Friday, March 27, 2009

Will Lightning Strike Tonight?

The Capitals are in the playoffs for the second year in a row, so they don't have to exhaust themselves night after night for the rest of the regular season just to earn that position like last year.

However, the Southeast Division title is still up in the air, and the playoff matchups -- including home ice advantage -- are still to be determined. How Washington plays their few remaining games will likely determine how far they make it through the playoffs this year.

Tuesday night's game against the Maple Leafs showed there has been a bit of a slowdown in the determination that was so prevalent from November 2007 through the beginning of this season. Cutesy, easily intercepted, passing plays have taken the place of grinding and mucking. And the Capitals are paying the price on the scoreboard, even as they aren't getting very beat up in body.

No one wants to go into the playoffs battered and bruised to the point of exhaustion, and that may have been a part of the reason why the Capitals didn't make it past a hard-fought first round series with the Flyers last year. However, playing with less than 100% grit and determination is a bad precedent that may be difficult to break out of come mid-April, and likely will result in a faster ejection from the playoffs than seven games with several overtimes.

The Capitals face Tampa Bay tonight, for the first time since "The Celebration." Tampa has nothing to prove, nothing to fight for tonight, except maybe for pride after Ovechkin's poorly thought-out idea. They are 28th in the league, solidly ahead of the Islanders, but still 14th in the conference. If they fight too hard, they will lose out in the draft lottery, which at this point may be their best hope at dragging themselves out of the rut they are in. However, if they've already dealt away this year's pick, maybe they truly have nothing worth defending, and instead can bank on trying to ruin Washington's chance of winning the division.

The Capitals have done poorly against teams that have nothing to prove this year. Most people refer to it as "playing down to their opponents," but it's more than just the Capitals screwing up; it's a no-lose situation for the opponent, so they just play. If they lose, they are losing to a tougher opponent and it was to be expected. If they win, they beat a tougher opponent, and they did awesome.

The Capitals, on the other hand, more and more aren't playing hockey, they are just playing around. Too many passes. Too many moves that are clearly attempts at highlight reels. No physical presences in the crease.

In the final minute of the game against Toronto on Tuesday night, Brooks Laich crashed the crease, and was relentless against the loose puck. He scored, to tie the game (and to set Gerber off resulting in a three-game suspension, but that's another story).

Crashing the crease and unsettling the goaltender has always been a core part of gritty Capitals hockey, and was the bread and butter for players like Dale Hunter. There's nothing wrong with pretty goals like Semin and Nylander obviously always want to score, but it's going to be guys who play with grit and determination like Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr who will carry this team through the playoffs. Obviously, relying on Ovechkin and Semin alone isn't getting the job done.

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