Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Caps and the Baseball Cap Brigade: How Backup Goalies Might Have Been Opportunities Lost

The Washington Capitals have had, by anyone’s reasonable definition, a disappointing season to date. When the season started, few would have guessed that by the time the Caps had completed 50 games, they would be skating for a different head coach and would find themselves on the outside, looking in at playoff eligibility.

It might have been even more incredible to entertain that scenario after the Caps got off to a 7-0-0 start to open the season, capped off by a 7-1 demolition of the mighty Detroit Red Wings. But in that seven-game winning streak to start the 2011-2012 campaign the seeds were sown for disappointment that would sprout later. It comes down to two words…

“Backup goaltender.”

In those first seven games the Caps outscored their opponents by a 29-14 margin. To the fan who might have followed the Caps on a casual basis the past few years, it might have looked as if the high-flying Caps were back to their lamp-lighting ways, the 2010-2011 season of “defense first” but a memory. But in those first seven games, the Caps faced no fewer than five backup netminders (backups in blue):

The Caps lit up those five goalies for 19 goals in five games, and the Caps used that to jump out to their 7-0-0 record before the season was barely two weeks old.

That has been a recurring underlying theme for the Caps this season – facing backup goaltenders on a rather regular basis. They have not taken advantage of the opportunity. In 52 games through last Sunday, the Caps faced a backup goaltender 20 times.* In those games the Caps have posted a 10-8-2 mark. And as a group, those backup goalies have a 2.69 goals against average, a .896 save percentage, and one shutout (the Islanders’ Evgeni Nabokov) against Capitals shooters.

It is strange that the Caps would struggle so against backups when you consider that the record they have against number one goaltenders over 32 games is not substantially different than the record they have against backups. Through last Sunday the Caps were 17-13-2 against number ones (10-8-2 against backups). Number ones had a 2.69 goals against average against the Caps (compared to 2.68 for backups). The number one netminders had a save percentage of .905 in 32 games (backups were at .896). Each group had one shutout against Washington (Cam Ward for the number ones, Evgeni Nabokov for the number twos).

There is something to note about the losses to the backups. In eight regulation and two extra time losses to backup goalies, the Caps have failed against a largely veteran group. Scott Clemmensen (twice, before beating him last night), Jaroslav Halak (who was behind Brian Elliott in St. Louis), Jean-Sebastien Giguere (at the time behind Semyon Varlamov in Colorado), Evgeni Nabokov, and Johan Hedberg were among the veteran netminders serving in a backup capacity who beat the Caps.

But the Caps had success against some veteran backups, too. They did beat Brent Johnson, Brian Boucher, Alex Auld, Ty Conklin, and Martin Biron, among others. It just seems rather confounding that the Caps have not had any markedly better time of it against the baseball cap brigade than against the number one goalie teams have to offer.

Part of the problem is, as has been the case for much of the season, getting shots to the net at all. Against backup goalies the Caps are averaging only 25.7 shots per 60 minutes of play, fewer on average than they have against number one netminders (28.2). And with the Caps scoring two or fewer goals against this specie of goaltender ten times in 20 games, it suggests that the Caps have left standings points on the table by failing to make opponents pay for sending out their number two in goal.

As the season dips under 30 games left to play, one would expect that the Caps are going to see fewer and fewer backups as teams get their number one goalies loaded for the stretch run and prepped for the playoffs. But it hasn’t seemed to matter much for the Caps so far this year. Backup or number one, it has been the same tune. Come the spring, the Caps might regret not having taken greater advantage of the opportunities presented to them in the form of the backup goaltender.

* Backup means just what it suggests. Even if the number one goalie was injured and out of the lineup, and the number two goalie started, that is considered having faced the “backup.” It is where the goalie sits on the depth chart. For purposes of this exercise, to avoid confusion, we considered Rick Dipietro the number one goalie for the Islanders (he did face the Caps once this season), and Semyon Varlamov as the number one for the Avalanche (he was ahead of Jean-Sebastien Giguere on the depth chart at the time the Caps faced Colorado).

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