In the midst of a busy stretch of games, including some so-called measuring stick contests, we dipped into the old NoVa Caps mailbag to answer your questions.
After Wednesday’s overtime loss, where does Tampa rank on the ol’ Hate-O-Meter?
-Miffed in Montgomery County
The level of distaste for the Lightning is not quote at the level the Capitals’ rivalry with the Pittsburgh Penguins is. but it is getting there. Familiarity builds contempt, and three games in 15 days will do nothing but amplify tensions for a possible playoff matchup down the road. Tampa Bay is super-annoying. Part of that is the obvious offensive talent that comes in waves. Team’s can’t take a single shift off against the Bolts’ highlight-producing weapons such as Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. The other reason, of course, is that Tampa made some questionable hits and decisions on Wednesday, including a high hit from Cedric Paquette that ultimately resulted in Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny being injured after taking exception to it (an injury that will keep the blueliner out for “Some time”), Yanni Gourde dropping the gloves with Jakub Vrana, and a slash to the hand of T.J. Oshie, clearly frustrated by the Caps’ physicality.
With Michal Kempny likely on the shelf for a while, what do you do if you are Todd Reirden?
-Curious in Catonsville
The first thing Todd Reirden should do is thank General Manager Brian MacLellan for adding defensive depth at the trade deadline. Nick Jensen has played well on the third-pairing, so he likely gets the call to show what he can do as part of the number one pairing. Christian Djoos played well in his return to the lineup in New Jersey on Tuesday night. He moved the puck well and looked solid in his own zone. Yes, that was against the last-place (in the Metropolitan Division) Devils, but the defense shouldn’t suffer much drop off with Djoos plugged in the lineup. As much as we all love #JenAndDjoos, there’s no way veteran Brooks Orpik, at 38-years old, can handle top-pair minutes playing with John Carlson. “Laid back with my mind on my money and my money on my mind, Rollin’ down the street sippin’ on Jen and Carly [John Carlson]” doesn’t have quite the same ring, but Reirden doesn’t have much of a choice unless he wants to break up the Matt Niskanen-Dmitry Orlov duo. Reirden seems reluctant to do so, and it seems less likely that he will shake things up drastically with less than 10 games to go. If the coaches had any plans to put Orlov in the press box for a game or two, and plans to rest Orpik a bit more, those plans are probably out the window if Kempny misses any significant time, which seems likely. Look for them to simplify. Jensen up, Djoos in with Orpik, build consistency from there.
Abandon the Slingshot!
-Tired in Tyson’s Corner
The Caps are not the only team that use the slingshot entry on the power play, but it seems to be less effective as the season progresses. The Caps have struggled on power play zone entry in recent weeks. The slingshot, in which a skilled skater enters the offensive zone with speed, is designed to push the defenders back allowing the power play unit room to set up. Teams have been getting more aggressive against Washington’s power play, both standing up at the blueline to reduce the slingshot’s effectiveness and pressuring the puck more along the half-wall. I’d like to see a bit more dump, chase, and retrieve if defenses are going to choke off the blueline entry.
When are the Capitals going to learn to stay out of the box?
-Frazzled in Frederick
Taking untimely penalties may be this team’s ultimate undoing. There’s two ways to combat the problem, of course. One is to improve the penalty kill. The unit has made strides, especially since the arrival of Carl Hagelin and Jensen. It has been more aggressive pressuring the puck in the defensive zone and chasing the puck after a clear. It is not yet where it needs to be, though. Against teams with potent offensive ammunition, like Pittsburgh and Tampa, the best prescription is to stay out of the box. Too often, the Capitals take lazy hooking or holding penalties that could be avoided if they kept their feet moving. Wednesday against Tampa, all three penalties Washington took were “unforced errors” so to speak. Tom Wilson, whose penalty was admittedly questionable, didn’t have to grab [Tampa defenseman Victor] Hedman’s sweater. Alex Ovechkin could have hit Ryan McDonough without making it seem like a head shot. Dmitry Orlov slashed a stick out of the Tampa skater’s hand mere minutes after watching Washington get a power play for the exact same infraction. Not smart. If the Caps aren’t going to kill off penalties better, a tough task against power play juggernauts like Pittsburgh and Tampa, then they need to be better at cutting down on the dumb penalties.
In these “measuring stick” games, the Caps keep coming up short, don’t you think?
-Worried in Wheaton
Obviously, losing all three recent games against the Penguins and Lightning is disappointing. As far as testing how the Caps stack up with those teams, the results are encouraging. Washington is right there with each rival. If not for two dismal, if all too familiar, minutes in Pittsburgh that game would have had a different result. What did we learn from the two Tampa games? Something that was already obvious, and that is that Tampa is REALLY GOOD. Fans were also reminded the Caps can play well against them. Saturday in Tampa the Caps played okay and essentially lost by a goal (if not for two empty-netters). On Wednesday night, Washington brought a stronger effort resulting in a fun, playoff-style heavyweight bout. Despite the loss, Washington hung with the Bolts. Generating 58 shots against the best team in the league shows the Capitals are capable of putting pressure on as good a team as Tampa Bay and outhitting the Lightning 37-14 is another sign of that. Another chance to dole out some nastiness next week? The Caps skated with Tampa, carrying the play at even-strength. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s late, game-tying goal was important if for no other reason than it proved Tampa’s outstanding netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy is not invincible. The Caps showed, and have one more opportunity to show, no matter how great Tampa has been, the road to the Stanley Cup still goes through D.C.
By Bryan Hailey