It’s hard not to get a little concerned with the performance of the Capitals through the first few weeks of this young NHL season. Yes, their 6-4 record is respectable and it’s not like we haven’t seen the Caps go all streaky on us before, but excuse us if we are a little skeptical after last season’s meltdown.
Coming into the season all we wanted to see was a newfound sense of grit, patience, and adherence to fundamental hockey. It might sound boring, but working the cycle, controlling the boards, and making crisp passes in the neutral zone win hockey games in May and June and that’s where it counts. The Capitals might pay lip service to those skills, but they have yet to dedicate a stretch of games towards working on them as a team.
Individually, several Caps have put forth the effort necessary to improve the level of play on both ends of the ice. John Erskine, though not as gifted as many on the roster, has been sound in the defensive end despite being pairing with the enigmatic Tyler Sloan. Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr are solid hustle players who skate hard every shift. Fehr also has a nice shot to boot. David Steckel has anchored the fourth line with positive results. In fact, the fourth line of Matt Hendricks-Steckel-Matt Bradley has been the ideal energy line, establishing puck possession and even chipping in with a goal during the Caps’ 3-0 win over Carolina earlier this week.
While the fourth line has stepped it up even without Boyd Gordon, it’s the first line of Ovi-Backstrom-Knuble, which is our biggest concern. It’s not the same line who scored 112 goals combined and were the toast of the town in 2009-10. Ovechkin has continued his disturbing trend of paying little attention to anything save standing at the blue-line waiting to enter the offensive zone; Backstrom is a step slow coming off a career year; and Knuble seems unsure of his role as he plays with two of the best offensive players in the game.
We fully expect Backstrom to shake off his slow start (he had a six game stretch last October where he scored just one point and he recorded just four points during the entire month of October in 2008). Knuble is at his best when is able to establish himself in front of the net, but that can’t happen if Ovechkin refuses to tone down his out of control game in the offensive zone. Ovi pays little heed to cycling the puck and maintaining possession instead preferring to score off the rush. That’s his strong suit, but it doesn’t cater to Knuble nor does it provide consistent quality shifts with Backstrom struggling.
In the offensive zone this year, Ovi’s passing has been sloppy and he’s been somewhat predictable off the rush. But the biggest issue in our minds is his lack of hustle when he doesn’t have the puck. He doesn’t forecheck consistently, his stick is rarely on the ice in the defensive zone, and cherry-picking is the norm. There’s no doubt Ovi is a great player, but this kind of stuff isn’t fitting for the leader of this team. The team will take more pride in every aspect of the game if their captain does so.
-It’s a broken record, but the defense is still in desperate need of a veteran stay-at-home defenseman. Erskine hustles, Carlson and Alzner will continue to develop, and Tom Poti is solid, but it would be nice to add another player to that list just to be safe.
-As much as we root for Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth has looked the part as the number one goaltender. Why “tinker” with a .926 save percentage and some of the best netminding we’ve seen in quite a while?
-We still like little Matty P over Marcus Johansson at center. Johansson is still very, very raw. Matty P is a scrappy player who skates both ends of the ice with equal intensity and his positioning is impeccable.
-And finally for as much heat as Jeff Schultz takes we can’t ignore his improvement. He’s become an even better shot-blocker and seems to have solidified his role on the roster.