Friday, February 11, 2011
It has been 17 days since we last posted in this space. Meanwhile, the Caps played five games over that period. They were not five games that should make the hearts of Caps fans beat proudly. In fact, the five games were – as a group – downright scary…
In their last five games the Caps are 2-2-1. It is part of a broader malaise that has seems to have hovered over the team since the start of the calendar year. While the Caps started the 2011 portion of the season with a thrilling win in the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, they are only 6-4-5 since and have not strung together more than two wins in a row over that span (they recorded two consecutive wins only twice). But back to these most recent five games. The confounding part of this group of contests is that the teams they played have a combined record of 152-95-31. None of the five have a less than .500 record (measured by standings points). As a group, the five opponents provided worthy competition. But the Caps marshaled their best efforts in only the two games against clubs they have a higher probability of facing in the playoffs – Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. The Caps demolished the Lightning, 5-2, in Tampa; and followed that up with an efficient whitewashing of the Penguins (missing Sidney Crosby and Yevgeni Malkin), 3-0. Even against Montreal, who the Caps could face in the Eastern Conference elimination round later in the spring, Washington managed to get a standings point in a 3-2 trick shot loss. Against Atlanta and San Jose – one a team that has been fading over the last month (1-4-3 in the eight games leading up to their meeting with the Caps), the other a club the Caps are unlikely to face in a game with meaning this year – the Caps failed to record a goal, falling by shutout to this pair of teams. And that brings us to…
The Dead Puck Era
Baseball had its Dead Ball Era in the early 20th century. Hockey had its dead puck era in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The Caps, after recording almost four goals a game in the 2009-2010 season, seem intent on making the 2010-2011 season the franchise’s own “dead puck era.” In three of their last five games the Caps were involved in shutouts. Unfortunately, two of them were losses. That makes eight times the Caps have been shutout this season and puts them in shouting distance of the club record of 12 times being shutout, that coming in the ghastly inaugural 1974-1975 season. Eight shutouts seems like a high number for a Stanley Cup contender, and in fact it is. Of the last five Cup winners, only one champion was shut out more than three times in their winning season – Anaheim in 2006-2007 (six times). But eight is not an unprecedented number. Tampa Bay was blanked eight times in the 2003-2004 season before going on to win their Cup. However, even here there is a caution. The Lightning were shut out seven times in their first 36 games of that campaign, only once in their last 46 games. The Caps have been blanked six times in their last 26 games. Washington, allegedly the most dynamic offensive team in the NHL when firing on all cylinders, is tied for the league lead (with woeful Toronto) in times shutout. And if you are wondering, no… the Lightning did not lead the league in times having been shutout in 2003-2004. They were tied for the sixth most times shutout in that season.
Isn’t That Special?
Special teams, which have experienced a stunning reversal of fortune from last season to this, continue along the season-long lines over the last five games. The Caps’ power play, puttering along in the mid-teens of efficiency over much of the season (currently at 17.0 percent – 20th in the league), has continued to struggle. It went 2-for-16 over the last five games, extending to 31 games a streak in which the Caps have failed to record more than one power play goal. Since getting two in a 6-0 win over Tampa Bay on November 26th, Washington is 11-for-101 on the power play (10.9 percent). And it matters. Over that stretch the Caps are 6-2-3 in games in which they notched a power play goal, 7-8-5 in games the power play is held scoreless.
The penalty killers, on the other hand, are doing more than their share to keep the team afloat. Over the last five games the Caps are 14-for-15 on the PK (93.3 percent). The penalty killers have allowed more than one power play goal only once in this calendar year, and in fact have allowed more than one power play goal in a game only once since November 5th, when they allowed two in three power play opportunities in a 5-3 win over Boston, a stretch of 42 games. The Caps have not allowed power play goals in consecutive games since they were mired in that eight-game winless streak in December. It bears noting that during that streak they allowed a power play goal in each of the seven games in which they found themselves defending a shorthanded situation (they did not face a penalty killing situation in the last game of the streak, a 3-2 loss to Boston). Since that eight-game winless streak ended, the Caps are 72-for-78 on the PK (92.3 percent).
The Kids Are Alright
If, over five games, your goaltenders have a combined 1.39 goals against average, a .952 save percentage, a shutout, and did not allow more than two goals in any of the games, they have done their job. If one wants to quibble with that declaration, one could point to the fact that Semyon Varlamov did allow two goals to Montreal in the second period of a 3-2 Gimmick loss after the Caps staked him to a 2-0 lead in the first eight minutes of that game. But that game was characterized by a broader indifference to closing the Canadiens out on the part of the whole team once they had that lead. However, if Job 1 on the part of the goaltender is to keep pucks out of his net, Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth have performed the job well. Neuvirth has allowed more than two goals only once in his last eight appearances, Varlamov only twice in his last 12 appearances. You can add Braden Holtby, who allowed only single goals in each of his last three appearances. It is part of a broader trend in which the Caps and their goaltenders have allowed two or fewer goals in 17 of their last 23 games, dating back to the 7-0 embarrassment at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers on December 12th. Varlamov and Neuvirth have a combined .953 save percentage in the third period and overtime over the last five games (41 saves on 43 shots faced).
Then there are the other kids, defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Of the seven goals allowed by the Caps in the last five games, Carlson and Alzner were on the ice for three of them (including both goals in the 2-0 loss to San Jose). That was an unusual result, given that both Carlson and Alzner rank among the top-25 among all defensemen in overall plus-minus (Carlson is second among rookie defensemen). According to the statistics at NHL.com, Carlson has been on the ice for only 43 team goals against (not including power play goals against), and Alzner has been on the ice for only 39 team goals against. Here is a way to look at that. Of the 153 defensemen who have dressed for at least 40 games this season in the NHL, only 56 have been on the ice for fewer goals than Carlson, and only 47 defensemen have been on the ice for fewer goals than Alzner. Given that Carlson is averaging more than 17 even strength minutes a game, and Alzner is averaging just a shade under 17 minutes, their performance has been remarkable. And the good news for Caps fans going forward is that of the 274 defensemen who have dressed at all for an NHL team this season, only 16 are younger than Carlson (10 of whom have played at least 40 games), 31 younger than Alzner (15 of whom have played in at least 40 games).
Star Light, Star Bright
Ten goals scored in five games is not a recipe for success, no matter how well your defense, goaltenders, and penalty killers are playing. So what’s the deal? Well, over the last five games Alex Ovechkin has four points. Over the last five games Nicklas Backstrom has four points. Unfortunately, all of Ovechkin’s points came in one game, a 5-2 win over Tampa Bay. All of Backstrom’s points came in one game…the same 5-2 win over the Lightning. Alexander Semin just returned to the lineup for the last of these five games (a 2-0 shutout loss at the hands of San Jose) after missing a month to injury. A certain consistency is lacking.
Ovechkin is closing in on a personal best, in a manner of speaking. Through 55 games he has been held without a point in 22 contests. In 2006-2007 he was held without a point in 25 games. Although he is 20-35-55 and on a point-a-game pace for the season – a fine pace for mere mortals – his consistency in putting up points on a game-to-game basis has been largely absent this season and in these last five games.
Backstrom has, if anything, been more inconsistent than Ovechkin on the offensive side of the ledger. He has 14 multi-point games this season (on a pace for 21 such games; he had 28 last season on his way to 101 points), yet is on a pace to record only 75 points. Over the last eight games he has eight points (3-5-8), but they came as a product of multi-point efforts in three of those games – two-point nights against the Islanders and Maple Leafs, and a four point night against Tampa Bay. This year, what might have been multi-point games have ended up being goose-eggs for Backstrom. To be fair, though, Backstrom has contributed in other ways, even if his scoring has been relatively spotty. He is still a team-leading plus-16 for the season (plus-1 over the last five games) and has improved his faceoff performance immensely, currently ranked 26th in the league with a 53.2 percent winning percentage. Still, as far as the brightest stars are concerned, you would be hard pressed to read their stat lines by the light of their offensive performances lately.
Five games is about one-sixteenth of the season, hardly the basis for pronouncing the season a success or a dud. But what is disturbing about these last five games is the sameness of them compared to the previous three months. The Caps ramped up their play against opponents that mattered – Tampa Bay and the Penguins – just as they did for the Winter Classic game against Pittsburgh, as they did in blanking Montreal in something of a revenge match in the game before the Classic, as they have in essentially battling the Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia Flyers to a draw in taking each of the three games played against the Flyers thus far to extra time.
These five games have been characterized by weak power play performances and stout penalty killing… just as the Caps have displayed over the last three months. The goaltending, thought to be a weakness this season (and is persistently discussed as a weakness for this team), has been anything but. The stars have teased fans with big performances – the four point games from Ovechkin and Backstrom against Tampa Bay during this five game stretch – but left them scratching their heads over why they can’t put big games (or even decent games) together on the scoring side of things. Mike Green, who is on a very short list in the discussion of best offensive defenseman in the NHL, did not record a goal in any of the five games (he played in only four of them, taking a puck to the side of the head against the Penguins, resulting in his sitting out against San Jose) and has one goal since the New Year (1-6-7 in 15 games). It does need to be said, however, that Green has brought his defensive game a long way forward this season. Alexander Semin missed four of the five games, rejoining the lineup after missing a month to injury. In five full seasons with the Caps (including this one) he has missed 58 of 383 games, about 15 percent of the games played.
If there is a glimmer of optimism to be found here it is in the nature of streaks and how they can unduly influence one’s evaluation of a team’s performance. Last season and this, the Caps have had long streaks. Last year they put together a 14-game winning streak that fueled their run to a Presidents Trophy. This year they endured an eight-game winless streak that served as a plot line for the HBO series chronicling the run-up to the Winter Classic. Streaks should not be confused with a team’s reliable level of performance. They might be a reflection of a club’s best – or worst – possible state of play. They might be a product of luck, good or bad. They might be a reflection of favorable or unfavorable twists in the nature of the opposition the team has to face or whether games are predominantly at home or on the road.
So let’s pull those streaks out and look at the Caps otherwise. Last year, taking the 14-game winning streak out of the mix, the Caps were a 40-15-13 team. That is a 112-point pace for a season, an excellent pace of production. Not that it got them much. Perhaps inflated by that 14-game streak, the Caps had a lot of expectations hitched to their wagon when the playoffs started. That wagon went two weeks before the wheels fell off. This season, taking that eight-game winless streak out, the Caps are 29-10-8. That is a 115-point pace for a season. But few are mentioning the Caps as a team that could show up in a Stanley Cup final. Philadelphia, Boston, and even Tampa Bay seem to be getting more respect as a potential Eastern Conference representative in the finals. Pittsburgh was – and would still be – in that conversation but for the loss of Yevgeni Malkin and absence of Sidney Crosby to injury.
The Caps are more or less where they were last season as far as standings points performance goes, streaks notwithstanding. How they got here and the perception of their chances to win a title that results from their journey have changed quite a bit. Whereas last year the winning streak pumped up expectations perhaps beyond the ability of the team to meet them, this year the losing streak seems to have muted expectations. Still, if these last five games leave any lingering after taste, it is that there is too much of a “sameness” quality to the performances over too long a period. The offense (especially the power play) is lethargic, the team is playing much better defense (but depending too much on it), and one gets the impression that despite the “stay angry” motto emblazoned on tee shirts at the start of the year, the team seems to be struggling to “stay awake.”
With 27 games left to play – the last third of the season—that alarm clock had better be going off. And that is especially true for the power play. The Caps are on a pace to score a total of 92 fewer goals this year compared to last. Fortunately, the defense is on a pace to allow 32 fewer goals. If a club is paying more attention to defense, you might expect a drop in even strength scoring along with a drop in goals allowed. It is the nature of the game where players play offense and defense on the same shift. But the drop in goal-differential of 60 goals could be relieved with a more potent power play that does not have as clear a relationship with what the Caps are trying to accomplish in firming up their defense. The power play is about inflicting offensive damage on an opponent and making them pay for taking liberties with the rules (perhaps a deterrent to doing so in the future, thus opening up more even strength opportunities). The Caps are on a pace to score 31 fewer power play goals this year than last (79 last year, 48 this year). If the power play returns to a 20-plus percent efficiency rate (they are currently at 17.0 percent), it might not have much effect on the remaining regular season results (an increase from 17 to 20 percent over the rest of the season would mean approximately three additional power play goals, given the number of opportunities the Caps are getting), but a 20-plus percent power play in the post-season could mean the difference between an early exit and a longer run. It is the one segment of the Caps at the moment that has the greatest divergence between talent and performance, and is the one in greatest need of improvement.
It is time to get into a playoff state of mind, because if this team – any team – expects to flip a switch on April 10th and be raring to go for the postseason, they might find that the power has been shut off because they didn’t pay the bill by getting into good habits during the regular season.