1. 4.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Capitals’ Psychological Thread

Hockey is combat. Do not let anyone fool you. That means its success is subject to the effects of many intangibles. Let’s take, for instance, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals’ series. By all rights, the Caps are the favorites. They should, based on improvement in order of magnitude from last season to this one, be whipping the Rangers’ butts. And yet, they aren’t. Why? I think it speaks to a psychological thread that defines the overall character of team play.

What the heck is that? Since it is my phrase, I’ll define it as the manner in which the team as a whole knows how to win. In the case of the Capitals, their psychological thread as it relates to team play is completely different this season than it was at this time last year. Back then, they had just completed transformation from a 6-13-1 start into the most prolific comeback since the Lockout. By the time they ended the season 15-4-1 in their final 20 games to qualify for their first Playoff berth in years, Coach Boudreau had infused the team with a new attitude. They worked hard, as underdogs, and battled for each win.

That transformation became the very mindset and effort that was their normal way of doing all things Hockey as individuals and as a team. In my line of work, it is like going into combat for the first time, choking down the fact that you harbor thoughts that you could die in this business. Then you are fired upon in anger by the enemy for the first time and make it through successfully, which steels your personal confidence. The more you go out to do it, the more you learn to manage your personal emotions and actions to get the mission done – you learn a different character that is the sum of your efforts with your unit. That character continues to evolve into a collection of reflex feelings for your environment that you can sense either are, or are not, present. Once you have that thread ingrained, you automatically feel uncomfortable when your sense of normal is not present. It is as if a program is recorded in your brain and you play it in the background as a measuring stick of normalcy every time you go out on mission.

What is interesting here is the Capitals’ overall team play character this season is not the same one as last year. They have been VERY successful in comparison, and they play games as a team differently. Just take a look at how they played against the Rangers during the 2008/9 regular season:

They went 3-0-1 against the Blueshirts

In three of those four games, the Rangers scored first

In their three wins, the Capitals scored a pair of goals, beginning no later than the 11th minute of the 2nd period, and including at least one PPG

These facts speak to four characteristics of the Capitals’ team play when they stepped out onto the ice to play the Rangers in the regular season:

1) The team fed on the energy required to play comeback Hockey

2) They regularly pushed the tempo of the game in order to score early in a period

3) They gained confidence and elevated their level of play as they scored on the power play

4) And they ended the regular season not having lost to the Rangers in regulation time

That is the sum of their overall team play character going into this series with New York, and it is their tape recording – the psychological thread – of what is normal for Washington success when it comes to skating with the Rangers.

In Game 1 of this year’s playoffs, the Capitals scored first, on the power play, and at 6:40 of the second period. Seeking that thread indicating team success, ‘normal’ for the team would have been a second goal within a few minutes of play. Instead, 1:09 later the first Rangers’ goals was scored. It was followed by two more, both from the League’s 29th ranked power play in the regular season. In the words of The Robot from Lost In Space, “That does not compute.” The mental thread that tells Washington they will win was sending up alarm bells because it was not working, they were then forces to alter their normal output on the ice, but still could not quite get to the “W.”

In Game 2, the Rangers got that early 2-on-1 goal and the Capitals scored nothing through two periods. By the third period, they are again completely off their game and pushed until they began trying too hard to make things happen. And all of this with Lundqvist at the other end of the ice, standing as a living, breathing structure of frustration after you pushed through a tight checking, hard-hitting forward and defensive corps.

So how in this battle that is the Stanley Cup, do the Capitals find their thread and Win? In combat, we tell Soldiers to snap out of it, take stock of their surroundings, focus on where the ‘enemy’ is weak, and attack. It is also that easy – and difficult – for the Capitals to do. They are still four Wins away from the second round and are most likely in need of five games to make that happen. A combination of Coach Boudreau and key player leadership with a healthy dose of team confidence in their ability to Win is needed to snap them out of their funk, orient them toward where the Rangers are weak, and focus their attack.


Dov said...

There's just one thing wrong with these statistics. The Rangers were reborn when Tortorella arrived with a new system and a new attitude and right away three key players were added Antropov, Avery, and Morris.

Under Tortorella they changed for a trapping team who struggled to score more than one goal a game for more than a month, to a hard two-man forecheck with a D given the green light to pinch. Different as day and night. The goals started to come in bunches.

The result: Tortorella's win-loss average runs around .650 up from .500 which was Renney's after November. Going into the playoffs, they won three do or die games in a row in convincing fashion. Avery had given them an edge, a fighting spirt, as he did in the previous two years in the stretch run. Before that the team was dispirited. Antropov gave them size up front, which they didn't have, and a sniper, which they didn't have. Morris gave them stability on D, which they didn't have, bolstered by the firm coaching of Schoenfeld, which they didn't have.

The Caps had not played Tortorella's Rangers.

Henrik runs hot and cold but when he's hot, you have to crash the net. The Caps did not crash and they didn't even dress Brashear who could hang out in the crease and cause a commotion. A hot Henrik will stop everything he sees and blocking can stop a lot of the rest. Boudreau tried the same approach, which worked during the year for the Caps against other teams, in both games. But no team blocks 50 shots in two games during the regular season as the Rangers did to the Caps.

In the first game the Rangers did not have Drury so the lines were a hodgepodge and it's a wonder they even competed since they didn't get their forecheck going. But the Caps' D is the weak part and in both games the winning goals were scored by stripping the defence, which was expected by Ranger fans at least.

The one guy Rangers fans feared in the third period of the first game after they got they lead was Nylander. Tortorella put his shutdown checker Betts on him. Boudreau doesn't seem to know what he has in Nylander, who played in 8 minutes in that game and 10 the next. In the second game the Rangers had their regular centre rotation functioning. I didn't notice but I guess that Drury would be on him.

Two years ago Nylander was the heart of the Ranger offence, not Jagr. He got six goals and seven assists in 10 playoff games. They had a productive PP and Nylander made it go. When he left Jagr had a miserable year and missed modest quotas which would have won him a new contract, although he rose to the occasion in the playoffs. Nylander's style is east-to-west, slow motion, puck control in the offensive zone, give and go, give and go, weak side pass, deep and up, until there is a clear shot for someone. On the Caps he plays with third and fourth liners and has to maintain tempo. Total waste of this guy, especially in light of the fact that Ovechkin carries the puck not his centre and that makes it much easier to defend against Ovechkin.

In short Tortorella has outcoached Boudreau so far. This is the third year in a row the core of the team has won two games on the road to start a playoff, so they weren't intimidated by that challenge. Avery got under the skin of Kovalchuk and Brodeur, and this year he started on Green, but the guy is not playing well in any event.

The Rangers play much better at home. The record this year is comparable to the 94 team that won the cup. Does this mean the series is over? No, the Caps are much too explosive to even suggest that. But if they play the same way shoot, shoot, shoot without crashing the net, or try to find an open man for high percentage shots at least on the PP, then their chances of winning this series will not increase.

Big Tex said...

Wow - a good post AND a good response...and I think they're both right (and no, the fence is not a bad place to be sitting right now). Were I to distill Dov's post down to one sentence, it would be:

"The Caps had not played Tortorella's Rangers."

The Colonel's argument, meanwhile, is that the Caps' expectations for this series (or for individual games in this series) are based on their regular season success against the Rangers.

In short, you're both right: The Rangers changed coaches and made several key personnel changes at the trade deadline. As a result, they aren't the same team. Coach Boudreau and his team have been painfully slow (if you're a Caps fan; if you're a Ranger fan like me, it's been gloriously slow) to recognize the fact that they're not playing the same team. They wear the same sweaters, but they're not playing the way they "should". Put in military terms, the enemy has changed tactics, and the Capitals must now adjust their battle plan accordingly. Colonel, I'm sure you can relate, as we both know the U.S. military launched a conventional attack into Iraq in 2003, then had to quickly transition to counterinsurgency ops and civil affairs...a whole new ballgame, so to speak.

Coach Boudreau and the Caps are really up against it now, as they'll have to adjust their tactics on the road (and get the mental image of how the Rangers "should" play out of their heads), where the Rangers will have the advantage of the last line change. I'm looking forward to the next two games...

The Colonel said...

Dov - Your comments ar enot unappreciated at all. What I was attmepting to say was, correctly or incorrectly, the Caps have in their mind what a game looks and feels like that will lead to a win for them. If they can reproduce that look and feel when they meet the Blueshirts, then they will win.

The issue, as you said so well, is that this is NOT your 'Renny's Old Blueshirts' they played against all year. The Caps' pshychological thread that tells them how to beat this team is not correct in many respects. This being the case, they have to erase that tape, reevaluate what it will take to win, and ala Michael Jordan 'Just Do It.'

Thanks for your great comments, boys!

The Manic Ranger said...

Great post, but to sum things up in a few sentences, the Capitals don't have enough fight in them and have yet to match the Rangers desire to win IMO.

This wasn't so much the case in the first game where the Rangers gutted out a difficult win led by the great play of Lundqvist.

But game 2 was a different story. The Rangers did the little things to win the game that Capitals did not. They won the majority of the battles in the difficult areas of the ice and the and they sacrificed their body blocking shot after shot. Of course Lundqvist played great, but as a team the Rangers players showed a great desire for victory than the Capitals in that game IMO.

Despite all the fire power, the Caps are a young team and are inexerienced. As lacking the Rangers are in offensive, they have veterans who have been their before. The Caps are clearly frusterated right now and if they don't take a step back and evaluate their play, it's not going to be a good outcome for them.

Right now the Rangers have a higher battle level than the Caps. Plain and Simple.

BCCaps said...

Let me start by thanking the previous posters for their well thought out and eloquently worded responses. Not something I'm used to seeing on a web log.

In the first game, if Theodore stops the three goals that he should have, it's a 3-1 final for the Reds. In game two, I saw so many cross-ice and breakaway pass attempts I thought I was watching a midget game. Add the number of shots from way (waaaayyy) outside and Lundqvist stopping what little there was in real dangerous scoring chances and you get a 1-0 final.

Surely I wasn't the the only one screaming when I saw Green, Ovechkin, and someone else who's number I didn't catch watching Callahan drive hard to the net on the goal? Simply put: there is no excuse for that in playoff hockey if you expect to advance anwhere.

Let me finish with a couple of predictions for tonight's game (these are more like "requirements" if the Caps hope to turn this thing around because if I'm wrong, they're done)

1) Boudreau will go back to Theodore because Varlamov's only 20 and being in a playoff game in MSG is worse than going through the Nine Cirles of Hell. Plus, hopefully Theodore got the message.
2) As Dov suggested, Brashear will dress and park his butt in Lundqvist's face to try to get some net presence.
3) (I really hope I'm right on this one!) There will be a severe decrease in the number of low-percentage passes and shots from 40 feet out.

Judah said...

until the last paragraph i thought you were a ranger fan lol

D.Glasner said...

Great article and great responses.

At this point in the series, the Rangers definitely hold the edge. Up 2-0, riding the back of a very hot goalie, and going to your home ice is always a great place to be.

Two important things that haven't been mentioned:

1. Playoff experience. The Rangers definitely hold a big advantage here. This team made the playoffs each season since the lockout; Tortorella is a Cup winning coach; Drury and Gomez are playoff regulars who know what it takes to win; even Redden and Roszival are playoff-tested veterans (and they're showing it with their shut-down play). The Capitals just don't have the same experience, and it really does make a difference when you're out to win every game. The pace is different, the intensity is different, and I just haven't seen it from Washington yet.

2. MSG. When Madison Square Garden gets rocking, it's a tough place to play. The Rangers thrive on their home ice with their fans behind them. It's loud and intense (often times obnoxious and vulgar), and the fans are unforgiving. I don't think Washington is really accustomed to playing in that environment, and MSG is going to be an important factor over the next two games. The Rangers will be even more motivated to give New York fans a win.

Of course, the Caps are far from out of this series. Ovechkin/Semin/Backstrom/Green are ticking time bombs - they're great players ready to go off and score anytime. The offensive prowess of Washington didn't just disappear; the skill and players are all still there, it's just a matter of them getting playoff style hockey right.

For the Rangers, they've gone back to playing a tight, grind-it-out style of hockey. They can't afford to make mistakes, because like it or not, their offense still isn't living up to its needed potential. Lundqvist needs to continue to be near-perfect. He's got the stuff to keep it up, and he's definitely one of the top goalies in the game today - but he can go cold just as fast as he goes hot. His focus is equally important to his rebound control for the next two games.

If Theodore is indeed back in net tonight, he could be a huge x-factor. There are nights when he's unflappable, but then some nights he looks like swiss cheese (pardon the cliche). His benching could either motivate him or shake him up even more. We won't see til tonight.

For the Rangers, they need their 'big guns' to step up on offense. Scoring 1 goal is not enough to get by, even with Lundqvist starting. Now is the perfect time for the offense to start living up to its paycheck; on home ice riding a wave of confidence, I really wouldn't be surprised to see it happen.

Prediction: Rangers 3 - Washington 2 (OT)