After 47 games, it has never been clearer to me that this Washington Capitals team is different than those of the last five years.
Over the last five years, the Capitals have either been an explosive team on offense or a standout team on defense, almost exclusively the former. They knew what their identity was.
This year, they have neither a dominating offense nor a standout defense, and they don’t have an identity. Sunday’s game against the Penguins was a perfect illustration of this.
The Capitals fell behind early on two goals, one of which was incredibly poor penalty killing and the other a poor screen by Dennis Wideman that gave Michal Neuvirth no chance to react to an absolute rocket that was over his shoulder before he could move.
In fact, it was only a sensational save from Neuvirth, and quite frankly a bit of luck that James Neal didn’t get a better handle on his shot, that kept the game from being effectively over after eleven minutes.
Yes, the Capitals battled back by taking advantage of opportunities and by capitalizing on mistakes. They played desperately. But other than the first half of the second period, there was little time in which the Capitals were dictating the pace of play.
Eventually, after taking a lead, the Capitals folded, and they didn’t deserve to win that game. They showed admirable determination and heart, but even without Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal, the Penguins were the better team.
That’s been a theme of the Dale Hunter era – getting outplayed. Most nights, the Capitals have needed a huge game from Tomas Vokoun, and occasionally Michal Neuvirth, to pull out a victory.
Even when the Capitals had their struggles last year under Bruce Boudreau, very rarely were the Capitals beaten down physically like they were against Carolina on Friday and Pittsburgh on Sunday.
The irony, of course, is that Dale Hunter was supposed to get the Caps playing a more physical style of hockey that wore teams down.
Granted, the Capitals missing their top two centers and Mike Green didn’t help matters. But this is a team that is being consistently out-shot since Hunter took over, and it’s been even worse since Nicklas Backstrom went out – the Caps are getting out-shot by an average of twelve shots in the period that Backtrom has been absent with his concussion.
With no real level of certainty as to the return of Backstrom or Green, and the beatings that they have been taking under Hunter, even when winning, the Caps’ desperate need for another center who can create offense has never been clearer that it was Sunday inside CONSOL Energy Center.
Centers drive everything – from gaining the puck on faceoffs, to zone entries, to distributing the puck on offense, to manning the puck carrier on defense. With the exception of maybe a Henrik Lundqvist- or Tim Thomas-caliber goaltender, there is no player more important than an elite center.
The Capitals, even with Marcus Johansson in the lineup – which seems to be the only imminent addition before Tuesday’s date with the Stanley Cup Champion Bruins – are woefully thin at center.
Brooks Laich works hard, and is a great leader and role player. He’s not a scoring line center. Mathieu Perreault gives it his all on every shift, but simply isn’t big enough to withstand the toll of first-line center duty. He got crushed all over the ice on Sunday. Jeff Halpern can’t carry on this mirage as an upper-line center much longer, either.
When Backstrom is back, it will be less obvious, but the need will still be there.
If you look at the last four Stanley Cup Champions, the formula is simple.
The Red Wings had Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Pittsburgh had Malkin, Crosby, and Staal. Chicago had Jonathan Toews, Dave Bolland, and even Patrick Sharp. Boston literally had seven players in their forward corps who could play center well – Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, David Krejci – just to name a few.
Does anyone notice a pattern?
George McPhee has attempted to remedy this problem in the past by bringing in Jason Arnott and Eric Belanger, but the reality is that the Capitals haven’t had a true, solid, second line center since Sergei Fedorov jetted to the KHL in the summer of 2009.
Even the Carolina Hurricanes, who have been terrible all season, have two great centers in Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner. To nobody’s surprise, they were at the center of Carolina’s win on Friday night.
Despite all of these shortcomings, though, I still feel as though the playoffs are a high possibility because of Washington’s relatively weak division.
But unless McPhee learns from his mistakes a makes a deal to bring in a good center, life in the playoffs will likely end early once more.
Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Caps for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.