheeling offensive juggernaut, the Caps became the polar opposite. They started playing coin-flip hockey: Stay in position, block shots, get sticks in passing lanes, and hope to God that a clearing attempt takes an awkward bounce off a stanchion and rolls into a prematurely vacated net. No, they didn’t give up much on defense, but they generated nothing on offense; And if a team’s scoring is predicated on lucky bounces, and egregious errors by its opponent, than they either need to be extremely lucky, or their opponents need to be extremely error-prone. This is not a winning formula.

Since the 2004-05 lockout, all but three of the nine Stanley Cup Winners have ranked in the top ten in both goals for, and goals allowed. Aside from the Bruins’ 11th place finish in scoring, all four of last year’s conference finalists did the same. The moral: To be successful, a team needs to do everything well. A great offense, or a great defense may be enough to carry a team into the postseason, but once there, a single trick isn’t good enough. Fortunately for the Caps, they finally have a coach that has reached the same conclusion.

After a recent blowout loss to the Colorado Avalanche—a loss that would have had many coaches in this league fuming with anger—Oates had this to say:

“[Colorado] basically got two power-play goals and a shorthanded goal and two goals off the rush. Other than that we were in their end 28 minutes; they were in our end eight minutes, which is a huge, huge difference…”

He’s right about a couple of things:

First, there is a difference between power-play goals, goals off the rush, and goals that are generated through sustained offensive pressure. While they’re all usually the result of a defensive breakdown, the first two are isolated incidents. That is, they are not necessarily indicative of the nature of the game as a whole.

Second, the Caps did dominate zone time for much of that game. In addition to the numbers quoted by Oates, they outshot the Avalanche 41-28, a number that would have been far more lopsided had Colorado not blocked an additional 19. The fact of the matter is that Semyon Varlamov was brilliant in goal, and the Avalanche capitalized on their relatively few opportunities.

That game may have had an ugly result, but if the Caps out-shoot, out-chance, and out-posses their opponents on a regular basis, they will win more often than not. While Caps fans have become increasingly frustrated with some of Oates’ decisions to start this season, it can’t be denied that he is philosophically superior to his two predecessors, and that his style, if executed properly, is far more sustainable. For this reason, I’m convinced that if the Caps are able to put it all together, with Oates’ leadership, they will be far better prepared to make a deep playoff run than in any of the previous six seasons under Hunter and Boudreau..

Of course, at this juncture, that’s looking like a pretty big “if”.

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