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Through 82

December 20, 2013

Tuesday night’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers was the Capitals’ 82nd game since Adam Oates took over the reins as the team’s head coach. Because of the lockout that abbreviated the 2012-13 to a mere 48 games instead of the standard 82, we’ve had to wait a bit longer to get a full picture of the team thru what would be the equivalent of a full NHL campaign.


With those first 82 games in the books, the team is 45-31-6 for 96 points. That represents the second best start ever by a Caps coach through his first 82 games, trailing only Bruce Boudreau (106 points).


Washington started last season with a 2-8-1 mark in its first 11 games and it opened the 2013-14 season with a 2-5 record after seven games.


“Whenever you start a season 2-8-1, it’s tough to recover from that,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “For the rest of the season, I thought we did a great job towards the end of the season to put ourselves in a good playoff position.


“This year, we had a little bit of a slow start again. But we’ve really been coming on, and we’ve been playing good hockey. If you get in that 94- or 95-point range, you’re going to be in the playoffs. Whether you have home ice is different. I think if we didn’t start out [2-5] or whatever we d this year, we’d be up over 100 points for sure. And that puts you in a home ice situation. So I think all things considered, the first 82 games with Oatesy, we can be happy with where we are.”


Oates himself sees two separate seasons with different personnel.


“I think it’s a tale of two seasons, I really do,” says the Caps coach. “I think that because of having a [training] camp and an offseason and because of the changes, it’s two different teams. I like where some guys are going. Some guys need to get going more, but we’re finally [making progress].


“I think we are in a different place on the blueline, with [John] Erskine out and [Jack] Hillen out and having kids on the blueline. We had [Mike] Ribeiro last year, and we have [Mikhail] Grabovski this year, so to me it’s two different teams.”


Erskine just returned to the lineup; he has been limited to just nine games thus far this season after undergoing offseason surgery. Hillen suffered a broken bone in his leg in the season’s second game, an injury that will shelve him for four to six months.


Washington has deployed a dozen different defensemen in what has been a revolving door of a blueline this season. Six of those defenders have fewer than 100 games worth of NHL experience to their credit, and Washington has played 19 of its 34 games with three of those sub-100 games defensemen in the lineup.


That the Capitals have gone an impressive 12-5-2 in the 19 games in which they’ve dressed three blueliners with fewer than 100 games in the league is a credit to the Caps’ coaching staff and in particular assistant coach Calle Johansson.


Mike Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson have had to be the stalwarts of Washington’s youthful defense group.


“Carly, Alzie and Greenie are the veterans,” says Johansson. “It’s almost unfair to them to have to put responsibility like that on guys with just a few hundred games. Usually your most experienced defenseman has about 800 games or something like that. But they’re mature for their age and they’re responsible guys.


“It makes my job fun, to be honest with you, and it makes it a challenge. I’m here for them. I don’t do this for my own sake. For every day that they get better and I can do something for them, it makes it so much fun. I don’t know if I can, but that’s my goal.”


The Caps were 28th in the NHL in terms of average shots allowed per game (32.3) last season, and they’ve dropped to 29th in that department (35.1) this season. Certainly that is one area that cries out for improvement.


“Obviously we score a lot of goals,” says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby. “That’s the definite positive since Adam has come in. The biggest thing – and I think it’s no secret to anyone – is our defensive zone that we have to clean up.


“We need to figure out a way to make it a strength of ours instead of having to have the offense bail us out at times. It’s a goaltending thing, up to the forwards. It’s communication in our own end and it’s being on the same page every game. It’s something we know we are capable of, but it needs a lot of improvement.”


From the time he took over as the team’s coach in June of 2012, Oates has said he wants a team that goes north and takes territory. His team did exactly that in the final 19 games of the 2012-13 season when it rolled to a 15-2-2 mark in the final 19 games, but consistency in that regard has been elusive this season.


“We’re a whole lot better when we were back then,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera in comparing the Caps of today with the team that hastily took the ice with less than a week of “training camp” prior to last season. “We were pretty bad to start off the year. We only put together a couple of complete 60-minute games, we saw glimpses what we could be and then we lapsed back to what doesn’t work.


“For our team, skill doesn’t really work for us if we don’t work hard to get pucks in the right places, and Adam preaches that all the time. We have to put pucks in the right places – even [Alex Ovechkin] and [Nicklas Backstrom] and those guys – we have to get it deep and have no turnovers.


“Where we are, we’re kind of up and down. We play really good and we play really bad. We win games we shouldn’t win, and in Florida [last Saturday] we stole a point in a game where we were outplayed. It’s good that we’re getting points, but we’ve got to shape up.”


One area in which Oates has excelled is getting the maximum out of his best players. Ovechkin has thrived since Oates replaced Dale Hunter, putting up 60 goals and 94 points while playing in 80 of the 82 games. Backstrom has totaled 16 goals and 85 points under Oates.


If you plugged those numbers into the league leaders in 2011-12, the last full seasons the NHL played before this one, both players would be in the league’s top five in scoring.


Ovechkin and Backstrom have both benefited from another strong suit of the Oates administration, the team’s power play. With assistant coach Blaine Forsythe – a holdover from previous coaching regimes – running the team’s extra-man unit, the Caps have produced 76 power-play goals and a stellar 25.1% success rate over the last 82 games.


Johansson took over the team’s penalty-killing outfit late last season, to good effect. The unit has been better for most of this season as well, killing at a combined rate of exactly 80% over the previous 82 games.


“We’ve come a long way for sure,” says Ward of the team’s progress in calendar 2013. “I still think we haven’t peaked yet, which is good. We’ve done a lot of good things; our special teams have been better this season. Overall, collectively as a group, there has been more structure and when you play the system you get more opportunities on the offensive end. Everything is in place, we as players just have to go out there and execute better, that’s all. I think that’s something that will come.”


Alzner echoes some of those thoughts.


“I think we are a more disciplined team,” says Alzner. “Not in the penalty sense, but in a systems sense. We follow the system pretty good. We try to be consistent with our dumps, consistent with the way we break the puck out, what we do in the neutral zone and all that kind of stuff. A lot of times before we were pretty free flowing and we would go out there and use our skill to try and win games.


“It’s good. It’s like a machine. You try to keep doing the same thing every time and to execute every time and you’re going to hopefully always play good hockey games. I think we just need to continue to work on that. We always have the same thought in mind, whether we always do it is sometimes a problem; the little things, the chips, the cycles, the off-the-glass-and-out and high flip plays if there isn’t a play to be made. We just have to make sure our execution is on more often and we’ll be pretty good.”


By virtually every measure, the Caps need to cut their goals against, even if that happens at the expense of scoring. Washington has scored 99 and has allowed 99 goals thus far in 2013-14. Over the last 82 games, they’ve scored 245 and surrendered 229. Those numbers would rank fourth and 22nd, respectively, if plugged into the league’s season-ending totals for 2011-12.


“We’re a lot better than what we show a lot of nights, for sure,” says Chimera. “I signed here because we have a chance to win a Stanley Cup. You can sign anywhere, and be on a non-playoff team and you can make all the money in the world. But when you look back on a career, you want a Stanley Cup. You want one of those rings, right? That’s why I signed here and that’s what kind of team I think we have. We have to start playing like that kind of team. We’ve showed glimpses of it and then we revert back. If you want to be there at the end you’ve got to be consistently one of the better teams in the league and one of those teams that are feared to play.”


Caps forward Brooks Laich is currently sidelined with a lower body injury, and he has been healthy enough to play in only 34 of the team’s last 82 games. But he remains bullish on the Caps’ prospects going forward.


“To be completely honest,” begins Laich, “I don’t think we’ve really even scratched the surface. We started to last year when we went 15-2-2 to finish it off and everything looked so clean and crisp. It just looked so easy, like we had six or seven guys on the ice and we were bigger and stronger. We just picked teams apart and you could see it on their faces.


“But under Adam and this staff, we are so coached in every area of the game that sometimes it’s hard. Players get a little crossed up with being in position but also you have to make hockey reads at certain times. You want to be in certain positions and be predictable, but sometimes the game is such a flow game that you have to adjust.


“Once we can find that balance of making hockey reads while sticking with the structure, then I think we are a lethal team. Talking to people around town, I said to watch out for us in the [season’s] second half. I think we are going to go on a run. We just have to be consistent and put it all together. And when we do, it’s going to be so nice to watch.”

Through the first 34 games of this season, the Caps have shown flashes of the team that finished 15-2-2 last season. But by and large, they’ve only shown those flashes for a period here and a handful of shifts there. They’ve been unable to sustain the level of consistency they’ll need to put together a run similar to what Laich is talking about.


“The biggest thing in professional sports is consistency,” asserts Holtby. “That’s how successful teams are. It’s never the most talented or the team that can score the most goals every night, it’s the consistent ones that can win games over a long period of time and in our sport in a seven-game series. It’s the hardest thing to fine and the biggest thing in sports.”


Like most teams in the league, the Caps see themselves as a work in progress. They appear to have enough to make the playoffs, but that’s been the case for the last six seasons. They’re looking for more, and they’ve got a few months to get it together.