If last week's theme was “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” this week's could be "listing to port." It was another week that could have been worse, and another that should have been better.
Record for the week: 1-1-1
A 1-1-1 week is disappointing, but having the two losses come at home has to add to the disappointment. The Caps did a good job of banking points in the first two weeks of the season, winning their first seven games in part by beating teams they should – and had better beat – if they are to be a team that shows focus and attention to detail. But this past week they looked worse against Dallas than they should have, especially on home ice, even if Dallas is playing well. And the extra time loss to New Jersey was a case of unraveling after getting out to a lead. Even the win over the Devils in the middle game of the week had its moments – only six shots on goal in the first period and falling behind 1-0 at the first intermission. But all things considered, Dallas is playing better than the Caps at the moment, so that loss, while disappointing, was not surprising. The point they let slip away by giving away a 2-0 lead against the Devils – that’s the one that shouldn’t have got away.
Offense: 2.33/game (season: 3.60/game, rank: 2nd)
At first blush, scoring eight goals in three games is not what one expects from this team. There were two things, however, that contributed to the low goals total. First, the teams the Caps played this week were hardly stiffs on defense. Dallas and New Jersey are in the middle of the pack in goals allowed per game, but Dallas had allowed two of fewer goals in ten of 13 games before facing the Caps, New Jersey went into their home-and-home with the Caps having won three in a row and allowing only two goals in each of the latter two wins.
The other thing that might have influenced the offensive production in the week was having only half of the “Young Guns” present. Mike Green played a total of 7:44 out of 185 minutes for the week. We was still on the shelf with his ankle injury for the Dallas game, then returned for the first New Jersey game. He lasted only that 7:44 when he was hit by Ryan Carter, knee-on…well, sorta “knee.” It ended his week. As for Alexander Semin, it only seemed as if he was absent for long stretches. He scored the game-tying goal in the Dallas game. But he spent four minutes in the box (two tripping penalties) and skated only 15:42, more than three minutes below his season average. He might – or might not – have been benched for his lackadaisical play. Whatever, against the Devils in two game this weekend he registered a total of one shot on goal in 25:42 of ice time, only 8:25 of it in the first game, sitting the last 24:19.
In all, six different Caps had goals (only one from a “Young Gun” – Alex Ovechkin), and 12 different skaters had points, Marcus Johansson leading the way with a 1-2-3 week.
The Caps lowered their goals allowed per game slightly, but giving up five to Dallas on Tuesday was the third time in five games the Caps allowed at least that many and fourth in five in which they allowed at least four goals. More to the point, it was the third time in five games in which the Caps allowed three third-period goals.
It got better for the Caps in the last two games of the week, but the gains were accomplished against a team with a pop-gun offense. If there was a silver lining in the week, it was that the Caps allowed only 152 shot attempts in 185 minutes of hockey. But even this had an uneven edge to it. The Caps allowed 88 shots on goal, 69 of them in the first two games of the week.
The Caps are suffering a pair of problems on defense that complicate their performance. One is the continuing absence of Mike Green. That has resulted in the rearrangement of pairings which, whether one thinks it is warranted or not, seems to have left the Caps blue line on a long, slow learning curve getting used to one another.
The other is a little more subtle. It’s one thing for a newly assembled forward line to develop chemistry on offense with knowing where linemates are going to be for passes or where and how they like to receive the puck. But at the other end, things like defensive spacing, position, how and when to cover space when a teammate slides to do battle with an opponent for the puck contribute to "chemistry," too. Think of last night’s game. It started with a line of Mathieu Perreault, Cody Eakin, and Troy Brouwer. A player with little experience, a rookie call-up, and a player who has spent a lot of time with the top line this season. These guys have next to no time playing alongside one another. To that add a line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Joel Ward; and one of Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson, and Alexander Semin (source for shift charts: timeonice.com). To the extent any of these lines might experience the slightest hesitation or indecision for lack of knowledge of their partners, the result could be a puck in the back of the net.
The goaltending had an up and down week. Or, perhaps more precisely, a down and up…and sideways week. Michal Neuvirth started the first and last games of the week and stopped 48 of 55 shots. A .873 save percentage is not what the Caps need from Neuvirth, even if his appearances are spotty. The game against Dallas could not be laid entirely at his feet by any means, but he didn’t have the capacity in that game to do much in the way of bailing out his wandering teammates in the defensive zone.
The New Jersey game to end the week could have been a shutout for Neuvirth, if not for a set play off a faceoff for a bang-bang goal and a long deflection, both instances the result of battles the Caps lost – Mathieu Perreault losing a faceoff to Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus providing instant support for the draw by stepping in and sliding the puck to Petr Sykora for the score. The second goal came when the Caps lost a two-on-two battle in the corner, the puck ending up on the stick of Bryce Salvador, whose shot from outside was deflected over Neuvirth’s shoulder from 25 feet out by Ryan Carter.
On the other hand, Tomas Vokoun was solid and strong in goal, stopping 32 of 33 shots in his lone appearance of the week, the first game against New Jersey. It was a welcome result for Vokoun and everyone else in Caps Nation after his having allowed three or more goals in three consecutive appearances.
Power Play: 1-for-13/7.7 percent (season: 21.0%, rank: 7th)
The Caps scored on their first power play of the week – a goal by Alexander Semin against Dallas. They finished the week 0-for-12 in the three games after that score. They are now on a 4-for-30 stretch over their last eight games (13.3 percent) that has left the Caps with a crimped offensive game (25 goals in those eight games, the 3.13 goals/game being almost half a goal under their season average).
Part of the problem is an old one – getting the puck to the net. The Caps had only 12 power play shots on goal in 22:05 of man-advantage ice time for the week. None of those power play shots came off the stick of Alex Ovechkin. Five of them came from the sticks of defensemen (three from Dennis Wideman, one each from Mike Green and John Carlson). It just was not enough rubber or effective shooting for the power play this past week. The result was the Caps dropping for percentage points on the power play (from 25.0 to 21.0 percent) and four spots in the power play rankings.
The other side of the special teams week was pretty good. Killing off 93.3 percent of the week’s shorthanded situations is something to be hoped for on a consistent basis, but allowing five or more such opportunities – the Caps allowed five in each of the three games – is not. It was the most such opportunities allowed over three games since a three game stretch to end October. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Caps went 1-2-0 in those games (beating Detroit when they allowed four power plays, then dropping decisions to Edmonton (eight opportunities) and Vancouver (five)).
The success of the penalty killing this week might have been in their goaltenders being the best penalty killers. Combined, Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun stopped 17 of 18 shots on goal (94.4 percent). But 26:15 of shorthanded ice time is probably on the high side if a team is looking to establish, rhythm, puck possession, and pressure on the opponents’ defense on the other end of the ice.
Paying the Price: 69 hits/34 blocked shots (season rank: T-19th/22nd)
It certainly was an odd week in these categories. The 69 hits in three games was a 20-hit increase over the previous week, almost seven per game. A lot of it can be explained away by the 11-hit performance credited to Alex Ovechkin in Saturday’s game against New Jersey (he had 16 in for the week). His performance for the week (or at least that for which he was credited) allowed him to jump almost 50 places in the league rankings, from a tie for 103rd to a tie for 54th. Another 16-hit week, and he might jump into the top ten. The adventures of official scoring.
If there was anything noteworthy about blocked shots, it was probably the lack of them. In the previous week the Caps had 44 blocked shots on 142 shot attempt against. This week, 34 in 152 shot attempts. The Caps spread it around with 14 players recording at least one – Roman Hamrlik and Karl Alzner leading the team with five apiece. Only 11 of them came from forwards, though, none of them having more than three (Troy Brouwer).
A good week in the circle, but an odd one. The Caps were 41-for-67 against Dallas (61.2 percent) and were pasted by the Stars, 5-2. The Caps split 114 draws against New Jersey in two games and took three of four points. A week where a .500 result from Jeff Halpern is the fifth best faceoff performance is a good week. Nicklas Backstrom won 33 of 56 draws (58.9 percent), Brooks Laich won 17 of 32 (53.1 percent), Marcus Johansson won 18 of 35 (51.4), and Matt Hendricks chipped in 10 of 13 (76.9 percent).
But it wasn’t a great week. Why? The Caps were only 27-for-64 in the offensive zone. A puck possession team winning 42.2 percent of its offensive zone draws isn’t going to put that early pressure on teams after a stoppage that a puck possession team wants to apply.
The Caps won the week, but lost in two of three games. Another odd occurrence – the Caps were a plus-6 against Dallas and lost, and were a minus-1 in each of the two games against the Devils and won three of four points. Despite winning the week, however, the Caps slipped to 13th in takeaway-to-giveaway ratio.
The Caps could have lost (and did) to Dallas. The Stars were playing very well going into that game (they lost both games since beating Washington). The Caps might have lost to the Devils in New Jersey (and didn’t) and should have beat them at home (and didn’t). It made for a very uneven week, one in which they fell back against their Southeast Division competition, only two points ahead of Florida and three over Tampa Bay.
More troubling is that the Caps are 3-4-1 in their last eight games, and this despite head coach Bruce Boudreau going deep into coaching file cabinet to find ways to impress upon his charges the value of being accountable. It certainly is no time to panic, but the fact is that land mines are starting to appear on the Caps’ schedule. They take on a Nashville team this week that has the ability to frustrate teams in ways similar to New Jersey. They face a Toronto team that has surprised in the early going. And they get their first chance against the new Winnipeg Jets. All of these games are on the road.
Saddle up, boys.
Three Stars of the Week:
1st Star: Tomas Vokoun (1-0-0, 32 saves on 32 shots in the Caps’ lone win of the week) 2nd Star: Jason Chimera (2-0-0, plus-2; game-winning goal against New Jersey) 3rd Star: Karl Alzner (more than 65 minutes of ice time, only one even-strength goal against)
-- On the one hand, the Caps’ 3-2 Gimmick loss to the New Jersey Devils means the Caps finished the weekend with three of a possible four points. On the other hand, it was the Caps’ second consecutive loss at home to drop them to 6-1-1- on Verizon Center ice.
-- On the one hand, they earned those three points out of four in back-to-back games. On the other hand, they did it against a team that was playing back-to-back games of their own.
-- On the one hand, winning both ends of a home-and-home series is never easy – the Caps had four such home-and-homes with the same team last season (including a playoff pair against Tampa Bay) and did not win both ends of any of them, and they lost the second half in all of them. On the other hand, the Caps took a 2-0 lead less than 17 minutes into the game.
-- On the one hand, the Devils play a difficult defensive system to solve. New Jersey has had different coaches over the years – they have had nine changes behind the bench since the lockout alone – but the suffocating defense has been the same. On the other hand, the Caps solved it for three goals in the last 23 minutes the previous night; they would have the benefits of last change, their own building, and their own fans in the rematch.
-- On the one hand, the Caps have been given lessons in the perils of taking things less than fully seriously this week – a bag skate after a poor performance and the benching of a critical cog for seemingly indifferent play for much of the first game against Jersey. On the other hand, the lessons haven’t seemed to stick. Alexander Semin – the object of the benching lesson – took an offensive zone stick penalty barely three minutes into the game (and did not appear to be held out of any regular shifts). For all those “battles” the Caps had in their “punishment” skate last week, Devils’ defensemen took them to school in the subject in this game, especially in the last 40 minutes.And there were the five "obstruction" penalties taken by five different players (three tripping calls, and interference, and a holding penalty).
-- On the one hand, the accumulated examples of holding players accountable serves as a clear signal to players that there are limits to what will be tolerated. On the other hand, there were Cody Eakin and Mathieu Perreault riding the pine for all but one shift apiece in the last 31 minutes and change of regulation and overtime.
-- On the one hand, there was Alex Ovechkin with goals in two of his last three games and four goals in his last six contests. On the other hand, he was shutout, leaving him with no goals on home ice in eight games. Last year, he couldn’t score on the power play; this year he can’t score in a red jersey.
-- On the one hand, there was Nicklas Backstrom coming into the game with points in his previous six games (3-7-10). On the other hand, the Caps were only 3-3-0 in those six games. Last night the streak ended, the Caps lost.
-- On the one hand, there was Jason Chimera driving to the net to redirect a drive by John Carlson for the Caps’ second goal, giving him six for the season on 39 shots on goals. On the other hand, those six goals and 39 shots might be compared to the three goals and 32 shots on goal recorded so far by Alexander Semin. He had one shot on goal for the weekend.
-- On the one hand, the Caps killed off all five New Jersey power plays last night. On the other hand, the Caps are now 2-3-1 when allowing five or more power plays.
-- On the one hand, Brooks Laich was all over the score sheet – three shots, six shot attempts, two takeaways, four blocked shots, splitting six draws in more than 23 minutes of ice time. On the other hand, he did a lot of that playing on the blue line after Roman Hamrlik went down to injury, and he was blanked where it counted – no goals, no assists. That’s circumstance, not blame.
-- On the one hand, John Carlson had an assist on the evening (continuing his personal quest to make sure Jersey fans note that he is a favorite son who will take it out on his former home) and was on the ice for both goals scored by the Caps. On the other hand, he was part of a two-on-two battle for the puck in the corner that the Devils won an instant before the puck was in the back of the net to tie the game with 1:06 left in the second period.
-- On the one hand, Alex Ovechkin was credited with 11 hits (increasing his season total by almost 50 percent). On the other hand he had eight of 11 shot attempts blocked (an equal opportunity provider – Henrik Tallinder was the only Devil defenseman not to block at least one of Ovechkin’s shots). If Ovechkin had eight shots on goal and only two hits, instead of the reverse, this game probably ends a lot differently.
-- On the one hand, the Caps scored goals on two of their first nine shots in getting out to a 2-0 lead 16:10 into the game. On the other hand the Caps would have eight more shots on goal over the next 48:50 of regulation and overtime. They had more shots in the Gimmick (four) than they had in the second period and overtime combined (three). From 5:45 of the second period to 6:36 of the third – 20:51 of playing time – the Caps did not record a shot on goal.
In the end, it should have been a win. The usual rationalizations – back-to-back games, the second of a home-and-home, injuries (Green out, Hamrlik injured during the game) requiring a lineup shakeup – don’t seem to apply. Not when the team takes a 2-0 lead in its own rink against a team that was playing its own back-to-back games, playing the second of them on the road, and has the sort of offense not geared toward making comebacks.
Maybe it was the accumulation of skating this week that did them in – the rough practice they had on Wednesday, a game against a team that makes ice seem like molasses to skate in with their defense, and then playing 65 minutes last night with what amounted to only 15 skaters with Hamrlik injured, and Eakin and Perreault stapled to the bench. Maybe you can make that concession.
What is seems to say, though, is that the old book on the Caps still applies – clog the middle of the ice, frustrate them, wear them down in battles along the wall and in the corners. The Devils did all of that and waited for the Caps to make little mistakes – a lost faceoff that turned into a goal in the blink of an eye, a lost battle in the corner that ended up with a good look at the net and a long deflection. After that it was in the hands of the hockey gods looking over what Bettman hath wrought – the Gimmick. And, perhaps fittingly, it was settled by a player – David Clarkson – who had taken only one other trick shot attempt in his career. He made it.