Here we are with the weekly installment of “That Was The Week That Was.” This first installment covers games starting with opening night through January 27, a five-game stretch that was not the start the Caps were hoping for.
It is entirely possible that this is where the Caps could be expected to have started under a new coach – one with no previous head coaching experience – implementing new systems for a team seeing its third such installation (and fourth system) since December 2010. This also happens to be a new coach with new assistants who did not have the luxury of a training camp to see and evaluate just what it is they had in terms of talent and personality. It is the how they got to 1-3-1 that might be viewed as distressing.
The Caps fought the Tampa Bay Lightning to a draw for 40 minutes before giving up three goals in the last 20 minutes to lose, 6-3. They dropped their home opener to a Winnipeg Jets team that dropped their first two games, including a Gimmick loss in Boston the day before arriving in Washington to beat the Caps. Then they dropped a home game to Montreal, who quite frankly is not very good. The Caps salvaged some good will by the end of the week with a hard fought overtime loss to New Jersey in which they came back from two goals down with less than ten minutes left in the third period to force overtime, then beating the Buffalo Sabres to earn their first win and first home win of the season.
Offense: 2.20/game (season: 2.20/rank: T-25th)
The Capitals suffered from slow starts this week. In five games they managed only three first period goals and only another three second period tallies. It made for a situation in which the Caps did not take a lead into any intermission until closing the second period of their last game of the week with a 2-1 lead over the Buffalo Sabres. The big guns were largely absent.
Alex Ovechkin went his first four games of the season without a goal, the longest such streak of his career, before getting his first in Game 5 (the game-winner, as it turned out, against Buffalo). He might have had another but for ringing the post with an empty net in front of him in the last 30 seconds of the 3-2 win over Buffalo to close the week.
Nicklas Backstrom went the entire week without a goal, and given that Alexander Semin is no longer around, a few more goals from Backstrom would seem essential to the Caps’ success this season. Marcus Johansson, who started the 2011-2012 season with five goals in his first eight games, had none in his first four games playing significant minute on the top line. He was benched in the last game of the week.
Defense: 3.80/game (season: 3.80/rank: T-28th)
It was a team effort, just not the sort one is looking for. Here is a way of looking at it. Two thirds of last year’s “Meat and Potatoes Line” – Joel Ward and Jason Chimera – is plus-3 apiece (Brooks Laich remains out with an injury). Only one other skater is in “plus” territory for the week (Mike Ribeiro: plus-3). There are 15 skaters in “minus” territory.
One of the problems the Caps seem to be struggling with is the concept of keeping teams from getting a lead. In four of the five games the Caps allowed the first goal, going 1-2-1 in those games. Then there is the middle period. Maybe it is the long change, maybe it is the opposition making first intermission adjustments, but the Caps were outshot 64-37 in the middle period and outscored 8-3 in the second period for the five games.
Goaltending: GAA: 3.75/SV: .877
Braden Holtby came into the season as, if not the clear favorite to assume the number one goaltending responsibilities, then certainly more than worthy of consideration given his performance last spring in the playoffs. Giving up ten goals on 73 shots in two games to open the season, though, is not conducive to cementing one’s position as that number one goaltender. Enter Michal Neuvirth, who seemed to have been the forgotten man in this subplot. But after losing his first decision, a 4-1 loss to Montreal in which he allowed four goals on only 22 shots, he recovered to stop 54 of 59 shots (.915 save percentage) in an overtime loss and the club’s first win of the season to close the week. He is, for the moment at least, the number one goalie.
Power play: 4-for-23 / 17.4 percent (season: 17.4 percent / rank: 19th)
The best one could say about the Caps’ power play this week is that it is a “work in progress.” Washington recorded one power play goal in four of the five games. They did manage 30 shots on goal in 38:20 of power play time for the week. One might expect a bit more efficiency than the 13.3 percent shooting percentage with the man advantage (shooting efficiency seems to be a general concern; they are at 5.9 percent at even strength). Alex Ovechkin was zero for his first ten power play shots of the week before connecting on his last one, the game-winning goal in the 3-2 win over Buffalo on Sunday. What the Caps probably cannot count on is another (or at least regular) two goals on four power play shots from Joel Ward. Other players are going to have to step up.
Penalty Killing: 18-for-26 / 69.2 percent (season: 69.2 percent / rank: 25th)
The Caps were 9-for-13 at home on the penalty kill, and they were 9-for-13 on the road. Lack of success was not dependent on either geography or the color of jersey they were wearing. Part of the problem was opportunities. The Caps found themselves shorthanded 24 times in their first four games, allowing eight goals. Another problem was just plain inefficiency. They allowed those eight goals on 39 shots, a 20.5 percent shooting percentage for their opponents. They had a record of 0-3-1. In their lone win they allowed the Buffalo Sabres only two power play opportunities and allowed the Sabres only two power play shots on goal. As it is, only Philadelphia has allowed more shorthanded opportunities (29) than the Caps (26). The best penalty kill is not having to kill penalties.
Paying the Price: 86 hits / 64 blocked shots (season rank: 21st / 13th)
The usual suspects are splitting up the hitting chores. Troy Brouwer (13), Jason Chimera (12), Alex Ovechkin (11), and Matt Hendricks (10) account for 53 percent of the hits credited to the Caps so far. A bit of a surprise is Mike Green, who has eight hits credited to his account (compare to last season, 27 in 32 games). As one might expect, the defense lead the way in blocked shots with five of the top six shot-blockers for the week being blueliners. John Carlson led the club with 11, his running mate (“former” running mate by the end of the week) Karl Alzner was second with eight. Both players struggled in their own way on defense, though, despite the blocked shots. Carlson finished the week having the second-highest number of goals scored against while on ice, and Alzner was tied for sixth.
Faceoffs: 148-for-296 / 50.0 percent (season: 50.0 percent / rank: 17th)
If faceoffs are an indicator, the ice was tilted against the Caps this week. The Caps took 118 draws in the defensive zone (winning 63 for 53.4 percent), only 98 in the offensive zone (winning 45 for 45.9 percent). Nicklas Backstrom (18-38) and Mike Ribeiro (5-for-17) did not get the Caps started on the right foot too often in the offensive zone (41.8 percent combined). At the other end, though, Jay Beagle was a warrior in the defensive end, going 27-for-37 (73.0 percent).
What might be the odd part of this number this week is the lack of takeaways from the defense. As a group they have 11 of the team’s 33 takeaways, but John Carlson was credited with six of those (team leader) while five other defensemen had one apiece. Carlson also happens to be second on the team in giveaways (four). Things certainly do happen when John Carlson is on the ice, good and bad, and that is the Caps’ week in a nutshell.
In the end…
That the Caps would struggle at the outset was the opinion of many when the season started. But truth be told, the Caps caught a break in the scheduling out of the gate. They got a Tampa Bay team that is not all that accomplished a defensive team and ran out of gas in the third period of a 6-3 loss. They got a team in their home opener – Winnipeg – that no one is picking to be a strong challenger for the Southeast Division title. Montreal just is not that good, and the Caps looked awful against them. They picked things up against New Jersey, a team that did start the year strong. Then the Caps had Buffalo in Game 5, a team that was missing its leading goal scorer and seems to be a team that traded scoring balance for a more physical edge. It is not clear that they upgraded themselves in the process.
Now things get tougher. After a visit to Canada to face Ottawa and Toronto, they will play Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Toronto again, and then a second opportunity to face the Penguins. It is a six-game stretch that provides a challenge, to be sure. But challenges are merely opportunities, and if the Caps can take advantage of this “opportunity” to come out the other side by at least taking half the available standings points, they will be in reasonable good stead as they hit the quarter pole in the 2013 season.