Sunday, December 02, 2007

Shots matter...don't they?

The Peerless has always been of a mind that shots matter -- that over the course of a season, the notion that the kind of shots a club faces regresses toward a mean of difficulty, and the result is that teams that rank highly in shots taken/shots faced do better than those that do not.

Well, the information gleaned from the first third of the season is rather weird in this regard. Looking at shots taken, we've ranked teams by their shots taken/game (conference top-eight teams marked with an "X"):

What you might note is the top and bottom of the list. The top five teams in shots taken are in the top-eight of their respective conferences. But then again, so are the bottom four clubs, not to mention eight of the bottom 11. Hmm...what about shots allowed?

Here, eight of the best 11 teams in allowing shots are top-eight clubs in their respective conferences, while only five of the worst 11 are similarly situated. Does differential make a difference?

Hard to tell anything here...five of the top ten, five of the next ten, and six of the bottom ten are in the top-eight mix. Differential -- to this point -- seems to matter little.

It's early, with lots of time for these things to settle out, but it looks like if there is one thing to watch, it is how many shots a team allows. It might be a function of uncommon puck possession capability (Detroit seems rather freakish in this regard) or teams with a well-earned reputation for denying shots (the Devils, Stars), but keeping those shots allowed down seems to be more an indicator of success than taking shots. This makes some sense...a shot that gets through might be a high-quality chance or a low-quality one, but a chance nonetheless. But a shot that doesn't get through (or doesn't get taken) can't find its way into the back of the net.

The "First Period" -- Team-Wide Performance

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). Detroit has five players with more than 20 points. 33 man-games lost by the trio of Chris Clark, Alexander Semin, and Tom Poti no doubt have contributed to that anemic record, but the nominal opening night third line of Clark, Boyd Gordon, and Matt Pettinger having a combined eight goals (five of those by Clark, and most scored while not on that line) was not in the season’s game plan, either.

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 – Nashville, Colorado, and Carolina.

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.

On an icy road

The Purdue University web site has this to say about its club sports program:

The Club Sports Program offers a unique blend of team and individual sports with intercollegiate opportunities for club members. Each club receives professional guidance, facility usage, and some financial support. Club members help with their own expenses through payment of individual semester and/or annual dues, fund-raising projects, and special assessments.

These are kids who participate out of their love of the sport. But misfortune hit the Purdue men's ice hockey club squad yesterday on a road in Indiana. The program reports:

A member of the Purdue University Ice Hockey Club team died and seven of his teammates were injured Saturday afternoon (Dec. 1) when the van in which they were riding rolled over after sliding on ice-slickened Ind. 25, five miles north of Wingate, Ind.

The accident occurred at about 3:45 p.m. as the 20 team members, two coaches and a manager were traveling to the David S. Palmer Arena in Danville, Ill., for a scheduled 5 p.m. game against Holy Cross College of South Bend, Ind.

The Purdue Exponent -- the student newspaper -- reports that the student killed in the accident is defenseman Andrew Jackson, of Chanhassen, MN. It might not get the attention of the larger programs of their sister schools in the Big Ten, such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, or Michigan State, but in its own right it is a successful program -- winners of nine of their first 11 games this year -- and this morning we thought we'd remember these kids and their fans for their loss and their love of the sport.