Are the Capitals Peaking Too Soon?

Benjamin BenyaCorrespondent IIFebruary 11, 2010

The hottest team in the NHL lost its first game in nearly a month Wednesday night. If you’ve been keeping up with your fair share of hockey, you have noticed the incredible win streak of the Washington Capitals, a dominant franchise on the rise in an Eastern Conference lacking surefire identity.

It figures that Washington’s first loss in a stretch of 14 consecutive victories came in overtime after the Caps trailed 5-2 entering the third period. There are a scant few hockey clubs that possess the explosive potential the Capitals do this season, and it would be easy to predict Washington’s Stanley Cup contention.

All that said, Caps fans still have a lot to worry about, as do opponents, if the league’s hottest and best team wants to continue the streak.  Let’s take a look at the main concerns for the clear favorite in the 2009-2010 season:

Streaky Streaks

The Capitals are the latest in a long line of NHL teams in the post-lockout era that put together a miraculous and dominant string of victories en route to a major playoff push.

Everyone remembers the unlikely run of the Edmonton Oilers, a team that sat in eighth place in the Western Conference after just barely edging out Vancouver in 2005-2006. Edmonton would go on to blaze a trail into the Stanley Cup Finals as the first eight seed to ever do so before falling in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes.

The following season, it would be the New York Rangers, led by a trade for Sean Avery, that would go from the outside to serious contention. New York went 17-6-6 with Avery in the lineup down the stretch, ascending to an Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the heavily favored Buffalo Sabres. Had not it been for then Buffalo captain Chris Drury and seven seconds on the clock, we may be talking about an even more successful New York season.

In the 2007-2008 season, it would be San Jose and the Capitals themselves who separate from the rest of the crowd.  San Jose entered the postseason at a blistering pace, ascending from Western Conference mediocrity to top of the charts over the final 20 games. The Capitals, meanwhile, pulled of an incredible turnaround that saw them win the Southeast Division after starting 6-14-1. However, both teams tailed off when the preliminary rounds completed.

In the 2008-2009 season, the St. Louis Blues, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Carolina Hurricanes got so hot that they unthinkably earned playoff bids. While both St. Louis and Columbus were extinguished quickly, Carolina managed to upset both Boston and New Jersey en route to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.

If you haven’t noticed, one thing all of these teams had in common is their eventual evaporation of talent and drive when it came to crunch time. Only the Oilers, in a game seven situation, truly sat on the presuppose of greatness due to their streak. All of these other teams fell apart when the pressure was on, a sign that they simply didn’t stack up when the streak cooled down.

Further compounding this trend is the fact that Washington, far and away the best club in the NHL, has put its streak together before most teams are even talking playoffs. The aforementioned streak teams were all underdogs in their own right. Washington’s current dominance leads one to believe that it is anything but a long shot.

Goalie?  What Goalie?

Washington’s goaltending battle was one of the most talked about topics in the offseason of 2009, yet surprisingly, with 20 games left in the current season, the picture is more convoluted than it was at the onset.

Jose Theodore, the only proven star in the pipes, has posted 20 wins and a decent overall record, but his goals against average (2.94) and save percentage (.906) are inflated by comparison to other starters in the league.

Semyon Varlamov, who shined in the early 2009 playoffs before completely imploding appears to be doing more of the same in the regular season. His 12-1-2 record is easily one of the best marks in the entire league, but injuries and personal problems have seen the Russian star bounce back and forth from Hershey of the AHL to the big leagues. It doesn’t help that Varlamov leads the team in all major goaltending categories (with the exception of wins).

Third goalie Michael Neuvirth has seen extended time with injuries taking their toll, but even he is lost in the shuffle with a 9-4 record in 16 starts. Neuvirth was pulled during Wednesday night’s loss to the Montreal Canadiens. Neither he nor Theodore has recorded a shutout this season.

The "Great 8" Doesn’t Play Defense

Something may indeed be wrong with you if you don’t believe that Alex Ovechkin is the most exciting player to watch in the NHL. His 42 goals and 46 assists in 52 games makes you wish he hadn’t missed eight games due to injury. He has one of the scariest shots in the NHL and plays the entirety of the power play, giving penalty killers no rest. His conditioning is grueling and his attitude is infectious.

But Ovechkin’s faults are becoming more obvious as time, and the scoreboard, will show. Ovie has picked up the same personality traits that once belonged to Pavel Bure (and many Russian superstars). He skates along the blue line when his team is playing in the defensive zone. His constant reliance on the breakout play is what makes him so exciting, yet also a defensive liability to a team that is winning games by tallies of 6-5 and 5-4 (and that’s just in the last week). 

When Ovie does get in on the action along the boards with his defenders, he generally takes penalties. Not only does he lead the team in goals and points, but also penalty minutes this season. While much of that is the nature of his play, his attempts to force the big play have led to penalties that are subject to suspension, like the incident in November with Carolina’s Tim Gleason. He’s an awesome specimen to watch play, but that’s only in the offensive zone.

The Defense Doesn’t Play Defense

Washington’s offense has scored 39 more goals than any other composite offense in the NHL, a feat that alone stands as astounding. But on the defensive side of the puck, the Caps lack certainty with a shutdown style superstar. Mike Green continues to develop into one of the NHL’s top defenders, but his style of play is more like Sergei Zubov than it is Nicklas Lidstrom. He’s the star amidst a group of mid-carders than include Jeff Schultz, Tom Poti, John Erskine, and Shaone Morrisonn.

Washington’s best defensive defender is Milan Jurcina, or at least he was before he was dealt alongside former captain Chris Clark for, get this, another forward in Jason Chimera. Most of these defenders are past the point in their careers at which they could improve that aspect of their games, so it is all on Green to become the two-way superstar. That is, unless all of the other defensemen turn in Rob Scuderi-esque performances when the playoffs begin.


The Olympic Factor

Nearly every team in the NHL will have to deal with the two-week break in league play for something slightly more prominent. Washington, who despite losing on Wednesday has still won 17 of its last 19 games, probably won’t be enjoying the hiatus when its players enter the most competitive environment of their lives.

Washington will send five players to the Olympics representing three of the top five teams in the 12-team pool. Forward Tomas Fleischmann will represent the Czech Republic, Nicklas Backstrom will headline in Sweden, and Ovechkin, alongside Alex Semin and Semyon Varlamov, are set to showcase their talents for Russia. In what is easily the most competitive crop of teams in Olympic history, all five players will be playing an enduring schedule sure to take its toll on their stamina. 

The Caps are sending their top three forwards, best statistical goaltender, and an important role player into Olympic competition just as they hit their best winning streak in franchise history. With all of their respective teams expected to go deep into Olympic bracketing, the demands are increasingly more difficult to manage. When the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in the same season as the 2006 Olympics, the team featured zero gold medalists.