The Washington Capitals finished up the first half of their season on Tuesday night the exact way they started it, with a loss to a divisional foe.
Although the capitals did manage to earn a point for the 1-0 overtime loss to the first place Tampa Bay Lightning, they dropped to second in the Southeast division.
The Lightning served notice to Washington that this will not be another run away division title for the Capitals this year.
They also made it clear that they do not intend to stand pat, acquiring veteran goalie Dwayne Roloson from the Islanders for a Stanley Cup Run.
The Lightning aren't the only team in the division that could challenge the Caps for the Southeast crown
While the Capitals trail the Lightning by just one point for first place the Atlanta Thrashers trail Washington by just two points for second place.
The ramifications of a third place finish would be great. Third pace would mean a seed no higher than sixth and if another losing streak takes hold a seventh or even an eighth seed could be possible.
If that happens, I'm not so sure that anything less than a Stanley Cup appearance would bail GM George McPhee and Head Coach Bruce Boudreau out, allowing them to return next season.
There are still 41 games to play. Many of the games in the second half will have playoff type atmospheres to them. This could turn out to be a plus for the Capitals. They have yet to be tested for an entire season under Boudreau.
Last year the Flyers played playoff type hockey for the last month of the regular season. They made the playoffs on the last day of the season in a shootout win against the Rangers.
The experience payed off for a young Flyers team. Philadelphia parlayed a tough last month into a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. While they didn't win they are sure to go deep again this spring.
The Capitals point totals are virtually the same in the standings compared to the last two seasons. Through 41 games this season the Capitals have 52 points which is just three points less than they had through 41 games last season and five points less than two season ago.
However, it is a "less than" situation and that's not the improvement many Capitals fans expected this season. Many fans tolerated the gut wrenching seven game playoff losses on home ice the last two years, chalking it up to youth and inexperience and hoping they were learning from losing.
This has to be the year that all of it pays off or changes will occur.
The Capitals, under Boudreau have never been in a dog-fight for a division title for what looks to be an entire season this year.
Last year after 41 games both the Thrashers and Lightning trailed Washington by 12 points and two years ago the Caps began to pull away from the Carolina Hurricanes leading them by five points at the halfway point.
The Capitals are still young and still learning to deal with adversity.When Boudreau took over in Washington midway through the 07-08 campaign he led the Capitals as a Cinderella team from behind, winning the Southeast division title on the last day of the regular season.
They have been in first place almost wire to wire for two and a half straight seasons. That has all changed and the Capitals may be a better playoff team because of this up-coming experience.
What will happen in the second half? Will the Capitals do as Tampa did and acquire a veteran net-minder? Will Alexander Semin be re-signed or traded? All of these questions will be answered in the next 41 games.
Ted Leonsis, George McPhee and Bruce Boudreau have just as much work to do off of the ice as they do on it.
The Capitals, in my opinion are still the best team in the Southeast division. They have improved in many areas and have slipped in some. Here are my first half grades for the 23-12-6, second place Washington Capitals.
Vice President and General Manager George McPhee’s strategy in rebuilding this team has been concise and crystal clear from day one. The Capitals wanted to be big and North American on the blue line and fast and European up front and in the net. For the most part that’s what the Washington Capitals are.
McPhee has a lot on this line this season. His all in approach of drafting the European style hockey player may have hit a glitch. European players do not traditionally lead NHL locker rooms and leadership in the locker room is an issue is Washington.
The veteran for the "player’s only meetings" doesn't seem to be there and while Alexander Ovechkin leads with his play, he doesn't have the "it" a leader possess on a professional sports team.
Sure Ovechkin has glitz and glamour and he can put up points like no other at times but no one in that locker room stepped up during the eight game losing streak. HBO provided a firsthand look right into the dressing room. No one stood up to try and rally the troops.
The acquisition of defenseman Scott Hannan at the end of November was a good first step but it has to be just that, a first step in a series of necessary moves before the end of March.
Many fans have written me saying that the Capitals are just fine, nothing should happen, leave the team alone. I remind them that the definition of insanity is to expect different results doing the same thing over and over. If the Capitals enter the post season with this roster they are sports isanity.
McPhee knows the last two playoff appearances weren't just learning experiences. They were the start of another miserable playoff trend in Washington, a trend that must end this spring.
McPhee has done a great job of tearing this team down and building it back up. His future may just rest on one or two more moves he either does or doesn't make.
FRONT OFFICE MID SEASON GRADE: B
Boudrea will get a chance to lead Washingto to the Stanley Cup
Bruce Boudreau is an astounding 164-68-34 in three and a half seasons behind the bench for the Capitals. He wins almost 62 percent of his games and if you travel back to his minor league coaching days that percentage pushes to almost 70.
Everyone knows in hockey it's not just about the regular season, it's the post season in the NHL that builds your reputation, both as a player and a head coach.
With that said Boudreau has a long way to go. He is a paltry 13-15 in the postseason and his Capitals have lost three game sevens, all on Verizon Center ice.
Boudreau did a decent job of coaching during the eight game losing streak this season. That was his first real test of regular season adversity and I thought he handled the situation well. He fielded the question of his own job security on a few occasions and handled it correctly and professionally.
He was a disciplinarian when he needed to be and a player’s coach when the team needed that from him.
With that said, the Capitals will be locked in a tough season long battle for the division title and how Boudreau handles the fight may give some clues into this post season.
There is a lot of talent on this hockey club and many say that this year's version is underachieving and not by a little bit. There is plenty of time to fix the issues but they may not all be easy fixes and some of what’s broken may just be his fault.
Boudreau loves to experiment with his lines. Experimenting with his lines like he does can cause confidence problems and instability resulting in a lack of focus. The Caps do not always start games quickly, falling behind early in a lot of contests.
While he does have that mix flowing on lines three and four it's nowhere to be found on lines one or two and the Caps are paying the price offensively.
He has made the right calls in net so far this season, getting the most out of his 22 year old goal-tenders. A lot of the successes Semyon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth are experiencing can be attributed to goaltending coach Artus Irbe. Irbe has done a great job in working with and correcting deficiencies in their game.
Boudreau, barring any more substantial losing streaks, will get a shot to lead the capitals to a Stanley Cup this season. If Boudrea continues to win at a clip of 62 percent than the Caps will finish with somewhere between 100 and 106 points, which should still be good enough for a one, two or three seed.
Either way, the second seed in the Eastern Conference finished with 103 points last season.
Boudreau has a good supporting cast with Assistant Coaches Dean Evason, Bob Woods, Blaine Forsythe and Artus Irbe but the point total has decreased from the last two seasons at this point in the season and that drops the grade.
COACHING GRADE: B-
The Capitals had the best power play in the NHL last season, scoring 79 goals, nine more goals with three less chances than the Flyers, which had the second most goals on the power play last season.
The Capitals dominated with the extra man scoring 25 percent of the time, four percent higher than the second best finisher, the Montreal Canadians.
Then it happened, the Canadians showed up in the first round of the playoffs and held the Capitals to just one power play goal in 18 chances .The Caps power play hasn't been the same since.
This year the Caps are ranked 13th with the extra man and falling. They have just 28 goals on 151 chances for only 18.5 percent. Not good considering the fire power.
The fire power may be the problem. Alexander Ovechkin always plays for most of the two minute advantage and the other forwards and defenseman on the ice seem to be forcing the issue to Ovechkin.
It may be time to cut his minutes with the extra man and instead of forcing a pass in the slot to Ovechkin the Caps may need to start working the net and the inside part of the circles, screening the goalies more.
This is just to jump start a struggling unit and when Ovechkin starts to find the back of the net more increase his minutes on the power play again, if it's necessary.
The penalty kill has dominated in being ranked fourth in the league. The Caps kill 85.4 percent of all short handed situations. They are also tied for seventh with five shorthanded goals so far this season.
This is a remarkable improvement from last season when Washington finished the year ranked 25th.
It's "Freaky Friday" with these two units. It sure is a good thing that the penalty kill improved because could you imagine where the Caps may be with this kind of drop in offensive production on the power play
The grades balance out and the Caps are always a threat to score from anywhere at any time five on five, five on four with an improved penalty kill gives this group a solid B
SPECIAL TEAMS GRADE: B
The Capitals took a major chance this year and began the season with the youngest goaltending tandem in the NHL. Rookie Michael Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov are both just 22 years old.
Neuvirth began the season as the number one guy by default. Varlarmov was injured battling groin issues. Neuvirth played very well to start, winning 12 of his first 15 games while posting a .945 save percentage and a goals against of just 2.26.
Neuvirth, like the rest of his team had his struggles in December but in 26 official appearances this season Neuvirth is 14-6, with 2.56 goals against average and a .911 save percentage
There are quite a few rookie net-minders making an impact in the NHL this season. Neuvirth is tied with Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky in games played and is in the top 4 in both Goals against and save percentage.
The veteran of the two is the third year Russian Semyon Varlamov. As stated Varlamov started the season injured playing just two games from the start of the season until late November.
Varlamov has been streaky when he's played consistently. He's posted winning streaks of four and three games and has also lost four in a row at one point.
Varlamov has played in 14 games and has very stingy 2.08 goals against average. His save percentage is .928 while posting a 7-4 record.
My guess is by the trade deadline one of these young goaltenders will be dealt. Varlamov's regular season has mirrored his post season. He seems to win a few in a row, then lose a few and is 0-2 in game seven's.
Neuvirth is a candidate for rookie of the year and while with the Hershey Bears, the Caps top minor league affiliate went 30-10, winning two AHL championships in two post seasons.
Neuvirth is a winner and many will say it was only in the AHL he won his championships. I say you can only win a championship if you’re playing for one and Neuvirth was spectacular in winning two.
Caps goal-tending coach and former NHL great Artus Irbe wants just one guy to step up and be the number one goalie, for now it appears to be Varlamov.
My pick is to trade a hot Varlamov and acquire a good veteran goalie for a Stanley Cup run.
Without a proven veteran in the net the Caps have last year and the year before to look forward to this spring but that's in the spring. They have both done a good job for the Caps.
GOALIES GRADE: B+
Caps Defenseman John Carlson
The Capitals defensive unit doesn't quite look like it did back in the mid to late 80's but they are a rapidly improving bunch. The defense, in my opinion has been the top unit on the team this season.
While this group did struggle early, surrendering a few two and three goal leads late in games, they have buckled down and have begun to mature.
They are ranked eighth in goal against per game with a 2.54 average and are 11th in total goals allowed with 104. The eight defenseman listed on the active roster are a plus 20 as a group for the season.
The Capitals have given up nine fewer goals this season than they did through 41 games last year. They have surrendered five or more goals four times compared to seven last year at this time.
The acquisition of Scott Hannan along with Tom Potti gives the Capitals a nice mix of veteran leadership combined with a plethora of young defenseman.
Mike Green still just 25, is improving his defensive game almost nightly and when healthy is starting to beat teams in a lot of ways.
Green can still be very frustrating to watch. He is making better decisions with passes in his own end and is more responsible about when to jump into the play. He must get more physical in front of the net but his plus seven rating is a good sign.
Aside from Green the Caps have three more very gifted blue liners under 25.
John Carlson (20) is tied with Brooks Laich as the Caps +/- leader with a plus 11. Carlson leads all NHL rookies in that category.
Carlson is a candidate for rookie of the year and coupled with the play of last year’s +/- leader in the NHL, Jeff Schultz (24) Washington has a nucleus that will be around for many years to come.
Carlson and another rookie defenseman, Karl Alzner (22) are one of only six Caps to play in all 41 games this season.
Aside from playing an improved defensive game Washington still uses their defenseman to pinch down deep, creating plays. Green and Carlson have a combined 11 goals and 24 assists for 35 points.
The Capitals have had to rely on their defense much more than they thought this season and thank goodness they have responded. This unit has played great and is getting better.
Yes I said great Caps fans, if you haven't noticed then you haven't been watching the Capitals
DEFENSE GRADE: A-
While the defense has been a pleasant surprise the offense has been an utter disappointment. Defensively the Caps have given up nine fewer goals this season and it's a good thing because the offense has scored 27 fewer goals than this time last year.
That is a substantial difference in offensive production. Almost 39 percent less offensive production would destroy most teams.
Well this is not most teams and that stat may speak more to just how dominating the offense was last season, instead of a knock against this season’s offense.
Make no mistake it’s a problem that must be fixed but somewhere in between last season and this season would be a good place for the Caps to be right now.
Still the lack of productivity can be pointed to the Capitals top four point scorers. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green.
Ovechkin has just 14 goals after 41 games this season compared to 30 after 41 last year and 27 after 41 the year before. The big four all have fewer goals than they did this time last year. In fact, the four stars combined have 23 fewer goals than this time last season.
This is no longer a slump for Ovechkin or the Capitals offense. Somebody has written the book on how to stop them and Boudreau better find the cliff notes before April.
The play of the third and fourth lines is the only reason this group doesn't fail. In the last five Washington victories they have scored 17 goals and Alexander Ovechkin has only two of them and one was an empty net goal.
Alexander Semin is either playing hurt or doesn’t care it’s a contact year. He hasn't scored a goal in 13 games, dating back to November 28th and has just ten points since November 20th.
I know it's a team game but where would the Caps be without surprise contributors like Mathieu Perreault or Marcus Johansson? In big deep trouble sitting well behind the Tampa Lightning is where the Caps would likely be right now.
The Caps are still a dangerous team and could change course at any time. Until this happens this offense has way underachieved.
OFFENSE GRADE- D
If the Washington Capitals are doing anything other than playing for Lord Stanley's Cup in June than it will be another long off-season in the Nation’s Capital.
Many of you have dismissed the notion that Washington will not trade one of its young net minders or even Alex Semin before the deadline. I say non-sense, if they don't then I will say I told you so when they are playing golf in May.
The Capitals may be handcuffed as to whom they can acquire if they do not trade some salary out of Washington. The Caps have about 1.5 million under the cap. Semin makes about six million.
Try this on for size Caps fans. McPhee should shop Alexander Semin, Semyon Varlamov and with the depth of youth at the blue line, Mike Green.
What would it hurt McPhee to see what he could get for the three of them, either together or separately.
It wouldn't matter if it was Neuvirth or Varlamov but a definite veteran goalie presence is needed for a deep playoff run.
The goalie doesn't even have to be the number one guy. Just a guy that can be counted on to win a few games while a young net minder picks himself up and dusts himself off. A veteran guy that could be counted on in the playoffs if the young guys couldn't be trusted.
What about trading for another decent scoring forward that may not score like Ovechkin has or can but can put up some points and wear the "A" while throwing his body around similarly to that of the guy that wears the "C".
A forward that can win face-offs in late May with a game 6 and the series on the line without blinking an eye. A guy that has big time leadership abilities is what the Capitals are in desperate need of for the second half.
How about one more veteran defenseman, about 30-32 years old who has a good amount of post season experience and would prove to be a good leader in the dressing room as well. A good +/- guy that can kill penalties with the best of them in the league.
None of this sounds like too much to ask for does it? Giving up Semin, Varlamov and possibly Green could get the Caps this and a whole lot more if McPhee were willing.
Theses guys don't have to be great, they should come with a decent set of skills considering what we would give up.We just need good character guys that play hard and know how to win games in the spring.
Some will say I'm crazy but in the words of former President Clinton, I've seen the state of the union on this team and it is good, not great and great is what it takes to win 16 extra games from mid April til mid June.
FINAL OVERALL FIRST HALF GRADE- B-