It was an up and down week for the Washington Capitals. If that doesn't sum the week up for this team I'm not sure what does. You can look at the record for the week 2-1-0 and think that it's okay. If you average three games a week and go 2-1 all year that is okay, better than okay that's good.
But just about two weeks into the season there is still stuff to talk about and worry about for the Caps. It's time to reCap the last week.
This was an issue all year long last season. The Capitals consistently started slow and were forced to play catch up. Despite giving up the first goal 44 times last season the Caps were able to get at least a point 28 times and winning 22. It's good to know you can come back when you're down but you don't want to risk that all season.
Coming into the season coach Barry Trotz said he wanted the team to fix this issue. They have so far. In the first five games this season the Capitals have scored first all five games. Even better for Washington in the last three games they have scored the second goal to put teams down 2-0 and in those games they put those two goals on their opponents early.
It was really frustrating to watch the Capitals all season last year play catch up. It's nice to see the coaching staff put an emphasis on good starts this season and it's even better that they actually are starting games good.
Bad Second Periods
It's great to get off to a good start, but when you fall asleep the very next period you're starting a brand new game in the final frame. This was really evident this past week. In the games vs Florida and New York Rangers the Capitals were up 2-0 in the first period. For a good all around team you'd like them to nail down that 2-0 lead while adding more goals.
Take the Colorado game as an example. The Capitals got out of the first period with a 1-0 lead and added a goal in each of the two following periods. That was a great game, specifically defensively where the Caps gave up very, very little. On top of that, that game possibly gave the NHL its highlight of the week with the Dmitri Orlov hit that sent Matt Duchene flipping like an Olympic gymnast.
After the Colorado game the Capitals struggled to hold onto leads and you can blame the second period for the majority of that. Against the Panthers the Caps had a 2-1 lead going into the second and got outshot 14-4 surrendering a goal and leading to a 2-2 game going into the third. No big deal in hindsight, Washington scored twice in the third and walked away with a win on the road.
The fact that is happened again just two days later is why you should worry about this a little bit. It was worse against divisional rival New York Rangers. Having a 2-0 lead going into the second on home ice against a rival you need to put that game away. The Rangers scored 3 times in the second and really controlled play. That was all the blueshirts needed as they went on to win the game 4-2.
That game was decided on one thing in my opinion. A blown 4 minute power play where the Capitals could only muster ONE shot. For a power play that usually deadly that is pathetic. The Rangers scored a couple of minutes before that PP chance meaning it was a 2-1 game. All the Capitals needed was one to get control back and if the power play is clicking maybe get two and you put the game away for good. The Struggling power play failed to do anything and it gave the Rangers momentum. Rangers Rookie Jimmy Vesey scored about three minutes after the failed PP and added a second that ended up being the game winner just a couple of minutes later.
It's still too early to get too worried about anything a team is doing. Having a +5 goal differential in the first period is great but then turning around and having a -4 differential in the next period tells you they aren't holding onto leads and need to keep their foot on the gas.
Struggling Special Teams
Power play is something you usually don't have to complain about when talking the Washington Capitals. They haven't been outside the top five in power play percentage since 2011-12 and they have led the league three of the last four seasons. They haven't gotten off to a great start so far this season. As of right now the Capitals are towards the bottom of the league in power play percentage at 12.5 going just 2-16. Both of those PPG's came in the same game vs Colorado. Take that game out of the equation and the Caps are 0-11 on the man advantage.
The Capitals can score 5 on 5, so power play is something I'll never be concerned with. In my opinion you don't need a power play at all to win a Stanley Cup. You need a strong PK and right now they need to get better when they are down a man.
Losing An Ear
Ok so no one actually "lost" their ear, but that was the word flying around after 4th liner Daniel Winnik blocked a shot with his head against the Florida Panthers last Thursday.
Winnik went down early to block a shot and was completely down when the shot was taken hitting him in the side of the head and ear. After a team practice Winnik said his ear was split and had to be glued back together. Fortunately that was it and the puck did not hit Daniel in the face or result in a concussion. Still you don't see ears getting split very often.
There isn't to much to complain about in the big picture for the Capitals. They sit near the top in their division just one point behind the Rangers. They are one of the best defensive teams in the league allowing just 10 goals behind only New Jersey and Montreal (who have allowed 9). And overall for the majority of their games they have looked pretty good.
The only cons this season, actually come out to play in the second period and improve their special teams and who knows, maybe we could see a run out of this team like we did last year when they ran away with the Presidents' Trophy.
You see this topic just about every single season. Around the NHL Draft you'll see young prospects from all over the world. But there is one group that always seems to have a little cloud over them. The Russians.
It's now known as "The Russian factor". What is this? For those who don't know, The Russian factor is when you either have a drafted Russian player or even a Russian free agent who is at flight risk. Meaning almost at any moment he could leave your team and head home to Russia and play in the KHL.
Possibly the biggest example of this is Alexander Radulov. Radulov who came from Russia to play junior hockey in Canada (for the Quebec Ramparts of the QMJHL) was drafted into the NHL by the Nashville Predators. He was signed to his entry level contract which was a standard three year deal.
After playing two years of his three year deal Radulov bolted from Nashville and signed with KHL's Salavat Yulaev Ufa. You can go look up what happened after that between the NHL and KHL and even the IIHF that's not really the point of what I'm going to try to tell you here.
In the years following the Radulov situation you had NHL teams weary of drafting Russian players because they weren't sure if they were wasting a draft pick on a player who would never come over to play for them. Somewhere between the Radulov fiasco and present day the Russian factor has cooled down a little bit.
Now it could be back and Valeri Nichushkin is a big part on why. After a lengthy holdout this off-season Nichushkin who was an RFA signed with KHL club CSKA Moscow. As an RFA this isn't a bad thing. This is miles away from the Radulov situation, but it is nonetheless a situation in my opinion.
Is this a bad thing? No, not really. Am I against Valeri's move to the KHL? Not at all. He's a free agent he can do whatever he wants and clearly he thinks moving to CSKA will help him now and in the long term. What I'm here to tell you is the thing we call "The Russian factor" is starting to creep back into reality and there have been several examples in the last couples of seasons.
Evgeny Kuznetsov is another example I'll use here. Kuznetsov was drafted in 2010 by the Washington Capitals late in the first round. He went on in the next couple of seasons to star at international competitions and become a very good KHL player.
When a European player gets drafted most fans are OK with leaving a player alone for a year or two. Let the kid stay at home and develop before coming over to a new country new culture and new hockey. Kuznetsov let the Capitals and their fans wait for nearly four years.
Alright no big deal he ended up coming over anyways and now is one of Washington's best players.
But seemingly ever since Kuznetsov got to the NHL he has dropped hints that he won't be in America long. Even before Kuznetsov arrived in the United States he told a Russian media outlet that he would like to return to the KHL when he is around 30. That would mean Kuznetsov played in the NHL for eight seasons, a pretty short NHL career. Was he telling the truth to that media person? Who knows, we all fluff people when we think we are disappointing someone.
This isn't exclusive to young players though. Remember Ilya Kovalchuk? He "retired" from the NHL to return home to play in the KHL. Kovalchuk who played in the KHL during the 2012-13 NHL lockout made New Jersey Devils fans worry by not sounding very anxious to get back to the NHL after the lockout had ended in January of 2013. When asked about staying in the KHL after a match with SKA Saint Petersburg Kovalchuk said, “It cannot be excluded,”.
Kovalchuk did in fact return to the NHL and the Devils just days later and played out the shortened season. Just six months later however the 30 year old Kovalchuk retired from the NHL and went home to Russia to play out his career. Kovalchuk had 12 years remaining on his contract worth $77 million at the time of his retirement.
And finally just this past season Pavel Datsyuk retired from the NHL and now plays in the KHL with CSKA. Datsyuk a little different since he is eight years older than Kovalchuk was at his retirement age and Datsyuk having a much easier contract to swallow (just one year at $7.5 cap hit).
Honestly if you ask me I have more of a problem with Kovalchuk and Datsyuk than any young kid. If you have a contract you honor that contract to the end, no questions asked.
You can't blame any of these players though. They have options. They can play at the highest level thousands of miles away from home for millions of dollars and a chance to win the most coveted hockey trophy or you can stay at home still play at a very high level and make millions as well.
I don't want this to sound like I don't like these players either. If you want to go home and play that's great. Russia and North America are very different (at least from what I hear and know) so if these guys don't want to stay they shouldn't be forced.
But this is why there is a Russian factor. Valeri Nichushkin does not get along with his coach or feel he is treated right among the coaches. Instead of trying to find a way out of Dallas and onto another NHL team he goes to the KHL. Kuznetsov comes out multiple times saying stuff about the KHL. And "older" Russians retiring from the NHL in order to get home and play.
I can hear the haters now. Capitals forward and captain Alex Ovechkin publicly stated how he does not care for the current playoff format and I can guarantee on some comment section or on facebook or Twitter someone said this, "He doesn't like the format because he can't win." No doubt someone said this somewhere.
"The schedule in the playoffs is kind of weird, because you play first team and fourth and then you play against Pittsburgh. Then you think why need to win Presidents' Trophy to play against the best team? It's tough to think about, it's kind of weird, but there's nothing you can do."
This isn't something I've put a lot of thought into. Going back to realignment and the changing of the playoff format I always thought you would have to beat the best teams in the playoffs at some point anyways who cares when that time comes. After hearing Ovechkin's comments though I've thought about this more and I now think he's right.
The 2015-16 Washington Capitals season was one of if not the best season in franchise history. In 2009-10 they reached 121 points but just 54 wins compared to this past season getting 120 points but scored 56 wins. Back in 2010 it was all offense, and when the games got tighter in the playoffs that came back to bite them. Six years later the Capitals were very good offensively but one of the best on defense as well. This Presidents' Trophy winning team was supposed to do much better.
Being the best team in the league and in the east Washington rightfully got to play the worst playoff team in Philadelphia. The Capitals easily breezed through the first three games before things got a little tight and the Flyers got back to back wins. No problem in the end, the Caps won game 6 in enemy territory and onto round two.
This is where things get fishy. This is where you look at Ovechkin's comments and pick out one line in particular.
"why need to win Presidents' Trophy to play against the best team?"
That's a hell of a question that I had never thought about. NHL teams play 82 games in the regular season. If you're the best team in your conference or even the entire league shouldn't that mean something?
It did just a couple of years ago. The best team in each conference played the worst team in the conference and if they won they would face the worst remaining seed. That seems logical right? We ask these guys and these teams to beat each other up and sacrifice their bodies 82 times a year, the best teams should get some sort of advantage.
Instead these days the NHL seems to fixed on rivalries and creating new and reigniting old rivalries. Need any proof of this just look at NBC's Wednesday Night Rivalry where some of the games on this night was Flyers vs Blackhawks, Red Wings vs Capitals and Blackhawks vs Rangers twice.
More proof. Look at what the current playoff format forces. Rematches. Thanks to this format the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings have gone at it in the first round two of the past three years. That's two years where one great team was knocked out early. Go to the east where the Penguins and New York Rangers have played in the playoffs for three straight years and have met in the first round the last two.
Possibly the worst match-up was this past playoff season. It was a bad match-up because it was so great, let me explain. Blackhawks vs Blues in the first round. That was in my opinion the best playoff series this past year. It happened in the FIRST ROUND. The Blackhawks who had won three Stanley Cups in the past six years are out early. Why are these two great teams matching up so early?
So just for fun lets go back to the old playoff format, The top seed plays the eight seed, two vs seven and so on and so forth. This is what the playoffs would have looked like in round one.
Capitals vs Red Wings
Penguins vs Flyers
Panthers vs Lightning
Rangers vs Islanders
Stars vs Wild
Blues vs Predators
Blackhawks vs Sharks
Ducks vs Kings
I don't know about you but based on these match-ups you don't need the current format. Right here there are four interstate playoff series. I can't find one series that doesn't have something interesting. Blues vs Predators doesn't really have a big story but I think it'd be a great series.
Going back to the Capitals, I think they win that series vs the Red Wings and would go on to play the worst remaining team out east which was Tampa Bay. Still a tough team and I think the Capitals would actually lose that series but at least for the NHL it's not one vs two in the second round. On the other side of the east bracket you have Penguins vs Islanders, Crosby vs Tavares round 2 (round 1 being in 2013).
In the west, I don't think the 2016 Stanley Cup finalists Sharks get out of the first round. I think the Blackhawks win that series and instead of Blues vs Blackhawks in round one we get that match-up in round two. In my bracket the Stars would play the Ducks in round two. I won't get much further into the brackets I'll let you decide what happens based on the match-ups above.
The NHL in my mind is so anxious for rivals to meet in the playoffs that later rounds can sometimes be a little boring. With the current playoff format you had Blues vs Blackhawks in round one when it could have been a little later and helped ratings. Instead of Capitals vs Penguins in round two it could have happened in the Eastern Conference Championship, imagine Ovechkin vs Crosby winner goes to the Stanley Cup.
The NHL wanting rivals playing in early rounds is knocking out great teams and creating some bad TV. Would you rather see Chicago vs St Louis in round two or Nashville vs San Jose? Tampa Bay vs New York Islanders or Penguins vs Islanders.
Wednesday Night Rivalry, only rivals playing in the Winter Classic and divisional playoff system, the NHL is so focused on rivalries and it's hurting them. In this system winning the Presidents' Trophy doesn't mean anything other than home ice which is increasingly a non factor. A team just proved it was the best in the league over six months and 82 games and they should get an advantage. Instead in this system they might have to play their toughest opponent in round two. To answer your question Ovechkin, there is no point on winning the Presidents' Trophy.
The playoff format is weird. If you ask me the only reason it exist is because the NHL wants rivals meeting and meeting more often. You'll most likely get Capitals-Penguins more often if they play in round one or two than if they both have to get to the conference finals. Same goes for Blackhawks-Blues and Sharks-Kings.