Yet, despite being well rested after a four day layoff, the Caps somehow lacked intensity and lost Thursday to a youthful and beatable Edmonton club, and also on Saturday night against a stumbling Vancouver Canucks team and their struggling goaltender Roberto Luongo.
With several new players on their roster, it seemed that glaring holes were filled this past off-season to correct the bad habits that have plagued the Washington Capitals for years. It may be just two losses amongst a long 82 game schedule, but this road trip magnifies the following issues:
1) ONE HOT GOALIE CAN DEFEAT AN ENTIRE HOT CAPITALS TEAM.
Despite 4-lines of consistent scoring talent, a hot goalie can still single-handedly beat the Washington Capitals, as Nikolai Khabibulin did Thursday night in Edmonton. That game served as a reminder that come playoff time - it will still be as tough as ever to advance deep if a goalie decides to get red hot against us.
The following are ways that the Washington Capitals can negate a hot goaltender:
Let's face it, the Capitals are built for regular season success. They will compete or win most low intensity skill vs. skill regular season games. However, when the game becomes less about pure hockey skill and more about intangibles - intensity, aggressiveness, toughness & tenacity - such as it was Saturday evening against a hungry Vancouver team (and is during all playoff games), the degree of Caps dominance falls off sharply.
Despite all their so-called changes for the better, the Capitals are still not built for the playoffs. They rarely put together a full and consistent 60 minutes of hockey, lack grit or toughness, don't play with a chip on their shoulder, and they rarely seem like they have an ax to grind. When skill gets offset by intensity and push comes to shove, opponents suddenly find themselves on a level playing surface as the more talented Washington Capitals club.
3) THIS CAPS DEFENSE IS GIVING UP TOO MANY SHOTS ON GOAL.
Until now, the Washington Capitals have been saved far too often by the stellar goaltending of Tomas Vokoun and not so much by their defense. Despite winning 7 of 9 games, the Capitals have been out-shot in more than 50% of their contests, and has given their opposition 40+ shots three times.
The Caps have yet to find "their game," one that perfectly blends their offensive talents with defensive responsibilities. Two years ago they were perhaps too offensive and last season played maybe a little too defensively. Logic dictates that a perfect blend would be somewhere in-between the two styles. To become legitimate contenders, Washington must keep shots down below 30-35 shots on a more consistent basis.
4) SPEEDY FORWARDS GIVE THE CAPITALS DEFENSE HEADACHES.
This is the newest problem I've identified. I'm not sure if this is a major problem going forward, but I am beginning to take notice.
Are teams with fast forwards and quick transition games trouble for the Capitals defense? Vancouver - with their speedy forwards - had our defense running around in circles with our backs to the puck, constantly one stride behind the play. It was eerily reminiscent of how Tampa Bay exploited the Capitals in the playoffs last season.
While Scott Hannan took much of the brunt - becoming a 'fall guy' for the Capitals defensive speed misgivings last playoffs - are Jeff Schultz, Roman Hamrlik or others also too slow afoot? ... just something to consider.
5) MIKE GREEN IS MORE VALUABLE THAN WE THINK.
With D Mike Green sidelined with an ankle injury the past two games, it was glaringly apparent he was sorely missed as not only an offensive weapon, but as a defensive and team leader on the ice. The defensive corps - especially versus Vancouver - seemed slow, lost and confused. The last two game have made me realize that Green may not only be their best rounded defenseman, but he may also be their 'anchor' as well.
In past years, Mike Green was frequently criticized for being too error-prone and irresponsible defensively. Last season and so far this campaign, Green has evolved into a well rounded hockey player - frequently logging the most ice-time of any Caps player per contest. In fact, he has silenced many of his critics and has (in my opinion) become a bona fide Norris Trophy candidate.
Green's health, which has been questionable in recent times, may hold a large key to the Capitals success going forward.