Sunday, December 18, 2011
Ten weeks in, and the Caps have a total of four losing weeks. This one made four in the last eight. And again, the losing week ensured that the Caps did not have consecutive winning weeks since the first two full weeks of the season. They are now 4-5-0 under Dale Hunter. At this rate, they are going to be like the frog in the pot of water that is slowly and gently rising in temperature. The frog is oblivious to what is going on until in the end, it’s cooked. And so might this season be for the Caps unless they can find a way to jump out of that pot.
Offense: 1.00/game (season: 2.90/rank: 9th)
Three games, three goals. Very tidy, very neat. And very unsatisfactory. Try this on for size. The Caps had 86 shots on goal for the week; 24 of them were taken from outside of 50 feet. Another 20 were taken between 35 and 50 feet. More than half of the shots – and this was not a particularly high volume week – were taken from long range. There are basketball teams that might make a living making three-point shots, but in hockey shooting from that range is not a recipe for success. The goals, you ask? They were scored from 13 (Jeff Halpern), 36 (Alex Ovechkin), and 29 (Alexander Semin) feet. The Caps got next to nothing by way of “greasy” goals this week. Halpern’s was the only one that could qualify on that score, a put back from the side of the crease of a Dennis Wideman shot from outside. The Ovechkin and Semin goals were scored as “skill” goals – Ovechkin off a drop pass from Marcus Johansson, Semin off a rush down the right wing. If that is going to be their offense, there are a lot of one-goal games in the Caps’ future.
Defense: 2.33/game (season: 3.06/rank: 23rd)
Here, the Caps actually had a good end to the week. There were the five goals hung on them by the Philadelphia Flyers, but that was more a case of iffy goaltending than poor defense. In the last two games of the week they held opponents to a combined shot total of 54. They did not allow a third period goal. We could say they did not relinquish a lead, but the total time the Caps led for the week was 1:14 – the time remaining when Alex Ovechkin scored the winning goal in the 1-0 win over Winnipeg. That might mean that the Caps allowed too many “first goals,” and they did allow the first goal in two of the three games. But one of those came more than 16 minutes into one game, the other came on a shot that goaltender Michal Neuvirth lost in the background at Pepsi Center. It would be hard to find a lot of fault with the defenders in either case, at least so far as a penchant for allowing early goals. But again, the second period is a problem. Four goals in all were scored on the Caps in the middle period. The 34 the Caps have allowed in the second period is the ninth most in the league.
Good and bad. Or more precisely, bad and good. Tomas Vokoun allowed four goals on 21 shots in 40 minutes of work for the week. Two of them – those by Scott Hartnell (top of the left wing circle) and Max Talbot (above the circles) in the Flyer game – would have to be considered “soft.” Michal Neuvirth finished up that game, allowing a deflection on the fourth shot he faced in the third period, then stopped the last eight shots he faced. Combined with his performance in the last two games, Neuvirth stopped 60 of the last 62 shots he faced for the week (.968 save percentage), one of them being that odd flutterer that he missed in Denver. Neither goaltender has been able grab the job and keep it for his own, but at the moment it is Neuvirth who is playing like (for lack of a better term) a number-one goaltender.
Power Play: 0-for-9/0.00 percent (season: 16.7 percent/rank: T-17th)
A week of 0-for-9 is bad enough, but 11 shots on goal in 16:14 of power play time? Three of those shots came from Dennis Wideman, the only Cap for the week with more than one shot on goal on the power play. One for Alex Ovechkin, one for Alexander Semin, one for Nicklas Backstrom, etc., etc. The Caps did not generate any follow-up. The guys one might expect to generate that follow-up – Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble – managed a combined one shot on goal (Laich) in a combined 16:17 of power play ice time.
Penalty Killing: 7-for-7/100.0 percent (season: 81.6%/rank: 18th)
Lost in the noise was the fact that the Caps not only had a perfect week on the penalty kill, they did not test that ability too often. Four straight games with four or fewer shorthanded situations faced; four straight perfect penalty killing. And in the four games the Caps allowed a total of nine goals...it goes hand in glove. This past week the Caps allowed only eight shots on seven power plays, and for the most part those shots did not come from shooters one would consider dangerous (Colorado’s Matt Duchene might be considered the most dangerous of the six opponents to record power play shots on goal). The Caps are now 13-7-0 when allowing four or fewer power play opportunities. They are, however, 5-7-0 in the last dozen instances of allowing four or fewer power play goals. Scoring only 25 goals in those 12 games probably hurt, too.
Paying the Price: 52 hits/40 blocked shots (season rank: 15th/21st)
The Caps were outhit in two games and had fewer blocked shots in two games for the week (they might have made it 0-for-3 in blocked shots had they had many in the way of attempts against Colorado – they had only 47 in 60 minutes). Hitting and blocking shots has not been a hallmark of the Caps on the road so far this season. They are 27th in hits and 25th in blocked shots after 15 road contests.
Faceoffs: 70-for-152/46.1 percent (season:50.9 percent/rank: T-9th)
They lost two of the three games for the week, but it was the Colorado game in which the Caps took it in the teeth (19-for-52/36.5 percent). For the week it was a tale of two zones. In the offensive zone the Caps were 31-for-57 (54.4 percent), but in the defensive zone were only 18-for-48 (37.5 percent). Two players had especially difficult times of it. Brooks Laich was 6-for-17 in defensive zone draws for the week (35.3 percent), not what you might be looking for in the defensive line center. Jeff Halpern found himself either losing draws to Paul Stastny late in the 2-1 loss to Colorado, or eventually getting tossed from the circle.
The Caps won the turnover battle in two of the three games and lost the other by only two. They were charged with only four giveaways in each of the last two games of the week. If the Caps had problems for the week, and with a 1-2-0 record and only three goals scored for the week, they did, hanging onto the puck was not among them.
There is a growing disconnect between the perception of the Caps and their performance. Folks might look at a team with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and even a Dennis Wideman and John Carlson on the back line and think it is a high-powered offense. The truth is, this is at the moment not a very productive offensive team. Twenty goals in eight games in December (2.50 per game) cannot be thought of as prolific. It barely registers as threatening.
The first line of Ovechkin, Semin, and Backstrom went 2-1-3, minus-3 for the week. As a group they recorded 23 shots on goal and 43 shot attempts. Not terrible, but not what fans are used to or what the general perception of them is. The second line was a mess. But this is a recurring theme with this team. For the most part this week’s contestants to make something of the second line were Troy Browuer, Jeff Halpern, and Marcus Johansson. That trio had a goal (Halpern) and an assist (Johansson, but on an Ovechkin goal) for the week. The third line of Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich, and Joel Ward was 0-2-2, minus-4 for the week. The defense had no goals and two assists for the week (Wideman, Dmitry Orlov).
We are at a loss to know what to make of Mike Knuble and his ice time. He average 9:15 of even strength ice time for the week in his continuing role as a fourth liner (he had more than 15 minutes of total ice time only once in his last 11 games). On a team that really isn’t getting the greasy goal or making much noise at all from in close, test driving him on one of the top two lines might not be such a bad idea. Then again, we don’t coach for a living.
The offensive woes wasted a decent performance defensively and in goal in the last game of the week and left the game against Winnipeg tighter than it should have been, even against a team that has been successful at home. The Caps now have nine games under Dale Hunter. The shakedown cruise really should be coming to an end. It is fair to ask whether the players now getting time are as good a fit for the systems Hunter employs as they were for those Bruce Boudreau employed. That will be the question in the weeks ahead, not whether the players are picking up the new systems.
The Washington Capitals had a chance to win consecutive road games for the first time in almost two months, but they came up short against the Colorado Avalanche, dropping a 2-1 decision at Pepsi Center in Denver.
The Avalanche got a couple of long range goals from unexpected sources. The first came in the game’s third minute – a 66-footer from Cody MacLeod (his first of the season) that Michal Neuvirth appeared to lose in the background as it fluttered toward him. He never flinched until the puck was sailing over his shoulder.
The other came on a 63-footer from Erik Johnson (his first of the year and first in 38 games dating back to last season) that skittered through a maze of bodies and might have been tipped by Brooks Laich’s stick on the way through. Those two goals sandwiched a goal by Alexander Semin, who scored his first goal in nine games and his first on the road in a city in the States since last March 7th against Tampa Bay.
Other than that, it was a lot of skating back and forth. It looked like one of those electronic football games where the players skitter over the playing surface as it vibrates beneath them. If the 1-0 game against Winnipeg on Thursday featured a lot of up-and-down play, this one featured a lot of go-back-and-get-the-puck out of their own end by the Caps, either from leaving it behind or losing it to the Avs and having them shoot it back into the Caps’ end.
-- The Caps finished the game with 47 shot attempts. Eleven of them came from Alex Ovechkin. He had seven of the 26 shots on goal. Brooks Laich had five shots and seven attempts. Jason Chimera had four and six. The other 15 skaters had 10 shots and 23 shot attempts. It might have been the worst offensive game for the Caps this season.
-- This was the sixth time in the last eight road games the Caps were held to a single goal. For the record, the other teams turning the trick were (in order): Nashville, Winnipeg, Toronto, Buffalo, and Winnipeg (again). See any defensive giants in there? True, they did fall to the Predators and Pekka Rinne, but even against Buffalo, it was Jhonas Enroth in goal, not Ryan Miller.
-- The Caps were 0-for-4 on the power play tonight. That makes 1-for-33 on the power play in their last nine road games. They managed three shots on goal in 6:14 of power play time (the fourth power play came with 14 seconds left in the game). Colorado had four shots on goal while shorthanded, three of them from their 19-year old rookie, Gabriel Landeskog.
-- Neuvirth was a bit scrambly tonight, but it was one of those efforts like when a pitcher in baseball doesn’t have his fastball and gets batters out with other stuff. Neuvirth did what he had to do to keep 26 of 28 shots out of the net. And truth be told, this is not a team that should be losing so many games when they give up two or fewer goals (they have four 2-1 losses this year and a 3-2 loss in a Gimmick).
-- The Caps were 3-for-18 on draws in the first period. They came back to make a game of that in the last two periods (16-for-34), but they were brutal in their own end. The Caps were 4-for-16 in the offensive zone, all of the wins (on eight draws) from Nicklas Backstrom. The record will say that Brooks Laich was 7-for-20 overall, but it wasn’t even that good. In the offensive and defensive ends he was a combined 2-for-11. And Jeff Halpern lost all four draws he had against Paul Stastny (on the way to a 2-for-9 night), three of them in the offensive zone late when the Caps were trying to get the equalizer.
-- Rewards?… Alexander Semin had not been getting much in the way of power play time lately. He jumped onto the ice late in a power play in the second period and scored on that shift after the penalty expired. On the next power play, he was out there for the majority of the next power play, which straddled the second and third periods.
-- You would think that the Caps, down 2-1 to open the third period, would try to come out and put pressure on the Avalanche early in the period. In the first ten minutes they registered three shot attempts – a miss by Dennis Wideman at 45 seconds, a shot by Jeff Halpern that was blocked at 2:09, and a shot on goal by Karl Alzner at 2:15. The Caps would not attempt another shot for the next 8:11, when Ovechkin had a shot blocked at 10:26.
-- Gabriel Landeskog had a nice game for the Avs – an assist, plus-1, seven shots on goal (more shots than 16 Caps skaters had attempts), three hits, and four takeaways (led the team) in 19 minutes.
-- Right place, right time… Evan Brophey skated 3:40 for Colorado and finished a plus-1.
-- John Carlson had an odd game. He was on the ice for both Colorado goals, finishing a minus-2. His score sheet was otherwise white as snow – no shots, no hits, no blocked shots…nothing, in more than 24 minutes.
In the end, we are almost at the point where we have to accept the fact that this is not a very good offensive team. Alex Ovechkin hasn’t been “Alex Ovechkin” in quite some time. Nicklas Backstrom is more a creator than a finisher, which leaves his skills a’wasting. Alexander Semin is on another planet, tonight’s goal notwithstanding. The second line is producing nothing. The third line plays decently in the defensive end, but its offense is drying up (Jason Chimera – no goals in five games; Brooks Laich – one in his last five, but that was a power play goal; Joel Ward – no goals in his last 18 games). The fourth line is not expected to provide a lot of offense, and they are not. Jeff Halpern has two goals in his last five games, but Mike Knuble has one in his last 22 games, Cody Eakin had one in his last ten, Mathieu Perreault has one in his last 15 games, and Matt Hendricks has yet to light the lamp this season.
An underperforming top line, a gaping hole that is the second line, and not enough on the undercard of the forward lines to make up for it (not that they should be expected to do so). The defense is not bad – Dennis Wideman and John Carlson have provided some offense, but not even Mike Green’s absence from the lineup explains the anemic offense displayed by the Caps these days.
Worse, this does not look like an aberration. Patterns are settling in for this team, as if they expect to ho-hum their way to a seventh or eighth seed in the spring and then “turn it on.” That road record is a warning – 6-9-0. The 12 points earned is better than only Carolina and the Islanders, each with 11 points. Seven times in 15 road games the Caps have been held to one goal. If that does not turn around, this is not a playoff team.