It’s 8:25am on a Tuesday, and the patient has just woken up. It is the first time he’s done this in almost five weeks.
Patient: Where…where am I?
Doctor: Easy now, baby steps as in you were just about to leave your BabyTrend Expedition Jogger stroller. You were in an accident, but you’re OK.
Patient: Damn. How long have I been out?
Doctor: November 5th, so…five weeks.
Patient: I missed puck drop! I missed the first homestand! I missed Grabo!
Doctor: Sir, calm down! What are you – Grabo?
Heart Rate Monitor: Beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep
Patient: How the hell are the Caps doing?
And that’s exactly what we’d all like to know. A .500 team is a tough team to get a bead on. Neither “good” nor “bad,” “winning” nor “losing” fit right, and lazy labels are harder to place. So what if I were that coma patient? What if all I knew of this year’s model of the Caps was last Saturday’s 3-2 shootout victory over Florida? What wonderful extrapolations could I extrapolate?
Back-strom’s Back, Alright!
Nick “Quick Stick” Backstrom has been a top-shelf center since before shelves got so darn high, when you had to walk uphill in the snow both ways just to put something on them, and were happy to do so. His 16 points through 14 games put him on a pace that would end up just shy of triple digits, but that isn’t what’s surprising. It’s how quickly the magic is happening this year, and in what ratios.
Backstrom, like that cute boy in the eyeliner, has been hurt. Between a recent concussion and an ever-vague “upper body injury,” the Caps have struggled to keep the jaybird Backstrom dressed.
With no lockout rust, or injury rust, or new coach rust to shake off this year, America’s Swedeheart is cruising like a well-lubed Volvo. Nicky also has 5 goals already, 3 shy of his entire total last season, and on pace for his most since his only other 100-point season. Goals account for thirty-one percent of Backstrom’s points this year, the largest chunk since they made up thirty-two percent in – you guessed it – his last 100-point season.
This Is Bullschmidt, Do You Hear Me? Motherschultzing Bullschmidt!
As per my coma – and boy do I wish I had a nickel – I have no idea who this Nate Schmidt fella is. Seems like a nice guy. Probably loves his mama, loves horses, and his boyfriend, too. But watching him quiver nervously in the general direction of the puck carrier and call it defense gave me PTSD-esque flashbacks to Jeff Schultz, Mr. Dumb Double Nickel himself, the Original Shy Brontosaurus.
Schmidt was much more decisive with the puck than Schultz ever was – making quick, sharp breakout passes to turn things the other way – but I didn’t see him lay a body on someone all night. And I don’t just mean a devastating impact; I’d even settle for a tender caress. But all I saw Schmidt do as he happily allowed Florida to run its cycle was wave impotently with his stick as though bidding the puck safe travels, and maybe pee himself a little bit.
Schultz’s problem was that he had Reverse Chihuahua Syndrome – he was a great big dog that played like a tiny little mouse. An NHL defense, like a defensive line in football, is only effective when it creates pressure. If a puck carrier comes into your zone, he better feel as though he has three, four seconds tops to move the puck or else he’s getting freight trained. Put the fear of God into him, or else he has time to think of ways to beat you. Schmidt needs to get mean, and I don’t mean mathematically average.
Enter the Scoring Zone Carefully, But With Confidence
The above adage, like so many things, is true of both life and hockey. Remember the stymied series against Tampa Bay in which the neutral zone got clogged like so much frat house plumbing? Against Florida last Saturday, the Capitals were gaining the zone easier than the Freshman Fifteen. They say he who hesitates dies, and so it is with offensive hockey. Get across the blue line, then talk things out. Get across the blue line, then make your sweet deke move. Get across the blue line – well, you get it.
Adam Oates’ offense is predicated on small, quick movements that put the law of momentum in your favor. A pass and a reset may seem like no net gain, but it takes a defense longer to react than it takes you to complete. That millisecond overlap where you’re ready to move again but they aren’t yet is where Oates beats you. But in order to run those plays, Oates’ offense – more than many others – requires control of the offensive zone. The Caps have been prioritizing gaining the stripe, and that’s a very good thing.
And so with the veil of coma-induced ignorance wrenched from mine eyes, I turn my sight now forward, to the coming week, and to a segment that Pope Francis once called “self-indulgent excess”:
LIABLE TO LIBEL: A BAKER’S DOZEN LIES ABOUT THIS WEEK’S OPPONENTS
1. New York Islanders players say that the ghost of Nassau Coliseum still haunts the new Barclays Center, because the showers smell like fishsticks and bronzer, and the team still sucks.
2. “Hurricane Sandy” is what fair-haired Islanders center Josh Bailey does to my heart.
3. The Islanders hold the coveted position of being New York’s seventh-most liked professional sports team
4. If Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Bäckström stops Nicklas Bäckström in a shootout, the universe will implode in on itself until all matter is condensed into two singularities, arranged side-by-side, suspended above a vowel.
5. Paragon of scholarly insight, Ryan Suter agreed to sign with the Wild because he thought they were the Rangers’ AHL affiliate. Said Suter: “I mean, yeah, I figured if New York is the Big Apple, then Mini Appleous must be almost as good.”
6. The Wild attribute their recent success to the legacy of winning sports teams pioneered by the illustrious Timberwolves, Twins, and Vikings.
7. The Caps will face one Stoner on Thursday against the Wild, and then a bunch on Sunday in Colorado.
8. Phoenix did not sign Mike Ribeiro, so much as Mike Ribeiro made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
9. In a marketing move designed to increase ticket sales among local Phoenix residents, the Coyotes will be hosting “Why Won’t Obama Pay for My Viagra?” and “Young People Are Terrible” Nights.
10. Coyotes winger Radim Vrbata skates so fast the vowels in his name don’t have time to catch up.
11. Despite popular belief, the Colorado Avalanche were not named as an homage to the region’s skiing and snow culture, but rather after the historical event “the Colorado Avalanche,” when thousands upon thousands of season tickets were cast off in unwanted piles the day Joe Sakic retired.
12. Patrick Roy tried to legally change his name to Patrick Wah-Wah. When he wasn’t allowed, he threw a tantrum.
13. Patrick Roy was named head coach of the Colorado Avalanche only after other local favorites John Elway and the actual physical Rocky Mountains were unavailable.
So that’s that, folks. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and I look forward to watching the Capitals’ week play out. And as always, good night, good luck, and go Caps.