The Caps played their 27th game of the season last night – roughly the one-third mark of the 82-game season. Time to take a look at what happened in the “first period” this season compared to last…
2006-2007: 12-9-6 (30 points)
2007-2008: 9-16-2 (20 points)
It’s fair to say that the club has underachieved, both relative to last year and to expectations for this one. What accounts for the difference? Well, it’s not what you think it might be. In one-goal games here is the difference:
2006-2007: 2-1-6 (10 points)
2007-2008: 3-7-2 (8 points)
The Capitals have to do better in one-goal games, to be sure, but their problem in one-goal games has been that they’ve been two goals down late in games. In five of those one-goal losses in regulation, the Caps were down at least two goals in the third period. In four of them, they scored a goal to get within one with less than five minutes to go in regulation. What they’ve shown is an ability to almost come back from deficits. Put another way, they’ve dug themselves too big a hole in games to come all the way back, and that is a reflection of the sort of situation they face with respect to the season…too big a hole being dug.
It is the Caps getting into those deficits that is the problem, and that brings us to the second period…of games, that is. No team has given up more than the 31 second period goals the Caps have allowed so far this season. And the differential is telling. In the first period of games this year, the Caps have held opponents even: 22-22. But in the second period, the Caps have a 12 goal deficit: 19-31. In nine wins, the Caps have given up six second period goals. In 16 regulation losses they’ve given up 24 second period goals. The second period has killed this club this year.
This being the “new” NHL, special teams are, perhaps, the most important part of the game. On the power play, how do the Caps stack up this season versus last?
2006-2007: 24/146 (16.4 percent)
2007-2008: 20/120 (16.7 percent)
The difference is not in the success rate, but rather in the chances. The Caps are -26 in chances compared to last year, and that is time the opponent doesn’t have to expend energy and defend man-short situations – it is more opportunity for those teams to play at even strength and attack on their own.
On the other hand, what is the difference between this year and last on the power play over the first 27 games?
2006-2007: 129/156 (82.3 percent)
2007-2008: 104/128 (81.2 percent)
While the success rate is down, the Caps can point to the fewer chances permitted as a positive. Shaving short-handed situations by 18 percent is a huge improvement.
What is disappointing here is the differential in power play opportunities. Given the upgrade in skill, even with teams adjusting to the manner in which games are called one would think the Caps would have drawn at least as many penalties as last year. The result is that the Caps, just as was the case last year, have to defend power plays more often than they execute them. It isn’t a large differential (-8, compared to -10 at this point last year), but improving on that could be critical to the results of the rest of the season.
Scoring is down for the Caps, last year to this:
2006-2007: 91 goals (3.37/game)
2007-2008: 63 goals (2.33/game)
The difference here is stunning – more than a goal a game. In the first 27 games last year, the Caps scored more than four goals seven times. This year…three times. Conversely, last year the Caps scored fewer than two goals five times in their first 27 games. This year…nine times. One game in three the Caps have scored one or no goals.
The Caps are one of four teams having only five players in double-digits in points (the Rangers, Sharks, and Blues being the others, although all have played fewer games than the Caps).
On defense, though…
2006-2007: 87 goals (3.22/game)
2007-2008: 78 goals (2.89/game)
A ten percent improvement – a third of a goal a game – is improvement. Given that the Caps were thought by many to be still a struggling team on the defensive side coming into this season, the improvement can be considered a bit of a surprise. They are giving up fewer goals per game than three clubs in the playoff mix –
For those who argue that the Capitals defense is the source of their problems, we can say that the defense is not yet top-notch, but it is not the source of the problem, either. Even the Rangers, whose offense is worse than Washington’s so far, has dropped off by 0.85 goals/game from a similar point last year (through 26 games), compared to the 1.04 dropoff the Caps have experienced. No club can fall off by more than a goal a game on offense and have reasonable expectations of making the playoffs, not in this NHL.
Perhaps the good news here is that Bruce Boudreau seems more of an offensive-oriented, attack-based coach than was Glen Hanlon. Given a few days to perfect the system he wants to install, the Caps might come out in the “second period” of the season with a little more juice in their game. The early returns were encouraging…in 21 games under Hanlon, the Caps averaged 2.24 goals/game; under Boudreau so far in six games – 2.67 goals/game. It isn’t a lot of games to draw conclusions, and it isn’t the large improvement this club might need to get back into the thick of things. But it is an improvement, and the Caps “look” more energized in the last half dozen games than they have since the first few games of the season.