A five-game road trip that started with three games in the prairie provinces of Canada – an inhospitable environment for the boys of the District of Columbia – began with two wins and ended with a thud.
In the 38 years that the Washington Capitals have been playing hockey, they have never won the trifecta of Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Calgary on the same road trip. Granted, it has not been a frequent occurrence, playing all three on the same trip, but when the Caps beat Winnipeg, 5-4, in a Gimmick, then Edmonton, 4-1, it looked promising. Then the Caps dropped a 5-2 decision to Calgary on Saturday, and it made it the sixth trip through the three cities without a sweep in franchise history.
The loss mattered. With a win the Caps would have finished the week in second place in the Metropolitan Division, only two points behind Pittsburgh. As it is they are tied for fourth with Columbus and tied for third among teams in the wild card standings.
Offense: 3.33/game (season: 2.73 / T-17th)
The good thing to say about the week is that the Caps were efficient. Ten goals on 87 shots made for 11.5 percent shooting. The bad, or at least the less good, was that the Caps had only those 87 shots on goal in nine periods plus an overtime worth of hockey. Washington has had fewer than 30 shots on goal in five of their last nine games and four of their last six.
The story is in the headline scorers. Alex Ovechkin (3-2-5), Marcus Johansson (0-4-4), and Nicklas Backstrom (1-2-3) were their dominant selves in the wins over Winnipeg and Edmonton. They did not have a point in the loss to Calgary. Then there is the curious case of Mike Green. The defenseman recorded his first even-strength point of the season in the loss to the Flames (a secondary assist). He is now 11 games and counting without a goal. He is not yet close to his 25 game streak without a goal in an injury-hampered 2011-2012 season (his most recent lengthy streak without a goal), but it is a concern.
In other news, Aaron Volpatti recorded his first goal as a Cap, and Nate Schmidt had his first NHL point, both coming on the Caps’ second goal in their 5-2 loss to Calgary.
Defense: 3.33/game (season: 3.18 / 26th)
When Braden Holtby stormed off the ice after being pulled 12:50 into the game against Calgary after giving up three goals on 14 shots, it was a statement bigger than the moment. The Caps have been getting by on offense and penalty killing lately. Their even-strength defense stinks. Too many shots are making their way to the goalie. In the three games this week the Caps were outshot 86-68 at even strength. Against Calgary it was 12-6 in the first period. Overall only four teams are allowing more shots per game than the Caps – 33.9/game, more than ten more than top-ranked Minnesota (23.0). Only once this season have the Caps allowed fewer shots in a single game than what Minnesota allows on average.
Goaltending: 3.25 GAA / .910 save percentage (season: 3.07 / .909)
Braden Holtby started the week pretty much where he left off the previous week, facing high shot volumes and stopping a large percentage of them. He ended Week 3 facing 74 shots in his last two games and stopping all but three of them (.959 save percentage). In his first two games this week he stopped 73 of 78 shots (.936), 57 of 59 he faced at even strength (.966). The Calgary happened. The Flames scored on their second shot of the game, 64 seconds in, and did not let up. They had five shots on goal on a power play, all of which Holtby turned aside, but it was merely prelude. By the time he was pulled 12:50 into the game he allowed three goals on nine even strength shots, leaving him with a 3.49 goals against average for the week and a .913 save percentage.
Michal Neuvirth came in to clean up the mess that the Caps’ skaters left for Holtby against Calgary, and he did pretty well…to start. He stopped the first 15 shots he faced, from 13:07 in the first period, when he faced his first shot, until 10:11 of the third, when he faced his 15th. It kept the Caps in the game. Then it fell apart. Of a faceoff win by the Flames, Mike Cammalleri circled around the far edge of the right wing faceoff circle, but being a left handed shot, he had to turn his body to get the puck on his forehand to shoot. He had the time to do this, which he put to good use, firing a low shot that got tangled in Neuvirth’s pads as he was hugging the near post. Having lost sight of the puck, Neuvirth knelt to prevent an attempt to poke it in, but all he succeeded in doing was to kick the puck into his own net with his right skate at 10:17 of the period. Game.
Power Play: 1-11 / 9.1 percent (season: 26.8 percent / rank: 3rd)
It was not a good week for the man advantage. In fact, the only worse week so far was one in which the Caps played only two games (Week 2) and went 0-for-7. They had opportunities (11 in three games), they had the right people taking the shots (Ovechkin and Green with five apiece, Backstrom with four). They just did not convert. It happens. One goal on 16 shots (6.25 percent) in 19:08 in total power play time.
It was too much power play time spent ineffectively, and it contributed to the week’s results because the Caps are so dependent on it for success. They were 1-0 in games in which they scored a power play goal, 1-1 when they did not. For the season they are 4-2-0 in games in which they score on the man advantage, 1-4-0 when they do not.
Penalty Killing: 9-9 / 100.0 percent (season: 89.2 percent / rank: 2nd)
Who would have thought penalty killing would be the strength of this team eleven games into the season? The Caps were a perfect 9-for-9 for the week, their second consecutive perfect 9-for-9 week. It was part of what is a string of 19 straight penalty kills, and counting. It was not an especially efficient path to success. The Caps allowed 18 shots on goal in 15:57 of power play time, but effectiveness trumps efficiency.
Even Strength Goals For/Against: 9-9 (season: 19-29; 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio rank: 24th)
It would have been a really good week, but for the loss to Calgary in which all the goals scored were of the even strength variety. Still, getting outshot in two of the three games by wide margins (37-24 by Winnipeg and 25-20 by Calgary) suggests more work needs to be done here. The margin for the week – 86-68 against – was not a lot different than it was the previous week (91-67 against). The Caps are just not getting enough pressure at even strength and are allowing too much of it in their own end.
Faceoffs: 81-for-191 /42.4 percent (season: 49.7 percent / rank: 18th)
Things happen for a reason. The Caps were outshot, 111-87, for the week, and they lost the faceoff battle, 110-81. Maybe it was coincidence, maybe not. But you cannot score unless you shoot, you cannot shoot if you do not have the puck, and cannot have the puck with regularity if you are failing to secure it in hockey’s most basic play, the faceoff. It was not quite as bad as it seemed, since the Caps only lost the week by a 54-63 margin in the ends (27-47 in the neutral zone).
Breaking it down further, the scoring line centers – Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich – were a combined 17-33 in the offensive zone. The defensive centers (and for the moment Mikhail Grabovski qualifies along with Eric Fehr) were 18-for-36. If there was one player who stood out, albeit in a negative way, it was Brooks Laich, who was 4-for-19 on neutral zone draws. Grabovski was not much better, going only 3-for-11 in offensive zone draws. It was a frustrating week in the circle.
Goals For/Against by Period:
Early starts continue to be a problem. It was another losing, if close week in the first period, the Caps allowing three while scoring two. But by week’s end, only five teams had fewer first period goals scored than the Caps, and they are being outscored, 12-6, in the first period of games so far this season. It is especially frustrating in that the Caps managed five goals in the second period of games and have scored more middle frame goals than all but three teams. The second period is the only period they are winning on a season-wide basis, going plus-3 through 11 games while going minus-6 in the first and minus-3 in the third.
In the end…
Mike Cammalleri is a nice player, but his showing up for the Flames on Saturday after missing the first game of the season series (a Calgary loss) was hardly the difference in the 5-2 Flames win. The Caps just did not bring their “A” game to the rink (or their “B” or “C” games). It was more their “D” game…”D” for “damned sloppy,” especially in their own end. It was the difference between a great week and a vaguely disappointing one, even with the 2-1-0 result on the road. The reason for that is that the underlying problems plaguing this team are still there, primarily those associated with their play at even strength. What it has meant – and meant this week – is that if the Caps do not score on their power play, they are not likely to win. That is not a long-term formula for success.