Talking Capitals with Russian Machine Never Breaks

The Baltimore sports scene is blessed with a bunch of talented bloggers who bring their unique perspective to the conversation. Each week, I hope to chat with one of them in a regular feature called Blogger on Blogger. This week, we exchanged emails with Peter Hassett, who blogs about the Washington Capitals for Russian Machine Never Breaks.

MV: The first couple of months of the season were not friendly to the Capitals, but they have been playing well in recent weeks and with four straight wins have climbed to the top of the Southeast Division. What do you think has been the biggest reason for the turnaround?


PH: That's an easy one. It's Alex Ovechkin. Judging by his shot totals, Ovechkin seems to have gotten comfortable with his position at right wing and his reunion with Nick Backstrom at center. Playing with Ribeiro, a talented player but one who doesn't really drive play, was probably hurting him before.

The power play is another big factor. Eight of Ovechkin's goals in the last month came from five-on-four hockey. The Capitals' power play is ranked first in the league -- thanks to some pretty lucky bounces and Ovechkin's great shot from the left circle.


Before Ovi heated up, the Caps were a 1-in-10 chance to make the playoffs. Then Ovechkin scored 16 goals and 23 points, and now the team is about 80 percent. Ovechkin is the team's MVP, and he might be a candidate for the Hart Trophy come season's end.

MV: With 16 goals in 14 games, Alex Ovechkin is back to playing like he is one of the very best players in the world. Is the puck just bouncing his way of late or have you noticed a change in his game?

PH: Both, and that's a good thing! In the last 10 games, Ovechkin is scoring on about one out of every four shots, which is about twice his normal clip. That percentage is not sustainable, so he has probably been getting a good deal of puck luck -- particularly while on the power play.

But Ovechkin is definitely shooting more than he has in the past, and that is even more encouraging than his goal totals. Ovi has always been one of the league's most prolific shooters, averaging about five shots on goal a game, but he had cooled off in recent years. Since March 14th, Ovechkin has fired more than his career average in nine of the last 14 games -- including breaking into double-digits at Buffalo on March 30.

Thanks to Adam Oates' coaching and the dependability of Nick Backstrom, Ovechkin should be able to sustain this level of shooting. Even if his puck luck returns to normal, he might be able to win the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals this year.

MV: What are your thoughts on the one major move the Capitals made at the trade deadline, sending one of their top prospects in Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators for forward Martin Erat?

PH: Martin Erat is a great player who (if healthy) makes the team much better, but the move seems to reflect an overestimation of this team's ability to win right now. The Caps certainly need more scoring talent, but they'll need a great many more things if they're to become a contender for the Cup. Erat alone does not do the trick, so I'm wary.

To me, the trade meant that the Caps cared more about becoming a nominal playoff team this year than building an even better team for the future. Two years ago, Caps owner Ted Leonsis said he expected the Capitals to make the playoffs every year for the next decade. If they hadn't made (or do not make) the postseason this year, there might be pressure on George McPhee's job. This trade may have given him job security (although Ovechkin's scoring streak has given him much more), but I don't think it's in the best long-term interest of the team.


MV: Braden Holtby had an up-and-down start, but the young goalie has been very solid down the stretch. Are you confident he can replicate the strong showing he had in last year's postseason?

PH: No. Holtby's save percentage in the 2011-2012 playoffs was the 15th best of all time (among goalies who played 10 games or more in the playoffs). I am confident that Holtby is an above-average goalie, but a .935 save percentage is not something we should expect from him with any regularity. Instead of depending on Holtby to put forth a god-like performance like that, the Caps will have to encourage more scoring.

MV: Assuming the Caps make the playoffs -- as well as they are playing, I know that still isn't a totally safe assumption at this point -- how far do you think this team is capable of going in the playoffs?

PH: Unfortunately, not far. The best way to predict a team's future success is puck possession -- the percentage of shot attempts that go towards the opponent's net. The Caps are still in the bottom third of the league with a lowly 46.51-percent score (using a stat called Fenwick Close). Cup contenders are almost always above 50 percent. Further, the Caps have a pretty poor win record against teams that aren't in the Southeast Division, plus they're not exactly raking in goals from anyone not named Alex Ovechkin. A superior puck-possession team that smothers Alex Ovechkin will be able to beat the Caps.

That said, Washington could get lucky and slip through the first round if they pull a weak team like Toronto as their opponent, but it doesn't look like a long playoff run is in the cards this year. I hope I'm wrong!

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