The Caps Are Coasting Towards a First-Round Loss

Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY

Sunday night’s defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins has left some Washington Capitals fans in angst. This team, who has been described as a Stanley Cup contender so often this season, did not look as such in their 6-2 loss. But that’s just the most recent point in a longer, concerning pattern.

I’ve caught myself recalibrating my expectations for the Caps over the last few weeks. As of right now, I no longer think they are the Team of Destiny. This is not The Year. The road they’re on right now ends in the first or second round of the playoffs.

It’s not too late to change course, but we must first acknowledge that the course we’re on now is a bad one.

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It’s never fun to watch the Caps lose — especially when it’s a 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on national television. The Caps came out hard, but could not handle the Pens’ speed, falling behind two goals in the game’s first ten minutes. The Pens would pull away later in the second and third period, scoring four unanswered goals.

The Caps gave up five even-strength goals. Dmitry Orlov and Brooks Orpik were on the ice for four of the Pens’ six tallies.

“We got exactly what we deserved tonight,” Barry Trotz said after the game.

“I’m not going to let guys off the hook,” Trotz continued. “There’s no excuse for the sloppy play and the lack of execution when the heat was on. We had some guys who were not strong tonight. You can’t do that against a team that’s trending well. They’re probably the hottest team [in the NHL].”

Let’s take a look at the Pens six goals and see what patterns we find.

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Here’s How You Ranked the Capitals Defensemen

Nick Wass

Photo: Nick Wass

Last summer, I asked twitter to rank Washington’s blue line. I’m sure I had a hidden agenda when I did it, but I can’t remember what it was anymore. Probably something about Nate Schmidt being awesome. Yeah. That sounds right.

Apart from injuries and a couple depth moves, the Caps’ defense has been remarkably stable this season. But in light of a few bad games for Orlov, Carlson’s re-injury, and Niskanen’s hot streak, I thought I’d try again.

The results, he said with a dramatic pause, may shock you.

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Look I’m not superstitious, but if I put my pants on right-to-left instead of left-to-right, I take them off, light them on fire, throw them in a trash can, and jump back in bed. Try again tomorrow, right? I hate it when people call me superstitious. No, I’m not superstitious.

[Realizes I forgot to dab 3 drops of shampoo in my hand instead of the customary 2, begins panicking.]

Okay, fine, I’m superstitious. But this is why I needed to share this with you. Over the weekend, my parents visited my house and handed me a light-blue tin can, which had an embossed gingerbread man design on the top. I had no idea what was inside, but my mother had this crazed, excited face like she had just won the lotto. I opened the tin can only to find the greatest thing I have ever seen in my life. At that moment I understood.

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Photo: Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

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.

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Monday Morning Reality Check: The Caps Are Among The Best Ever

The Caps have 90 standings points and it’s not even March yet. With a 43-10-4 record, Washington is a virtual lock for the playoffs. They’re ranked number one in goals-for and number two in goals-against. No one can stop them, at least not for long.

Ninety-six points pretty much guarantees a playoff spot (unless you’re the 2015 Bruins), and the Caps are just six short of that. With a good run this week, the Capitals could record their 96th point on Friday. With 22 games left to play.

Here’s the schedule for this week.

This Week

Those are three eminently winnable games. In other words, the Capitals could lock up a playoff spot before March.

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How the Capitals Can Hack the Schedule and Rule the Playoffs

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Photo: Amanda Bowen

If you’ve yet to come across it, I highly recommend giving Tom Haberstroh’s recent splendid piece of reporting for ESPN The Magazine a read. It sinks its teeth into the grisly nature of the NBA’s 82-game schedule, putting a spotlight on the immense physical toll it puts on its players. The story itself isn’t necessarily a revelation, but is important nonetheless because it gets to the root of the issue stemming from systemic flaws the league willingly inflicts upon itself.

The comparison between the NBA and NHL isn’t seamless. There are fundamental differences between the two sports. In basketball significantly fewer players are relied upon to carry the load. The tread on the tires can accumulate particularly quickly for those guys given how much they’re asked to do on a nightly basis. Regardless, the idea that performance dips under fatigued conditions holds true in hockey just the same. The ability to control territorial play, generate more goals than the opposition, and ultimately win games all precipitously declines with decreased rest, lending credence to the phenomenon of “schedule losses.”

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Evgeny Kuznetsov’s Favorite Musician is Lady Gaga

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Photos: thornescratch

The Washington Capitals organization gives out a program during games called “Breakaway.” Inside, it features various Caps players and their various (potentially embarrassing) survey answers. Kuzy, I’m sure, loves the surveys (Ian really enjoys that Vine), and some might even say he has a bad romance with them.

I learned a lot . . . maybe too much — such as Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s favorite musician being Lady Gaga. One can only imagine how excited he was to watch the singer perform the national anthem at Super Bowl 50. Let’s look at some other tidbits that thornescratch over on Tumblr provided us with.

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Trade Deadline Targets: Pick a Maple Leaf

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Photo: Claus Anderson

The NHL trade deadline is coming up on February 29. The Caps have a real chance to win the Stanley Cup this season, so you can bet that Brian MacLellan, though he doesn’t need to make a deal, will certainly try to improve the team if he finds a good deal.

While memories of the Filip Forsberg trade may fill some fans with Sartrean nausea, it must be noted that the Caps are in the midst of a two-year Cup window. The focus has to be on players who can help the team right now. Everything in 2015-16 has been coming up Caps so far, but nothing about future seasons is assured. If MacLellan can improve this club, one that has a very real shot at being the last team standing in June, he needs to strike now.

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Cupcakes and Iced Coffee: Tom Wilson is a Basic White Girl

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Ed. note: Please say hello to Victoria Dravis, RMNB’s latest acquisition.

Hockey players: They’re just like us! (And by us, I mean me and the thousands of other teenage girls hooked on the best game on Earth; no bias.)

Speaking of game, just look at Tom Wilson and Andre Burakovsky‘s Snapchat and Instagram game on the two whitest social networks above. So on point. #nofilter

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