Friday, October 22, 2010

"Stayin' Angry": Not the Right Mentality

The Caps' motto coming into this season has been "Stay Angry." I had my unspoken reservations then (really, honest!) but I didn't say anything, mainly because I took my reservations to be a product of my introverted, stoic personality (though you'd best judge that yourself ;) )rather than a reflection on what is best for the Washington Capitals. Given the team's recent struggles, though, I'm getting the feeling that my gut instinct on "Stay Angry" was correct all along.

Here are some reasons why I don't like it:

1) It's simply not possible. They always say that the regular season is a marathon, not a sprint (as are the playoffs, to an extent), and you're risking getting burned out at some point during the season.

2) You can't control yourself. If you ask me, the "problem" of poor showings against inferior teams is not a problem at all--rather, it shows that the team knows when to elevate their games, and they tend to raise their games to an appropriate level for elite opponents (2ell, prior to this season, at least). There is also the extra issue of being "angry" at the wrong time--do we really want playoff-intensity Ovechkin in Game 30 of the regular season? Nope.

3) Anger isn't the right emotion. Seriously, what is there to be angry about? They're angry at who? Themselves? The right emotion is "determined," if you ask me. They should be determined never to have slow playoff starts or lose game 7s. They are plenty determined when trailing a series, but not so much given the chance to close it out. The elimination game for the opponent is often cited as the hardest game to win, and thus far the Capitals are 1-5 over the last 3 years.

The Hershey Bears are 8-3 with a chance to advance in the playoffs over the same time frame.

4) They're not having fun. One of the trends I've seen that really troubles me is the lack of happiness after a goal. I'm glad Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green don't pile up at center ice after a regular season goal anymore, don't get me wrong, but I wish I saw some more evidence that the team is really enjoying itself. I think the happy, run-and-gun, all winning-is-fun attitude has been lost quite a bit since Bruce Boudreau took over almost three years ago. Heck, I even feel it in the way Joe Beninati calls the games nowadays.

Check out some video:

I'm not sure if you noticed anything different. Just call this a feeling I get. While the Caps on a comeback today celebrate like the Caps of 07-08, those Caps give me the feeling that they know they can revel in the goal for a bit, but have to move on. Today's Caps always seem like they're moving on, much like Matt Bradley in that video on the Caps' sixth goal. That day, six goals is how many it took. Today, it looks like it's one or two (not counting comeback games) before that sort of stoic behavior sets in. The team's identity thus far is in that crazy enthusiasm other teams' fans love to criticize, not this "can't the playoffs start" attitude some teams use but that hasn't worked well for our heroes.

Then again, the emotion could be there, and I could be missing. For whatever reason, though, the Caps in their celebrations to me seem much too often to simply be going through the motions rather than actually being happy about scoring. What does it say when Alexander Semin sometimes has the most emphatic, enthusiastic goal celebrations on the team?

I'm just worried this change in team demeanor is an indicator of more serious issues, if not an issue in itself.

5) Complacency. If you frequent Japers' Rink (chances are its morning clips linked you here--thanks guys!) you've no doubt heard the phrase "the regular season means dick" tossed around. To an extent, this is a true statement. For a team that's as much a lock as any other team to make the playoffs, the real test does begin in mid-April.

However, the regular season still means quite a bit. During the regular season, you develop the habits that make you a successful playoff team. Chicago last year developed a masterful, dominating two-way scheme that was heavily dependent on backchecking forwards helping their already-solid defensemen give up even fewer opportunities. Washington has deteriorated under Boudreau, as I've pointed out before. Is it pure coincidence that the inexperienced Caps team "with a killer instinct" was the 55% Corsi 07-08 version, the team that almost beat the eventual champions was a 54%, and the team that crashed out in the first round was a 52%? I don't think so.*

Now is the time to develop those good habits. From what I've heard and seen so far, the Caps still have a long way to go. They have two or three solid performances (@Atlanta, vs New Jersey, and vs Boston), and the rest very underwhelming. From what players like Brooks Laich (and maybe Tom Poti too, though I think he had a better perspective on what the regular season means) have said to the media, some players don't realize that the regular season still means a lot. They're sleepwalking through valuable tune-up time. I can understand why--a full 82 game regular season over seven months is fairly lengthy--but in April it will have seemed all too short. Every team will have some issues it will still be frantically trying to iron out.

Maybe this point ties into #4--the Caps are always looking ahead, sometimes losing track of what is now. That was certainly the case in Game 5 against Montreal--the players, coaches, and fans all said as much--and looks to be the case now. At any rate, they look too impatient for the playoffs (if it helps, guys, your regular seasons get you your paychecks, not the playoffs, which are unpaid overtime if memory serves).

Something has to change. And soon. Let's start with "Stay Angry."

*Note: Remember that correlation does not imply causation. The Corsi% and team success are related, but neither causes the other. Personally, I think the 07-08 team was too inexperienced and "ran out of gas" against Philadelphia, the 08-09 team had injuries to two critical players, and the 09-10 team grew reliant on the fickle luck of both being able to create rushes and shooting off the rush, rather than cycling the puck and getting screens, deflections, and rebounds, and couldn't adapt accordingly in time.

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