Sunday, February 27, 2011

Home and Home

There are a lot of reasons one might point to as a cause for the Caps’ struggles this year – an adjustment of philosophy to a more defensive style that has been painful at times, an impotent power play, injuries, an indifference to regular season results. But whatever the reasons are, they have had a distinct effect in one aspect.

Home sure ain’t where the heart is.

In the three seasons preceding this one the Caps posted a home record of 74-35-14 in the regular season. As the month of February closes on the NHL calendar the Caps are 17-8-7, the eight losses in regulation already exceed last year’s total (five) and is one short of the number posted in the 2008-2009 season (nine). While the overall record at Verizon Center isn’t bad, by any means (the 17 wins is fifth in the East), the record has been assembled in two distinct parts, as if the Caps iced two entirely different home teams. One covers the October-November portion of the season, the other covering December through February. You can look at the numbers and see for yourself:

The Caps started the season picking up exactly where they left off last year when they went 30-5-6 at home. In the first two months of the season they went 12-1-1 and were outscoring opponents by more than two goals a game. They were the most dominant team at home in the league. Then…

The Caps started December splitting a pair of road games, the loss in the second game becoming the first in what would be an eight-game losing streak (0-6-2). In that streak the Caps lost all four games of a four-game home stand (0-3-1), getting outscored 13-7 (not including a shootout-winning goal for Toronto in a 5-4 Maple Leaf win). In one respect it is a streak from which the Caps have not recovered. In 18 home games since the beginning of December the Caps are 5-7-6 and have lost their last three games on home ice.

What happened? Well, plainly put, the Caps stopped scoring. From an average of over four goals a game in their first 14 home games in October and November, the Caps have scored fewer than two goals a game in 18 home games over the last three months. Not even a better defense (2.33 goals per game over the last three months versus 2.50 in the first two months) has been able to give the Caps enough lift to salvage their home record recently.

Only twice in these last three months have the Caps treated their fans to games of four or more goals scored. They beat the hapless (at the time) New Jersey Devils, 5-1, and lost to Toronto in a shootout, 5-4. Both games were in December.

A big part of the problem is, as it is for the Caps in general, the power play. Humming along at almost 27 percent in the first two months in home games, the power play is only 6-for-71 – an 8.5 percent conversion rate – over the last three months. Had the Caps merely performed at a 20 percent level the last three months they would have finished with as many goals on the power play as they recorded in the first two months. Performing at that first two month level would have given the Caps 19 power play goals -- 13 more goals than they actually had (six). Given that the Caps had seven one-goal losses over the past three months at home, it made a difference.

But the drop in power play production accounts for only about 30 percent of the 2.24 goal drop in offense in the last three months. What else is going on? Well, drill down to the individual level. The “Young Guns” have been shooting blanks:

Even with Alexander Semin missing six of the 18 home games over the last three months and Mike Green missing three, a 25-goal drop in production from this quartet from one period to the other has cost the Caps almost two goals a game they are not getting now that they had in October and November. That neither Semin nor Nicklas Backstrom has a goal at Verizon Center since November is unfathomable.

It is laudable that the Caps – and this foursome – has embraced a more defensive posture this season, but the Caps showed (at home, at least) that they could play defense and abuse opponents’ defense during those first two months of the season. In the first two months the team goals-allowed-per-game was only 0.17 goals more than it has been over the last three months, while the offense was scoring 2.24 more goals per game than they have over the last three months. Embracing that ethic doesn’t seem to explain the offensive draught over the last three months.

It would be asking a lot to get Alexander Semin producing at the rate he displayed in October and November. Scoring 16 goals in 14 home games is one of those streaks that might come along once every half-dozen years for the most prolific of goal scorers. But Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green need to raise their production. Backstrom and Green are fighting through injuries, making the task more difficult. But the plain fact is that the power play and the drop in production among the Young Guns go a long way to explaining what has happened to a once formidable team on home ice. These have to improve to make Verizon Center a difficult place for opponents once more.


Anonymous said...

Opponents aren't afraid of taking penalties against the Caps, nor are they afraid of playing in the Verizon Center. Inept PP + no home ice advantage = recipe for failure. The Young Guns need to step up their production, but to do that they must first develop the maturity and discipline to put hockey first and their off-ice activities second.

Diane said...

As of late, it's been a "Home Field Disadvantage" for the team.