Sunday, November 17, 2013

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 7

The Washington Capitals were outscored at even strength, were blanked on their power play, and saved barely 90 percent of the shots they faced this week.  And yet, it was their fifth straight winning week.  Proof that it’s not “how,” it’s “how many”… wins, that is.

Record: 2-1-0

The fifth straight winning week made the Caps 10-3-2 over those five weeks and 6-1-1 for the month of November.  If you are looking at quality of competition, the Caps looked as bad against the high-altitude Colorado Avalanche in Denver as they did against the Avs at lower altitude in Washington in October.  In that game they did not have a chance to succumb to their annoying habit of blowing third period leads.  They returned to that habit against Columbus before coming back late and winning in overtime.  The Caps turned the tables on the Detroit Red Wings in the last game of the week, coming back from two goals down in the third period to force extra time, where they made it a winning week in the freestyle competition.

Offense: 2.67/game (season: 3.00 / rank:T-8th)

It was not an especially prolific week for the Caps, but it was a balanced one.  Six player shared in the eight goals for the week, Joel Ward and Alex Ovechkin with the two-goal efforts.  There were 14 players recording points, with Mikhail Grabovski and John Carlson (both 1-2-3 for the week) the somewhat unlikely leaders.

Something odd, but familiar, took place in the last game of the week.  Head coach Adam Oates had been experimenting (he seems to do more of that than a graduate organic chemistry student) with a top line of Martin Erat joining Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the left wing, dropping Marcus Johansson down to the second line centering Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer.  That was not working.  Through two games and two periods those two lines combined for one goal, that by Brooks Laich (assisted by Steve Oleksy, not either of his linemates) in the first period of the game against the Red Wings.

Then, to start the third period of the game against Detroit, Oates shook things up again.  On the first even strength face off of the period (the Caps started the period on a power play), Oates sent out his third line, the most consistent in its assembly and production over the last few weeks.  The next shift saw the return of the Johansson-Backstrom-Ovechkin line.  The result?  Nineteen seconds into its shift, Johansson fed Ovechkin for a goal that brought the Caps to within a goal of the Red Wings and propelled them to a successful third period.  They tied the game later, then won in a Gimmick.  It looked for the time being as if the first line was back.  Now, about that second line…

Defense: 3.33/game (season: 2.85 / rank:20th )

The Caps broke a streak of sorts last week.  Going into Week 7 Washington was riding a streak of 12 games in which they allowed opponents 30 or more shots on goal.  The streak had not caused any undue harm to the Caps’ win-loss record, posting an 8-3-1 record in the process.  But that might be the kind of thing that, should it continue, puts too much wear and tear on goalies. 

The Caps broke that streak against the Columbus Blue Jackets, allowing the Blue Jackets “only” 27 shots on goal, the lowest total by an opponent since Dallas recorded 21 shots on goal in a 2-1 win back on October 5th.  Not that it was a perfect week, or all that much an improvement.  The 101 shots by opponents for the week were heavily front-loaded, 36 of them coming in the first period of games, 37 of them in the second period.

Then there is the matter of possession.  It is something the Caps have struggled with all season at 5-on-5, and this week was not an exception.  Their ratios of for/against Corsi and Fenwick at 5-on-5 overall were on the wrong side of 50 percent in the games against Colorado (45.7 percent Corsi/47.8 percent Fenwick) and Detroit (47.1/48.3) and barely over 50 percent against Columbus (50.6/50.8).  In 5-on-5 close situations the Caps were underwater in each of the three games against Colorado (42.2/44.0), Columbus (48.7/47.1), and Detroit (46.4/47.9).  Given the shot totals, the Caps are still allowing too much on the defensive side of the ledger (source:

Goaltending: 3.23 GAA / .901 save percentage (season: 2.75 / .918 / 1 shutout)

Braden Holtby got all the minutes this week, and all things considered it might not have been his best seven-day stretch, but he fought through things to scratch out a pair of wins to end the week.  There was a “glass half full/glass half empty” aspect to the week, though.  In the “glass half full” sense, he had an even strength save percentage of .933 in the first period of games and a .967 save percentage in the second period.  On the flip side, there is that .765 save percentage at even strength in the third period (13 saves on 17 shots).  Perhaps it is shot volumes that keeps Holtby’s mind from wandering.  Three of the four goals scored against him in the third period came in the last ten minutes of the period.

Power Play: 0-11 / 0.0 percent (season: 24.4 percent / rank: 2nd)

Three games, three blanks on the power play.  The streak matches the Caps longest drought of the season on the man advantage.  The 0-for-11 for the week extended the Caps streak of power plays without a goal to 14, dating back to the second period of 4-3 Gimmick loss to Phoenix to close Week 6.

It might be thought of as an instance of regression in this respect.  Alex Ovechkin is the primary trigger man on the power play.  If you look at his five year performance ending with last season, he shot to a 13.1 percent rate at 5-on-4, 64 goals on 488 shots (source:  Even if you consider the “Oates effect” from the changes last season, Ovechkin had 16 goals on 71 shots.  That works out to a 22.5 percent shooting rate.  Quite an improvement compared to the five-year context.  Coming into this week Ovechkin was 7-for-26 shooting at 5-on-4 (26.9 percent).  He was 0-for-4 for the week, dropping him to 23.3 percent.  Not inconsistent with last year’s performance, but still much better than his five-year conversion rate.

As for the rest of the power play squad, it is worth noting that it was John Carlson who led the week in power play shots on goal (six), making up for the absence of a wonky Mike Green.  There is the matter of performance, and if Green is going to miss any more time, Carlson has to keep up the pressure.  On the other side, there was Troy Brouwer, who in 13:08 of power play time did not record a shot on goal.

Penalty Killing: 9-11 / 81.8 percent (season: 87.3 percent / rank: 2nd)

Since putting together a streak of 35 shorthanded situations without allowing a power play goal, the Caps are 20-for-26 over their last six-plus games (76.9 percent), including 9-for-11 this week (81.8 percent).  This might have been a really nice week, a return to perfection, but for a stumble early on in their game against Detroit to end the week.

What happened against the Red Wings might be an example of past events influencing future behavior.  The first Wings goal was a matter of a bit of passive play by the Caps.  Johan Franzen had the puck at the left point and was looking over his options.  Not seeing a passing option, he started to walk the puck down the left wing boards.  As he was doing so, defenseman Steve Oleksy and forward Joel Ward were on that side of the ice, paying attention but not pressing the issue.  

As Franzen moved in, Oleksy was low and inside the faceoff dot, Ward outside the dot but above Franzen and not in a position to force a decision.  Franzen walked the puck in slowly, getting below the dot, but Oleksy did not come out to challenge, and Ward did not drop down to pressure him.  It allowed Franzen what amounted to a free look at the net, and he picked the corner over goalie Braden Holtby’s right shoulder, ricocheting the puck off iron and in.

Franzen would score later from the same side of the ice at even strength on what looked like a missed coverage deep in the zone.  That set up a situation on the Wings power play late in the second period where you had a hot shooter on the left side of the ice with the puck.  The Caps might have been forgiven for now paying lots of attention to what Franzen was doing,  However, when Franzen showed “shot,” and the Caps slid to that side of the ice, Franzen had a passing lane to Danny DeKeyser on the right side, who one timed the puck into the open side of the net.  It made for a “not bad” week when it might have ended a lot better.

Even Strength Goals For/Against: 7-7 (season: 39-44; 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.93 / rank: 18th)

The even week masks one that started poorly and ended well at evens.  All of the goals scored in the game against Colorado to open the week came at even strength, leaving the Caps in a 1-4 hole.  Washington made up the difference over the last two games, outscoring Columbus, 3-2, at even strength in their 4-3 overtime win (including the game-winner at 4-on-4), and 3-1 against Detroit in the 4-3 trick shot win over the Red Wings (including two to tie the game in the third period).

Overall it was a breakeven week in more than goals.  Shots were virtually even, 79 for the Caps and 80 for their opponents in the three games.  Only against Columbus did the Caps have an edge, 31-25, but they did not have large deficits against either of the other teams.

It was an odd week in one respect, though.  There was the usual high-volume from Ovechkin (14 of the 79 even strength shots), but there was also the feast-or-famine performance sprinkled in.  Jason Chimera had eight shots on goal at even strength, but he had five of them against Columbus, none against Colorado.  Mike Green played in two games for the week, recording six even strength shots against Colorado, none against Columbus.  Marcus Johansson sandwiched a pair of no-shot efforts at even strength around a four-shot total against Columbus. 

Faceoffs: 83-175 / 47.4 percent (season: 48.5 percent / rank: 23rd)

The week was worse than it looks.  In no game did the Caps win more than 50 percent of draws overall, and their performance in the ends was poor.  In the three games they won only 33 of 77 offensive zone draws (42.9 percent).  In the defensive end it was hardly better – 23 for 52 (44.2 percent). 

Part of it was unexpectedly poor performances in games – Nicklas Backstrom going 0-for-10 in the offensive end against Columbus.  Part of it was a lot of little slips among players – four of six players taking draws in the defensive zone against Columbus being under 50 percent, all six of them being under 50 percent in the defensive zone against Detroit.  What it means is that over the last three weeks the Caps were under 50 percent in each, only 47.1 percent overall. 

Goals For/Against by Period:

The third period saved the week for the Caps.  They could not dig out of a hole against Colorado, but the Caps got a late goal from Mikhail Grabovski against Columbus after the Caps blew a third period lead, then they scored a pair in the third against Detroit, the latter of the two being Michael Latta’s first NHL goal, to tie a game that they would win in extra time. 

It masks a relatively deficient first period, extending the Caps tendency to start games in sluggish fashion.  Washington was outscored by a 3-1 margin in the first period of the three games.  It left the Caps with only 11 first period goals for the season.  Only Florida, Carolina, and Buffalo have scored fewer.   None of those three teams are in the playoff mix, and Florida and Buffalo are ranked 28th and 30th in the league in standings points.  This is not company the Caps want to keep.

In the end…

The Caps did not do it this week with dominant play; they did it this week by finding a way.  Poor first periods, poor faceoff performance, poor possession numbers, and they still managed to scrape out a pair of wins in three games, putting them on the cusp of the Metropolitan Division lead, a lead they can take if the defeat the St. Louis Blues on Sunday evening to begin Week 8.

Consider the wins “banked” against a schedule that gets more difficult this week.  It is a tough week in that the Caps have four games coming up in the next seven days, all of them in the playoff mix of their respective division and with a combined record of 47-26-6.

If the Caps come out of the coming week leading the Metropolitan Division, it will be quite a week.  To do so, they will have to play better than they did this past week.

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