Capitals may be glossing over core problems even as they are winning

The Capitals are winning, but their needs on defense still need to be addressed. Photo: Alex Ovechkin/AP

WASHINGTON, November 14, 2013 — After a dismal start, the Washington Capitals have caught fire as of late, and are steadily pushing their way to the top of the Metropolitan Division. Since being embarrassed 5-2 by the Calgary Flames, the Caps have come out strong in the month of November, going 5-1-1 in their last seven, getting points in six of those games.

Alex Ovechkin has continued on his wild points streak, shutting up last season’s critics who had written him out of the best player in the NHL conversation. Joel Ward, who had been very quiet this season, has suddenly had a spark of greatness on the third line with Grabovski and Chimera. After spending much of October near the bottom, the Caps now sit one point out of first.

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Being the best in the Metropolitan Division is not as good as it may sound. The Metro an awful division. The Pittsburgh Penguins, despite a mediocre season by their usual standards, are winning almost by default. The Capitals hold on to second place as the only other team in the Division above .500, so that tells you something. For a team that was used to racking up regular season points against the pathetic Southeast Division, this is familiar territory, which should worry Caps fans who have been around since the beginning of the Ovechkin Era.

A strong regular season and an early playoff exit has been Washington’s calling card for the last five seasons. When the going is good, and the Great Eight & Co. are outscoring opponents, any issues the team should work on tend to get swept under the rug, only to rear their ugly heads in the post season. Not until last season’s miserable start did anyone really start to criticize the moves (or lack thereof) by GM George McPhee, or the fact that the defense could not keep the puck out of their own zone.

Perhaps, the Washington media focus too much on the silver lining when things are going well. Owner Ted Leonsis seems to think so, and even gave himself an “F” when it comes to running the team. As the team continues on the upswing, here are a few things they have neglected to fix.

Remember when Mike Green was nominated for a Norris Trophy? Since the back-to-back 70+ point seasons he had in 2009-2010, Green’s point total has dwindled. Yes, he has been hampered by injury, and yes, he still has one of the most dangerous shots from the point, but the Mike Green of 2013 is not the Mike Green that earned his enormous cap hit of just over $6 million per year.

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In the Oct 22 win over the Winnipeg Jets, Green was benched for the remainder of the third period after several gaffes and lackluster play. In the overtime win over Columbus, it was Green’s muff, and then lack of hustle that led to Cam Atkinson putting the Blue Jackets up by one in the third.

A solution to the Mike Green problem could be that you could go the Deryk Engelland route like the Pittsburgh Penguins and move him up to the wing, for which many pundits and fans have been calling. You could also put him on the market and hope to get a high return for him. Plenty of teams could use a puck moving defenseman who scores goals, but the Caps are not one of them. The Capitals are stocked with point-scorers, what they really need is stay at home defensemen who can clear out the crease and help Braden Holtby out in net.

On the topic of moving up defensemen, GM McPhee needs to make up his mind on Dimitry Orlov, the 6’1”, 22-year-old Russian defender who spends more time on the bus between Hershey and Washington than on the ice. Orlov has a lot of potential with the big club, but seems to just be a space filler when someone is injured. He could easily replace John Erskine, who, along with Green, could fetch a pretty solid return on the trade market. The Capitals’ D is still a weakness, but one that fans have been willing to overlook as the stars keep putting the puck in the net.

Finally, the Caps are playing catch up. A few seasons ago they were the comeback kids, overcoming huge third period deficits to win games in exhilarating fashion. That only works for so long, and the Caps cannot bank on that when the playoffs come.

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Only having lost twice when they score first, Washingon lost six when they trail first, winning four when they let up the first tally. Playing with the lead is never safe, nor should they get complacent when they are ahead, but it is a gamble to always be chasing the lead.

All things considered, there is no reason to panic if you are a Capitals fan. Head Coach Adam Oates has begun to deliver on his system, and it seems he is going more the Boudreau route of scoring points than the Dale Hunter defense first-style that was widely criticized by fans and players alike. However, if this team starts looking a little too much like Boudreau’s run and gun style that routinely got wiped from the playoffs, you may have some very valid concerns.


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Scott Huntington

Scott Huntington is a writer, reporter, blogger, and long-time hockey fan. When he is not watching hockey, he is playing music or spending time outside with his family. Scoot will be posting his thoughts on the NHL throughout the season and you can find him on Twitter @smhuntington

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