Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A New Sheriff in Town?

By Scott Lowe
It looks as though Bruce Boudreau may have learned a valuable lesson from last year’s disappointing playoff experience.

During the Washington Capitals’ 2009-2010 run to the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy, Bourdreau rarely took his foot off the gas pedal. The team literally came to play every single night, using their free-wheeling offensive style to amass a club-record 14-game win streak and run away with the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

There’s something to be said for a team that plays hard and entertains fans on a daily basis in this day and age of millionaire pro athletes who admit taking games off or not giving their all every time out. And, no doubt, fans in Washington and cities around the league come out in droves to see the Caps play. The mistake that Boudreau made was to begin preaching to the media the need for his team to play a more defensive style the final two or three weeks of the season with the playoffs approaching instead of making the team a little more aware of that throughout the year.

While the Caps kept playing hard until the end and did pull out a few one-goal defensive battles down the stretch, they appeared to lose their edge a little bit. Some of the swagger that they had developed as an almost-invincible team during the majority of the season disappeared during the Canadiens’ seven-game upset of Washington.

Mike Green, who suffocated in Glen Hanlon’s conservative system but blossomed into an annual Norris Trophy candidate under Boudreau, looked and played like he was confused. Jeff Schultz, who flourished into the league’s top plus-minus performer playing alongside the offensive-minded Green, didn’t know what to do when Green changed his game. Tomas Fleischmann and Alex Semin, offensive mainstays all season long, just didn’t seem to fit into the scheme during the postseason.

Clearly there were lessons to be learned from last year’s disappointing ending. What we all must keep in mind is that this is still a very young team – actually even younger than last year’s with the departure of several veteran players and the promotion of players such as Karl Alzner, John Carlson and possibly Matthieu Perrault and Marcus Johansson into key roles.

As long as the same mistakes aren’t repeated on a yearly basis, with the kind of talent base that’s in Washington and the franchise’s organizational depth, the Caps should be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for years to come. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say, and the “wise guys” in Vegas, who usually aren’t far off the mark, have installed Washington – along with Pittsburgh – as a Cup favorite as training camp gets underway.

Caps players seemed to have learned their lesson, many of them speaking of being angry about last year’s failure and coming to camp with a chip on their shoulders. And the preliminary indication from some of Boudreau’s early training-camp comments is that the man who has been called a player’s coach may be shortening the leash a bit and asking the players to focus on the big picture instead of daily appearances on the ESPN top 10 plays list.

Some of Boudreau’s comments after yesterday’s scrimmage, won 6-3 by the Group A or “Red Army” team against the Group C team that had throttled Washington’s other camp squad, 5-0, the day before were interesting and refreshing.

“That’s just us,” he quipped when asked about the offensive output in the game. Then, when questioned about how he expected the humbled Group B team to match up with the Group C offensive juggernaut he said, “I expect that they’ll play better tomorrow. I had a little talk with them after the 5-0 game.”

Wow, a tongue-lashing on the first day of camp for a lackluster performance. Love it. What did you tell them, coach? “We’ll just keep that between us,” he said, grinning.

Later when asked what he thought of the strong play of the current “third line” of Jason Chimera, Matthieu Perreault and Eric Fehr, he added, “I’m not surprised that they are doing well, because I thought they were supposed to be the top line on their team. They have dominated a lot of the play and created a lot of scoring chances. Chimmer and Eric played together last year, and Matty’s motivated to make the team, so it makes sense.”

Then things got less jovial and Boudreau was asked about Fleischmann’s chances to hold onto the job as the second-line center. “He’s been put in a position to win that job. Sometimes teams call their lines the second, third and fourth lines, while other teams call them their secondary scoring, checking and energy lines. It just so happens that we had three lines that could score last year and an energy shut-down line.

“Whether Flash is in the lineup at that position or another position, he’ll make the other line more of a scoring threat than it is now. We’ll see. Certainly I don’t like the way {Fleischmann and Semin} in two days and one game have been passing back and forth like it’s shinny, but we’ll have a talk about that.”

Wow. Another “talk” with players not performing well early in training camp. Looks like there’s a new sheriff in town, one who is going to crack the whip and not let some of the players on the Caps’ roster fall prey to the bad habits they can get away with in November, but not April.

No one will contest that Washington only needs to tweak a few things to make a deep playoff run. Well, it looks like the tweaking already has begun. and that’s good news for Caps fans.

Other Camp Notes
The Ovechkin-led Group A team, featuring five of Washington’s six Russians in camp, scored three third-period goals to break a 3-all tie and earn a 6-3 victory yesterday against the Group C team, which had defeated Group B the day before, 5-0. Group A was playing its first game of camp.

Boudreau commented about how the tempo was much-improved from the previous-day’s contest. That, paired with the A team’s offensive firepower most likely wore down the Group C boys. Caps’ regulars Mike Knuble (two goals) and Ovechkin (one goal), along with newly signed enforcer D.J. King, were among the Group A goal-scorers. Jason Chimera was the lone Washington regular to score for Group C. Hershey hopeful Andrew Gordon also potted a goal …

Ovechkin’s squad can capture the “Duchesne Cup” today with a victory against the Group B team, but if the B side can win it will create a three-way tie and goal-differential will decide the camp champion …

Reigning AHL MVP Keith Aucoin has not been mentioned as a player who is in the running for one of the Caps’ three center slots, but the speedy playmaker should not be overlooked. He has played many roles in short stays in Washington, including a stint on the fourth line and minutes with the top guys and on the power play. Although not big, he’s shifty, sees the ice well and brings energy to every shift. At this stage in their careers he brings more to the table than a guy like Brendan Morrison, who spent time last season centering each of Caps’ top three lines. Don’t be surprised if he gets tossed into the mix very soon …

Finally, I’m still trying to figure out why natural-center Brooks Laich, who always has been solid defensively and good on faceoffs, never is mentioned as the possible second- or third-line pivot. I’d like to hear some others’ thoughts on this …

The Caps open the preseason tomorrow night at Columbus. The game can be heard on www.WashingtonCaps.com with Washington play-by-play man Steve Kolbe and my friend Mike Vogel on the call. I have coached Mike’s son in hockey for the past five or six years. He’s a great guy and a hard-worker who really makes the Caps’ website go. If you are looking to satisfy your early-season hockey fix, check them out. Faceoff is 7 p.m.

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