James O'Brien

Hockey Daily Dose

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Caps certainty

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Of all the Weekly Dose columns so far, this one’s been the toughest to get my head around for the simple reason that just about everything we thought we knew seems to be proven false on a day-to-day basis in the 2012 playoffs. NHL teams almost seem to have a checklist. It’s the kind of development that would have Dennis Green saying the opposite of “They are who we thought they were.”


Yet if there’s one unifying team when it comes to almost all of the storylines, it might just be the Washington Capitals. Let’s break it down from their perspective and many of the league-wide stories that have developed to see how close they are to covering every base.



It’s not as if this is a particularly “new” development, yet the trend of Russian-born NHLers getting a little too much heat in the media seems to be coming to a head in the 2012 playoffs.


Perhaps it’s at least somewhat founded to say that there are some Russian players who appear indifferent (relatively speaking) to defense, but it seems like that undercurrent of thought is just getting out of control. More than anything else, there seems to be a double standard forming.


Yes, Sidney Crosby had some big early goals in the first round, yet he finished with the same point totals (eight in six games) as Evgeni Malkin. Yet when Darren Dreger was asked about breaking up the Pittsburgh Penguins’ trio of centers, he at least floated the idea of moving Malkin (two-time Art Ross winner) instead of Jordan Staal. Beyond the idea being somewhere between “kinda” and “patently” absurd, it’s odd that Crosby’s name didn’t even crop up. After all, Crosby’s the guy who carries enormous health worries and was just as helpless to stop the Flyers’ onslaught as anyone else. So Geno’s drive gets questioned even though he dominated the regular season and finished the Flyers series with more than a point per game.


The most damaging developments in the “Blame the Russians” scheme come in the effects on two Alexes: Ovechkin and Radulov. Despite getting a laughably absurd 13:36 TOI in Game 2, Alex Ovechkin still managed seven shots on goal and the game-winner against Henrik Lundqvist. (Naturally, Dale Hunter is being lauded in many circles for the way he “handled” his star’s supposed struggles. He’s not being lauded in my circle.) We can debate the merits of Hunter’s move night and day, but aside from the short-term adrenaline rush of anger that it provided in Game 2, it’s likely that Ovechkin owners are disapproving of Hunter’s turtle strategy in unison.


Radulov’s case is just as frustrating for fantasy owners. After a tough Game 2 for the Predators, Radulov’s lack of defense was scolded almost excessively. If that wasn’t enough, he apparently went out partying a little bit too much with Andrei Kostitsyn in Scottsdale and both of them won’t be playing in Game 3. (So adjust accordingly and begrudgingly.)


Now, Barry Trotz and Hunter can be excused from the weird anti-Russian sentiment (or pro-North American bias?) floating around many discussions. They’re just putting out their own in-house fires the way they see fit. Still, it’s a testament to a strange developing thread; when in doubt, blame the Russian.



Earlier this season, I wrote a PHT column explaining a theory that was close (and hurtful) to my heart: rooting for NHL underdogs often means rooting for the most boring play styles. Ever since the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils beat the Detroit Red Wings – or perhaps before that – the template’s been set for low-budget, low-talent and low-imagination teams: turtle in your own zone, suffocate the neutral zone and hope for bounces to pounce on in transition.


It might be exciting to watch your team sling rocks at Goliath as a fan, but for the rest of us, we’re just getting pummeled by rocks of bland hockey.


The Capitals used to be that stylistic Goliath: a team that was imbalanced and flawed but terrifyingly productive. Most people just remember the playoff defeats while forgetting that the Capitals absolutely ran roughshod over the NHL in their (and Ovechkin’s) best moments.


Washington is now a testament to the dangers of overreacting to an incredibly small sample size of games in the playoffs. Instead of staying the course, the Caps assumed that their blueprint couldn’t work despite a still-young core (Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom & Co. are all still easily in their prime years, for what it’s worth) and decided to keep up with the boring defense-first-second-and-last Joneses.


The thing is, they’re just generally not that good at it. Braden Holtby has been bailing them out here and there, but people paint a strangely pretty picture for a team that (to date) only has one more playoff win than the 2011 team that was so harshly throttled by the Tampa Bay Lightning. (The 2011 team was a sad thing, too; they had one foot in the fun days and one foot in the “grass is always greener.”) If you're a fantasy owner or just a fan of interesting hockey, it's tough to get behind what Hunter is doing in DC right now.

The one interesting thing about the Capitals’ total indifference to entertainment is that other mostly-passive teams are actually playing some borderline fire wagon hockey in round 2.


The Phoenix Coyotes-Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues-Los Angeles Kings series have carried plenty of surprises, but the biggest ones (aside from the 2-0 series leads for the Coyotes and Kings, maybe) come in all the goals being scored. There’s an aggressive energy to much of the proceedings as the Predators’ and Blues’ meticulous defensive systems are wilting before our eyes.


The constant, uniform boredom presented by the Capitals even seemed stark in Game 2 of the Philadelphia Flyers-New Jersey Devils series. For a round and a game, Philly was the spiritual polar opposite of Washington. Where the Caps depended wildly on Holtby, the Flyers mostly won despite Ilya Bryzgalov. While Hunter was content to sit back and cross his fingers as other teams attacked, Peter Laviolette unleashed the dogs to present a tantalizing (and fantasy-rich) attack.


And then Game 2 happened. The Flyers built a 1-0 lead and then somewhat astonishingly decided to sit on it, with predictable results. The Devils dominated the rest of the game and eventually broke through in the third period, crushing Philly 4-1 and making us all wonder what exactly happened.


Few people were shocked, however, as the only constant seems to be the Capitals’ worldview.



1. Jimmy Hascup - 247.70 points

2. Corey Abbott - 164.40

3. Jared O - 159.40

4. Marc Lapierre - 133.20

5. Ryan Dadoun - 121.20

6. Michael Finewax - 116.80

7. Gus Katsaros - 103

8. My sad team - 102.30

9. Brian Rosenbaum - 95.70

10. Kevin Brown - 84.40


As you can see, Jimmy is so ridiculously far ahead of the rest of us that it’s really just a battle for the silver and bronze medals. (It also forces me to contemplate a difficult possibility: does this mean Jimmy > James? Surely I’ve bested a Jimmy in my travels. The unspoken battle cannot be over.)


Hascup has Jonathan Quick and Mike Smith, who are doing so well that they might not get eliminated until he face each other. He also owns the far-and-away playoff leader Claude Giroux (15 points). That’s the formula for playoff poll success: snatch the leading scorers and – whether it’s by luck, skill or some combination of the two – grab the best goalies.


On the bright side personally, I can probably relax about blowing much of the first week by improperly setting my roster. Sure, It’s possible I might be jockeying for fifth or sixth place if I started Sean Couturier on that mystical four-point night, but the bottom line is that failing goalies Roberto Luongo and Corey Crawford (not to mention the Flyers’ devotion to Ilya Bryzgalov over my Plan C Sergei Bobrovsky) was my greatest undoing.



The good news for Brian Elliott owners: Jaroslav Halak is out for the second round, if not longer. The bad news is that Elliott is being exposed by a Kings team that is pushing the Blues’ defense around … Speaking of that defense, Alex Pietrangelo missed Game 2 and seems like a coin flip at best for Game 3 on Thursday. Stay tuned for updates there, but it doesn’t sound very good … Brian Boyle returned for Game 2 but didn’t make the same impact. Stay patient with him for now, though … Ilya Kovalchuk missed Game 2 for the Devils and just doesn’t seem right. He might be back in the lineup soon, though. (Sad editor’s note: Kovalchuk and Pietrangelo are on my team.) … So who’s the biggest “medium steal” of the roto playoffs – excluding goalies? Jakub Voracek and Dustin Brown both have nine points apiece, with Brown’s agitating ways also generating 18 PIM. Antoine Vermette and Travis Zajac deserve to be in the discussion as well, with Zajac heating up in particular … For all the great things Daniel Briere has done, he was brutal defensively last night, which showed in his -3 rating. Obviously he’s worth it, but one might call him a double-edged former Sabre … Marc Bergevin is the new GM of the Montreal Canadiens and rumor has it buying out Scott Gomez will be one of his first moves … Brandon Dubinsky is still banged-up for the Rangers. It’s been a tough season for the versatile forward in the first year of a robust new deal. (Click here for the full injury list.)

James O'Brien is the Hockey Daily Dose's author and has been a contributor to NBC's Pro Hockey Talk for more than four years. Follow him on Twitter.
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