Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wednesday Ramblings

Just a few musings as I do my best Elliotte Friedman-impression:

1. I've seen people want Ovechkin down low on the power play. After thinking about it, I think that would require the Caps to change their power play scheme. Ovechkin isn't a great passer--while his accuracy is nice, his passes tend to be too hard, and he doesn't do a good job "looking off" the defensemen--and putting him to the goalie's right, on the goal line, takes away the backdoor play to the pinching D Green, Wideman, or Carlson. In 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, Viktor Kozlov was the great passer there, and the Caps ran that backdoor to Green all day. Since he left, the Caps haven't been able to run that play. Is that because they lack that passer there, or because teams wisened up? Is it because the Caps' PP runs more and more frequently through Backstrom, on the opposite side?

I don't really mind the current scheme. Have Green, Carlson, or Wideman as the single D on PP1, with Ovechkin and Backstrom creating the top of the umbrella, Semin down low on Ovechkin's side, and Laich/Knuble/Fehr in front of the net. I just want Ovechkin to participate a little more in board play and puck retrieval, since he's difficult to knock off the puck. On PP2, use the other two righty-D to replace Ovechkin and Green, Johansson instead of Backstrom, and the other two net-crashers.

If Ovechkin is down low, then there's a slower, less powerful skater playing D (if it's a forward, like Arnott). I'm not sure I like that. Of course, AO could be replaced by a defenseman, but then Semin or the net-presence gets kicked off PP1. I'd rather keep things mostly the way they are. The Caps' PP generates plenty of shots and chances. Even if they haven't been going in, going forward, that's the way to play (quantity over quality).

2. The Chicago-Vancouver series was very, very fast. The Caps-Rangers series was pretty slow. I wonder how the Caps will hold up against a faster team.

I commented the other day on how Detroit's possession game differed from Chicago's and Vancouver's. Chicago, Vancouver, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh play a much more up-tempo, aggressive forecheck game with the score tied, and are not afraid to just throw the puck at the net from anywhere in the offensive zone. Detroit is slower and much more methodical, preferring to keep the puck in lieu of trying a low percentage play. Detroit executes to perfection, and Chicago last year executed to perfection.

Given that the Caps have players like Jeff Schultz, Jason Arnott, Mike Knuble, and John Erskine, who aren't exactly fleet-of-foot, I'm not sure if the Caps can play that up-tempo game anymore. Moreover, in my opinion, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Eric Fehr, and Scott Hannan aren't fast enough to play like Chicago or Vancouver. If they try to play at that way, I think they'll get burned pretty badly.

The Capitals will need to make responsible decisions with the puck and play more like Detroit. Puck possession is simultaneously the best offense and the best defense. Barry Svrluga writing about Jason Arnott (definitely a must-read):

In his very first game with the Capitals, at home against the lowly New York Islanders, Arnott was surprised at what he saw from such a talented group. Irresponsible decision-making, a lack of attention to detail — the failures of teams that can’t win in the playoffs. So in between the second and third periods, with the Capitals down 1-0, Arnott surprised even himself by speaking up.
“I just thought, ‘We’re not going anywhere playing like this,’ ” he said. “I thought: ‘You know what? I got to say something.’ I figured hell, I’ll throw it out there and see how they respond.”
Such a brash response from someone who had played just 40 minutes with his new club?
“Veteran guys, they know where they stand,” Capitals forward Eric Fehr said. “He knows that what he has to say is more valuable than a lot of other players.”
“He’s said some pretty key things here that have helped with a lot of things,” forward Jason Chimera said. “It means the world.”

The Capitals will have to pay very good attention to detail in order to beat a more aggressive team. This time around, they're not the deepest team up front, but they still have plenty of skill. That skill will need to slow the game down to counteract any speed from the other team. Then the Caps' size--for the last four years, they've been the biggest team in the league in terms of height--can take over on offense.

Speed from the other team is also the only way to bruise the Caps' D. If the puck gets in deep, but the opposing forwards don't get to the puck quickly, the Caps' D--not all of the puck movers, but all good enough to make that first pass, once Wideman gets back--will simply play the puck out.

If Tom Poti gets healthy and up to game speed, he could help here and supplant Jeff Schultz, if Schultz isn't playing well. Six good skaters who can make that first pass makes it tough to generate any sort of forecheck. It's how Vancouver, Detroit, and Chicago operate.

3. Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin need to play at the same speed. Right now, in terms of speed, Backstrom is better suited to center Arnott and Semin, with Johansson and Chimera best suited to play up-tempo with Ovechkin. Either Ovi needs to slow down, or Backstrom needs to speed up (in my opinion, the latter).

4. Both Chicago and Vancouver had the 3rd forward collapse into the strong-side slot in the defensive zone. If their team got the puck, the forward is well positioned to be an outlet pass recipient; if the puck goes back to the point, the player can chase; if the puck stays down low, the player is covering the weak-side D pinch. The Capitals I think could do a bit more of that and be more aggressive in puck pursuit in the defensive zone. Instead of letting the other team pass it around to the outside (i.e. "protect net" in EA terms, which isn't bad, mind you, except for possibly sacrificing some time that could be spent in the offensive zone), control where they can pass it as well by using that 5th player effectively (i.e. "contain puck").

5. The Capitals aren't that much better than any team remaining in the East, or West (if they are better at all). The Caps forwards need to employ the same strategy as they did against New York--dump the puck in and be physical with the opposing defensemen to wear them down. The longer the series, the more it favors Washington's superior defensive depth and young offensive core, I think.

6. One thing to look out for is how Marcus Johansson plays without Brooks Laich on his line. Laich was the only solid possession forward on that line (save for Eric Fehr when he's at his best), and so that line is the one, if any, opponents will be looking to exploit. Johansson and Chimera need to play a pure speed game to move the puck up the ice.

7. I don't really care who the Caps play. The Caps should beat any of Montreal, Pittsburgh, or Tampa Bay. I think a series with Pittsburgh is likeliest to end in a win, but will also be the most physically taxing and longest (I'm thinking plenty of overtimes). Montreal is small and not all that deep, but the best of the three as it stands (i.e. no Crosby) and has the best goalie. Tampa is feast-or-famine, and as long as their power play and goaltending don't both get hot, the Caps should be fine.

I'm afraid of teams that have won all year in spite of goaltending, but Roloson by now must be wearing down. I'm afraid of legitimately good teams, but Pittsburgh has anemic special teams and spends lots of time at 5on4 and 4on5 (draw and take lots of penalties) and Montreal is beat up after their series against Boston. I think it's push. I'm predicting Caps in 6 no matter the opponent...I just want the next round to start.

That being said, not to tempt fate by looking ahead, but it would be nice to have a non-bruising series with Montreal and face the winner of a tough, nasty Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, wouldn't it?

8. San Jose-Detroit should be all sorts of fun. Neither team is especially physical, and both prefer that slightly more conservative possession style. I also expect Vancouver to have all sorts of trouble with Nashville. I'm not sold on the psychological makeup of that Canucks team. The bottom of their lineup will have to battle a'plenty and best the deep Nashville forward group, and Suter-Weber should stop the Sedins (again). If Rinne plays like he did during the latter half of the regular season, this is an upset, or at least another seven game series, before Vancouver faces what I think is kryptonite to their style--methodical, responsible puck possession by mobile defensemen and speedy, skilled forwards.

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