Sunday, October 21, 2007

Patience is a Virtue

The doom and gloom patrol is out in full force today, and it's not really surprising - losing a fourth straight and having it come against the Penguins is very demoralizing for Caps fans. Believe me, before last night's game I was informing everyone that should the Caps lose they could find me on the roof of the nearest building, poised to leap.

I'm not up there, though, and no one else should be either. We are, and let me make this very, very clear...7 games in. Do the two points still count in October? Yes. Is this a worse start than we would have preferred? Yes.

A good start to the season is very important. It sets the tone for the rest of the year, gets fans into it early, and gives the team confidence going forward. But it's not everything.

Case in point: the Buffalo Sabres and the Ottawa Senators last season.

Buffalo, if you remember, started the season with 10 straight wins. 10. That's insane. They were going to win the Cup and the season was a month old. But they choked on their own confidence and despite winning two rounds of the playoffs you have to admit they never really looked like the same team in the postseason, ultimately falling to the Ottawa Senators.

Then we have the Sens. In their first six games last season they were 2-4-0. Through 19 games they were 7-11-1, good enough for last place in the division and beating out only Philadelphia in the conference standings. They finished the season with a record of 48-25-9 and dominated every playoff series except for the Finals.

I'm not saying the Caps are going to make it to the Finals - my insanity has its limits. But there is something to be said for having a little patience, and I'm more inclined to do that under current circumstances.

Think about this - the Caps went through three weeks of training camp and preseason games where they actually had to make real decisions for once on who was going to get cut and who would make the team. During this short period of time the top two lines were essentially unchanging, skating together in almost every game and throughout camp.

Then you have three unexpected things happen one after the other.

First, Semin goes down with an ankle injury in one of the last preseason games, throwing a wrench in what was expected to be a one-two scoring punch. Then you have Fleischmann, who performed so well in camp that he was given a slot alongside Ovechkin and Kozlov, basically self-destructing when asked to repeat it in regular season play. And last but certainly not least, you lose one of your best faceoff men and penalty killers, Boyd Gordon, for three games due to injury.

Each one of those things alone is workable. You make adjustments, you shuffle the lines, and you go forward. But they happened all at once, when the team has barely been skating together for a full month, and that's going to wreak havoc with your performance. People who are saying "fire the coach" or "put Nylander on the top line" are simply offering the typical knee-jerk reactions to a club that's dropped a few. It's understandable but not logical. Not yet, at least.

Bob Hartley was fired because the Thrashers lost their first six games...and their last four. And limped into the postseason. And had nothing to work with. That team had and continues to have problems with or without Hartley behind the bench and last night's loss to Tampa continues to prove that he probably shouldn't have been the only one let go. If Hanlon can't get results out of this team by mid-November, I'd say he's gone - but let's give him a little time with a full team to work with first, okay?

As for Nylander, yes...we all thought he was coming in to play on a line with Ovechkin. Guess what? He's got better chemistry with Semin and Backstrom. We saw it at camp, we see it now. And Kozlov, last night's somewhat off-night aside, has really hit on something with Ovechkin. They just find each other on the ice in all situations and the results are nothing short of breathtaking.

The Caps lost a close one last night for their fourth straight, but as I've said and as others have also pointed out, they looked fantastic doing it. Were there problems? Sure. I'd love to see Poti shoot that puck a little more. I'd love to see Motzko back in the AHL, or at least on a third or fourth line where he can use his feistiness without being responsible for as much. I'd love to see the offense or the power play start to kick in (although there were signs of improvement in both, even if they didn't show up on the scoresheet).

But last night's loss was no 7-3 stumble like the one against Buffalo, and it wasn't the 5-2 fiasco we saw Thursday night either. It was a goaltending duel, an officiating nightmare, and the most complete game the Caps have played since the home opener. Semin is likely on his way back, probably by Friday. Goaltending continues to be one of the best features even in the losses (Olie's performance Thursday not included). Gordon returned last night and looked like he'd never left. The signs are all there - things are starting to turn around.

On a completely unrelated topic I need to pass on a quick note to all the AP writers and anyone writing a story about last night's game - Crosby did not "power" the Penguins to anything. He didn't "lead" the Pens to a win. He was actually pretty invisible. His one assist came on a feed to the point while on the power play and I'm sorry, but any forward on the power play makes that pass routinely. It was a good pass, but I'm not inclined to stick it on a highlight reel. In fact, if that win was a product of any individual it was Marc-Andre Fleury...not Captain Penguin.

Crosby is an amazing talent and does so many things that make your jaw drop - let's not cheapen them by trying to equate everything he does to some kind of magic.

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