The Washington Capitals wrap up their mid-week trip to Canada on Thursday with a visit to Air Canada Centre in Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs. The Caps’ struggles out of the gate have been talked about in just about every blog, column, radio show, podcast, bar, chat room, message board, and monastery within 50 miles of Washington. Here is the summary…
They stink. Goals per game…23rd. Goals against per game… 29th. Five-on-five play… 26th. Power play… tied for 21st. Penalty killing… 25th. And now they head to ACC, where the Caps have had some (if not extraordinary) success. In 23 decisions at ACC since it opened for hockey in February 1999 the Caps are 9-9 with two ties and three losses in extra time. They have, however, won two of the last three decisions there.
And on Thursday the Caps have decent opportunity to add to the good on that record. Toronto is 3-3-0 overall, but they have only two games so far under their belts at home this season. Both decisions were losses, a one-goal decision to the Buffalo Sabres and a 7-4 strafing by the New York Islanders a week ago. Here is how the teams stack up numbers-wise...
1. Toronto has one clear problem so far this season, the pesky notion that a hockey game is 60 minutes. Their offense has scored seven goals in the first period of games this season; only three other teams have more first period scores. But from there it goes downhill – six in the second period, four in the third. Meanwhile, the defense has allowed only four goals in the first period, also a respectable number (11th fewest). But again, things go south from there – six goals in the second period and 10 (tied for the league high) in the third.
2. At least Alex Ovechkin has a goal… In Toronto, Phil Kessel is still looking for his first of the season. Kessel has averaged 34 goals over the last four seasons, but has only one goal over his last 14 games dating back to last season. In 21 career games against the Caps he is 5-8-13, even.
3. It is early, but only two teams have had fewer shorthanded situations to face per game than the Maple Leafs (2.50/game). They have enjoyed a 12-5 advantage in power play opportunities over their opponents in two home games.
4. Mike Brown is sixth in the league with 29 penalty minutes, but he has played in at least one fewer game than any of the players in the top 11 in that statistic. In earning those minutes he has more fighting majors (three) than minor penalties (two). There is also a misconduct thrown in there for variety.
5. Nazem Kadri (3-3-6) is already half way to his career high in points. He has been consistent with points in four of five games to date.
1. The 1-4-1 start for the Caps is their worst six-game start since going 1-4-1 (tie) to start the 2003-2004 season in which they finished 23-46-10-3.
2. Only Los Angeles (6.3) and Colorado (6.0) have faced more shorthanded situations per game on the road than the Caps (5.7) so far.
3. Scoring first in this league is supposed to matter, but the Caps and Columbus are the only two teams in the league with 0-2-0 records when scoring the game’s first goal.
4. One of the signatures of “Hunter Hockey” last season was a propensity to block shots. Not so this season, at least so far. The Caps are tied with Columbus (being tied with Columbus in any team statistic, let alone two, shows how bad things are at the moment) for 20th in total blocked shots so far. But they are ahead of Toronto (23rd).
5. If one would have asked, “after six games, who among the Caps would rank in the top 20 in shooting percentage?," how many of you would have answered, “Matt Hendricks and Joel Ward (tied for 19th at 25.0 percent)?”
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Toronto: Dion Phaneuf
Washington is not the only hockey town in which the captain is struggling. Of 218 defensemen having dressed so far this season, Dion Phaneuf ranks 218th in plus minus (ok, tied for 217th with teammate Michael Kostka). Only four defensemen have been on ice for more goals against, and no defenseman has been on ice for more even strength goals (tied with Ryan Suter). He gets lots of ice time (second in time on ice per game among defensemen), and he gets the tough assignments, but the captain is going to have to play better in Toronto, too.
Washington: Alex Ovechkin
It was not supposed to be this way. Fresh off a fine start to a season in the Kontinental Hockey League (he is still tenth in goals scored and 11th in points), Alex Ovechkin was supposed to get off to a fast start, silence the critics, and lead the Caps out of the gate. Instead, he has been shuffled among the lines, flipped from one wing to the other, and here he sits six games into the season with one power play goal and one assist to his credit. He is shooting (or at least getting shots on goal) with the lowest frequency of his career (3.3 shots per game) and is tied on his own team with John Erskine and Jay Beagle in points. That the Caps have as many as one win with their captain producing this meagerly might be a miracle.
1. Floor it! Look, this is not likely to be a defensive struggle. Toronto and Washington rank 26th and 29th in scoring defense. The Caps need the players they depend on for offense to be offensive. Ovechkin has 23 goals in 27 games against the Leafs. Nicklas Backstrom has 14 assists in 17 games against Toronto. Mike Ribeiro is 11-11-22 in 27 games against the Maple Leafs. Even Matt Hendricks has a goal in seven career games against this team. Unleash the fury, for heaven’s sake.
2. When opportunity knocks, answer. Toronto has not allowed much at home in the way of power play opportunity – only five shorthanded situations face and less than ten minutes of penalty killing time in total. If the Caps get opportunities, they have to make good on them. There might not be many.
3. Get your playoff game face on. How many times did we hear that a 48-game season was going to be like the playoffs? Some teams are playing like it, and some are not. The Caps have been in the latter category. They need to start showing the mettle they showed last spring, some more than others (74, that means you).
In the end, the Caps are facing a team that is similar to Tampa Bay in terms of defense and goaltending (not all that good) without the Lightning’s offense. And the Caps really should have beaten Tampa Bay. They can’t afford any third period collapses or the odd shift spent daydreaming or just plain old lollygagging. They have six teams they have to climb over to become playoff eligible, and there is no time like the present to start climbing.
Capitals 5 – Maple Leafs 3