Picking Splinters: Caps’ Early Season Speaks Volumes

Through six games, the Washington Capitals stand 4-2-0, are averaging three goals per game and have received stellar starts from young goaltender Michal Neuvirth. What’s not to like? A lot.

Through six games, the Washington Capitals stand 4-2-0, are averaging three goals per game and have received stellar starts from young goaltender Michal Neuvirth. What’s not to like? A lot.

Start with consistent effort. From what I’ve seen so far, the Caps have yet to show the kind of 60-minute, 100-percent effort that wins a playoff game. And let’s be clear, winning in the playoffs is the only thing that matters to the Capitals this season.

After last season’s disappointment against the Canadiens, the questions hangs over the Caps like a Jaroslav Halak-shaped cloud: Can the Caps get it done in the postseason? You’ll hear those that will reply the only place that question can be answered is in the playoffs. I disagree.

That question is being answered now. And it’s being answered in a very negative fashion as the Caps have yielded the opening goal in four of their first six games. One of the two games they did get goal No. 1, they lost. They needed OT to beat a banged-up Islanders team at Verizon Center and frankly the Caps didn’t deserve to win that game.

Ironically, Tuesday’s loss to Boston may have been the team’s best effort to date. The Caps worked hard in both ends of the ice. Even Alexander Semin was throwing body checks, and at Milan Lucic at that. That said, it was still a loss.

It’s a long season, and yes, the playoffs are what really matter. But just like that old adage goes – “What you do in practice, you do in a game” – so too do I believe what you do in the regular season you do in the playoffs.

In terms of raw offensive talent, there is no team better than the Caps. None. It’s not even open to debate. But sometimes I think they get spoiled by their gifted goal scorers. Just take this season; they’ve fallen behind in four games and still put up a record of 4-2-0. It’s good to have the offensive ability to climb back from a deficit. It’s better not to be in a deficit in the first place.

The Caps need to learn they can’t just turn up the effort when they need to. Though it sometimes appears that the team lights the Verizon Center goal lamp with the ease of flipping a switch, it’s not always that easy. Goals don’t always come when you need them most, even against teams you severely out-class (see again: the Montreal Canadiens).

But on the positive side, a sustained effort level is about the only thing this team is lacking. Two of the Caps’ other biggest question marks have been positively answered thus far. D John Carlson appears to be making the transition well to full-time NHL duty. He hasn’t backed down from any of the physical play (He rushed to Marcus Johansson’s aid when the rookie was tackled by Devils’ tough guy Pierre-Luc Letoureau-Leblond.) and he currently leads the Caps in assists. That gives Washington two sweet scorers on the backline, with Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green being the other.

In the crease, Neuvirth has been sensational while Semyon Varlamov has dealt with an injury. Neuvirth’s save percentage is over .920 right now, and that probably doesn’t do him full justice. When the Caps have come out flat, the Czech goalie has been there to bail them out. He’s already stopped a ton of solid chances early this season … which brings us back to the first point.

The Caps shouldn’t need their rookie netminder to keep them in games against the Islanders. (And yes, I know the Islanders are off to a good start, but half their top scorers are out of action and they were hardly seen as a playoff team before that.) If the Caps are truly serious about taking a run at the Stanley Cup, they need to come to the rink with an edge every night.

If they continue the listless performances that have dotted the start of the schedule, there won’t be any question about whether or not this team is Cup-worthy. As the Montreal Canadiens proved last season, we already have the answer to that.