Sunday, October 16, 2011

That Was The Week That Was -- Week 1 (October 9-15)

We’re back with a feature from last year – "That Was The Week That Was" – in which we’ll take a look back at the week through ten areas and compare it to the previous week. Maybe we’ll see some progress along the way. First up, the week ending October 15th…

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.

Goaltending: 2.57/.922

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.

Turnovers: Plus-10

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.

The Goals Project

We are going to try something to assess the ability of the Caps to find "the bakery."  We're going to chart as best we can each and every goal the Caps score this season.  Below you will find a snapshot through the first four games of every Caps goal scored, in the order in which they have been scored, displayed from the perspective of how you would have viewed them from your television.  Game-winning goals are circled  (click the image for a larger view).

As you can see, "going to the bakery," in Brooks Laich's terms, has its benefits.  But this is not news; we are just providing a visual representation of what you already know to be true.

As for the game winners, so far they are:

Game 1, Goal 4: Mike Green
Game 2 (none, shootout)
Game 3, Goal 12: Dennis Wideman
Game4, Goal 14: Marcus Johansson

A TWO-point night -- Game 4: Caps 2 - Senators 1

Four and oh.

Maybe that should read, “four and oh brother.”

The Caps have been 4-0 three times in team history, and we feel quite comfortable is saying that this is the ugliest edition of the three. The Caps outlasted the Ottawa Senators tonight, 2-1, in what would have been perhaps the most boring 60 minutes of hockey in the league this season, if not for some sparkling work by Tomas Vokoun in goal for the Caps.

Vokoun stopped 32 of 33 shots to earn his second win, and that leaves him with 79 saves on the last 82 shots he has faced, going back to the third period of the 6-5 win over Tampa Bay (.963 save percentage). For the most part he was solid in his positioning, but it was his stick work that almost did him in, mostly when he was handling the puck behind his own net (we’ll chalk that up to the learning period with his defensemen).

The one time when it did do him it, it was merely the last miscue in a grisly shift in the defensive zone for the Caps. It came in the last minute of play in the first period, when Nick Foligno corralled the puck behind the Caps’ net. He sent it out to David Rundblad at the right point. Rundblad had acres of space and time to spare to figure out what to do, because the Caps were standing around in front of Vokoun with their backs to the play. Rundblad stepped up and sent a shot that deflected to the stick of Foligno at Vokoun’s left. Vokoun tried to poke-sweep check the puck away from Foligno, but only got a lot of Foligno’s skate. The move on Vokoun’s part left him prone on the ice and unable to do anything to defend Peter Regin, who picked up the puck near the goal line and snapped it over Vokoun with just over 25 seconds left in the first period.

The goal sucked all the momentum off the Caps bench that was built with Swedish hands. Nicklas Backstrom scored his first goal since last March 22, breaking a 20-game goalless streak (including playoffs). It came on the first of three Caps power plays and was the product of two nifty passes from in close. The first was from Mike Knuble behind the Ottawa net to Alexander Semin, who took advantage of a terrible attempt at a poke by Senator defenseman Chris Phillips by dishing it across the crease to Backstrom at goalie Alex Auld’s left. Backstrom stilled the puck with his skate, then ripped a forehand off the far pipe behind Auld and in from a severe angle.

The second goal was a product of something you can’t teach – speed. Marcus Johansson had the puck on his stick skating down the left side with Senator defenseman Erik Karlsson trying to keep pace. Johansson bent his line to curl around the back of the Ottawa cage, and Karlsson was left with only his stick to try to defend Johansson as he was pulling ahead. Johansson beat Karlsson around the back of the net, and beat Auld to the front as he wrapped the puck around the post and between Auld’s legs for the second goal.

Other stuff…

-- What to make of Alex Ovechkin. In 18 minutes he had seven shots, three hits, three takeaways, and played all 200 feet of ice, for the most part. But he looked lost in his own zone on the Ottawa goal, and he had a couple of fine scoring opportunities that he passed up looking for teammates.

-- And there is this, too, about Ovechkin. The Caps had a total of 5:49 of power play time. Ovechkin skated only 2:21 of it and was not on the ice when Backstrom scored his power play goal. Again, what to make of it. Parceling out the time, or trying to send Ovechkin a message?

-- Jared Cowen led all players with seven hits, but it was the hit he took that was the most memorable. Trying to angle Ovechkin to the boards on a rush, he looked to have Ovechkin pinned, but Ovechkin, sensing he was running out of room, lowered his shoulder and lifted Cowen off his feet with a hit of his own. But, Cowen didn’t allow a scoring chance.

-- Vokoun won the first star of the game, and we agree. Mike Knuble won the second star off a two-assist performance, and Marcus Johansson won the third star for what was the game-winning goal. But from our seat, the most impactful player on the night for the Caps was Jason Chimera. Chimera used his speed to great effect in pressuring the Ottawa defense, to the point of the Senator defensemen cheating to try to cut him off on wide rushes. It enabled him to at least attempt a few passes to trailing teammates.

-- This was a team the Caps should have put away early. They didn’t. But they should have put them away late, too. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar took a puck off the boot late in the first period and did not skate over the last 40 minutes (it was later diagnosed as a bruised foot). The Senators, not a very good defensive team when fielding a full complement of defensemen, rotated five defensemen through the lineup. The Caps could not take advantage.

-- “Prevent” defense usually prevents only winning. The Caps were outshot 29-16 after Johansson’s goal at the 12:01 mark of the first period. It could have ended much worse for the Caps.

-- The watch word in this game might be, “didn’t”…as in, the Caps didn’t let this one get to overtime (the first regulation finish in four games this season).

-- The Caps didn’t relinquish a third period lead (they did so in each of the first three games).

-- They didn’t take any silly offensive zone penalties. In fact, the one penalty called on Washington – a boarding call against the Caps – looked very weak from our view. Zenon Konopka as much lost his balance as he was hit by Alzner.

-- Only Jeff Halpern won a majority of his draws, and that was only 3-for-5. The Caps were officially 28 up and 33 down in the circle, but it looked to us a lot worse than that. Part of the problem was poor support from wingers after the drop of the puck. The center was more or less on his own to win the draw cleanly too often.

-- Speaking of draws, the fact that nine Caps took draws, and eight Senators took them speaks to a busy night for linesmen throwing guys out of the circle.

-- The Caps were not sharp except for some stretches in the first period, but where they were bordering on poor was their work along the walls. Too often a Senator came out of a scrum or a one-on-one battle with the puck or able to push it along to a teammate.

-- We will give the Caps this… one penalty, one shot allowed, and if Erik Karlsson is the one taking that shot, we like the Caps’ chances. Part of winning the special teams battle, especially if you don’t draw many penalties of your own, is making sure to cut down opportunities for the other guys and minimizing chances when they do get them.

The 2-0 lead the Caps took 12 minutes into the first period might have been a signal that the Caps were going to lean on the Senators, get them down, and stand on their throats. But that goal with 26 seconds in the first period gave Ottawa some confidence, and they had the best of play in the last 40 minutes. One usually complains that a team doesn’t give a 60-minute effort. Tonight, the Caps didn’t give a “20-minute” effort in the first period, and it nearly came back to bite them in the end. Fortunately, Tomas Vokoun did give a 60-minute effort. It was enough for the Caps in a franchise record-tying, if not memorable, performance.