Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Washington Capitals: At the Half-Way Mark -- Three Cousins, Three Questions

The Washington Capitals passed the half-way point of their regular season schedule last weekend, and it seems as good a time as any to take stock of where they have been and where they might be going in their quest for a Stanley Cup.  As you might expect, the cousins have their own take on those questions.

Cheerless… “Yeah, one thing I want to know, where do we keep this ‘stock’ we’re taking?  I was out in the barn this morning, and it looked pretty empty to me.”

Fearless… “Except for all the moonshine bottles strewn about…”

Peerless… Can we get back to the subject?  The Caps finished the first half of the season with a 31-7-3 record.  They lead the league in wins, as well as regulation and overtime wins.  The only teams with more standings points earned at home have played more games than the Caps.  They have the best road record in the league.  They have the second best scoring offense and second-best scoring defense.  They have the second-best power play, and it’s worth noting that the best teams in each of those three categories are different teams.  They have the…

Cheerless… “You goin’ somewhere with this, cuz, or are you just grazin’?”

Peerless… OK, first queston.  Is this as good as it gets, or is this a new normal for this club?

Fearless… The Caps are on a pace to win 62 games, which would match the NHL record set by the 1995-1996 Detroit Red Wings.  Oddly enough, they are on a pace to finish with almost the same record as that club.  Detroit finished 62-13-7, the Caps are on pace to finish 62-14-6.  That said, the half-season version of the Caps looks a lot like the full-season version of the 1995-1996 Red Wings.  I did this handy little chart, anticipating your hypothetical…

As you can see, the Caps compare favorably with that Red Wings team in most areas. But…

Cheerless… “Always stickin’ your ‘but’ in.”

Fearless… As I was about to say, the Caps have done this over half a season.  To expect them to sustain that level of performance over the second half is a reach.  While they are a very good team, even a dominant one by contemporary standards, that Red Wings team was unreal.  They finished their regular season with 131 standings points, 27 ahead of the second-best team in the league, the Colorado Avalanche (104).  They had 13 more wins than the next biggest winner, the Pittsburgh Penguins (49).

Cheerless… Now get to the good part.

Fearless… Well, it wasn’t so good for the Red Wings.  They didn’t dominate in the postseason, going six games in the first round before beating the Winnipeg Jets, a team that finished with just 78 points in the regular season, and then took seven games to subdue the St. Louis Blues, who finished with just 80 points. They lost in the conference final in six games to the Avalanche.  Being good in the regular season matters; being dominant?  Perhaps not as much.  To get back to your original question, I don’t much care whether this is a spike in performance or, as you put it, a ‘new normal.’”

Peerless… OK, then what DO you care about?

Cheerless… “Well, unlike my esteemed cousin with all the fancy words here, I was taught that winnin’ was better than losin’.  But not losin’ a lot is better than winnin’ a lot.”

Peerless… Can anyone translate that?

Fearless… “I speak ‘Cheerless-ese’ passably well, so I’ll take a shot.  I think what he is saying is that the thing that impresses about the Caps so far, as much as the winning, is the ability to avoid losing streaks.  One instance of consecutive losses over a 42-game span is impressive. Compare that to the 1995-1996 Red Wings.  They didn’t have what you call “the gimmick” back in the day, but they did have overtime.  And in the first half of that season, the Wings had an instance of three consecutive games without a win (0-1, with two ties), consecutive losses in regulation, and a four game stretch in which they went 1-2, with a tie.  What I would be happy seeing in the second half is the Caps avoiding those kinds of slumps.  It would suggest an ability to shrug off bad performances or bad luck and getting back down to business, an attitude that could come in handy in the spring.

Peerless… OK, second question.  The Caps signed Mike Richards to a pro-rated one-year/$1 million contract.  Can he make the team better?

Fearless… No.  But let me explain that, starting with a question.  How do you get “better” from 32-7-3?  You don’t.  But, what you can do is justify the number with better underlying statistics.  The Caps have had possession issues for about two months now.  Their record has the faint whiff of opportunistic play – taking advantage of their depth of skill – more than rock-solid possession stats.  Richards comes from a hockey culture in Los Angeles that seemed to feed off of the fundamentals with respect to possession.  He will not be asked to do a lot with the Caps in terms of scoring line responsibility, but he can provide depth in the middle, and it is that attention to the basics that has been inconsistent with the Caps over the last few weeks.

Cheerless… OK, that is what he can provide.  But this is a guy who hasn’t played a game since April 9th last season, and it wasn’t as if he was all that productive when he did play.  He was 5-11-16, minus-10, in 53 games last season.  He had his problems, and we all hope those are behind him.  But he has more than 800 regular season and playoff games on his record, playing a hard-nosed style that suggests a player bigger than he is (5’11”/196).  He is 30 years old.  Is that an “old” 30?  He had 41 points in 82 games in 2003-2014 on a Cup winner.  He had 16 points in 53 games on a team last year that didn’t make the playoffs.  If he is anything like the former, the Caps might be able to sustain something close to the level of success they had in the first half.  If he’s more like the latter, the Caps still might have issues to deal with on their underlying game.

Peerless… Last one.  If the playoffs started today, the Caps’ first round opponent would be the New Jersey Devils.  Anything about that team scare you, and bonus question, what team would be the worst first round matchup in a playoff scenario?

Cheerless… “I see where you’re goin’ here, cuz.  You’re askin’ who can ‘Halak’ the Caps out of the playoffs?  You look at the teams bunched in the 7-10 range in the standings, the ones that might finish as an eight-seed and get the Caps in a first round, if the Caps win the conference.  Who among Boston, New Jersey, Tampa Bay, or Ottawa has a goalie who can steal a round?  I keep waiting for Tuukka Rask to improve in Boston, and he did have a ten-game stretch there where he didn’t lose in regulation, but he seems to be in a rut again.  New Jersey has Cory Schneider.  He hasn’t allowed more than three goals in consecutive games all season.  But that team just doesn’t score enough in front of him; he's lost ten games in which he allowed two or fewer goals.  Ottawa doesn’t give their goaltender enough help in front of him; they allow too many chances.  Tampa Bay…that’s the team that scares me.  Ben Bishop might not steal games the way Jaroslav Halak did against the Caps in 2010, but he plays really well in that system.  If they ever get their heads screwed on right at the other end, and if the Stamkos thing settles down in their favor, they could be a load.”

Fearless… “One problem the Caps had in 2010 was that things came a bit too easy for them.  They didn’t seem to have to fight through games all that often.  Sure, there was the occasional big comeback, but there was a 'Showtime' aspect to that team that melted away in 'Crunch Time.'  That is where this team is different.  The last game is the last game for them.  They put it behind them, win or lose, and take up their lunch pails and get to work on the next one.”

Cheerless… “What’s this, ‘Ode to the Working Man’ Tuesday?”

Fearless… “I was just reading some works by Studs Terkel.”

Cheerless… “You made that name up…”

Fearless… “No, he…”

Peerless… “Can we?”

Fearless… “Sure…as I was saying, this is a club that seems better insulated against the dreaded ‘hot goaltender’ that bedeviled this franchise in 30 years of playoff misfortune.  And besides, the Caps are the ones with the ‘hot goaltender.’  Maybe you should be asking if that’s the ‘new normal’ around here.”

Peerless… Good point, but that’s a question for another day.  What the Caps have done so far this season is extraordinary.  Unprecedented, in fact, in the context of the franchise’s history.  The aim now is not to put up gaudy win numbers for their own sake.  A Capital remarked the other day that it wasn’t about winning 50 or 60 games, but winning the last one.  More than the win total through the first half of the season, the Caps have been consistent in the way they go about things and in the outcomes that come from that effort.  It is the sign of a mature, focused team.  Maintaining that approach might not mean 60 wins in the regular season, but it very well could mean 16 wins in the postseason.