Thursday, January 25, 2007

Caps At The Break

Tomorrow night the All-Star break officially ends as the NHL has 11 games that actually count and will feature more than just token defense on the schedule (21 goals, are you kidding me?). The Caps are 20-28 by my count and currently sit 3 points out of a playoff spot. Right where we want them huh? Well... maybe not.

The Penguin Scum, who currently hold the 8th playoff spot we're three points behind, have two games in hand on the Caps. The Caps have two games in hand and are 7 points behind the 7th place Ning. The Caps have three games left with the Penguin Scum, though two of those are in Kansas City (whoops, not yet) Pittsburgh. The Caps have four games left with the Ning, two at home and two on the road.

Division wise, the Caps are 15 points behind the Thrashers. That's going to be too much ground to make up. The Caps have only two games left against the Thrashers and both are in Atlanta. Of the 34 games left on the Caps schedule, 14 are in the Southeast Division and only six of those are on home ice. And speaking of home ice, the Caps right now are 11-14 at the Phone Booth and 9-14 away from it. On a side note here, after that disastrous 1-3 road trip that started with the team playing two games and spending four days in Florida, am I the only one concerned that half the team headed back down there for the break?

Despite the recent poor play, the Caps are an improved hockey team over the recent few seasons. The Power Play is ranked 16th and the Penalty Kill is ranked 19th. The Caps are 9th in the league in goals per game but 26th in goals allowed. The Caps largest margin of victory this season? A 6-2 win over the Flyers on January 9th, the Caps hung a touchdown on the Bluffaslugs but gave up four in the process.

Some people think that this team is "set" offensively and need to address the situation on the blueline. While I agree the blueline could use some work, the offense isn't as set as we would like to think. Imagine for a second what Alexander Semin would be doing if he had some linemates with him on the second line? Yeah, Semin is on the top Power Play unit and will occasionally skate with A.O. and Dainius Zubrus on the Caps top line. But Semin has more points (47) than his linemates Matt "Princess" Pettinger (23) and Kris Beech (17) do combined. Princess looks to be a disappointment, but he is actually on pace to beat his numbers from last year when he posted 20 goals and 18 assists. What is missing from his game right now is the shorthanded goals he scored last year when he had five; right now he has only two. But with Eric Fehr and Nicklas Backstrom clearly and solidly in the long-term future plans of the franchise, Princess will either have to elevate his game or become a victim of a numbers crunch. Beech has pretty much played himself out of any further chances with any NHL club save for one that is looking to just simply field a team.

The Ben "What A" Clymer, Matt "Omar" Bradley, and Brian Sutherby (CBS) line has been plagued by injuries, position changes, and line combination shakeups. But what has been troubling is the lack of chemistry between these three when they have been on the ice together. The fourth line has for the most part served its role though Boyd Gordon rotates off of it rather frequently and even Donald Brashear isn't anchored to the line either. On a couple of occasions, this line has actually provided some energy to the Caps and gotten things going.

Defensively, what is needed the most right now is time and patience. It is easy to forget that Mike Green is officially considered a rookie and that Steve Eminger has just 168 NHL games under his belt. Shaone Morrrissonnn has played just as many games as Eminger, but different players progress at different rates which is why Morrrissonnn is skating on the top pairing. Brian Potheir is playing better than I expected for a free agent who is also stepping up his role. John Erskine Bowles, Jamie "Home Run" Heward, are Bryan Muir are what they are which is placeholders until guys like Jeff "Sergeant" Schultz and Sasha Pokulok are ready. Lawrence Nycholat looks be among the placeholders group but because of his age relative to the rest of the bunch, he could stick around longer than the others. I think Muir's time in D.C. is just about done.

The general consensus is that should the Caps go out and get a clear-cut #1 defenseman to shore up the blueline. That my friends is a risky proposition. Remember after the 2000 playoffs and the general consensus was that all the Caps needed was another goal scorer? Well the Caps went out and got Jaromir Jagr to fill that role. We all know how that turned out. When it comes to our blueline, time and patience will do more for this team than splashy moves. Plus with some of the forwards that we have coming up the pipeline, we should be able to make a deal in order to get a veteran defenseman to solidify the unit.

It is frustrating to most Caps fans that the playoffs, while closer, are still out of reach. Before the season began I said I thought that the Caps were two years away from making the playoffs and nothing I have seen in the first 48 games of this season has changed my mind very much. The Caps are going to miss out on the playoffs this season and I think are no better than a 50-50 shot on making them next year. I know it is the stated goal of the organization to make the playoffs this year and I think it is a good idea to have lofty goals. They'll have some tough decisions to make in the coming off season but I don't understand why some people are so down on this organization and everything it does. The organization needed to rebuild and we've been very lucky that we've been able to accelerate it as quickly as we have. But make no mistake, there's still a lot of growing pains for this team to endure.

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