Reporting David Elfin
Baseball sage Yogi Berra wasn’t talking about the Caps when he issued his immortal quote, “It’s getting late, early,” but he certainly could have been.
They’ve only played six games, but in a lockout-shortened, 48-game season, one eighth of the campaign is already gone and Washington is in 14th place in the 15-team Eastern Conference with a 1-4-1 record. Only Florida, which is in the conference cellar, has scored fewer goals than Washington’s 13. And only the Panthers, with 24, have allowed more goals than the Caps’ 24.
Through Tuesday’s game, Washington ranked 12th in the East on the the power play, having scored on just four of 25 chances. The Caps were 14th at penalty-killing, having allowed nine goals in 30 shorthanded situations.
Two-time NHL goal-scoring champion Alex Ovechkin has put a single puck into the enemy net, putting the former Great Eight on an eight-goal pace and tying him with stay-at-home defenseman John Erskine, who until four days ago hadn’t scored since the final game of the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals sweep by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Ovi’s favorite set-up man, Nicklas Backstrom, doesn’t have a goal while All-Star defenseman Mike Green also only has one. Grinders Joel Ward (three), Matt Hendricks (two) and Joey Crabb (one) have half the goals scored by Washington’s forwards.
One of the few Caps who has been playing well is goalie Michal Neuvirth (2.96 goals-against average during the past four games), who didn’t even touch the ice in the first two games while 2012 playoff standout Braden Holtby struggled (5.04 goals-against).
Certainly much of the blame for Washington’s slow start can be blamed on the lockout which reduced training camp to just six days and eliminated preseason games as new coach Adam Oates tried to install his system, which is a cross between the offensive-focused approach of Bruce Boudreau and the defense-first scheme of Dale Hunter, who each coached the Caps last season.
Three of the other 29 NHL teams also have new coaches. However, Calgary’s Bob Hartley has nine years in command on his resume, including a Stanley Cup victory with Colorado. Montreal’s Michel Therrien hasn’t won a title but had seven years behind an NHL bench. Edmonton’s Ralph Krueger had never run an NHL team, but he had coached Switzerland’s national team for 13 years. And Krueger was an Oilers assistant the past two seasons so he knew the players and they knew him.
All of that makes the 50-year-old Oates the only true rookie coach since his season as an assistant with Tampa Bay and two with the New Jersey Devils were the extent of the Hall of Fame center’s coaching resume before this season. And the season will be a third complete before Oates has a fifth practice day that isn’t on the eve of a game. That gives him precious little time to really instill his system in his players’ minds the way they absorbed Boudreau’s over four years all of which finished with Southeast Division titles until the coach’s dismissal in November 2011.
Washington visits Toronto tonight before playing host to Philadelphia on Saturday night and Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon. None of those teams have winning records either, but the Caps weren’t good on the road last season (16-21-4) and are 0-3 away from home so far this year after blowing a 2-0 lead and losing 3-2 at Ottawa on Tuesday.
For what it’s worth, the Caps were 4-2-2 the past four seasons at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. And while Washington was bounced from the playoffs by Philadelphia in 2008 – in its first postseason series in five years – the Caps were 14-6-4 against the Flyers the past six seasons.
Although the Caps have notoriously lost seven of eight playoff series to the Penguins (most recently in 2009), they were a robust 12-1-3 against Sidney Crosby and Co. the past four seasons.
All of that history should give Washington veterans Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green confidence that they can launch a turnaround beginning tonight. In fairness, Washington’s past three games (1-1-1 with seven goals scored and eight allowed) were much better than its first three (0-3 with just six goals scored and 14 surrendered).
But if the Caps come out of the weekend still well below .500, their string of five straight seasons in the playoffs could begin to be in serious jeopardy. Under this compressed schedule, the first quarter of the season will be history a week from tomorrow and the first third will be complete by Feb. 21.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin