Thursday Thoughts: Down the Stretch We Go

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opinion After last Tuesday’s victory over Carolina, the Washington Capitals locked up a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.  The exact seed or first round opponent may not be known for some time as the remaining contenders jockey for position.

We do know that this rough scheduling stretch will not ease up for the Capitals, as they will play the remaining 13 games in 26 days.

_MG_6264copy1Where comfortable scheduling and unpredictable weather afforded Washington restful (and sometimes disruptive) breaks during the first 46 games, the schedule has not been kind to the Capitals as they complete the last 36 games of the season.  Up through the “SnOvechkin” break at the end of January, the Caps had played their first 46 games in 108 days (averaging 2.3 days per game). This ‘relaxed’ schedule has forced the Caps to finish their final 36 games in only 73 days (average of 2.0 days per game).  With the annual West Coast road swing, snow make up games, and obvious fatigue this compressed game schedule has not been easy.  Roughly one-third (0.3) of a day may not seem like much time; but to an NHL team it means sacrificing a practice, an off day, or tight-turnarounds from city to city.

The Washington Capitals separated themselves from the rest of the league as a goal-scoring, game winning monster through Mid-January. An eight-day snow break, followed by five-day All-Star break tampered with their consistency, rhythm, and focus.  Since January 27th, 2016 when the Capitals came out of snow hibernation, they are 15-6-2 (23 games), and 19 of those games have been decided by one goal.

Most teams would be happy to garner 15 wins in 23 games; however that winning percentage (0.652) is way below the pre-January 27th pace (0.761) the Capitals had established through their torrid start.

Thursday Thoughts takes a look at what matters, and what does not as the Capitals march towards the playoffs.

Hot Start: It matters. Slow Finish: It doesn’t matter.

Winning over 75% of their games through the first four months of the season gave Washington some cushion to deal with injuries, inconsistencies, and fatigue.  Having sealed up a playoff spot with almost a month to go means the Capitals can get focused on their main goal, while other teams have to fight for their right to join the postseason party.

Capitals leadership and coaching have a script. If they take enough lessons from the end-of-season grind, and stay healthy (also get Carlson back); they will be fine going into postseason play. Stick to the script.

President’s Trophy, Hart Trophy, Vezina Trophy: They don’t matter. The Stanley Cup: It matters.

The Capitals won the President’s Trophy in 2009-2010 and the playoffs were a complete bust.  (Don’t look back in anger, they said).

For all of his individual efforts; Alexander Ovechkin has won Hart Trophy’s (MVP), Rocket Richard Trophy’s (Goal Scoring), Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year), and more hardware than you’d find at a Home Depot.  Those individual awards have yet to yield him a championship.

_MG_5827copy1Braden Holtby is deserving of the Vezina Trophy (Top Goaltender) for his otherworldly efforts manning the Capitals net, but one man (albeit an important one) will not win the Caps that ultimate prize (see Ovechkin, Alex).

What matters is plotting a course to Lord Stanley’s Cup.  No regular season voting gets you that, and this year’s Capitals will not be considered successful if a very good regular season does not bring about a serious challenge for the NHL’s only true reward.

Brodeur’s NHL Wins Record: It (Sorta) Matters. Overplaying Holbty down the Stretch: It doesn’t matter.

To come this close to an NHL record and not let the man try would be a detriment to his psyche. Braden Holtby has logged a ton of games in his young NHL career, and has proven he can handle an immense workload (regardless of clinching a playoff spot).  With the team in front of him it is possible that he could have future runs at Martin Brodeur’s NHL single-season mark of 48 wins. However with 42 wins to date, and 13 games left to accrue 7 more, I don’t see why the coaching staff would not let Holtby start at least 10 games.  Given that the team will face back-to-back contests three more times, and we should expect Philip Grubauer to take the nets in those, Holtby should get his chance at this historical number.

Now, as mentioned above, the only real historical significance is having your name on the Stanley Cup. That being said, it is up to Holtby to log minutes, stop shots, prepare himself for the greater task, and win the games. Do that and maybe he could accomplish both glorious goals.

Home-Ice throughout the Playoffs: It doesn’t matter. Winning Wherever, Whenever: It matters.

_MG_6229copy1Home ice is very nice. Verizon Center is a great atmosphere for the Washington Capitals, and over the past seven seasons they have made it a habit of winning at home (a lot). Come playoff time, it helps to have a friendly crowd and a comfortable building.  Though what benefits a team more towards the Cup is killer instinct, an ability to silence the opponent’s fans, and win whenever called upon. In recent history the Capitals have played in nine (9) series-clinching game sevens, and they have won only three (3) times. Sadly they have had home ice advantage in most of those series’ yet lost to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York (Rangers) multiple times in front of the deflated Verizon Center crowd. Home ice did not matter then, killer instincts would have.

So what matters as we scamper towards the post-season?

  • Stick to the script provided by the coaches. Leverage what worked early in the season, and manage through what has been a series of slow first period efforts and “too close for comfort” one-goal games.
  • Don’t sweat the hardware unless it means lifting the ultimate prize. In regards to that “trophy,” you must sweat for it, fight for it, and bleed for it.
  • As for Braden Holtby, the team needs to lift his confidence, provide a few wins, and give their excellent young netminder a solid groove towards the post-season. He is a workhorse, more minutes and shots will not rattle him; just don’t let him down with poor play (that’s a hell of a way to miss out on a very rare record).
  • Finally…kill or be killed Washington Capitals. Be it home or away, you have to win.

By Scott Zweibel

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About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His passion for the Caps has grown over the decades, which has included time as a season ticket holder, social media and community organizer, and most recently led to the founding of NoVa Caps in 2014. Jon earned a Bachelor's of Science in Engineering at Old Dominion University, and is a Systems Engineer during intermissions, which has been instrumental in supporting his Capitals habit.
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2 Responses to Thursday Thoughts: Down the Stretch We Go

  1. Les Fork says:

    The Caps can do this. This team can control there own destiny and the Stanley cup is there’s if they want it. It’s up to the team, coaching staff and the fans in that order. We can do this. Positive minds and sticking to the game plan is all we need. This is the best hockey I’ve ever seen in Washington and if the new players we acquired at the trade deadline need to get with the program. One key 4th line forward and penalty killer was traded and I hope this does not F with our flow. I understand why Brooks was traded but did we need the forwards acquired? They did hit the lotto by being traded to our team, now they need to step up and take the money! Let’s all hope they do. The point is we can do this and we are the only thing that can F this up. Let’s Go Caps

  2. Jerry says:

    The team mind set does matter going forward. Good first periods is a must. Attitude is important also. There is that will to win. Equally important, if not more so, is the refusal to lose. Refusing to lose will break the spirit of the opponent. Grandpa Williams and Richards experienced this in LA. Down 3-0 they played one game at a time and refused to lose. The result they went on to win. The Caps would have done better in playoffs past if they had a refuse to lose mentality. Then they would not have lost so many 3-1 game leads.

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