Bad habits . . .
They kind of creep up on you, and if you don’t notice them, they can be so much harder to change. In this case, eight goals against in the first period in the past two games . . . one goal for. Last night it was two for the visiting Montreal Canadiens and none for the home team. Having to claw out of a hole – a deep hole – starting early in games is not a consistent formula for success, and this is especially so with the Caps nursing a variety of illnesses and injuries.
The first period was good, bad, and unlucky. The good was the fact that the Caps got 14 shots on goal. The bad was that only three of them came from the reconstituted first line of Alexander Ovechkin, Dainius Zubrus, and Alexander Semin (more on that to come). The unlucky was the path of the puck on the first goal for the Habs, which managed not to hit any feet or skates from the left wing boards and the stick of Guillaume Latendresse to the far side of the crease and the stick of Mathieu Dandenault for a tap-in.
The Caps experimented with a super-line of Ovechkin and Semin, centered by Zubrus last night. That is the all-eggs-in-one-basket school of offense. Trouble is, it puts so much pressure on that line to score that there is a temptation to press even harder in the offensive end at the expense of defense. The line did get a late power play goal, but they were on the ice for two goals (one being the shorthanded empty netter by Sheldon Souray in the last minute). Was the experiment a failure? No, not necessarily . . . but no other line registered a point – that’s the other side of the experiment.
There is another number here that bears noting . . . 43.7. That is the Caps’ faceoff winning percentage over the last four games (1-3-0). They’ve been on the short end of the faceoff ledger in each of those games. The Caps have been outscored 16-8 in those four games. Coincidence? Perhaps, but puck possession is a critical element in the way the game is played these days. Lose a lot of faceoffs, and you spend a lot of time chasing the puck around. And, given the Caps health problems on defense these days, that’s not a good thing.
The Caps are half-way through their eight game holiday stretch outside the Southeast Division and have two points to show for the four games they’ve played. While they are ninth in the conference (tied with Boston in points for eighth, but with fewer wins) and two points out of sixth, they also are only four points ahead of 14th place Florida. This is a critical part of the schedule, coming as it does against fellow travelers in the Eastern Conference. A back-to-back road set against the Devils and Rangers, and back home to face Phoenix and Montreal could go a long way toward determining whether the Caps are contenders in the last half of the season, or pretenders.
And answering that question might start with the matter of those first period bad habits.