The Washington Capitals are 4-1, but there's a lot of angst in the fanbase about how they've played. Are they really playing well? Is this the kind of success that will help the team when it matter in April?
For answers, we decided to ask Steve Kolbe, the longtime Capitals radio broadcaster. Kolbe is entering his 12th season as the voice of the Capitals on the radio, so he has a unique perspective of just how well the Capitals are playing. We caught up with Kolbe over the weekend to get his take on the Caps' early-season success.
SB Nation D.C.: What do you think of how the team has played the first five games?
Steve Kolbe: I think the Capitals, like the rest of the league, are trying to figure just exactly where they are. Everyone knows the Caps offense is going to be what it is, but they ran into a couple of scrappy teams in Ottawa and the New York Islanders, and I think that helps them because they were able to find ways to win. They won in overtime against Ottawa, late against the Isles and in overtime again on Saturday. They know they're going to count on their offense throughout the season, but getting those late wins is going to be critical throughout the year.
Offensively they know what they have, defensively they played a couple of solid games giving up just five goals in the last three, so off to a good start and whenever you can win four out of five games to start the season it's a pretty good job.
SB Nation D.C.: After the season opener with the Thrashers a lot of people were making a big fuss because the Caps lost, but that game was kind of odd. You had the situation with Ondrej Pavelec in the first period and it was also the debut of all the former Blackhawks. Was there really any reason to read too much into that loss?
Steve Kolbe: No, I don't think so. Obviously your season's not going to be determined by just one game. I know everyone wants to win the opener no matter if it's home or on the road, and your absolutely right that the game got off to an interesting start. It's good news for Ondrej Pavelec that he's ok now, but you've got to think on both benches, not just the Thrashers bench, but on the Capitals side as well that they may have taken a little steam out of the game.
And Atlanta played a good game. They played a good defensive game against the Capitals, they got timely goals, but a season isn't going to be dictated on just one game. I think everyone has forgotten about the opening night loss because a three game homestand and a four game winning streak can really put that behind you.
SB Nation D.C.: What do you think the fights at the end of the game against New Jersey last Saturday says about the Caps this season?
Steve Kolbe: You have to remember the Caps have five fights already in the first five games of the season. They had just 20 all of last year. So, I think the game against New Jersey was probably more of just an indication of frustration on one side and just wanting to send a message for the next time these two teams meet. It's not often a team is able to chase Martin Brodeur from the game by scoring four goals on just eight shots in one period. But, that shows how the Capitals are going to stick together.
Also, Bruce Boudreau put out his number one power play unit after all that was said and done with only four minutes to play and a five goal lead to basically send the message right back. So, I think in terms of toughness we see that DJ King comes out against the Islanders and goes against Gillies and I think that's what the Capitals are going to have on their bench this year. When a player looks down the bench and he sees DJ King there, he knows he has someone their just in case things start to go south in terms of physical play.
SB Nation D.C.: We all know what DJ King can do in terms of fighting, but he's not the best skater. Does that worry you at all?
Steve Kolbe: DJ King has a role and I think that role is going to monitored in terms of minutes that he sees per game. Everyone on the team has their particular spot to play. Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Green, everyone knows what their role is going to be. Guys like David Steckel, Boyd Gordon ... everyone knows what their role is throughout the course of the season. So, everyone has their part in this to play in the long haul.
SB Nation D.C.: Mike Green specifically talked this offseason about needing to be more of a leader and needing to be more mature, and it seems if you watch his play through the first four games that he's taken that very seriously.
Steve Kolbe: Well, I think you can never have enough guys who take that leadership mentality on your team. Obviously, Ovechkin has the "C," and he has it for a reason because he's the heart and soul of the hockey club. Guys like Mike Knuble, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Poti have the "A's" on their sweaters for various games because they're also the leaders on the team. A guy like Mike Knuble who's been around the block once or twice and knows exactly how things are supposed to go throughout the course of the year is one of those leaders who can pull a younger guy aside and say "hey, let's try it this way. I know the work and it can help us down the line here somewhere." I think leading by example, guys like Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green they lead by example on the ice by the way they play.
Look at Mike Green. He's already had a game this season where he's been on the ice for over 30 minutes because of some bumps and bruises to other defensemen. But, by the play on the ice guys are going to look down the bench, hold each other accountable to their teammates because they don't want to let the guy next to them down.
SB Nation D.C.: Green has blocked a lot of shots early this season. Do you think that shows maturity in his game?
Steve Kolbe: I think it also shows that maybe they are playing a different style and maybe getting him in the right position to make those blocks. Blocking shots is a little bit of being in the right place at the right time and a little bit of skill, being able to know how to do it effectively.
I think that this team is obviously the favorite in the Eastern Conference for a reason. They were picked by many to make a run to the Stanley Cup Finals, but nothing is guaranteed and they just have to keep on plowing along. They are in a tough stretch here, but winning on the road which wasn't a problem for this team last year. They were able to win 24 times on the road last year, and I don't think whether they are playing at home or on the road is going to change what this team is going to be able to do down the line.
SB Nation D.C.: After the game against Ottawa, Ovechkin mentioned they need to stop being cute on the power play and just keep things simple. What do you think that says about Alex's maturity?
Steve Kolbe: That's what all teams have to go back to. Whenever the power play is struggling, that is basically the old stand by. Keep it simple, get shots through and any guy that is a goal scorer will tell you. They've got to get shots on goal to be able to score. Instead of working the perimeter and trying to get that fancy goal just got the puck on net and hope for a tip.
The Capitals did that Wednesday night against the Islanders. Ovechkin took the shot and Nicklas Backstrom goes to the front got a tip and got the puck by Dwayne Roloson. That's how strong power play teams break out of slumps. These guys know how they have to score goals, and they know when things aren't working and how to make adjustments. So, I don't think the Capitals have anything to worry about in terms of their power play.
SB Nation D.C.: We've seen Boudreau put Erich Fehr and John Carlson on the power play at times so far. What is that going to add to the power play?
Steve Kolbe: This team is pretty deep from top to bottom. You've got a guy like John Carlson, who's poised to do big things. Carlson had taken Mike Green's place against the Islanders when Green had to leave the game, and Carlson picked up one of the assist on the eventual game winning goal. But, that's the reason they like his maturity for a young early 20's defensemen, and that's where the maturity level comes in. John Carlson is a guy that I think is more saavy beyond his years.
The number one unit is going to take up the bulk of each power play and then guys like Erich Fehr are going to get their chances. Fehr is off to a good start with a pair of goals in the first five games, and you'd expect with that good start and what he did last year that there's no reason he can't reach the 20-goal mark once again.
SB Nation D.C.: Carlson already has a swagger about him. What does that bring to the Capitals?
Steve Kolbe: I think what that brings is letting guys like Tom Poti and Mike Green know they can count on this guy to be there and play solid. This is a guy who's won a gold medal in the World Junior Championships. He's won the Calder Cup, so he's experienced. I think those experiences are going to carry over into his first full season in the NHL, where he's going to be counted on to play significant minutes on a nightly basis.
That's something that perhaps can't be taught. It's either with a person, or it's not, to be confident in your ability and I think John Carlson is one player who has that confidence.
Karl Alzner, I think, is another player who has that confidence and he believes he can get the job done at this level and I think that is going to show throughout the season as well.
SB Nation D.C.: With what has happened in the playoffs the last few years, everybody is looking for a sign that shows the team has taken the next step. Have you seen anything through the first five games that suggests that?
Steve Kolbe: I think it's a little bit early. I don't think you can see whether or not a team has taken that next step until the season gets at least a huge chunk of the way through.
I think the next step will be measured when you get to the point in the season where teams are starting to via for playoff positions. I don't think you can get too high or low on a team based on four, five or even 10 games, because if you look around the league, some teams that everyone thought was going to be rock solid throughout the year are off to tough starts, and some that people thought were going to be doormats are off to terrific starts. So, I think it's too early to really be able to tell about next steps, and I think that's only going to come as the season goes along.
I think this team as a whole is still the same team from last year, with upgrades in particular spots and with a young goalie in Michal Neuvirth who's really gotten off to a really really good start. Hopefully Semyon Varlamov comes back and will be able to chip in their as well.
So, I think this team is right on pace, and if you asked them if they were still upset about losing on opening night they would say we've moved on from that and we're on a four-game winning streak and we'll just worry about the games as they come.
SB Nation D.C.: Michal Neuvirth has played great. Varlamov is probably going to play sometime within these next few games, but how hard is Neuvirth making it on Varlamov right now?
Steve Kolbe: Well, it's an opportunity for Michal Neuvirth to get in there. and the Capitals know what he can do, or he wouldn't be on the squad. He's a guy who's going to compete every time he's out there and I think he has.
I don't think he's been shaky at all. He's had five solid games in goal for the Capitals and his record reflects that and I think these two guys are going to gel together very well. They're both the same age, so there's not a guy who's older and a guy who's younger.
I think they are going to be peers throughout the season and I think these guys have a healthy respect for each other and what they can do inside the goal crease that will let them perform on a nightly basis. When one is in and one is out, I don't think there is going to be any grumbling. I think the one guy is going to be behind the starter 100 percent on a game-to-game basis and I don't think there is going to be any animosity what so ever.