So ends the first month of the 2010-11 NHL season. Standings-wise things aren't exactly where we thought they'd be. But they surely could be a lot worse...just ask the New Jersey Devils. But things with the Caps still aren't quite where most of us figured they would around this time. I've followed this team for over 30 years and I've learned one thing about them, no matter who wears the uniforms--expect a lot of twists and turns.
Case in point--looking at last year's playoffs we all thought that one weakness the Caps would never shake was their gosh-awful penalty killing, right? Well look at them now! Perfect in their first five games, then stumbled badly in the home-and-home against Boston, but have since recovered well enough to place fourth in the league. Their kill success rate is a stunning 90.2 percent, far better than the 78.8 rate turned in last season. The key has been the new strategy of forcing the play and rotating the units out after short shifts. Faceoff artist David Steckel and sparkplug Matt Hendricks have been part of the new found success.
Now for the flip side. The one thing we could count on from this team was their offense and, on top of that, their murderous power play. The offense has has two truly great games where it took over, but has otherwise either sputtered or looked very ordinary at times. Mike Knuble in particular hasn't been playing particularly well and is now spending time off the top line. His net presence, especially on the power play, is part of what this team needs to regain its offensive dominance.
Speaking of the power play, they are now firing at a lethargic clip of 16.7 percent, good enough for the exact middle of the NHL pack. If you can believe it, this is actually better than how they started the year, failing to score at all in the first several games. The recent explosion in Calgary is hopefully a preview of coming attractions. Truly it is a wonderful thing to see Alex Ovechkin bury two with the man advantage in under a quarter of a minute.
All of this adds up to one heck of an identity crisis for a team known last year as the offensive terrors of the league. But is this a bad thing? I say it doesn't have to be. We as Caps fans seem to all be agreed that how they win is just as important as if they win. In their seven wins this year we've seen variety fit for multiple personalities:
--Two blowout victories, one against New Jersey, the other against Calgary.
--A back-and-forth nail biter capped by an OT goal from Tomas Fleischmann against Atlanta.
--Alex Ovechkin plays one of the worst games of his career against Ottawa, yet wins the game in OT.
--A lucky shot win off Nick Backstrom's skate against the Islanders with time dwindling in the game.
--Sleepwalking through 30 plus minutes against Nashville only to come from behind and win again in OT.
and of course...
--Their best and most complete effort thus far, a 60-minute masterpiece against Carolina in the Canes' home opener. Michal Neuvirth shines brightest, turning back everything for his first career shutout.
In only two of those seven wins did they overpower their foes with their vaunted offense. The rest can be chalked up to solid penalty killing, timely goals, surprisingly above-average defensive play at times and, above all, world-class goaltending. So have they proven that they don't need their offense to spot them a huge lead from the off? Maybe not yet, maybe it's too early to tell, but the body of work seems to point towards that conclusion. While the offense hasn't been consistent, there has been one element to the Caps efforts that has been. Something that has served as an anchor, no matter how badly some games might have gone.
Which brings us to who I believe to be their best overall player--Michal Neuvirth. It's no coincidence that he has been named rookie of the month for October. He's not a forceful presence like Olie Kolzig was, nor is he overly flashy, but his consistently stellar play and calm demeanor in net has gotten the job done. Game in, game out, win or lose, the Caps seem to have grown very comfortable and confident with him in goal.
Let me take this opportunity to make a complaint. If you go over to Japers Rink you can take a look at the Caps' roster which includes a scouting report on each player. Without going into too much detail here, let me just say that I completely disagree with whoever at SB Nation wrote the report on Neuvirth . I can't say as I can understand what they're talking about when they discuss his "flaws."
Perhaps the first 10 games in a season is still a bit early to anoint a player as one of the league's best and a team's most valuable player. Maybe that's what they meant by "work in progress." But combine his performance this year with the pedigree he's built in the AHL and his results from last year with the big club and I say there's cause to believe that Neuvirth has finally arrived. In the shaky environment that Caps' hockey can be sometimes, he's been their steadiest performer--the only constant. He gives them a chance to win every night and honestly what more can you ask on this team? If he can keep this up, and there's no reason to think that he can't, there just might be something to celebrate at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the rest of the team's overall play will round out. I'm optimistic, but only guardedly so. There are still a few questions to answer, mainly involving team depth. The Caps are already having to weather a storm of injuries that have called that depth into question. Something will need to be done to address that. This something needs to be done sooner rather than later, if only for the sake of chemistry. A little bit of better health and a lot more consistency should be the recipe that carries this team to another division title and hopefully more success in the playoffs.
One month, seven wins. Five months to get to April and the playoffs. About forty more wins should do the job. This is a team that can do it. They just need to make it happen.