The Mike Richards era in Washington is officially twenty games old. The Caps signed Richards in early January and, after getting up to speed in practice, he’s been a fixture on the bottom-six and on the penalty kill since then.
Given that he’s playing on a prorated, $1 million deal, had missed about half a season of hockey, and wasn’t able to hold down an NHL job with the LA Kings when he was last under contract, it would be unfair to have anything other than low expectations for the Canadian-born center.
But many of us are rooting for him to find redemption, in part because he is playing for the good guys, but much more so because he deserved better treatment than he got from the Kings at the end of his time there. So, let’s take a look and see how he’s done through his first 20 games in red.
The Caps continue to win a lot of games. But it’s fair to say that the team hasn’t been as dominant in their wins lately. As was talked about in the snapshot last week, the team’s puck possession and netminding, while far from bad, have both been moving in the wrong direction.
Each of the Caps’ last 6 wins have been by a one-goal margin. Having success in one-goal games is nothing new for the 2015-16 team, as they’ve had more success than any other team this season in one-goal contests. Part of this is a byproduct of being a team that wins a lot regardless of the margin of victory. Teams that win more often than not are likely to be more successful than not in games decided by one goal, two goals, and so on. But the flip side of this coin is that a record built heavily upon winning one-goal games is unlikely to be sustained moving forward.
After missing 40 games with a lower body injury, 35-year-old Brooks Orpik returned to the Capitals line-up in mid-February. In his return, Orpik had a new defense partner in Dmitry Orlov.
The pairing was fascinating, at least for me, because it combined the Caps’ strongest and weakest defensemen, according to possession. Orpik and Orlov had rarely been a tandem before, with Orpik spending most of his Caps career beside John Carlson (currently injured) while Orlov had mostly been with his right-hand man Nate Schmidt.
Orlov’s and Orpik’s styles could not be more different. They’re defensemen from different eras, informed by different philosophies. Orpik is a physical player expected to clear the crease and limit opponent shot quality. Orlov, meanwhile, endeavors to move the puck out of the defensive zone quickly.
“Everybody’s changed a little bit right now,” Orlov told me after a recent Caps practice. “Everybody’s trying to do fast game and everything should be made fast. Make fast plays and, for sure, skating is a big part of this game right now and everyone should be a good skater.”
Orlov’s goal is to start an attack and generate shots in the offensive zone. There the 24-year-old Russian can be a game-breaker with his dangling ability and cannon of a shot from the blue line. His game is fast, fast, fast.
But Brooks Orpik is old school: the late 90’s definition of a shutdown defenseman. Like Scott Stevens before him, Orpik looks to rail players and inflict a physical toll on them in the defensive zone. The former Stanley Cup champion can be a steadying influence for a younger defenseman with limited minutes, but his best skating days are behind him. Orpik wants to slow the game down and play a war of attrition.
The Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks played an entertaining, mostly even game on national TV Sunday afternoon. The Caps dominated the first period, Blackhawks dominated the second period, and the two teams played an even third period. It was unfortunate that one team had to lose. It was even more unfortunate that a team had to lose on what appeared to be a missed icing call.
Mike Richardsscored his first goal as a Washington Capital on Monday night, but the goal did not come without drama. Goalie Louis Domingue believed he had covered Tom Wilson’s initial shot and waited for a whistle. Instead, the puck was jammed free by Wilson, and Richards potted the rebound. The Coyotes would challenge the ruling on the ice.
While Richards celebrated, Oliver Ekman-Larsson looked for some frontier justice by trying to start a scrum with Wilson along the corner. Wilson had a different idea, putting a new twist on the classic celebratory hockey hug by embracing his foe.
For most of his career, Caps 2012 first-round pick Tom Wilson has languished on the team’s fourth line, more a sideshow than a contributing player. When former general manager George McPhee drafted Wilson, it was Wilson’s skating ability, skill, and bruising style that garnered attention.
“When we were in the middle of the playoffs I made a note after the games: remember these games when you’re at the draft,” McPhee said after drafting Wilson. “Remember how intense they are, how physical they are, how demanding they are, and make sure you get someone who wants to play in that kind of stuff.”
Wilson certainly loves to play physical. He’s been in the NHL’s top seven in penalty minutes over the last three seasons, including third this year with 96 PIMs. He has delivered crushing hits, including one that injured veteran Lubomir Visnovsky in the playoffs. Wilson has been a league leader in fights, recording around 29 bouts in the last three years.
Wilson has been a punishing fixture in the line-up for years, but we’ve seen few glimmers of Wilson’s offensive talent. Until now.
Monday night, Braden Holtby made 31 saves against the Buffalo Sabres and notched his second shutout of the season. It seems almost tired at this point to say it, but Holtby has been spectacular in 2015-16. He’s made difficult saves look easy. He’s stopping point-blank shots when he’s on the other side of the crease. The only thing he’s been bad at is keeping his mask on during play, and that’s probably just due to his awesome facial hair.
The Holtbeast leads the NHL in wins (23) and goals-against average (1.85). He’s second in save percentage (.935) and ninth in shutouts (2). Holtby hasn’t lost a freaking game since November 10 against the Red Wings, two weeks before Thanksgiving. In that solitary loss, Holtby stopped 97 percent of the shots (26 of 27) in a 1-0 loss.
Holtby’s getting support from national media as a Vezina trophy candidate for the league’s best goaltender, but that’s not all. Esteemed hockey nerd (and RMNB podcast guest) Dimitri Filipovic points out that Holtby is playing at the same level Carey Price did last season when he won the MVP.
On November 25, 2015, In Analysis, By Patrick Holden
Photo: Rob Carr
After being a healthy scratch for the past two games, Andre Burakovsky returned to the lineup Wednesday night against the Winnipeg Jets. Burakovsky hasn’t quite looked himself so far in 2015-16. His return to the lineup was somewhat unremarkable, as is to be expected if he continues to play with Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera.
Considering Burakovsky is not being deployed with teammates who will best maximize his skills, it will be important that he avoid any “big mistakes” that draw the ire of his coach. On Wednesday, he’s lucky that the Jets didn’t score on a 2-on-1 that was largely his responsibility, or else this mistake could stand out much more to Barry Trotz.
On November 18, 2015, In Analysis, By Patrick Holden
Awesome Photo: Chris Gordon
The love for Nate Schmidt ’round these parts is well-documented. Possession monster, always smiling blah blah blah. Enough already, RMNB, right? Never.
Instead of talking about his possession prowess or his facial expression, today we’ll look at game clips to illustrate what makes Schmidt such an effective defender: his skating and passing. These qualities make Schmidt a solid player. They are why his possession numbers are glowing.