2-8-1. That was how the Washington Capitals started the 2012-13 season. A lockout shortened season in which the team saw a regime change following the end of their playoff run in 2012. Then, as if it wasn’t going to be difficult for the team with a new coach, the egos of the NHL and the NHLPA lead to a needless lockout that saw nearly 40 regular season games canceled. When the lockout was over and games were slated to begin, the Capitals had a one week training camp that included no exhibition games.
Truly, the Capitals had a lot to overcome. Considering that the team had a lot of talent and the ability to take off at any moment, there was reason to believe the Capitals would do just fine. However, they came out of the gate and struggled. In the first 11 games of the season, the Capitals eked out 2 runs and suffered agonizing defeat after agonizing defeat. Pundits would talk about how Alex Ovechkin was finished, how the core was no longer producing as it was believed they should, and how the chances became slimmer after every loss in the lockout shortened season.
Now you are probably asking, what does this sob story for the Capitals have anything to do with the Nationals? Well, the Nationals are not really in the same position. The Nationals have a 162 game season in which there was no lockout and no regime change. What the Nationals and the Capitals do have in common is that mental errors and some things just are not (or with the Caps, were not) clicking yet to produce at the levels they are capable. Early in the season, Capitals defensemen would lob the puck over the glass for a penalty, allowing their opposition to have a man advantage. At the time, the power play had not been clicking one bit and often the opposition would make the Capitals pay for it. So far, early in the season for the Nationals they will throw the ball away, boot it, and make a weird play that results in an error. Their opposition has made them pay for these mistakes, making Nationals pitchers throw more pitches or make a mistake that ends up in the seats.
Okay, so I have provided a comparison in the way the Nationals’ and Capitals’ respective seasons have started, so what? As I am sure there are many of you who do not follow the Capitals closely, but you will like the comparison. While a turnaround was not immediate for the Capitals, they played their 12th game of the season against the Florida Panthers, shutting them down 5-0. A shutout is a big deal for a goalie and it was just what the doctor ordered for the Capitals. That win was the first of a 3 game win streak for the Capitals, as well as the beginning of a turnaround. The Capitals would win some here, lose some there and effectively played .500 hockey to start getting back into the groove of the season.
So here we are now, Nationals fans. In the Capitals last 10 games, they have managed to put a winning score on the board 9 times. Had the Capitals had a regular, non-lockout shortened season, the early struggles would have been an afterthought. Alex Ovechkin has dazzled the NHL yet again, making himself the legue leader in goals scored and leading the Capitals to a 25-18-2 record and first place in the Southeast division. Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth have made spectacular stop after spectacular stop and now the only question around hockey is whether the Capitals can pull off what no one believed they would be able to after a 2-8-1 start. It is truly amazing that the Capitals only won 2 games to start the season, but have only lost 11 since. Let that sink in for a second, while winning 23, they have only lost 11.
So, back to the Nationals. What has been going right for them? Unfortunately, not a lot. The bullpen hasn’t been clicking, the defense has not been great, and the offense seems absent at times. If we can look to the Nationals friends at the Verizon center, though, we learn a valuable lesson: do not over look these guys. The defense is too good to keep up with the mistakes they have been making this season, the same goes for the pitchers in the bullpen, they are too talented to keep struggling. The Nationals offense is put together as a group that does all the little things right, it just hasn’t clicked yet. When the bullpen is shutting down the opposition, Desmond is playing the smooth shortstop we know he can, and Danny Espinosa is crushing the 15-20 home runs he is capable of hitting, no team will beat the Nationals.
A lot of things have not gone right for the Nationals, but it should be quite impressive that while playing their worst baseball, they are 10-8. They are a team that is 2 games over .500 while playing some of their worst baseball, but others seem to be playing their best baseball. Never mind the fact that the Braves are off to a hot start and only lead the Nationals by 3 games in the NL East. Over the course of a 162 game season, luck evens out and the Nationals have had none. It is fully understandable to be frustrated with the way some games have gone for the Nationals so far, but stick with them. The Nationals will be firing on all cylinders at some point in the season and when they do, it will be an unbelievable amount of fun.