Sunday, April 4, 2010

Caps in Good Shape Despite What "Experts" Say

When you follow a team all your life and since its inception, it's hard at times to be objective. In the case of the Washington Capitals, after years of playoff disappointments, many of their followers - inlcuding me - tend to expect the worst this time of year.

Lately, many in the national media - and now even Columbus Blue Jacket forward R.J. Umberger - have jumped on the anti-Caps bandwagon. Several NHL media types have labeled Washington "this year's Sharks," and Umberger last night said that the Caps wouldn't strike fear in any of the Western Confernece teams because "they don't play the right way."

Let's address that ridiculous comment first. Based on his - and his team's - performance this year, it might stand to reason that Mr. Umberger would know a thing or two about not playing the right way. It just seems like a funny statement coming from an underachieving player on an underachieving, disappointing team after a loss against a club that he will never face more than twice a year. Way to put yourself on the line, R.J.

Enough about that, though. Instead let's get back to the "prevailing wisdom" among a national NHL media contingent that waivers more than a U.S. politician in an election year. They say that the Caps have been struggling of late, that they have holes on defense, that they aren't capable of playing a two-way defensive style, that they are suspect in goal, and on and on.

Well, trying to be as objective as possible, let's take a quick look around the league at the competition - at least those that the pundits consider to be legitmate Cup contenders and the other teams battling for playoff berths. The erstwhile Sharks, second in the race for the President's Tropy and leading the West, have split their last two (prior to tonight's game at Colorado) after winning four straight. Before that they had dropped six in a row. They are 5-5 in their last 10 and 5-6-1 in their last 12.

Chicago, the media darling early in the year and considered by many to be the favorite coming out of the West, has won two straight after dropping three in a row and is 4-4-2 in its last 10. Vancouver is 5-4-1 in its most recent 10 outings. Phoenix, which did have a recent nine-game winning streak, is still just 6-3-1 in its last 10. Nashville has been playing well of late, going 7-2-1 in its last 10 contests, but the Preds are rarely mentioned as a contender. Instead, the Red Wings seem to be a poplular choice to make a run after struggling for most of the year and looking like they might battle it out for the eighth seed until the season's final week. The Wings are healthy now, having won seven of their last nine and going 7-3 in their last 10, including today's lost to the previously struggling Flyers.

Others in the West include Los Angeles (4-5-1), Calgary (6-4) and Colorado, which has lost seven of its last eight (before facing the Sharks tonight).

On the flip side in the East, current second-place New Jersey is 4-3-3 in its last 10, No. 3 Buffalo is 7-3, Pittsburgh is 5-3-2, Ottawa is 6-4, Montreal is 5-3-2, Boston is 6-4, Philadelphia is 4-5-1, the Rangers are 6-3-1 and Atlanta is 5-3-2.

Compare all those teams to the Caps. Washington has won its last two, each by a single goal while playing a more defensive style, and is 6-1-3 in its last 10. The Caps, who are one point away from cliniching the President's Trophy (pending the outcome of tonight's Colorado-San Jose matchup), did lose three straight before their current two-game win streak, but at one point recently they had earned at least one point in 26 of their previous 29 outings. In their last 29 contests Washington has lost by more than a single goal only once, 5-3 to Calgary last week.

The Caps entered today eight points better than the next closest team in the NHL, and after a couple of tough outings last week, their goaltenders have held their last two opponents to a total of three goals, with Jose Thedore stopping 34 shots vs. Columbus Saturday to earn first-star honors. Despite the blips on the radar last week, Theodore still is 18-0-3 in his last 21 decisions, and if he falters, Semyon Varlamov showed during last year's playoffs that he is more than up to the task.

"When you feel good about your game, you know in your mind that you are going to have some bad games," said Theodore after Saturday's win vs. Columbus. "Every player has some bad games, but it's about making sure that stretch doesn't last too long. It was great to be back in net tonight and I just wanted to get back on track and back to feeling tood about my game."

Are the Caps at the top of their game right now? Of course not. They are not playing as well as they were during their ridiculous winning streak leading up to the Olympics, but neither is anyone else, save Detroit. They have made noticeable adjustments in their game in the past week, with the defensive corps tightening up substantially in its own end. Against Atlanta in a 2-1 victory last Thursday Washington's forwards backchecked as well as they have at any point this season. The forwards were not quite as committed vs. Columbus, but you can bet that will be addressed by head coach Bruce Boudreau.

Some folks point to the Caps' playoff history as a reason for picking them to tap out early in this year's postseason. That's the argument of someone who doesn't really have an argument. This group has nothing to do with the talented teams that made a habit of choking back in the '80s and 90s.

There always is a progression and a learning curve for teams that ascend to the top. Pittsburgh went through it with an early-round loss followed by a trip to the finals and then a championship. After a five-year postseason absence, Washington closed the season with eight straight victories to earn an invite to the dance two years ago. That year the Caps trailed Philly three games to one before making the commitment to playoff-style hockey and taking the series to a Game 7 overtime. Playoff lesson No. 1 learned.

Last season they cruised down the stretch against non-playoff teams and came out flat against the Rangers in the opening round, dropping two games at home, before re-committing to a playoff-worthy effort and rallying to win the series in seven. Lesson No. 2 noted.

Then came the epic seven-game series loss to Pittsburgh. Washington again climbed the mountain, coming back from a 3-1 deficit before running out of gas in the seventh game. Playoff lesson No. 3 absorbed.

Experts like to talk about the Caps' recent playoff failures and disappoinments. Huh? Two years ago they came from nowhwere with a young team and first-year coach to earn an unexpected playoff berth and push a tough Flyer squad to a seventh game. Last year they came back to win a first-round Game 7 and then fell in seven to the battle-tested, eventual Cup-champion Penguins.

I guess you can call those early exits if you want, but to me it looks like a natural progression toward bigger and better outcomes. Love them or hate them, respect them or not, this year's Capitals have been the class of the NHL. To say that they are primed for an early exit simply does not make sense. Could it happen? Of course. That's why we play the games and why sports are so special. But if I had to pick one roster from all the others to take with me into the postseason, there's no question which one it would be. And as someone who has followed the Caps since Day 1, I can honestly say that this is the first time I've ever even considered making that statement.

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