- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When the Washington Capitals are on, they’re a thing of beauty to watch.

Though you can say the same thing about most hockey teams, the Caps seem to take it to a wonderful extreme. Take the first goal of Tuesday night’s against the Winnipeg Jets.

Alex Ovechkin whipped the puck cross ice to Nicklas Backstrom, who instantly redirected it toward the net. Matt Hendricks was in perfect position. He popped it past Ondrej Pavelec and the Caps had a 1-0 lead.

Sadly for those who came out to Verizon Center to “rock the red” in this lockout-delayed home opener, the Capitals’ highlight reel from this one begins with that play and ends with that play. OK, and maybe a Backstrom pass to Troy Brouwer for a very late power-play goal. A few of seconds of beauty were mixed in with a long, messy night as the Jets left town with a 4-2 victory.

“We got a good start, got a goal. Penalties gave them life **** we kind of lost our momentum a little bit,” said Adam Oates, the Hall of Famer in his first season as the Caps’ coach.

“It’s going to be hard. We have to fight through that. Still, I thought we could have had better execution. We didn’t give ourselves the opportunity to play the team game. We turned it over at the blue line too many times. Just little subtle things that I thought we could have done better to help ourselves.”

A five-day preseason camp and zero exhibition games aren’t good situations for any team. Usually, teams get 20 days of preseason and seven practice games before the ones that count. So rust and other issues are going to be present (though Tampa and Winnipeg haven’t looked all that bad by comparison).

For the Caps, the situation may be worse than it is for most teams. Two of the players on their first two lines, Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolski, are new to the team. So is Oates, the coach. He’s the Caps’ third coach in 14 months, following Bruce Boudreau and the short reign of Dale Hunter. You can’t possibly get in synch with new teammates, with a new system, in such a short preseason.

Oates agreed, to a point.

“No question,” he said. “We’ve addressed it. We’re doing our best to get through it. I thought some of the mistakes out there weren’t the system. I think it’s more we have to look at ourselves.”

Hendricks, the Caps’ best player on Tuesday (and twice a fighter), agreed with that end of it.

“We’re not going to make that excuse now,” he said of all the “new” surrounding the Caps. “We’ve had a number of practices. In some instances, you can tell we’re not playing at the speed we want to play because we’re thinking too much. At the same time, we’ve had enough time to adapt to the changes and be ready to play.”

The list of problems seems long and the season is short, without a lot of time between games to try and fix things. Yes, even in a 48-game season, it is very, very early. No question there. But flags as red as the Caps’ jerseys are popping up everywhere.

Some players seem a tad out of shape. Only 10 players on the active roster played during the lockout. So prime conditioning will take time. But if you aren’t playing, don’t you have to figure on the lockout ending at some point and do whatever you can to get in as close to prime shape as possible?

The penalty kill is a mess. Through the first five periods of the season, the Caps were in nine short-handed situations. They gave up goals on five of them. The only word for that is ugly.

The defense, in particular, seems almost lost. John Carlson was caught out of position several times against Winnipeg. Against Tampa, the Lightning camped out players right in front of Caps keeper Braden Holtby way too often. He appeared to be screened on at least three of Tampa’s six goals.

Aside from that brief moment of beauty on their first goal against Winnipeg, the Caps’ offense hasn’t been brag-worthy either.

Early in the third period, Wolski whiffed on a shot and then got knocked on his can. Through the first two periods, Backstrom won only five of 17 faceoffs. He’s usually much better than that, and he has to be as the first-line center. Oates called out Marcus Johansson, who is on the first line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, in his postgame media session for “not skating.” Johansson played less than half as much as his linemates.

The Caps play at home again Thursday. And again Friday on the road. And back home Sunday. The games are coming fast and furious. A bad start can become a terrible start in no time.

“There’s 46 games to go. There’s plenty of points to be had,” Hendricks said. “We just need to get this train going in the right direction.”

Quickly.