Sunday, October 31, 2010

Looking at the Caps by the Tens: The First Ten Games

The Caps played their eleventh game of the season last night in Calgary, but we will take a brief look back at the first ten of the season and how the Caps performed in that segment.

The Basics

Comparing the Caps 10-game record this year to that of last year provides the following:

So far, the differences are like night and day, or perhaps more like the Fourth of July and Arbor Day. Last season the Caps had results that suggested a lot of end-to-end fireworks, a goals per game average that reflected a high-octane offense and a goals-allowed average that suggested swiss cheese as the apt simile. This year the first ten games were much more quiet at each end of the ice, the offense producing almost three-quarters of a goal less than last year, but the defense yielding almost half a goal per game less than last season.

In other respects the differences are significant – power play (down), penalty killing (up) – and reflect the scoring differences between this year and last over the same ten games. But the real difference here is how the Caps play the individual periods. Last season the Capitals got on teams early, outscoring them 13-5 in the first 20 minutes. The fact that they allowed 12 third period goals in the first ten games last season would appear to give credence to the idea that the Caps’ defense wasn’t so much bad as it was coasting with the benefit of late leads. However, compare wins and losses. For example, in four of the six wins the Caps recorded in the first ten games last season they had leads of two or more goals four times after two periods. In those games the Caps allowed six of the 12 total third period goals they allowed. But in the four games they lost (two in regulation, two in extra time) they allowed five third period goals. They were not exactly slamming the door in those games.

This season, though, the Caps are falling behind early and often. Ten goals were allowed in the first period of games, opponents scoring at least one first period goal in eight of those first ten games. And scoring only four goals themselves, the Caps found themselves behind the eight-ball after 20 minutes seven times in ten games, taking a lead into the first intermission only twice (arguably their two best games in the first ten – a 7-2 win over New Jersey and a 3-0 win over Carolina).

The flip side of this is that the Caps are doing a much better job of clamping down on teams late. The 13 goals they allowed in the second and third periods, and in overtime through the first ten games was barely half the number they allowed (24) through last season’s first ten.

Special teams

The power play is clearly ailing, but it wasn’t as if last year’s version was gangbusters getting out of the gate. True, the 17.4 percent conversion rate last year’s power play posted after ten games is considerably better than the 10.5 percent recorded so far this season. But that 17.4 percent mark last year means that the Caps had a 26.6 percent conversion rate after those first ten last season. That the Caps are struggling with their efficiency is a cause for concern, not panic, especially in light of the performance last night in Calgary to kick off the second ten games. One thing that one might look at for improvement is getting those power play opportunities in the first place. Coincidentally, the Caps averaged almost precisely the number of power play opportunities in their first ten games (3.80) that they did all of last season (3.82). But whereas the Caps finished tied for tenth in opportunities last year, they ranked in the lower half of the standings in their first ten games so far.

The penalty kill has improved immensely with a change in focus. Last year’s passive maintain-the-box style that left them vulnerable to more energetic power play clubs has given way to a style that will pressure puck carriers at the slightest hesitation – fumbling a puck, turning their back on a defender, spending too much time looking for a pass. The early results have been pleasant. The Caps killed off the first 25 shorthanded situations they faced this season and have killed off 46 of 51 overall. However, the worrisome number on the penalty kill is this one – five. The Caps allowed five or more power play opportunities to the opposition five times in ten games and did so in each of the last three games in the first ten game segment (that number rose to four with last night’s game). While it is true that the Caps were 4-1-0 in games where they allowed five or more power play chances, three of those four wins required overtime. That might be a little too thin a margin to think comfortable as we go forward. It’s nice to have a penalty kill that can get the job done, better if you don’t have to use it too often.

Young Guns

The core of this club is well known to any Caps fan – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green. The bulk of the offensive production is expected to come from this quartet. Well, their scoring was down quite substantially over the first ten games this year over the first ten last season:

Six fewer goals scored represents two-thirds of the total difference in goals between last year and this. A third of that drop in goal production represents, in part, the problems the Caps are having on the power play. Last year, these four players had a total of four power play goals after ten games. This year, they had two. But there are still the other four goals the Caps didn’t get this season that they got early last year. And it is that drop of four goals at even strength that more or less accounts for the drop in plus-minus from plus-14 in the first ten games last year to plus-11 this season for this foursome. All in all, they haven’t played badly, but neither have they jumped out of the gate.

Next Four

The “Young Guns” were the top four scorers for the Caps last season. But a club with as much firepower as the Caps gets secondary scoring, too (or at least should). The “next four” of Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble, Tomas Fleischmann, and Eric Fehr accounted for 98 goals and 202 points. All four topped 20 goals last season. The overall production of this group is little different in the first ten games (7-11-18) from that of the first ten games last season (9-9-18). But last season Fleischmann missed all of the first ten games, and Fehr did not play in four of them. Offensively, at least, this group’s productivity is a bit off from last year. But they are a plus-12 over the first ten this year, compared to plus-6 in the first ten last year. But remember those games missed last year, too, when making the comparison.


The search for a reliable, consistent second line center continues. Tomas Fleischmann, Marcus Johansson, and Mathieu Perreault all had opportunities to grab the job by the throat, but for each the grip was weak. Combined, the trio went 4-4-8, plus-7, and that includes games in which some combination of the group played together, meaning that not all of this production was “second line” production. And this trio was brutal on faceoffs, not an insignificant responsibility for a center. Combined, this group went 75-for-193 (38.9 percent). Here is something perhaps worth keeping in mind. Of Alexander Semin’s five goals in the first ten games, only two involved assists from any of these three players (both from Mathieu Perreault). You might think that a credible second line center would have more assists given Semin’s skills in finding the net.


One area in which there has been improvement, at least in the numbers, has been in goaltending. Michal Neuvirth was 6-3-0, 2.17, .926 over the first ten games. Compare that to the numbers split between Jose Theodore (2-2-2, 2.55, .914) and Semyon Varlamov (4-0-0, 3.25, .884) last season. Neuvirth has on many nights been the Caps’ best player (he was one of the three stars in four of the Caps’ six wins in the first ten games). What’s more, he has kept the Caps in games early when the Caps have had difficulty getting any offensive production (four goals the first period in ten games). In the first ten games this season Neuvirth had a .902 save percentage in the first period of games, a .940 save percentage in the second, third, and overtime.


A team dresses 18 skaters a night. Through the first ten games the Caps dressed 24 skaters, and only 13 dressed for all ten games. Only four defensemen dressed for all 10 games. Even if one expected that John Erskine and Tyler Sloan would be splitting appearances at the number six spot, you would not have expected them to share the ice in eight of the ten contests. That was the result of Mike Green missing a pair of games and Tom Poti missing six games.

In the end…

The Caps were 6-4-0 in the first ten. That’s the bottom line. The 12 points is not much removed from the ten-game total last year (6-2-2 for 14 points). It is a pace for 98 points; not the 121-point pace of last year, perhaps, but not chopped liver, either. Given the nicks and dents suffered so far, it isn’t an altogether bad place to be after ten games. But there are things to keep in mind as the Caps embark on their next ten. The power play needs to improve. Certainly the results against Calgary on Saturday were encouraging, but the Caps need to build on that.

If they are successful in that regard, it is likely to be reflected in better numbers for the Young Guns than those they put up in the first ten. You would like to see Mike Knuble shake loose, too. He hasn’t scored a goal since opening night.

In general the Caps need to get off to better starts. Yeah, they’re not out of any game with that offense, but getting outscored 10-4 in the first period generally is hard on the goalies and is no guarantee that the offense will wake up in the second and third periods.

The big problem going forward that might not be as fixable as the others is the second line center situation. Fleischmann, Perreault, and Johansson have not looked settled in that role, and it is at least an open question whether any of them will take a stronger hold on the position. How that situation unfolds will be among the more interesting things to watch as the Caps head forward to their next ten games.

A TWO-point night -- Game 11: Caps 7 - Flames 2


Welcome to “Nightmare on Saddledome Rise.” That’s what it must have looked like to the Calgary Flames on this Devils Night as the Caps treated the Flames to a 2-0 lead early, then unleashed a horror show in the middle 20 minutes on their way to a 7-2 decision.

Calgary got two goals early, largely the product of poor defense in front of Caps’ goaltender Michal Neuvirth. Olli Jokinen got one in the first minute of play, threading his way between defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner to deflect a shot off the stick of Jay Bouwmeester past Neuvirth. Curtis Glencross got one a little more than ten minutes later when he was allowed to skate free and easy through the neutral zone, and then with defenseman Brian Fahey backing off to defend a developing two on one, he roofed a shot over Neuvirth’s glove to give the Flames a two-goal lead. Caps fans might be forgiven for thinking that the dull funk that was the Minnesota game on Thursday was carrying over into this one.

It might have been that way, but Neuvirth was making saves after defensive breakdowns to keep the Caps in it. Then, with under five minutes to go in the period Alex Ovechkin sent a long stretch pass from the faceoff circle in his own end to the Calgary blue line where Brooks Laich collected it and skated in. Laich dropped the puck for Mike Green, who found Nicklas Backstrom skating down the right side. Backstrom wristed the puck into the back of the net before goalie Miikka Kiprusoff could get across the crease, and the lead was halved. That would be a mere forshadowing of horrors to come in the second period…

-- At 1:54, the Flames took a too many men on the ice penalty (cue the eerie music)

-- At 2:16 Glencross took a ghastly penalty in tripping Mike Green in front of the Caps’ net (shrieks in the background)

-- At 3:43 on the 5-on-3 portion of the power play Alex Ovechkin one-timed a Mike Green feed past Kiprusoff, who couldn’t cheat on the pass because Green was left with too much of a possible shooting lane.

-- 12 seconds later, Ovechkin again, converting the back-half of the power play by wristing a shot past Kiprusoff…Caps take the lead.

-- 10:28, Mike Green steaming down the middle, taking a feed from Alexander Semin and roofing the puck over Kiprusoff.

-- 13 seconds later, Matt Bradley got credit for a goal that Flames defenseman Cory Sarich shot into his own net off Bradley.

-- Barely three minutes later Alex Ovechkin skated down the middle of the Calgary defense, and with Kiprusoff locked onto Ovechkin in anticipation of the shot, Ovechkin slid the puck over the Alexander Semin, who sent the puck past a sprawling Kiprusoff.

-- Just before the end of the period, David Steckel beat Mark Giordano to a loose puck on a Flames power play, and then took off with nothing but clear ice ahead. Giordano tried to catch up and hang on for dear life, but merely succeeded in denying Steckel a clear scoring chance. A penalty shot was called, and Steckel scored when relief goalie Henrik Karlsson – a six-foot five-inch goalie – did his best 1970’s stack the pads routine before Steckel had begun to shoot. Steckel had only to lift the puck over the laid-out goalie, and he did just that, the bottle-popper capping a six-goal second period.

Coach Sutter?...

That ended the competitive portion of the evening, leaving the crowd to contemplate their favorites giving up four, five, and then seven goals over their last three games. For Caps fans, it was “where had this been?” It was the first time that the Caps scored more than three goals in a game since pounding the New Jersey Devils by the same 7-2 margin in Game 2 of the season.

Other stuff…

-- It was a “Young Guns” night… Ovechkin was 2-1-3, Backstrom was 1-3-4, Semin was 1-2-3, and Green was 1-2-3. A combined 5-8-13, plus-4 is a very good night.

-- Going 3-for-4 on the power play was the first three-power play goal night since getting three (in nine chances) against the Rangers last February 4th.

-- The two power play goals for Ovechkin were his first two of the year and his first two-power play goal night since getting a pair against the Islanders on January 19, 2009.

-- Michal Neuvirth allowed a goal on the second shot he faced, and then allowed only one on the last 27 shots he faced. It is part of a trend. So far this season Neuvirth has allowed 11 goals on 108 shots in the first period (.899 save percentage), only nine goals on 164 shots thereafter (.945 save percentage).

-- In the first period it looked as if it was a practice, and the drill du jour was defending 2-on-1’s. The Flames had no fewer than four such odd man breaks in the first period, scoring on one of them.

-- There weren’t many of those odd-man breaks after the first period, which is perhaps why the Flames could register only 13 shots in the second and third periods after getting 16 in the first.

-- The Caps had 12 shots on goal and four goals to start the second period before Calgary could get its first shot on net 11:14 into the period.

-- From the “good things come in threes” file… Mike Green had three points, three shots on goal, three hits, and three blocked shots.

-- D.J. King had almost as much ice time (9:02) as did Matt Hendricks (9:07), and it was Hendricks who dropped the gloves with Tim Jackman in a brief scuffle. Odd night.

-- We might be wrong, but Matt Bradley seems to get more hits-per-minute than just about anybody. Four in 11 minutes tonight.

-- David Steckel might have had the rare difficult night in the circle (8-for-20), but he held his own in the defensive end (6-for-11).

-- The Caps lost 16 of their first 25 draws, but they recovered to go almost break-even the rest of the game (23-for-47).

-- If Caps fans were longing over the unfulfilled prospects of securing the services of Robyn Regehr last summer, this game should have done little to make them long for him much more. He was on the ice for three of the six goals the Caps scored not of the penalty shot variety and took a penalty of his own in 18 minutes of ice time. Maybe it was just a bad night.

-- Ovechkin gets the ticket to the buffet… two goals, an assist, seven shots on goal, a shot attempt that was blocked, three misses, four hits, a giveaway, a takeaway, and one faceoff taken (a loss). And all in only 18 minutes and change (barely four minutes in the third period…see what having a lead can do?).

-- Five of Ovechkin’ seven shots came on the power play.

-- Alexander Semin was desperately trying to get Ovechkin his hat trick. It seemed every time he had the puck in the third period, he was looking for “8.” Looking a little too much; he passed up some good scoring opportunities.

-- John Erskine and Brian Fahey had about as good a night as you could hope for – 30 minutes of combined ice time, one turnover between them, and both were on the ice for only the second Calgary goal. But I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that a “444” defensive pair is – or should be – a novelty.

-- Speaking of novelty, this whole letting the other team score first and take a lead into the first intermission needs to become a novelty pretty quick, too. Relying on a team’s utter collapse in the second period (as was the case in allowing two goals to New Jersey in the home opener before getting four in the second, and allowing two last night against Calgary before getting six in the second in winning both games 7-2) is not a recipe for consistent success.

-- The seven wins the Caps have in their first 11 games matches the number of wins they had in their first 11 games last season (7-2-2).

-- No, the six second period goals was not a record for goals in a period.  The Caps have scored eight in a period (against Tampa Bay in 1999) and seven in a period in a road game once (against Los Angeles in 1993).

In the end, the fans in the Scotiabank Saddledome were treated to the full spectrum of horrors the Caps can unleash on an opponent. Three power play goals, three even strength goals, and a shorthanded penalty shot goal. At the other end, they saw the quiet style of Michal Neuvirth, who has given the Caps the chance to come back  games because he has been almost impenetrable after the first period of games so far. Neuvirth did not get a star in this one, but perhaps he should have. If he did not have the first period he had, foiling those two-on-one rushes, the Caps would have had too deep a hole out of which they could dig in the second and third periods when the stars of the game – Ovechkin, Green, and Backstrom – could do their work.

Still, as much as it was a team problem in the first (ten different Caps skaters were on the ice for the two Calgary goals), it was a team effort in the second and third to steamroll the Flames into the Saddledome ice. The Caps seem never to be truly out of a game with an offense that can turn scoreboards into a blinking frenzy. But it would be nice if they did this to bury teams early more often than having to come back from multi-goal deficits. But four points on a three-game road trip has to be considered a success.