Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Ten Stories of 2010 -- Number 9: Eight Is Quite Enough

In 1975 the Washington Capitals lost 17 games in a row. The team had not lost as many as eight in a row since opening the 1990 portion of the 1989-1990 season with eight consecutive defeats. But starting with an innocent enough-looking 2-1 loss on the road in Dallas on December 2nd, the Caps would go on to match their longest losing streak in more than 20 years. You could pick nits and say that in the 2010 edition of “Eight is Enough” the Caps did earn two standing points by virtue of extra time losses to Toronto (a 5-4 loss in a shootout) and to Anaheim (a 2-1 overtime loss), but losses are losses, and single standings points are little consolation to fans, players, or management when the losses start piling up. It’s just bookkeeping.

And speaking of bookkeeping, here is the list of losses on the 2010 streak

At Dallas: 2-1
Atlanta: 3-1
Toronto: 5-4 (OT/SO)
Florida: 3-0
Colorado: 3-2
At NY Rangers: 7-0
Anaheim: 2-1 (OT)
At Boston: 3-2

Except for the implosion at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers, the Caps did not play altogether poorly on defense. With that 7-0 loss Washington gave up an average of 3.38 goals per game. Absent that debacle, that number was 2.86 goals allowed per game. Not great, to be sure, but not the sort of number you would associate with a team on a long losing streak. If there was a defensive letdown, though, it was on the power play. Skating shorthanded the Caps killed off 18 of 26 penalties (69.2 percent) and allowed at least one power play goal in the first seven games of the streak. That they did not in the eighth game was a product of not facing a shorthanded situation in the 3-2 loss at Boston.

But even those numbers are deceptive. The Caps did not get very good goaltending. In the eight games Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth surrendered a total of 27 goals on 205 shots (a .868 save percentage). Even discarding the Ranger calamity, the goalies allowed 20 goals on 185 shots (a .892 save percentage – not very good).

What let the Caps down more than anything, though, was a team-wide offensive drought. In the eight games the Caps scored only 11 goals (1.38/game), four of them coming in the 5-4 shootout loss to Toronto on December 6th. The Caps were shut out twice (3-0 by Florida, 7-0 by the Rangers) and scored a single goal in three other games. Only once – in the 5-4 loss to Toronto – did the Caps score more than twice.

The usual word that might describe the Caps’ power play woes on the streak would be “anemic.” That doesn’t begin to capture the scope of the problem. The “power” play was 3-for-29 during the streak. And efficiency rating of 10.3 percent might be something lower than half what folks should expect from a power play unit featuring the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin. But that was just the half of it. Scoring power play goals depends on your getting power plays, and the Caps managing only 29 man-advantage situations in eight games (3.6/game) didn’t give the guys much of a chance to shine, either.

But back to the “Young Guns” – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, and Semin. Individually, they were universally unproductive:

Ovechkin: 2-2-4, minus-4
Backstrom: 0-4-4, minus-5
Green: 0-1-1, minus-3 (six games)
Semin: 0-2-2, minus-1 (six games)

As a group, 2-9-11, minus-13 might be the bulls-eye in terms of the Caps’ inability to mount any offense to speak of in the eight games. That all four of them would hit a rut at the same time is one of those things that defy explanation in sports. We’re sure Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri had their slumps as part of “Murderers’ Row,” too.

Bruce Boudreau remarked in an HBO 24/7 episode that the Chicago Blackhawks lost nine in a row last year on their way to the Cup. Not to pick nits, but the statement is not true. The Blackhawks did not lose more than three consecutive games last year, but they did have a stretch in March in which they lost seven of nine (2-5-2, including a 4-3 overtime loss to the Caps in which Chicago blew a 3-0 third period lead). So, the spirit of the comment had merit. Teams do hit bumps along the way. The Blackhawks had theirs; the previous Cup champ wasn’t even in the playoff mix half-way through the season.

On December 1st, the day before the streak started and a night on which the Caps won in St. Louis – historically a difficult place for them to win, Washington topped the league in standings points with 38 (on an 18-6-2 record). Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Detroit trailed, all with 34 points. In the Southeast Division, Tampa Bay was in second place with 31 points, Atlanta third with 29. All seemed well, a smooth road to what might be another Presidents Trophy in the future. Seventeen days later the Caps lost to the Boston Bruins, 3-2, for their eighth straight loss. They had fallen nine points behind Philadelphia, four behind Pittsburgh, and they now trailed both the Atlanta Thrashers and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division, resting seventh in the Eastern Conference and only two points ahead of Boston, the team that just beat them that night.

It might be the hard way to go – enduring a long bout of frustration – but it is not necessarily a signal that failure is a certainty in the playoffs. In fact, in a perverse way the streak might have been the growing pains to be endured by trying to incorporate a more defensively responsible character within their team framework. If so, it could yield big dividends down the road for the Caps. Nevertheless, for its incomprehensibility and maddening effect the streak had on players and fans alike, eight consecutive losses was quite enough and was one of the top ten stories in 2010.

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