Come in Off The Ledge
Let’s say you’re a fan of a certain NHL team. And let’s say this NHL team had 70 points in each of the previous two seasons, hasn’t made the playoffs in five years and has averaged a mere 11 road wins in its 41 road games over the previous three seasons.
Now let’s say someone told you this NHL team you liked was going to open the season with three games in a span of 67 hours to start the season, and that this NHL team would play four of its first five games on the road, and that all four of those road games would be against teams that made the Stanley Cup playoffs last season.
Let’s also say that this seer were to remind you that the next team to get through the 82-game NHL schedule with an unblemished 82-0 record would be the first. Finally, let’s assume that you were also told that your team would start the season by going 3-2 in this five-game stretch.
How would you feel about that?
Judging from what some folks are writing on message boards and other places, apparently not so good. People are gnashing teeth, wringing hands and are already suggesting sweeping changes in personnel and in forward lines and defensive pairs, special teams and what have you. I could link to them, but you probably know where to look and I don’t feel like giving them any more attention than I just did.
Yeah, the last couple games were ugly. They were also played without a guy who scored 38 goals last season and without another guy who anchors the checking line and who is one of the league’s best defensive forwards. The Capitals are a much better team with Alexander Semin and Boyd Gordon in the lineup, and no one can argue otherwise. It’s also worth noting that the last two games were also played against teams considered to be among the Eastern Conference’s elite this season. You’d like to be able to compete against them and beat them, but I’d much rather be able to do so in March than in October.
Injuries happen. And no one is looking to make excuses in the Caps’ room, and no one should. Excuses should not be necessary when you’re 3-2, which is, incidentally, a pace that would lead to a 98-point season and an almost certain playoff berth. That would also mean a 28-point improvement in the standings, and that would mark the fourth greatest improvement from one single season to the next in franchise history. Where’s the issue with that?
Should the power play be better? Certainly. But if the Caps had gone 4-for-26 (15.4%) with the extra man over a five-game stretch in January, few would likely notice. And let’s not forget that Semin, who finished last season tied for fourth in the NHL in power play goals, has played part of one game on the power play to date. Or that the penalty kill is 12-for-12 with Gordon in the lineup and 10-for-15 (66.7%) without him.
Should Glen Hanlon bag skate his team because they lost consecutive road games? To hear some tell it, yes. But Hanlon instead elected to let his team have its scheduled Sunday off, then conduct a rigorous two-part Monday practice that was aimed at making his team better rather than punishing it. And I’m sorry to inform some of you keyboard taskamasters that the boys will get Tuesday off, too. It’s a long season.
Few of those of us who work under or have worked under micro-managers have enjoyed the experience. But the internet is teeming with those who feel compelled to issue report cards on a game-by-game (and believe it or not, shift-by-shift) basis. The season is far too long for such micro-analysis.
Hockey is a game of mistakes. Hockey is a game of adjustments. The mistakes have been made, and now it’s up to the Caps to make the resulting adjustments. Bag skating 20-some players is not an adjustment. Neither the coaching staff nor the players have their heads in the sand. They know they need to be better, and they’re working on it.
The players themselves were saying toward the end of training camp that it will likely take 15-20 games to see how good they can be, and what kind of team they’ll be.
“I think we’ll know 20 games in where we are,” said Matt Pettinger a couple weeks ago. “We’ll have played a lot of the teams. It’s a tough league; there are no real bad hockey teams anymore where the bottom team can’t beat the top team. We proved that over the last three years where we were one of those bad teams and we could go into any building and win. It’s just consistency, and we’ve got to get off to a good start, too.”
Does 3-0 constitute “a good start?” I don’t think so. Does 3-2? No. To me, the sample size is too small in both. Let’s see how they look after 15-20 games. In the meantime, a few tweaks and adjustments are in order, but I wouldn’t advocate massive upheaval.
People are railing about the Caps’ power play, and it hasn’t been pretty to watch. But two of those PP chances were a few seconds in duration at the end of games. And the Caps had a Chris Clark power play goal waved off because of a high stick, a call that was questionable. Had the goal counted, the Caps’ power play would be sitting at 19.2% instead of 15.4%, and fewer people would be bitching about it.
You can drive yourself nuts watching any sports team and breaking down and critiquing the performance of individual players during, in the middle of, and/or immediately after games. And if you derive joy and pleasure from such exercise, then by all means giddy-up. Maybe a person’s driver’s license should be revoked if they forget to use their turn signal when diagonal parking at the grocery store. But it’s also worth realizing that the largest of these units constitutes 1/82nd of what this team and most of these players will be judged on at season’s end.