Well, the initial excitement us hockey fans got when the lockout ended quickly disappeared once we actually saw our team play. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
The Capitals looked nothing short of awful through their first three games, losing by two or more goals all three times. Prior to Friday night’s third-period rally, they had also trailed the New Jersey Devils by two goals, ultimately losing in overtime due to turnovers and poor defense.
However, they looked better. The Caps were able to capture their first point on the year, and they were able to hang with one of the better rosters that the NHL has to offer. Not to mention, they tallied two goals in a single period against one of the best goalies of all time, Martin Brodeur. They lost, but looked much improved.
And that should carry into tonight. I’m not saying they’ll win. In fact, I don’t expect them too. Facing another great goalie in Ryan Miller and another quick, great puck-handling team in Buffalo probably won’t bode well for a team still learning a new system. The Caps have been so focused on playing the system correctly that they’ve moved away from the basic fundamentals, especially on defense, and that has to change if they want to have a shot at a W.
The problem is that Adam Oates’ system gets defensemen greatly involved in the offensive plays, in some cases sending both defensemen on the rush. If executed properly, this could leave a defense confused and a puck in the net. But although the system has generated some scoring chances, in cases where it doesn’t work, the wingers have struggled to cover the blue line on turnovers. This creates short-handed defensive situations, which usually result in goals. If the wingers can learn to cover on defense, expect the opposing goal total to be far lower than it has been over the first four games.
The other key to turning this season around will be discipline. The Capitals have shot themselves in the foot time after time committing stupid penalties, and the penalty-kill allowed 5 goals in their first 10 short-handed situations on the year. Both of these things have to change. The players need to pay more attention to detail, and the short-handed units need to execute better.
This roster has the pieces to at least contend for a middle-of-the-pack playoff spot, and the early struggles are not all their fault. Keep in mind that this team had six days to practice together with new players, a new head coach and a new system to learn. They now have to learn on the fly, and one cannot expect top-tier performances in that situation. Also keep in mind that this team struggled early last season, even under Dale Hunter. They’ll need to turn it around faster this season due to the shortened schedule, but the pieces are certainly there to do so. If nothing else, this will bode well for next year.