“Sh*t happens,” was Alex Ovechkin’s response when asked about missing a wide open net on the power play while the team was losing 3-2 in the second game of their First Round series against the New York Islanders. The tone was resigned, and many took it as a sign of apathy.
However, Ovechkin is one of few on the Capitals’ side who doesn’t look apathetic on the ice. And no matter what his tone was, he was correct. Sh*t happens. And a lot of it did through two games of this series. Credit the Islanders’ suffocating defense and Barry Trotz’s coaching all you want; they deserve it, but the Capitals have done nothing to show why they deserve to be here through two games.
Missing Nicklas Backstrom always hurts, but this team managed to defeat Pittsburgh in 2018 without Backstrom or Tom Wilson for the back end of the series. Then again, this 2020 team is not the one from 2018. That much is obvious.
Entering the series, I praised the Capitals for being one of the deeper teams in the league. After watching these two games, they’ve been about as deep as a kiddie pool. Ovechkin and TJ Oshie are the only goal-scorers so far, the third line has been invisible and Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov, two of the few core players younger than 30, have been as flat as the bottle of Sprite that’s been wasting away in my basement fridge for the past three years.
Braden Holtby has not been great either, but it’s very difficult to be a good goaltender when your defense gives little help. Holtby always gets much more blame and hate than he deserves in these situations, and the fanbase tends to flip on him constantly. You can’t pin everything on him, but the play has been subpar in net. From top to bottom, the defense has just been atrocious. I find myself saying “what are you doing?!” to the TV screen more than anything else.
I’m not sure if it’s age catching up to them, but they collectively look slow and old. It’s a good thing they’re only paying half of Ilya Kovalchuk’s salary since I forget he’s on the team half the time. You’d think four months rest would be an advantage for an older group, but so far that hasn’t been the case.
Perhaps it helps the Isles that Trotz coached this core through four playoff runs, but how big of a game-changer can that be? Shouldn’t the Caps themselves know exactly how Trotz will scheme his team and take measures to play against it? Wouldn’t that cancel each other out to some degree?
This series is the divorce trial; Trotz is the wife walking into court with a fur coat and designer handbag, while the Caps are the down-on-his-luck husband rushing in last minute with a loose tie and messy hair. They’re fighting for custody over their son, Stanley, and the case is starting to look open and shut.
So what has to change? Something (everything?) has to change. A 2-0 series leader wins 86 percent of the time, but the Capitals have experienced the other 14 percent in both directions recently. As we all remember, they were down 2-0 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the First Round in 2018, then rebounded to win four straight. Then the following year, after taking a 2-0 lead over the Carolina Hurricanes, they eventually fell in seven games. 2-0 is the most dangerous lead in hockey, after all.
This isn’t over, at least in theory, but if they continue to play the way they have, they may want to start packing up now. Both Games 1 and 2 in the Columbus series were overtime losses; they could have gone either way, which is far from the case this year. The Islanders deserve this 2-0 lead. They’ve been the better team and have all the momentum.
There is no travel day or change over between Games 2 and 3 this year. No change in atmosphere, no natural shift. Any change will have to come from the guys on the ice and them alone. Not committing two bench minors would be a good start.
The team has to put up more legitimate shots. They totaled just 13 through two periods in Game 2, and most were simply long range, “hope it takes a lucky bounce” kind of shots. They simply have to test Semyon Varlamov more, and that starts with better passing and better entries into the offensive zone. There were just too many shank passes and not enough urgency on the breakouts.
The defense just needs to be better, plain and simple. There has to be more focus and better effort in clearances to keep the Isles from maintaining possession. It’s been a physical series, but they have to stay out of the penalty box. That’s obvious for any team, but you can’t maintain an offensive rhythm if you’re consistently on the penalty kill.
The personnel could also use a shake up, but who do you turn to? I think the easiest pick is Martin Fehervary to slot in on one of the defensive pairs. He’s young and he’s hungry to establish a spot for himself next year. He had a fine game against the Boston Bruins in the round robin, and I don’t see how he can hurt the defense more if he plays poorly. He won’t change the defense all on his own, but sometimes all a group needs is a shake up.
Ilya Samsonov very well could have been selected to start Game 3, but after his off-ice injury, he’s not even in Toronto as an option. Instead, Vitek Vanecek is the backup after a strong campaign in Hershey. Is the struggle bad enough that they turn to Vanecek in Game 3, a guy with no real NHL experience?
It seems like all of Capitals’ twitter is calling for Connor McMichael to make his NHL debut as the third or fourth line center. The 19-year-old OHL phenom is already one of the team’s brightest prospects after being drafted just over a year ago in the first round. McMichael looked great with the London Knights this year, and has the potential to be a top six center down the line, but how much will he be able to help this team right now?
I suppose he’d be more motivated than 90 percent of the roster, and who knows, maybe the third line would make some sort of impact with his presence, but that’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a teenager who hasn’t even appeared in the AHL, much less the NHL. Maybe I’m underestimating the guy, but even if he plays spectacularly, it’ll take a lot more than him to turn things around, even if Connor Mc[first name]’s tend to have transcendent qualities.
Daniel Sprong is an intriguing option to turn to, as he’s one of the only black aces who has actual NHL experience. Sprong was acquired at the trade deadline this year, but he never made an appearance with the Caps. Though he spent most of this season in the AHL, Sprong played 63 games between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks last year, totaling 23 points (14g, 9a). You want hunger? How about a fresh 23-year-old fighting to regain a spot on an NHL roster? That type of energy could really ignite the bottom six.
This team has battled adversity before, and the Islanders will continue to be a tough opponent, but the Caps can’t go down without a fight. Sh*t happens, and it’s stinking up the place. Will someone pick up the plunger, or will this team just continue to drown in it? I guess we’ll have our answer tomorrow.
Cover Photo Credit: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP