Analysis: Washington Capitals can’t forget fundamentals while learning new system

January 23, 2013

This is what the Washington Capitals can afford over the next month, by which time their season will be nearly a third over: A player out of position. A misunderstanding about what Coach Adam Oates wants. A miscommunication between two players, each with a different interpretation of Oates’s new system. A goal allowed because of any or all of that.

This is what the Capitals, who have lost their first two games and given up twice as many goals as they have scored, can’t afford: Blips in their effort. Forgotten fundamentals. Dragging of the feet or the mind. Goals allowed because of any or all of that.

“Some of the mistakes out there weren’t the system,” Oates said in the hour following Tuesday night’s dismal 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

This is the crux of where the Capitals find themselves now, with what amounts to a crucial home game against Montreal on Thursday night, with another at New Jersey on Friday, with a third game in four days back home on Sunday afternoon against Buffalo. There is a system to learn, with Oates combining elements of Bruce Boudreau’s wide-open style and Dale Hunter’s defensive lock-down scheme, and there is no getting around that. It is the theme of the first week of a lockout-shortened season: How can a team, however talented, fully grasp what a new coach wants when training camp wasn’t training camp at all, but rather a six-day cram session?

But when Oates went over the first period of the Winnipeg game with his team Wednesday morning, the system and its intricacies quickly became afterthoughts.

Winnipeg scored two power-play goals to spoil the Caps home opener on Tuesday. The Caps fall to 0-2-0 on the season. (James Sherrill for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC/The Washington Post)

“Zero to do with it,” Oates said following an optional practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “It was more our execution. If a guy’s wide open and we miss him with a pass, that’s not a system. So some of it, we’ve got to accept responsibility that it’s us.”

What the Capitals can control now, under Oates, are the same things they could control under Boudreau or Hunter. How hard they play. How focused they are. What their energy level is.

“Push the system aside,” forward Jason Chimera said. “If you outwork the other team, you’re going to win the hockey game.”

The elements the team needs to focus on are clear. The Capitals, several players said Tuesday night, had seven or eight turnovers in the first period. Not the system. They missed open men. Not the system. When they fell behind, they became moribund during a dreadful second period. Not the system. First-line wing Marcus Johansson didn’t skate to his ability, so Oates benched him in the third period. Not the system.

There is, though, a connection between those fundamental failures and how the system is played.

“We need to think about our systems,” said veteran forward Matt Hendricks, who scored the Caps’ first-period goal and found their lack of energy so egregious that he started a second-period fight. Anything for a spark.

“We need to run them through our heads as much as possible,” Hendricks said. “But you can’t forget about fundamentals — about winning the battles on the boards, getting in shot lanes, taking easy plays away from your opponent — because if you rely solely on the system, the system’s not going to win you hockey games. You can’t forget about the work ethic.”

The Washington Post’s LaVar Arrington, Dan Steinberg, Jason Reid and Jonathan Forsythe discuss the level of pressure, or lack thereof, facing new Capitals Coach Adam Oates in this 48-game season. (The Washington Post)

There is an ancillary aspect, one Oates acknowledges may be unsolvable: Conditioning. Was the Capitals’ flat play in the home opener, particularly in a second period in which they allowed 20 shots, because players were tired? Does that fatigue, even two games into the season, contribute to breakdowns in fundamentals? Yes and yes.

“As a player, you can’t go out on the ice without feeling that you can extend yourself a whole shift from start to finish,” Oates said. “It’s really difficult in the NHL to do that. If you don’t have a reserve tank, you can’t get caught out there. You get tired. That’s very difficult to play like that.”

How do you improve conditioning on the fly? “It’s hard,” Oates said Tuesday night, and he admitted, to an extent, he was guessing. Skate more on off days to build up endurance? Skate less, because energy should be reserved for games?

By Wednesday morning, with stars Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green among those not skating, Oates had decided that the upcoming three games in four days stretch was “a lot of hockey,” and that rest overrode rust.

“Not that it’s necessarily the perfect formula,” Oates said, “but it’s the one we’re going with.”

The next time the Caps have back-to-back days off is Feb. 10-11. They play three games in four days again next week, and six more times after that.

“At this stage of the year, there’s a little confidence issue,” Oates said Tuesday. “We’re all second-guessing each other a little bit.”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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