It’s amazing how much one’s perception of a hockey team differs between television viewing and attending a game in person. During the Capitals’ home opener, I witnessed a mediocre performance in the comforts of my home theater. For a thrilling divisional contest against an upstart rival, I was perched high up in section 424 of Verizon Center. Looking at both contests objectively, a couple of days removed from the whirlwind opening weekend in the NHL, a few themes for the Capitals’ 2011-2012 season are starting to emerge.
- Goaltending: Through the weeks leading up to the season, with all of the speculation, the media coronation of Tomas Vokoun as the starter, Neuvy’s start in the opener, and Vokoun’s agent making a “statement”, I stayed quiet. I thought the whole issue was just preseason hype. Then I witnessed firsthand, pucks bouncing off Vokoun, from behind the net, as the Tampa Bay Lightning scored fluke goals. Maybe Vokoun doesn’t start well with new teams. Maybe he was intimidated by a sold out Verizon Center crowd. I’m no expert at the goaltender position but maybe Vokoun’s angles were off. One thing is for sure, the DC area loves controversy at key positions for their professional sports teams. (Jurgenson vs. Kilmer anyone?) As I was walking through the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station several people were very displeased with Vokoun’s performance, despite the 6-5 shootout win over the Bolts. Were the goals Vokoun let in, bad? Yeah. Did he come through and secure 2 points in the shootout? Yeah. I think that speaks volumes for the veteran netminder. Nevermind his statements after the game. Neuvy played very well in the opener
and will likely get the start in Pittsburgh given his success against the Pens. However, he did not make the trip to Pittsburgh for the first 2011-2012 match-up with the Pens. Braden Holtby has been recalled. He is a young, NHL quality goaltender with a bright future. He just happens to be in an organization that has two legitimate NHL starters. Vokoun will start again tonight and look to redeem himself. All is well, for now.
- The third line: Everyone knew that a line centered by Brooks Laich with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward on the wings, would be solid every night. No one knew they would be this good, this early in the season. As the designated “checking line” assigned to shut down the opposition’s top players, they have faced the likes of Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, Martin St. Louis, and Steven Stamkos. Against those formidable opponents, the Capitals’ third line averaged a better than plus-2 rating and led the Caps in scoring after two games. If the Washington Capitals are to make a deep Stanley Cup Playoffs run, the third line will have to continue their hard work.
- Room to improve: While the Caps have won their first two contests, there are many areas of their game that need improvement. On an individual level, names like Hamrlik, Green, Backstrom, Semin, and Ovechkin all have minus ratings. Those are the players expected to produce for this Caps team. They need to start scoring, turn their plus-minus ratings around, and contribute to future Caps wins. As a team, the Capitals have converted 2 of the 12 power play opportunities in the first two games. While a 16.7% power play conversion rate this early in the season is nothing to lose sleep over, the over passing and lack of shots is. The Caps have only put 16 shots on goal, on the man advantage. With individual and team goals to work towards throughout the season, it bodes well for a Caps team with lofty aspirations. Staying motivated during the regular season will be critical to entering the postseason on a positive note.
So, the schedule shows a trip to Consol Energy Center for an early season game with arch rivals. An early test for both the Capitals and the Penguins who both sit undefeated after the first weekend of NHL games. We may very well be looking back at the first contest between these two teams in April. I think this game already has playoff implications.