The Caps are in that position tonight after their 5-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche that leaves them 1-4-0. The lone win this season thus far came in a shootout against Calgary.
More relevant is the fact that the Caps have lost their first two games on their five-game home stand and find themselves tied with the even more woeful New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers for last place in the Metropolitan Division.
The game can be summed up by returning to our keys from the pre-game prognosto…
1. Pace. Colorado is a speedy team. If the Caps allow them to gather speed through the neutral zone, they are going to be in for a world of hurt. And here is how that plays out. Six teams have a ratio of goals scored to goals against at 5-on-5 of 2.00:1 or better. Those teams have a combined record of 18-2-2. Colorado is one of those teams. Seven teams have a ratio of 0.50:1 or worse. Those teams, Washington among them, have a combined record of 8-22-1. It is hard to think of this as coincidence (all numbers and records through Thursday games).
Colorado outscored the Caps, 3-1, at even strength. It was 2-0 during what was the competitive portion of the evening. This despite the Caps outshooting the Avs by an almost 2-to-1 margin at even strength (39-20). It was one of those nights when the Caps did not lack for loose pucks in front of goalie Semyon Varlamov – he left a fair number of rebounds – but the Caps seemed always to be just a bit more than a stick-length away from the puck or just skating past it.
It was not as if the Avs did anything especially nifty to get their ES goals. Alex Tanguay threw a puck at the net in the seventh minute, and Caps defenseman John Carlson deflected it between goalie Michal Neuvirth’s pads.
Matt Duchene skated down the right wing as a Colorado power play was expiring. And all he realy did was keep skating, catching defenseman Karl Alzner flat footed. It allowed Duchene to get position and snap a shot over Neuvirth’s left shoulder on the short side. That was an example of the Avs’ speed and the Caps getting burned by it.
The last one was another case of Colorado using their speed after collecting a loose puck just outside their blue line, generating speed through the neutral zone to end up with a three-on-two and a half. That last half would be important, as Alex Ovechkin would be a blade-length of his stick away from denying a cross-ice pass from PA Parenteau to Jamie McGinn for the goal that would end the scoring. Pace…Colorado dictated it.
2. Patience. The Caps are the mature team, now. Colorado are the young whippersnappers. With that maturity, one hopes that the Caps understand that the game is 60 minutes, and it is their depth and experience that could suit them well while the Avs might be running around like puppies in search of snausages early. That requires discipline and playing the game to their tempo for longer stretches than the Avalanche play to theirs.
Patience is one thing, being almost somnambulant is another. The 41 shots on goal aside, the Caps did a poor job of following up, of crowding the Colorado net consistently. And there were just too many mistakes that allowed Colorado to get and establish position in the Caps end on the Avs’ terms.
3. Pressure. One looks at the defensemen dressing for the Avalanche through four games, and it does not look like an impressive group. Andre Benoit, who leads the club in average ice time with more than 22 minutes a game, had just 41 games of NHL experience coming into this season at age 29. Jan Hejda, a 35-year old in his eighth season, is a serviceable type, but he is getting almost 22 minutes a night. Cory Sarich, also 35 years old, missed 79 games in the six seasons leading up to this one, including 20 games in each of the past two seasons. Nate Guenin had 32 games of experience over parts of six seasons with four teams before landing in Colorado this season. Tyson Barrie is another Avs defenseman with little to show for experience – 42 games in parts of two seasons with Colorado before this season. Only Erik Johnson appears to have a solid pedigree, but even he – a first overall draft pick in 2006 – is not the defensemen folks might have envisioned when he was drafted. This is the soft underbelly of the club that the Caps need to probe and pressure to keep those speedy forwards from working their magic.
The Caps did a decent job here. But it was uneven. They did a pretty good job along the boards and behind the Colorado net to force the defense into decisions, but they did not do such a great job making the Colorado defense defend their net. That is where the failure to take advantage of rebounds did the Caps in.
-- The Caps are now without a goal on their last nine power plays. Colorado played what amounted to a “triangle and one,” defending the strong side of the ice (with Nicklas Backstrom and Mikail Grabovski on the same side) with three defenders and putting a defenseman man-on-man with Alex Ovechkin. This allowed the Caps to run the occasional back-door timing play with Ovechkin darting behind the defenseman to the net, but none were converted. Ovechkin did not have a power play shot on goal.
-- For the second game in a row, the Caps allowed an opponent to score his first NHL goal. Tonight it was Nathan MacKinnon, who slipped into a seam in the Caps defense in close and converted a feed from Paul Stastny. For those of you wondering, Will Acton of the Edmonton Oilers (the Caps’ next opponent) does not yet have an NHL goal.
-- Only one Capital finished the evening without a shot on goal – Martin Erat. For the first time this season Erat skated ten minutes…exactly ten minutes. Erat has now gone three games without a shot on goal and has only two in five games for the season.
-- Erat probably does not make it to ten minutes of ice time had he not led all Caps forwards in shorthanded ice time (2:06).
-- And speaking of ice time, who was it that led the Caps overall in shorthanded ice time? The new kid. No, not that one, the other one. Alexander Urbom skated 3:22 on the penalty kill, tied with John Carlson.
-- As for the other new kid…no, the first one… Nate Schmidt skated almost 15 minutes (Martin Erat might be seething at that fact), had three shots on goal (five attempts), two hits, and a takeaway. He was on ice only for Colorado’s last goal. A solid debut, all things considered, but if Nate Schmidt -- less than a year removed from college hockey and with nine regular season games of AHL experience -- is the answer as a left-handed defenseman on the third pair, this team has problems. But you knew that already.
-- Nicklas Backstrom finished a minus-3. That is the first time he finished that poorly since November 26, 2011, when he finished minus-4 in, yes, a 5-1 loss, that one to the Buffalo Sabres.
-- The Mikhail Grabovski-Brooks Laich-Troy Brouwer line had nine even strength shots on goal tonight, but they still do not have a point as a line. Grabovski’s only even strength goal came in the 6-4 loss to Chicago on opening night with Joel Ward and Jason Chimera on the ice as Caps forwards.
-- It’s probably just as well Tom Wilson was robbed twice by Varlamov at point blank range. We would just as soon see Wilson get his first goal in a win…Monday night, we hope.
-- There might be those who will make something out the “Hunteresque” ice time Ovechkin got tonight—17:19 in all. It was his lightest load of the season (the first time under 20 minutes). However, it is not as if this hasn’t happened under head coach Adam Oates. Ovechkin skated less time than what he had tonight twice last season. Once was in a 6-5 win over the Florida Panthers in which he had a goal and an assist (16:53), the other in a 5-1 win over New Jersey in which he was 3-1-4 (16:40). On five other occasions last season he skated less than 18 minutes.
-- There might be a reason for Ovechkin’s light ice time load. The Caps had only two power plays. Two more power plays, and he might have had 20-plus minutes. And, he skated only six shifts in the third period, only two in the last ten minutes. That’s what being behind by four goals will do.
-- Marcus Johansson had an excellent opportunity to bury a puck from the edge of the right wing circle early on and passed up the chance for one more pass. That has to stop. A winger on the top line with three shots on goal for the season (he had one tonight) is not a passenger. He is baggage.
-- Michal Neuvirth was beaten twice on the short side on shots where the shooter had only the short side to shoot at. The Tanguay shorthanded goal from the goal line extended wasn’t a game breaker (it was sprinkles on top of the whipped cream on top of the Avalanche sundae), but it was disturbing for what seemed a lack of focus.
Last year, when the Caps reached the nadir of their season at 2-8-1, we had this to say…
In the end, the Caps are what they are. They are not so much an opponent for teams as an annoyance. They can’t score, can’t defend, and can’t stop pucks. They score on the power play, but only when it doesn’t matter anymore. Their only thing their penalty killing kills is any chance to win. Their average goal margin in games is a staggering -1.46…
Through five games that goal differential is -1.60/game. Not the worst (27th), but the Caps can see it from where they sit. They have been outscored, 15-6, at even strength. At the moment this team does not look “experienced” as much as it looks “old,” especially in contrast to Colorado tonight. And it will not get easier. Monday’s opponent – Edmonton – has a speedy cadre of forwards that could make things as difficult on the Caps as the Avalanche did tonight.