Sunday, October 16, 2011
That Was The Week That Was -- Week 1 (October 9-15)
Record for the week: 3-0-0
The Caps ended the week having tied a franchise mark for consecutive wins to open a season (four). It was not achieved in a dominating fashion, but there is always something to be said for winning. But each game came with its own issues and demons to slay. First up was Tampa Bay, the team that ended the Caps’ season last spring in a four-game sweep in the second round of the playoffs. It was an odd affair with the teams exchanging goals over the first two periods that left them tied, 3-3. Jason Chimera scored at the four-minute mark to give the Caps a lead, but they could not hold it, surrendering two goals to the Lightning to fall behind by a goal. Chimera tied it late, which gave the Caps the opportunity to secure a second standings point in extra time. They did just that when Matt Hendricks and Alexander Semin scored on trick shots, and Tomas Vokoun shutout the Lightning in the Gimmick for his first win as a Cap.
Next up was Pittsburgh. No need to retell the importance of such a matchup here. The Penguins were missing Sidney Crosby (upper noggin) and Marc-Andre Fleury (illness), and Evgeny Malkin was nursing a “lower body” injury said to be unrelated to his knee surgery. Still, the Pens showed a talent for winning games with such roster absences last year, and they did play this game largely on their terms – hard-fought, close-checking, and hoping to get to extra time, where they usually find a way to win. They didn’t – win that is. Oh, they got to extra time, alright, but it was the Caps, courtesy of Dennis Wideman off a pretty saucer pass from Nicklas Backstrom on the power play, that skated off Consol Energy Center ice with their eighth consecutive regular season win in Pittsburgh.
The week ended with a 2-1 decision over Ottawa that could only be described as “lackluster.” There were moments – Nicklas Backstrom ending a 20-game goalless streak with a score on the power play from a difficult angle, Marcus Johansson putting his speed on display with a nifty wrap-around goal, and Tomas Vokoun stopping 33 of 34 shots. But it wasn’t what one would expect of a team as talented as the Caps against an opponent struggling as much as the Senators. It was, however, a game that might have ended worse in that that Caps were coming off two games against critical opponents, and they might have fallen victim to a letdown. They did not, and the four-game winning streak to open the season was theirs.
Offense: 3.33 goals/game (season: 3.50, NHL rank: 2nd)
Here is your takeaway number for the week: 15. Fifteen different skaters recorded points this past week in three games. Seven different players recorded goals (ten goals in all). That is the kind of balance the team is looking for. The top line of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Brouwer had three goals. The second line of Semin-Johansson-Knuble had three goals. The third line of Ward-Laich-Chimera had two goals. Dennis Wideman chipped in two from the blue line. If the second and third lines can contribute consistently like that, and Ovechkin and Backstrom raise their production a notch (Backstrom did have three points for the week, but Ovechkin had only one), the Caps will once more be a formidable offense.
Defense: 2.67 goals/game (season: 2.75, rank: T-21st)
With so few games, a stinker on defense is going to push the numbers up, and the Lightning hanging five on the Caps last Monday certainly did that. And as it turned out, it might not have been against the Tampa Bay we have come to know over the last year. It was the high-water mark of the week for the Lightning, who are now in the midst of a four-game winless streak in which they have scored only nine goals, five of them in that game against the Caps.
One item of concern is that three of the eight goals allowed for the week came in the third period. Twice this week the Caps gave up third period leads (Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh) that brought the total for the season to three in the first three games. They did not allow an Ottawa goal in the last game of the week, so chalk that up to results, if not “improvement,” given the state of the Senators.
Another item of concern is shots. The Caps allowed 75 shots on goal in the last two games of the week against teams that might not have been expected to generate a lot of offensive pressure. Individually, it helps to keep in mind that the Caps are breaking in two new defensive pairs – Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik, and Jeff Schultz and Dennis Wideman. Communication and instinct don’t happen at the drop of a puck, and the ever-slow-slight hesitation that comes with the lack of that knowledge was evident from time to time, especially with the Green/Hamrlik pair. Something to watch in the weeks ahead.
Tomas Vokoun started the week in his first game as a Cap and was victorious despite it being “just [an] ugly, ugly, ugly game for [him].” He allowed five goals on 28 shots, two on nine shots in the third period. But his career has not been without its problems in October. He sucked it up with Michal Neuvirth on the shelf with a lower body injury, stopping 39 of 41 shots against Pittsburgh and 33 of 34 against Ottawa to end the week. In all, Vokoun stopped 79 of the last 82 shots he faced this past week (.963 save percentage), and his overall .922 save percentage is right where you would expect him to be.
Power Play: 2-for-11/18.2 percent (season: 25.0 percent; rank: 2nd)
After getting two on five chances on Carolina in the season opener, the Caps slid back a bit this week. On the bright side, they did get power play goals in each of the last two games of the week, one coming on Wideman’s overtime winner in Pittsburgh, the other from Nicklas Backstrom to open the scoring against Ottawa on Saturday. Perhaps just as important, Backstrom figured in both, setting up Wideman’s winner and scoring one of his own. It is, to be charitable, though, a work in progress. The power play was 2-for-17 in shots on 11 power plays for the week. More precisely, that was 17 shots in a total of 15:47 of power play time. An 11.8 percent shooting percentage with a man-advantage does not compare favorably with an 11.4 percent shooting percentage at even strength for the week. Had they shot better, those minutes wouldn’t pile up as time spent unproductively.
Penalty Killing: 9-for-10/90.0 percent (season: 78.6; rank: T-23rd)
It certainly was an improvement on allowing two goals on two man-advantages in the season opener against Carolina. The Caps allowed one goal on 15 shots (6.7 percent shooting percentage), which is (if you look at is as a save percentage of .933) quite impressive. If there was a cloud in this sunny sky, it was that the goal was a third period goal that tied the game late against the Penguins.
Paying the Price: 83 hits/46 blocked shots (season rank: 7th/T-15th)
Not much to conclude here, although it bears noting that the Caps recorded many fewer hits in the Penguin game (19) than in the other two games of the week (33 and 31), and that they finished with many more blocked shots (23) in that Penguin game than in the other two (13 and 10). A product of what the official scorer sees?
Faceoffs: 83-for-176/47.2 percent (season: 49.2 percent; rank: T-17th)
Losing faceoff wizards David Steckel and Boyd Gordon is likely to leave an impression in this area, but the Caps were on the wrong side of 50 percent in all three games this week. The difference was in the offensive zone. In the neutral zone the Caps were 27-for-54, and in the defensive zone they were 32-for-63. But in the offensive zone they were 24-for 59 for the week (40.7 percent). If you are a puck possession team, and you rely on establishing possession in the offensive zone, that number has to improve.
This is a product of the sum of takeaways the Caps had plus giveaways by opponents, less takeaways by opponents plus Caps giveaways. Plus-10 looks good, but that is entirely a product of the result of the Tampa Bay game (plus-13). The Caps were a minus-3 against Pittsburgh and even against the Senators. These numbers might be revealing over an entire season, but in short stretches of games might be taken with a grain of salt given the variation among arenas’ official scoring.
Not a bad week – a 3-0-0 week can never be said to be “bad.” However, three one-goal games, two of them going to extra time, is a pretty thin margin for error that one does not want to have to rely on as a steady occurrence. Generally, an important takeaway for the week is an inability to close teams out. Allowing three goals in the third period of games this week and blowing leads in two of those games is something that has to be corrected. And part of that seems to be an unwillingness – either by strategy or a lack of that “ruthless” gene that elite teams have – to stand on an opponent’s neck when they’re down. The Caps did have 31 shots on goal in the third period of the three games this week, but 20 of them came against Tampa Bay, a game in which the Caps actually fell behind in the third frame (the Caps recorded six shots on goal in the last 7:04 after the Lightning took the lead, scoring on one to re-tie the game).
On balance it was a good week – six of six possible standings points – but certainly not a great one. There are a lot of moving parts to integrate with this team at the moment. A new third line (which has been the most consistent in terms of effort so far), two new defensive pairs, and a new goalie. But it does not explain the slow starts of Ovechkin and Backstrom (although Backstrom might be coming around). The Caps need to get more production out of the Young Guns. If they do, then the early season hiccups will be soon forgotten. If they don’t, it will be a source of frustration and concern as long as it lasts.