The Caps return home tonight to host the Atlanta Thrashers in a rematch of the season opener, a 4-2 loss for Washington. The Caps lost two games in regulation to only one Southeast team all of last season (to Tampa Bay) and are in danger of doing so in only their eighth game of this season. And, to make matters worse, one rather important party opined, “we aren’t a very good team right now.”
“I heff a theory or two.”
Professor! Well, right now the boys might use the help. Whaddya got?
“Vell, vurst uff all, at vutt do you call it zees days… ze thirty-thousand voot level… no goals.”
“Nein. Seven games last year, 26 goals. Zo far ziss year, 19. A whole goal a game vurse.”
I take it there is more.
“Ja. Ze power play…gans kaput. Last year, seven for 34 in seven games. Zey had power play goals in six of ze seven games. Ziss year, vutt? Four for 30? Thirteen percent? None for last eight. Not enuff power for an appliance bulb.”
“Vutt’s up mit Ovechkin? Last year, seven goals. Ziss year four. Same mit assists…seven, four. Plus-9 zenn, minus-1 now. And he’s taken 20 fewer shots through ze seven games zenn he did in his first seven last year. Backstrom, too. Other zide of same coin. Last year, nine azzists. Ze nine azzizts… four of zem on goals by Ovechkin. Three more on goals by Semin, two of zem on power play. Two udder azzizts on power play scored by Laich. Backstrom is vutt ve call ze independent variable. As he goes, so goes, it zeems, ze Caps. Last year he gets lots of azziztz for Ovechkin and on ze power play. Ziss year zo far, not zo much.”
Anything else, Doc?
“Be heppy mit ze defense zo far. Right now, ze Caps heff only four defensemen zat played in all seven games. Two of zem are rookies – Alzner und Carlson. Ze udder is Erskine. Green und Poti heff missed six man-games already. Zat means Carlson plays 21 minutes, Erskine 17. Zat’s pr-r-r-robably three minutes or zo more zen each should have. But mit all zat, not too shabby zo far.”
But the goalies have a hand in this, too.
“Ja…und if you take out ze bookend games by Neuvirth – ze first he vuss not zo goot, und ze last he vuss sick – he was really, really goot. All four vinns, 1.71 goals against and .945 save percentage. He hass 27 saves on 27 shots venn ze Caps are shorthanded, part of ze reason why ze Caps are perfect on ze penalty kill in six of seven games.”
Any last conclusions or advice?
So…when Backstrom’s numbers start to look better, so will Ovechkin’s and the power play. The defense needs to get healthy, and the goalies – well, Neuvirth – are playing really well when they’re not sick. It all seems fixable. The trick is, well… to fix it.
And that brings us to the opponent. Altanta looked like a very capable team in their 4-2 win over the Caps on opening night. They scored early (three minutes in on a goal by Evander Kane), late (with five minutes left on a goal by Fredrik Modin to clinch it) and in-between (including a penalty shot by Kane) to leave a bad taste in the Caps’ mouths after one game.
Since then, Atlanta has alternated wins and losses – two losses, two wins, and two losses, the latter of those recent losses last night against Tampa Bay in a 5-2 decision. The Thrashers have certainly not been as good defensively as they were against the Caps on opening night. In the six games since they have allowed 23 goals, nine of them power play goals to their opponents (in 31 shorthanded situations). If the Caps are to get healthy on their power play, you would have to think it possible against a team that has killed off only 70 percent of its shorthanded situations in its last six games. Their overall numbers look like this...
On the other side, Evander Kane’s production has largely dried up since his two goal effort on opening night. In six games since he is 1-0-1, minus-3, and has only 17 shots on goals (he had seven against the Caps).
The goals scoring for the Thrashers is led by Anthony Stewart, an under-the-radar free agent signing last summer, lost in the wash of former Blackhawks obtained by Atlanta. But Stewart’s scoring has lacked consistency. He had a hat trick against Anaheim in a 5-4 Gimmick win on October 15th, but he has only one goal in his other six games. Even as the leading goal scorer and leading points-getter overall, he is a minus-4 in seven games. In ten career games against the Caps Stewart is 1-1-2, even. His goal came in the 2005-2006 season in his first career appearance against Washington.
What to make of Dustin Byfuglien. Brought to the Thrashers in the Great Blackhawk Migration of 2010 (Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager, and assistant coach John Torchetti were also in the migration), Byfuglien is second on the club in scoring (2-4-6), but he has also been on the ice for seven of the 25 goals allowed by the Thrashers so far (minus-4 overall). He has been as advertised in one aspect, though. As a big body who can create traffic on the power play he has been effective. Five of his six points, and both goals so far, have been recorded with the man advantage.
Alexander Burmistrov was selected eighth overall in last summer’s NHL entry draft. He is the only Thrasher having skated in all seven games that has not yet recorded a point. This is not necessarily surprising, given that he is: a) skating about 14 minutes a night, and b) skating many of those minutes between Ben Eager and Chris Thorburn, who between them have a total of 108 points in 533 combined games of NHL experience.
In goal, Ondrej Pavelec continues to recover from his nightmarish experience in the season opener, fainting on the ice and sustaining a concussion when he collapsed. In his stead – both in the opener and since – Chris Mason has taken up the responsibility almost full time as the number one goalie. He hasn’t lacked for work. Since his fine relief effort against the Caps when he saved 29 of 31 shots in the 4-2 win, he is 2-4-0, 3.72, .904. The problem he has been facing though is that too much rubber is getting to him. Since the game against the Caps he has faced 38.7 shots per 60 minutes played. That is entirely too many shots on goal for any goaltender to contend with. If the Caps hit that level of shot-making tonight, it could be ugly for the visitors.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Atlanta: Andrew Ladd
Ladd is familiar to Caps fans for his work as a Carolina Hurricane for three seasons before moving to Chicago. He is in the midst of a four-game points streak (1-4-5). Against the Caps he is 6-5-11 in 18 career games, including a goal in the opener this season. He is something of a jack of all trades, playing at both ends on special teams. He has a couple of power play assists so far, and he has the Thrashers’ only shorthanded goal of the season. If he is putting up crooked numbers on the score sheet, chances are the Thrashers are making things difficult for the Caps.
Washington: Nicklas Backstrom
So much goes through Backstrom on this club, both in terms of centering the top line and in his role on the power play. That the Caps have only 19 goals overall in seven games and only four of those on the power play is a reflection of his slow start. There is a chicken and the egg quality to the problem. Is it because Backstrom is having his own troubles or because teammates aren’t finishing? Last year he had only two goals in his first seven games on his way to a career high of 33. But he had 11 assists in those seven games, too. So far this season he has only one goal in seven games, not inconsistent with last year’s production. But he has only three assists. Playmakers need guys to finish, and so far we have not seen that. If Backstrom’s numbers improve tonight, it is a broader signal that things are going better for the Caps.
1. Penalties. For the Thrashers, that is. The Thrashers have taken 39 penalties so far this season. 17 of those have been taken in the first period of games. In their last four games the Thrashers have been whistled for a dozen penalties, five in last night’s game against Tampa Bay. If the Thrashers are having that kind of night, it could be just the tonic for the Caps’ power play to return to health.
2. Home cooking. The Caps were a tough team to play at home last season (well, in the regular season), posting a 30-5-6 record. No team had more home wins, and the Caps had the fewest losses in regulation. The Caps got off to a slow start at home last year – 1-1-1 in their first three games. In fact, the Caps were only 4-1-3 through November 1st on Verizon Center ice. But the Caps have won 29 of 37 games since then at home. Having lost to the Bruins in the last game at home, it’s time to avoid bad habits from creeping in at home.
3. Penalty killing. Having seen their 25-for-25 start go up in a spray of ice at TD Garden the other night, the Caps cannot sink into the production they had last year when they finished 25th in penalty killing. They have been aggressive and opportunistic. If they are neither tonight, just standing around waiting for Thrashers to make plays, it will not end pleasantly for the home team.
In the end, the Caps did not play very well against the Thrashers in the opener, yet were still in the game until Fredrik Modin scored an insurance goal with five minutes left in the 4-2 Atlanta win. Since then the Thrashers have been uneven in their play but for one thing. They have allowed at least 33 shots on goal in each of the six games since then and allowed more than 40 shots in two of their last four games. This is a chance for the Caps to regain some of their swagger after being tamed by Tim Thomas in the home-and-home with Boston this week. Bombs away, boys.
Washington 6 – Atlanta 2