I spent most of my hockey time since Saturday afternoon watching the return of the NHL. It started with the LA Kings raising their Stanley Cup banner and ended with attending the debacle that was the Capitals’ home opener, last night. It was great to watch the best hockey players in the world playing against each other, finally. With only a week of training camp, some miscues and fatigue were expected. It was easy to tell in most games that many players and in the case of the Caps, whole teams are not ready for live, NHL action. They are learning new systems and teammates. They are out of game shape. They are in preseason mode, playing regular season games in a shortened, intra-conference only season.
After watching the Capitals lose their season opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, I wanted to reserve judgement on where I think the Caps are going, this season. There were some bright spots. The power play looked pretty good, generating early scoring chances. Also, when the Capitals established possession in the Lightning end, they got pucks and bodies to the net. In general though, they looked slow and out of sync on TV. In the defensive zone, the Caps appeared confused on assignments and simply could not muster the effort to clear the zone on the penalty kill. The Bolts moved the puck with ease through the neutral zone to gain entry and generated scoring chances. Having witnessed all of that on television, I decided to wait until I attended the Caps’ home opener to see in person what was going on before sounding the alarm.
Last night against the Winnipeg Jets, on Verizon Center ice, the Caps started the game with some energy and speed but faltered after the halfway point in the first period. This time, I got to witness in person how slow the Caps looked compared to the Jets. It’s already well-documented that new Caps head coach Adam Oates wants to play an up tempo, team game in all three areas of the ice. He wants to pressure the puck in all three zones, regain possession, and push the pace up ice to catch opposing teams in transition. You can see the Capitals attempting to execute this strategy. The key to success is team speed. From my vantage point last night, high up in section 412, the Jets seemed to beat Capitals players to loose pucks with little effort in the offensive and defensive zones. Winnipeg skated through the middle of neutral zone as Caps defenders struggled to get into position. The Washington Capitals looked very slow. The lack of speed put Caps players out of position which resulted in many penalties and scoring chances for the Jets. Game over.
Of course, it was only the second game, after a short training camp with a new head coach, new systems, and new teammates to gel with. It will take some time for the Caps to regain regular season form, physically and mentally. The question is, how long will it take? In this 48-game, 2013 NHL season, all games are played within each conference. Essentially, a 4-point swing in the standings could be had in each game. While there is some time to right the ship, there isn’t much. How do you gain team speed in the middle of a season, though?