Winter Classic preview: 5 Qs with Caps insider Chuck Gormley

There were plenty of changes in Washington heading into the 2014-15 campaign — new coach, new GM, new high-priced defensemen — and a new goal as well:

Get back to the playoffs.

Following an up-and-down start to the campaign, the Capitals look to be on target for that goal. They found their groove in December and head into the Winter Classic having secured points in all but one of their last 12 games, and sit third in the Metropolitan Division behind co-leaders Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders.

But if you haven’t been keeping tabs on Washington, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a Q&A with CSN’s Chuck Gormley about the club’s play thus far and, of course, some thoughts on Alex Ovechkin.

PHT: On a scale of 1 to 10, how successful have the Caps been under new coach Barry Trotz?

CG: I’m going to go with a 7. They got off to a 3-0-2 start and looked like a different team in Trotz’s first two weeks, but then they fell back into some old habits – poor defensive zone coverage, careless penalties and shaky goaltending — and went 7-10-2 from Oct. 22 through Dec. 2.

The low point of the season came four weeks ago when the Caps allowed six power-play goals in back-to-back losses to Toronto and Vancouver, prompting Trotz to say, “We’re not as good as we think we are.” Since then the Caps have been much better in every area and have gone 8-1-3 heading into their New Year’s Day showdown against the Blackhawks.

PHT: Stylistically, what is the biggest difference in how the Caps play under Trotz compared to how they played under Oates?

CG: The big difference may surprise you. Known as a defensive coach in Nashville, Trotz has asked his defensemen to push the pace more and close in on opponents’ forwards before they get any speed through the neutral zone. New assistant coach Todd Reirden has worked with all of the Caps’ blue liners to “gap up” whenever possible.

The result has been more offensive chances and far fewer shots against. Last season the Caps were outshot by opponents by an average of 33-29. This season they are outshooting opponents by an average of 30-28. Last season the Caps were outscored by opponents 2.79 per game to 2.74. This season they are outscoring opponents 2.89 to 2.53.

PHT: Has Trotz helped or hindered Alex Ovechkin? How?

CG: Well, it depends on how you measure the Capitals’ 29-year-old captain. Through 36 games as a left winger he’s on pace to finish the season with 39 goals and 30 assists for 69 points. That’s a drop from the 51 goals and 28 assists he put up as a right winger under Adam Oates last season and well below the pace he set from 2005-10 when he averaged 54 goals and 106 points a season.

But the number that jumps out this season is Ovechkin’s plus-minus. After finishing last season with a career-worst minus-35, Ovechkin is a plus-7 this season, which is a sample size of how much better he and the Capitals are at even strength this season. Once known for being a threat only in the offensive zone and on the power play, Ovechkin is backchecking as well as he has at any time in his career. He still has defensive lapses but not nearly as many as he had last season.

PHT: What is the biggest concern for the Caps as they approach the second half of the regular season?

CG: Penalties. And the health of Brooks Orpik. Not necessarily in that order. Orpik was helped off the ice in the third period of the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime loss on Long Island Monday night with an apparent knee injury. Orpik has been rock solid on the back end this season, helping to calm a defense that had a tendency to get very jittery with a one-goal lead before his arrival as a free agent.

The Caps can survive a week or two without their shutdown defenseman but any longer would leave them exposed around the net and put more pressure on Braden Holtby, who has been outstanding. The Caps also need to cut back on penalties late in games. Three times this season they have lost games in overtime because of penalties taken near the end of regulation or in the overtime.

PHT: If they’d never drafted Ovechkin, would the Caps be in a position to host a sold-out Winter Classic?

CG: That’s a $124 million question that’s difficult to answer. If you recall, the Caps took Ovechkin with the first pick of the 2004 NHL draft, ahead of Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh) and Cam Barker (Chicago). It’s safe to say that if they took Barker, hosting the Winter Classic would be a tough sell. Truth is, Ovechkin has breathed hockey life back into the D.C. region and the thought of hockey in Washington without him is sacrilege in these parts. Somehow, I think Capitals owner Ted Leonsis would have tried getting the Winter Classic to the nation’s capital, but without Ovechkin I don’t think he would have succeeded.

The question I’m often asked is if the Capitals would continue to sell out Verizon Center without Ovechkin and I think they would, provided they continued winning. Enough of a fan base has been cultivated in the Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia region to support the Capitals long after Ovechkin retires.

I’m not sure if I could have said that 10 years ago.

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