The lasting image of the Winter Classic, as far as I’m concerned (Grab by @myregularface)
The Winter Classic was awesome. So very, very awesome. I’ve got a lot to say about it that couldn’t be fit into a game recap, so here’s special, super-sized edition of the Awesome Index.
Get a comfy chair. This is going to be a long one, but it’s going to be awesome.
Not Ranked: Nate Schmidt, eternal scratch. How did this even happen? When did Nate Schmidt, who’s got a 53.8 percent score-adjusted possession score, lose his sweater? For the record, Jack Hillen did splendidly on Thursday (2 shots on goal, 1 assist, but only 10:56 of ice time).
I keep thinking about the Capitals we saw at the 2011 Winter Classic and the ones we saw in 2015. Both teams were triumphant in the big game, and both were called “The Washington Capitals,” but that’s about it for similarities. The Road to the Winter Classic series of those years depicted two Caps teams with drastically different fortunes. Here’s just the month leading up to the Classic:
The Caps of December 2010 were dominant– ranked 3rd at shot-attempt differential during 5v5, but they couldn’t win a game to save their life. They lost eight games in eighteen days, a slump that resulted in the team abandoning their offense-first system. That change precipitated a decline that would last until the moment the Caps fired Adam Oates on April 26th.
The Caps of December 2014 weren’t bad during 5v5 at all– they took 51.9 percent of the shot attempts during 5v5, 10th highest in the league, and took home 19 out of 26 possible standings points, making them the NHL’s hottest team (thanks to some friendly shooting and save percentages). And that’s why we’ve been seeing comments like this:
Really impressed by impact @washcaps Coaching Staff & Leadership of Orpik is having on entire Caps' team.More structure,more complete team.
— Kevin Weekes (@KevinWeekes) January 2, 2015
Pretty sure the Capitals are better than we thought. Could have big second half.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) January 1, 2015
Both of these guys are right in a way. The Capitals are a good team now– the WC wasn’t just a mirage; they really did out-battle the best team in the league.
But the degree of their improvement changes based on the timeline you use. Compared to last year’s Oates!Caps, this team is a revelation. How much of that is due to getting rid of the poison behind the bench (the dead cat has bounced high) and how much is due to the Gritty Leadership of Brooks Orpik and the implementation of the Trotz system is up for debate (you know where I stand).
But this team is not better than the pre-2011 Caps, though I like this goalie a lot more.
Alex Ovechkin had a two-on-one breakaway late in the first period. With Backstrom trailing down the middle, defender Niklas Hjalmarsson was compelled to hedge his bets, giving Ovechkin the option of shooting or passing.
He should have shot, that selfish Russian.
You and me, having watched 82 games a year of Ovi, know full well how great a passer the Russian machine is. The rest of the world and the broader continental hockey media still consider him a “specialty act” who’s in it for individual success over the team, despite the abundant and persistent evidence that they’re hella wrong. Example: the GIF above, which comes from your girl Steph at @myregularface.
I get why Ovi didn’t shoot. Crawford was perfectly square to him, and Ovechkin didn’t have the D-man to use as a screen. But with the ice this bad and the stage this big, this was his chance to make a statement.
I kind of like that the statement he chose was “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one,” but my point still stands.
The 2015 Winter Classic pulled in the all-time worst ratings for a Winter Classic. I don’t care.
“Buzz” leading up to the game was lower than anticipated, perhaps because of the diminished market saturation of the Epix TV show (which is still hard to talk about because there’s no good acronym for it). I also don’t care about this.
The last time the Winter Classic featured two teams this good was probably the last time the Capitals were in the Winter Classic. But the ice was garbage in Pittsburgh that day, and the quality of the game itself was a joke compared to Thursday.
The Hawks and the Caps played a thrilling game– perhaps as good as we’ve ever seen at a Classic. Thirty-five shots per team, the dramatic progression of an early lead, a comeback in the second period, and then a tense final frame. The officials probably made themselves too conspicuous, but considering Toews’ and Saad’s penalties in the final two minutes of regulation I can’t complain that the calls were uneven.
Seems to me that whoever managed to watch Thursday’s game probably enjoyed it. The fans in attendance absolutely did. Whatever my thoughts on Lee Greenwood and Gavin DeGraw, that was a terrific event. The Capitals, the Blackhawks, the NHL– even Billy freaking Idol– contributed to a virtually perfect execution. If I were a casual fan tuning in on New Years’ Day, I might be compelled to watch more hockey. So mission: accomplished.
Ian and I had some disagreement about this next point, but since I’ve got the floor right now, I’m gonna say I’m right: Billy Idol rules.
At age 59, Idol still brings the swagger. Along with Steve Stevens, Idol’s wizard guitar player for over thirty years, Idol has a vibe that’s got more Elvis Presley than Joe Strummer, but he’s still got a punk-rock pedigree. (They played with Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees back in the day.)
Everybody knows him for “White Wedding,” but he’s actually got a respectable parade of hits. “Rebel Yell” is probably the better song overall, “Eyes Without a Face” is a believable ballad, and while “Rock the Cradle of Love” is problematic as hell, it’s one of my favorite Idol tunes. (That music video was… important to my adolescence.)
I saw Idol play at the HFstival about a decade ago. He killed it, outperforming bands 30 years his junior while having more fun than anyone in the stadium.
So when Billy Idol said, he was “looking forward to tomorrow’s final or whatever it is,” I read it that as punk insouciance rather than obliviousness. And when I hear people talking trash about the guy, well…
There’s a non-zero population of folks who enjoy it when the Caps lose. Something about the team’s unlikely vault up the league in 2006 and 2007 rubs people the wrong way. Or maybe it was the style of hockey the Caps played, led by a Russian player who played unlike any Russian player before him. Or maybe it was the sense of triumphalism that colored those years before Hunter and Oates, a spirit to which this website might have played a small part. No matter what: it seems to me that some hockey people like to see Washington lose.
It’s been a bad month for those people. The Capitals racked up a ton of wins before winning their second Winter Classic. Both of their WC victories were against the consensus best team in the league at that time. And the Caps made for some compelling television– in the Classic itself and in the series that lead up to it.
It’s a good time to be a Capitals fan, but now we need to steady ourselves. We know what’s coming.
Prepare yourself for “you’re not that good” calibrations (perhaps done in a less collegial spirit than what I offered above). Get ready for reheated clammy jokes about “Winter Classic Championship” banners at Verizon Center (I first heard those five minutes after the buzzer went off at Heinz Field.) And you should expect Alex Ovechkin to be the main target. He, after all, has won every regular-season accomplishment there is to win, but continues to flounder in the playoffs (despite being the single best playoff goal scorer in the last decade, oh snap, you just got served.)
There will be more adversity ahead, but I see no problem with an explosion of high fives now. We’ve survived the Oates!Caps together and now here are, having recently bested the mighty Blackhawks. Forty thousand of you, dressed snug in Caps red, celebrating a good hockey team that played good hockey.
That might have been the best day in Capitals history so far. If that’s actually true, I’m fine with it. Go Caps.
Now get his awesome Manitoban ass on the top line.
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