Monday, 5 April 2010

All About Umberger

I always enjoy some verbal jousting through the media. Whether it be Brian Burke vs. Kevin Lowe/Al Strachan/anyone who will step up, Jeremy Roenick vs. everyone, or RJ Umberger and Ted Leonsis, there is always someone in hockey is willing to provide an honest and open sound byte to which someone else will take exception. The last duo - Umberger and Leonsis - sparred over Umberger's comments regarding the Washington Capitals, and I have to admit that both men are fairly honest in their comments. Let's review the latest "He Said, He Said" battle in the NHL.

Saturday night, following Washington's 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, Blue Jackets forward RJ Umberger decided to fire a volley at the best team in the NHL this season regarding their chances in the playoffs this season.

"I don't think any team in the West would be overmatched by them," Umberger told The Columbus Dispatch. "They play the wrong way. They want to be moving all the time. They float around in their zone, looking for breakaways and odd-man rushes.

"A good defensive team is going to beat them (in the playoffs). If you eliminate your turnovers and keep them off the power play, they're going to get frustrated because they're in their zone a lot."
Now, there's usually not a lot of attention paid to a player on a non-playoff team who does a little yapping during or after the game. After all, that player will be watching the playoffs on TV rather than participating in them, so comments like Umberger's are usually swept under the carpet and saved for a future meeting.

However, what Umberger said is exactly what NHL pundits and experts have been saying for sometime. To hear a player chime in on Washington's apparent flaws only makes the problems within their system and lineup that much more real.

The problem with Washington, as some have pointed out, is that they don't really play defence, they have questionable goaltending, and they tend to run-and-gun which is entirely the opposite of how teams play in the playoffs.

Now, I'm not here to cut down the NHL's best team this season. While San Jose can certainly say "been there, done that" while showing off the same number of total Stanley Cups as the Capitals, this writer knows better than to question the Capitals. After all, they trailed 2-0 and 3-1 to the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season before rallying back to win the series in seven games.

However, the facts remain that the Washington Capitals score in bunches, and occasionally find themselves in defensive lapses for minutes, periods, and even games at a time. The players themselves recognize this fact, and know that they need to be better in their own zone once the playoffs begin.

Umberger's former teammate in Philadelphia, and current Capital, Mike Knuble gave his thoughts on Umberger's bold statement.

"Hey, we've outscored people, we've won games, 7-6 or 7-5, but we're not naive enough to know we're gonna continue to do that and survive and play well in the playoffs," Knuble said to Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Port. "The number one thing you gotta get in the playoffs is goals against down and keep it down, and we all know that in this room. It just takes a little bit of extra commitment, but a game in Columbus in the beginning of April is not a very good indication of what kind of playoff team we're gonna be."

For as right as Umberger is, I have to say that Mike Knuble is just as correct.

The Capitals didn't need to take the Blue Jackets very seriously. The Blue Jackets cannot make the playoffs, and are literally playing out the stretch with only the hopes of being spoilers. The Capitals, on the other hand, have already secured the President's Trophy for being the best team through the regular season, so there was little on the line when these two teams met on Saturday.

If the best team in the league with nothing to play for runs into a team with nothing to play for except pride, does the best team really have to bring out a playoff-like attitude?

While Washington's problems are still largely evident in their game against Boston tonight, Capitals fans can look back at one team last season who played some brutal hockey for two-thirds of the season before turning in a championship effort: the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They came into the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs with an inexperienced goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury, played some brutal defence up to the trade deadline in finding themselves in ninth-place in the Eastern Conference, and relied on run-and-gun with Crosby and Malkin to carry the team at times.

However, they pulled it all together at the right time, and ran the table in the playoffs. There's no telling what can happen once the Stanley Cup Playoffs start, and anyone can beat anyone else in a seven-game series. Upsets have happened, and upsets will continue to happen.

And, occasionally, those who sit atop the mountain in the regular season continue their dominance through the four rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If the Capitals do end up winning the Stanley Cup, RJ Umberger won't hold any grudge or ill will towards this season's best regular season team. In fact, he would be happy for at least one of the Washington Capitals.
"I was just giving my opinion, that I wasn't picking them to win the (Stanley) Cup just because they have the best record," Umberger told reporters. "The West has been great all year, and there are teams in the West I think can frustrate them and can compete with them.

"But I could be wrong, and if they did (win the Cup), I would be extremely pumped for one of my good friends (former college teammate Dave Steckel)."
Talk is just talk. Bulletin board fodder will always be a part of the NHL just as it is in any other sport. When that fodder comes from a non-playoff team, you just smile and enjoy the chatter.

As Washington Capitals' owner Ted Leonsis wrote on Sunday, "One more week of talk. One more week of regular season games. Enough already.

"And R.J. - enjoy the long offseason."

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Mark Bonatucci said...

You say: "The problem with Washington, as some have pointed out, is that they don't really play defence, they have questionable goaltending, and they tend to run-and-gun which is entirely the opposite of how teams play in the playoffs."

That's just typical "old school" trollip. Neither Umberger or the pundits who say it understand the Capitals system.. Further right now the Capitals GF vs GA differential on a per game basis is over 0.9 goals per game.

I know old school folks won't be convinced till the Caps win a Cup but my real question is if/when they do will the folks that push this trollip then shut up?

If not wil they at least take the time to understand how they did/do it and the fact the NHL has changed and their might be more than one right way to play and win?

Teebz said...

If you notice how I framed that criticism, Mark, I pointed out that the "inexperienced" Penguins did the same thing last season.

I also pointed out that the Capitals battled back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits against the Rangers.

I believe the Capitals are as good as their regular season record says they are. I also believe that you're looking at a very scary team if they pull all those "old school" ideas together.

But as you say, until you win, you're just another loser. San Jose has experienced four seasons of this, and still can't shake that 900-pound gorilla off their backs.

Then again, they never had Alexander Ovechkin playing for them either. ;o)