Sunday, January 05, 2014

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 14

On one level it was not quite the worst week of the season for the Washington Capitals.  On another, Week 14 was just that, and as we reached the half-way point of the 28-week season, that is not a good thing.

Record: 0-2-2

It was the first losing week for the Caps since Week 8 and only their second since Week 2.  They were saving it up, apparently.  The four-game losing streak matched the Caps’ longest of the 2013-2014 season (November 20 – 27, 0-3-1).  One might try to explain this away as being the product of three of the games being played on the road, but this highlights a concern.  Nine of the 13 games to close January will be played on the road.

When the week began the Caps sat in second place in the Metropolitan Division with 44 points, six points ahead of four teams tied at 38 points (Philadelphia, New York Rangers, Columbus, New Jersey).  By week’s end, that lead over the pack was gone, the Flyers having overtaken the Caps for second place (based on more wins; they teams are tied with 46 points apiece), and the Caps are only six points ahead of seventh-place Columbus in The Metro. 


Offense:  2.00/game (season: 2.86 / rank: 9th)

When the offense only registers eight goals in four games, it makes for a thin week for individual scoring.  What jumps off the page (well, given the Caps play it is more as if what oozes off the page) is that half of the goals for the week were scored by Mike Green, who had his first two-goal game of the season against the Minnesota Wild, and Troy Brouwer, who doubled his goal output recorded over the 21 games preceding this week.  Making it a stranger week, Marcus Johansson led the club in points (1-2-3).  Recording points in consecutive games to end the week broke a five-game streak without a point after he had a five-game points streak.  Maybe it’s a trend.

On the one hand, one might like that six different players shared the goals and 14 players recorded points.  On the other hand, it was only eight goals for the week.  If you look at the club at 5-on-5 it was a case of inverse sliding scales.  The shots on goal for the week at 5-on-5 went 35, 29, 38, 21.  The flip side of that was that the shooting percentages went up through the week: 2.9, 3.4, 7.9, 9.5.  Shooting percentages go up, shots go down.  That’s how you get to an eight-goal week (seven at 5-on-5).

Defense: 3.25/game (season: 2.95 / rank: 24th)

One cannot like the progression of goals allowed through the week… one, three, four, five.  The odd part is that twice the Caps held opponents to fewer than 20 shots (17 for Buffalo in a 2-1 Gimmick loss to the Sabres, 11 in a 5-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild).  It was the first time this season the Caps held an opponent to fewer than 20 shots.  In fact, it was the first time the Caps held an opponent to fewer than 20 shots since January 3, 2012, a 3-1 Caps win that Caps fans will remember as the night Rene Bourque concussed Nicklas Backstrom.  

It was the first time that the Caps held two opponents under 20 shots in the span of a week since turning the trick against Edmonton (19 shots) and Anaheim (15 shots) on October 27 – November 1, 2011. Oddly enough, the Caps lost to Edmonton and had to score two goals late to force overtime against the Ducks before winning, 5-4 (the night Alex Ovechkin was benched in the last minute of regulation).

On the possession side, what a week.  At 5-on-5 overall the Caps had an aggregate 59.9 Corsi-for percentage, a 59.2 Fenwick-for percentage.  They held opponents to 80 shots at 5-on-5 while getting 123 of their own.  It is not a perfect indicator of success.

Goaltending: 2.96 GAA / .878 save percentage (season: 2.83 / .916 / 1 shutout)

A tale of two goalies.  Philipp Grubauer had three starts for the week and played respectably – 2.30 goals against average and a .920 save percentage.  But look more closely.  One goal allowed, then two goals, then four goals.  It was the culmination of a stretch in which Grubauer appeared in ten of the last 13 games, not really a part of the plan when the season started.  He finished that run going 1-2-2 in his last five appearances after going 4-0-1 in the first five appearances. 

All in all, it has been a very good performance by Grubauer, but at some point the guy you think was, is, and will be your number one goalie has to get work.  That guy – Braden Holtby – had not appeared in a game since December 21st before taking the ice on Saturday against the Minnesota Wild to end the week.  It did not go well.  Five goals allowed on 11 shots. It was the third straight appearance in which Holtby allowed five goals, and in the appearance just before that he allowed three goals on eight shots in 11 minutes of work before being relieved.  Just 73 saves on 91 shots in four appearances, a .802 save percentage.

But not all of what happened on Saturday can be laid at the pads of Braden Holtby.  The Caps allowed the Wild entirely too much latitude to set up in front of their netminder, particularly Dany Heatley doing so twice on what would be power play goals by Ryan Suter.  The only one of the five goals that Holtby might conceivably have wanted back was Suter’s third goal of the contest, scored as Suter exited the penalty box and joined on a 2-on-1 rush, the shot sailing over Holtby’s blocker. 

With 40 games to go in the season, goaltending is at something of a crossroads.  It is getting to be time for the Caps to realize that Michal Neuvirth has been accumulating rust since before Thanksgiving and might very well be useless to them for the rest of this season, if they do not trade him before that.  Grubauer is too green and might be in danger of being overworked, as much for the mental grind of playing at this level as the physical grind of getting so much work.  Holtby is the number one goalie, and he needs to play, to play himself out of his doldrums and to show him that the Caps think – that they know – that he is the guy. 

Power Play: 1-7 / 14.3 percent (season: 25.3 percent / rank: 2nd)

As the power play goes, so go the Caps.  That has been the season to date.  In eight of the previous 13 weeks the Caps were at least 20 percent on the power play and won five of those weeks, breaking even in two others.  They did not clear that threshold this week, leaving them 3-3 in weeks in which they do not hit that 20 percent power play mark.

This week the Caps were 1-for-7 in four games.  What doesn’t work in that math is seven power plays in four games.  They had no more than two man advantages in any of the games, making it six times in nine games they had two or fewer power plays.  In a way they played in bad luck.  You get 20 shots in 13:25 of total power play time, you are getting your chances.  But one goal on those 20 shots?  A 5.0 shooting percentage?  It is not what one would expect from this team.  It was not as if the team got their shots from players who should not be shooting, either.  Eight shots on goal from Alex Ovechkin (no goals), six combined from Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward in the middle of the 1-3-1 (no goals).  The only goal was a rebound off an Alex Ovechkin shot potted by Marcus Johansson.

Penalty Killing: 9-13 / 69.2 percent (season: 80.5 percent / rank: 21st)

Once upon a time this season the Caps killed off 34 shorthanded situations in a row.  Since then the penalty kill has relentlessly descended into a pit of despair.  In the nine weeks since hitting their high-water mark of 90.7 percent on the penalty kill, their season PK percentage dropped eight times until they now sit at 80.5 percent, 21st in the league.

This week they were not uniformly awful.  In the first three games of the week the Caps were 7-for-8, allowing only one goal on 13 shots in 14:38 of penalty killing time.  Then came the debacle against Minnesota in the last game of the week.  It wasn’t the shots – the Wild had three in 6:40 of power play time.  It was that the Wild scored on each of them.  Two of them came from Ryan Suter, contributing to his first career hat trick and first career two-power play goal game.  He is also now the first Wild defenseman ever to score power play goals within a minute of one another.  In both instances he benefitted from Dany Heatley setting up comfortable as you please at the top of the crease with his backside in goalie Braden Holtby’s face, denying the goalie any sight lines.  The other power play goal – the game-winning goal – came off the stick of Jason Zucker, who slammed the puck in from the goal mouth after a point shot from Jonas Brodin hit bodies in front.  The Wild had more effective screens in this game than Home Depot sells to people repairing their windows.

Even Strength Goals For/Against: 7-9 (season: ; 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.91 / rank: T-20th)

Lost the week, lost the week.  The Caps continue to struggle at even strength.  The novel part of this week’s struggle was not in teams outshooting or outpossessing them.  The Caps outshot opponents by a 135-83 margin at even strength.  Still, they were outscored.  Bad luck?  Bad karma?  Does it matter?  Here are some things to chew on.  Marcus Johansson does not have an even strength goal since November 7th.  Nicklas Backstrom has two even strength goals in his last 15 games.  Troy Brouwer has two in his last 13 games.  The Caps rank just 18th in the league in 5-on-5 goals.  They have allowed the ninth-most such goals.  This week was one in a stream of frustration.

Faceoffs: 128-261 / 49.0 percent (season: 49.7 percent / rank: 16th)

It was pretty much an even week overall, but by zone it was a much better week for the Caps in the offensive end (53.8 percent than it was in the defensive end (47.3 percent) or in the neutral zone (44.6 percent).  Nicklas Backstrom had a good week in the offensive end (17-for-28; 60.7 percent), but he was under 50 percent in the other two zones (48.0 percent in the defensive end, 40.7 percent in the neutral zone).  Only Mikhail Grabvovski (58.8 percent ) and Jay Beagle (71.4 percent on seven draws) were over 50 percent in the defensive end.

Goals For/Against by Period:

The second period has been kind to the Caps so far this season.  Not so in Week 14.  The Caps were outscored by an 8-4 margin for the week.  Worse, they twice gave up leads in the second periods of games (to Carolina and Minnesota) accounting for six of the eight goals allowed.  The Caps did not finish games strong on offense, either.  One third period goal, that one scored against the woeful Buffalo Sabres in the first game of the week.  They did not give up a lot – two goals – but in a week with no wins, it was not good enough.

In the end…

There are 40 games left, and the Caps are a mess at the moment.  Goaltending is a mess… the number one goalie has had his confidence cracked, another has almost as much rust on him as the Titanic, and a third should be learning his craft in Hershey, not being burned out in Washington.  The Caps still go as far as their power play takes them, they are still a penalty killing team in decline.  Once solidly in second place in the Metropolitan Division, the mirage that their standing was has vanished.  The Caps are not a good even strength team, don’t win when either their power play struggles or the teams don’t go to the Gimmick to settle things, they dictate neither pace nor style of play.  From game to game one does not know if this team will show up, let alone know what style they wish to employ.  Coaches seem to have no answers, the front office seems to be either patient to a fault or somnambulant.  It is a team poorly constructed and, at the moment at least, poorly managed.

Did we miss anything?  We hope not, because with 40 games left there is time to address problems.  The question is, do they – from the equipment managers to the top of the food chain – know how?

Washington Capitals: A NO point night -- Game 42: Wild 5 - Capitals 3

The Washington Capitals played what might have been their best opening 20 minutes of the season at Xcel Energy Center in Minneapolis tonight, but there being 60 minutes in a hockey game, they still lost, 5-3, to the Minnesota Wild.

It sure looked good early.  Marcus Johansson got the Caps off to a good start with a power play goal eight minutes into the game as he put back a rebound of an Alex Ovechkin shot attempt.  Just 13 seconds later, Mike Green put the Caps up, 2-0, when he took a pass in stride from Jason Chimera just inside the blue line, left Matt Cooke standing by the side of the road as he curled and dragged the puck around him, then wristed the puck over the left pad of goalie Niklas Backstrom.

Then, this happened…

Nino Niederreiter halved the Caps lead on just the second shot of the game for the Wild 2:16 into the second period when he jumped into the slot as the trailer, taking a pass from Charlie Coyle, and snapping the puck over the glove of goalie Braden Holtby. 

Less than five minutes (and just two shots) later, the Wild tied it on a 5-on-3 power play, Ryan Suter flinging a shot from high in the zone through a screen and past Holtby.  On the back half of that power play, it was Suter again, sending a hope and a prayer from the same spot on the ice through the legs of defenseman John Carlson, past Holtby’s left pad, and into the back of the net to give the Wild the lead, 3-2

Six minutes later Mike Green got his second of the game on the oddest of plays.  Mike Green sent a floater into the air and off the end boards behind and to the left of Backstrom.  The puck rebounded back, hit Backstrom’s glove, made a right turn, his Backstrom’s right pad, and caromed in to make it 3-3.

Barely three minutes later, though, Minnesota took the lead for good on another power play.  Jonas Brodin sent a soft shot toward the net from the left point that hit a skate, popped up into the air, and dropped behind Holtby where Jason Zucker swatted it in from the last 12 inches.

That ended a bizarre nightmare of a period for the Caps, who allowed four goals on eight shots.  The third period didn’t go any worse for the Caps, but it hardly went better.  With Ryan Suter off on a tripping call 5:30 into the period, the Caps had a chance to get back into it.  The Caps managed just one shot on goal, and as Suter left the penalty box after the Wild killed the penalty he jumped up with Clayton Stoner to press a 2-on-1 rush with Mike Green back.  Green defended neither the pass nor a shot, and Stoner found Suter for a one timer for the hat trick and the final 5-3 margin.

Other stuff…

-- The first period:
  • Score: Caps 2 – Wild 0
  • Shots: Caps 11 – Wild 1
  • Shot Attempts:Caps 18 – Wild 6
  • Faceoffs: Caps 14 – Wild 6

-- Second period
  • Score: Wild 4 – Caps 1
  • Shots: Wild 8 – Caps 10
  • Shot Attempts: Wild 12 – Caps 21
  • Faceoffs: Wild 18 – Caps 5

-- Since 1995, when the Caps lost a 3-2 decision to the Florida Panthers, 11 teams allowed 11 shots or fewer in a game and lost.  Five of the losing teams were shutout, another four scored just one goal.  The Caps are the 12th team since then to allow 11 shots in a game and lose, the first to allow more than three goals in doing it. 

-- There will be a lot of talk about Braden Holtby allowing five goals on 11 shots.  That goes with the territory.  But really, this team plays entirely too dainty a game on the penalty kill.  Defensemen are little more than maĆ®tre d’s showing forwards to the top of the crease… ah, your table is waiting, Monsieur.  Watch Braden Holtby trying to get a sight line around Dany Heatley to his left and Ryan Suter shooting the puck through the other side. 

-- The Caps were 2-for-5 on penalty kills.  That makes 23-for-33 over their last nine games (69.7 percent).  Remember when they killed 34 in a row earlier this season?  Yeah, me neither.

-- The Caps had two even strength goals on 24 shots, the Wild two even strength goals on eight shots.  Yeah, that means the Wild took three power play shots…and scored on all of them.  The Wild did not get their tenth shot of the game until the 47:38 mark of the contest.  They scored on it (Suter’s hat trick goal).

-- Mikhail Grabovski had a jersey malfunction, his name plate spelling “GRABOVSKY.”  We’re thinking it was not a mistake, but an omen… “’Y’,’ oh ‘Y’ are you playing like this?”

-- The loss makes the Caps 0-6-1 in franchise history in games played in Minnesota against the Wild.  The last time the Caps won a game against any NHL team in Minnesota?  February 9, 1993, against the North Stars.  Dale Hunter had a pair of goals, Dmitri Khristich potted another, and Don Beaupre stopped 19 of 21 shots in a 3-2 win.

-- Passive hockey… In six of their last nine games the Caps have had two or fewer power plays.  They had two against the Wild, converting one of them.

-- You could almost see the writing on the wall early on in this, despite what looked like a hot start.  Their first six shots came from 50, 57, 38, 25, 62, and 41 feet out (according to the play-by-play summary at  The Caps offense was a rebound on a power play, a sick individual piece of skating, and a weird bounce.  Nowhere in there do you see sustained pressure.

-- Ryan Suter had a hat trick, his first in the NHL.  He didn’t have so much as a two-goal game since October 22, 2009, 315 games ago.  It was the first time in his career he recorded two power play goals in a game.  They were his first power play goals of the season.

-- For the Wild it was the first time they recorded three power play goals in a game since December 10, 2011, 144 games ago.

-- Equal opportunity defense… 14 of the 18 skaters for the Caps were on ice for at least one Minnesota goal.  Eric Fehr, Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson, and Tom Wilson were the four to escape that ignominy.

-- Speaking of Wilson… 3:46 in ice time.  How little is that?  Technically, Alex Ovechkin had a shift of 3:09 in this game.

-- Not one, but two delay-of-game penalties, shooting the puck over the glass.  Karl Alzner’s was especially egregious, as he had time and space to do something – anything – else with the puck than lifting it over the glass.  That put the Caps two men down, and the rest was history.

-- Three Wild players scored goals on all the shots they took.  There was Suter’s three-for-three, of course, but Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter scored on their only respective shots of the game.

-- Maybe it was just coincidence, but after Matt Cooke and Alex Ovechkin had a staredown in front of the players bench with 31 seconds left in the first period, the Wild outscored the Caps, 5-1.  Yeah, the penalty killing had something to do with it, too.

-- Weird stat… Nicklas Backstrom was 5-for-15 on draws for the game, but he was 5-for-7 in the ends.

-- Speaking of Backstrom, this was just the third time in the last 16 games Backstrom and Ovechkin each registered a point that the Caps lost (13-2-1).  It is the second loss in a row and third in four games (1-2-1).

-- Braden Holtby’s save percentage over his last six appearances… .840. 

In the end…

Here is the scary part.  Let’s compare two teams in a slump…

They look similar don’t they?  Team B is the current Caps on their 1-3-3 slide over their last seven games.  Team A is the Caps of 2011-2012, the last seven games before Bruce Boudreau was relieved of his duties as head coach.

And the optics look just as bad. It is a team that has played listlessly, without any sense of urgency.  They have been soft, letting teams largely work without much resistance in the Capitals’ zone and letting teams push them around in the Capitals’ attack zone.  Frankly, as hockey teams go, they're soft, entirely too easy to play against.  The coaching staff seems not to have any answers.  It is almost as if things are the way Karl Alzner described them…

"For whatever reason, as a team we weren't really responding well enough or as good as we should have been.  And it's kind of, 'Where do you go from there?'"

The trouble is, Alzner said that in the wake of Boudreau’s firing in 2011.    At the moment we are left to wonder where the Caps are going from here.  Other than sliding into third place in the Metropolitan Division with tonight's loss, that is.  They have four days off to figure it out before taking on a Tampa Bay team that is, at the moment, everything the Caps are not -- overachieving, dynamic, on their game.