Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Ten Stories of 2010 -- Number 9: Eight Is Quite Enough

In 1975 the Washington Capitals lost 17 games in a row. The team had not lost as many as eight in a row since opening the 1990 portion of the 1989-1990 season with eight consecutive defeats. But starting with an innocent enough-looking 2-1 loss on the road in Dallas on December 2nd, the Caps would go on to match their longest losing streak in more than 20 years. You could pick nits and say that in the 2010 edition of “Eight is Enough” the Caps did earn two standing points by virtue of extra time losses to Toronto (a 5-4 loss in a shootout) and to Anaheim (a 2-1 overtime loss), but losses are losses, and single standings points are little consolation to fans, players, or management when the losses start piling up. It’s just bookkeeping.

And speaking of bookkeeping, here is the list of losses on the 2010 streak

At Dallas: 2-1
Atlanta: 3-1
Toronto: 5-4 (OT/SO)
Florida: 3-0
Colorado: 3-2
At NY Rangers: 7-0
Anaheim: 2-1 (OT)
At Boston: 3-2

Except for the implosion at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers, the Caps did not play altogether poorly on defense. With that 7-0 loss Washington gave up an average of 3.38 goals per game. Absent that debacle, that number was 2.86 goals allowed per game. Not great, to be sure, but not the sort of number you would associate with a team on a long losing streak. If there was a defensive letdown, though, it was on the power play. Skating shorthanded the Caps killed off 18 of 26 penalties (69.2 percent) and allowed at least one power play goal in the first seven games of the streak. That they did not in the eighth game was a product of not facing a shorthanded situation in the 3-2 loss at Boston.

But even those numbers are deceptive. The Caps did not get very good goaltending. In the eight games Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth surrendered a total of 27 goals on 205 shots (a .868 save percentage). Even discarding the Ranger calamity, the goalies allowed 20 goals on 185 shots (a .892 save percentage – not very good).

What let the Caps down more than anything, though, was a team-wide offensive drought. In the eight games the Caps scored only 11 goals (1.38/game), four of them coming in the 5-4 shootout loss to Toronto on December 6th. The Caps were shut out twice (3-0 by Florida, 7-0 by the Rangers) and scored a single goal in three other games. Only once – in the 5-4 loss to Toronto – did the Caps score more than twice.

The usual word that might describe the Caps’ power play woes on the streak would be “anemic.” That doesn’t begin to capture the scope of the problem. The “power” play was 3-for-29 during the streak. And efficiency rating of 10.3 percent might be something lower than half what folks should expect from a power play unit featuring the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin. But that was just the half of it. Scoring power play goals depends on your getting power plays, and the Caps managing only 29 man-advantage situations in eight games (3.6/game) didn’t give the guys much of a chance to shine, either.

But back to the “Young Guns” – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, and Semin. Individually, they were universally unproductive:

Ovechkin: 2-2-4, minus-4
Backstrom: 0-4-4, minus-5
Green: 0-1-1, minus-3 (six games)
Semin: 0-2-2, minus-1 (six games)

As a group, 2-9-11, minus-13 might be the bulls-eye in terms of the Caps’ inability to mount any offense to speak of in the eight games. That all four of them would hit a rut at the same time is one of those things that defy explanation in sports. We’re sure Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri had their slumps as part of “Murderers’ Row,” too.

Bruce Boudreau remarked in an HBO 24/7 episode that the Chicago Blackhawks lost nine in a row last year on their way to the Cup. Not to pick nits, but the statement is not true. The Blackhawks did not lose more than three consecutive games last year, but they did have a stretch in March in which they lost seven of nine (2-5-2, including a 4-3 overtime loss to the Caps in which Chicago blew a 3-0 third period lead). So, the spirit of the comment had merit. Teams do hit bumps along the way. The Blackhawks had theirs; the previous Cup champ wasn’t even in the playoff mix half-way through the season.

On December 1st, the day before the streak started and a night on which the Caps won in St. Louis – historically a difficult place for them to win, Washington topped the league in standings points with 38 (on an 18-6-2 record). Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Detroit trailed, all with 34 points. In the Southeast Division, Tampa Bay was in second place with 31 points, Atlanta third with 29. All seemed well, a smooth road to what might be another Presidents Trophy in the future. Seventeen days later the Caps lost to the Boston Bruins, 3-2, for their eighth straight loss. They had fallen nine points behind Philadelphia, four behind Pittsburgh, and they now trailed both the Atlanta Thrashers and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division, resting seventh in the Eastern Conference and only two points ahead of Boston, the team that just beat them that night.

It might be the hard way to go – enduring a long bout of frustration – but it is not necessarily a signal that failure is a certainty in the playoffs. In fact, in a perverse way the streak might have been the growing pains to be endured by trying to incorporate a more defensively responsible character within their team framework. If so, it could yield big dividends down the road for the Caps. Nevertheless, for its incomprehensibility and maddening effect the streak had on players and fans alike, eight consecutive losses was quite enough and was one of the top ten stories in 2010.

Sittin' at the end of the bar... Classic Thoughts

Just some idle musings...

-- NHL Public Relations reports that an estimated 30,000 fans will make the trek from the DC area to Pittsburgh for the game.  Wonder if there will be a caravan of Caps fans heading up I-70 to the away game like in the movie, "Hoosiers?"  Yee-haw!!  Grand Slams at the Denny's in Breezewood!! 

-- The game is scheduled to start a 1:00, but there is a "window" allowing for the game to start as late as 8:00 in the event of inclement weather.  We wonder, will there be barges in the Allegheny River with kegs and cases of Iron City beer to tide fans over for the seven hour "window?"

-- Adam Gretz provides a handy little guide to Heinz Field, in which he notes that Heinz Field concourses in the upper deck can get cramped.  If it is raining, and people head for cover, will bodies be flying out of the upper deck of Heinz Field as space gets scarce and rivalries boil over?

-- The road team is 2-0-1 in these things.

-- Why is only Mario Lemieux' number featured in NHL's "by the numbers" feature?  Like there is a hockey fan on the planet who doesn't know what number Lemieux wore?  We wish Milan Novy was playing in the alumni game to say, "hey, '66?' Me too!"

-- When the second meeting of the season between these teams is in Pittsburgh, the Caps are 2-7-1 in their last ten tries.

-- Sidney Crosby's scoring streak ended at 25 games last night.  Folks are wondering if he will shave off the moustache, now that it's over.  Never mind that, will he retire that cup?

-- Wonder if Mathieu Perreault's face will get as much, uh, "face" time in the last installment of HBO's 24/7 series as Ben Lovejoy's did last night in Episode 3.  The way it kept swelling up during the hour, I thought by the end of the episode his face was going to be put in storage to be a float in the Macy's parade next year.

-- Wonder if the NHL has been talking to MLB for some pointers on how to handle rain delays?

-- If there is a rain delay, too bad they can't put a tarp on the ice and have players mimic the old Rick Dempsey Rain Delay Theater, complete with the hydroplaning dive into home plate.  We will avoid the obvious Sidney Crosby joke here.

-- One would normally think hot chocolate would be a big seller at things like this.  If it's in the 50's, can we get pina coladas?

-- When Alex Ovechkin was applying that eye-black before practice yesterday, was he giving his nemesis over on the Penguin side a little dig with the "moustache," or was he thinking it would spring him on a long scoring streak?

-- And what was up with John Carlson?  Was that an homage to the Nats' Bryce Harper, or did he just rent "Braveheart?"...

(Carlson photo by Cheryl Nichols/

Top Ten Stories of 2010 -- Number 10: Sold Out!

It was not that long ago that the Washington Capitals were the steaming piles of stuff that couldn’t draw flies. In the last season the Caps made the playoffs before the lockout – 2002-2003 – they ranked 18th among 30 teams in the NHL in attendance. As bad as it was, they were fewer than 800 fans a night from leading the Southeast Division in paid attendance.

It got worse, though. In 2003-2004 the Caps finished 25th in the league in attendance. After the lockout not even the debut of Alex Ovechkin could move the needle north. In 2005-2006 the Caps – perhaps a combination of fans aggravated by the lockout and low expectations for success – dropped further in the attendance rankings, losing more than 800 more fans per game (from 14,720 to 13,905) to finish ranked 28th in attendance. 2006-2007 was little better, up one in the rankings. 2007-2008 might have been another lackluster year at the gate, but the Caps put together a run unprecedented in team history to secure a playoff spot. The last four games of that season were sellouts.

Since then, things have been a lot different at Verizon Center. In 2008-2009 the Caps finished 13th in attendance and played to almost 97 percent capacity. Last season the Caps finished 11th in attendance and sold every seat. You might remember this date – March 3, 2009. That Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes was the last time the Capitals played to a less-than-sellout crowd (17,903). Since then and as this calendar year comes to an end, the Caps are in the midst of an 81-game sellout streak, regular season and playoffs (through last Thursday’s game against Pittsburgh). They are ninth in total average attendance – more than the Rangers, Penguins, and Kings, to name three teams – and one of 12 teams having played to at least 100 percent capacity so far this season – more than the Red Wings, Sabres, or Wild. With 20 home games left on this season’s schedule and the Caps heading for another playoff run, it would seem likely that the Caps will surpass 100-consecutive sellouts before the regular season concludes.

But that is a story for another day. We are left with a question, though, “Is Washington – finally – a hockey town?” Well, that’s what the marketing slogan says, but we are of the mind that the jury is still out on that one. Folks might be a little quick to assume that this is the case, the current conflation of a winning team and capacity crowds leading some to think, “ah, ‘hockeytown.’” What we don’t know is how much goodwill has been built up to provide the benefit of the doubt to the club should they slide in the standings or, heaven forbid, continue to disappoint in the spring. The Caps are not yet the Redskins in that regard, and we are not aware that anyone calls Washington a “football town.” With respect to the latter, Green Bay, Wisconsin, only became “Title Town” and a legendary football town after having actually won something. The same goes for Detroit and the nickname, “Hockeytown.” Attendance alone isn’t sufficient to start applying nicknames to cities. The Colorado Avalanche sold out 487 consecutive games from 1995 until early in the 2006-2007 season. Is Denver a “hockeytown?”

But we need to be fair about this, too, and that requires looking at things in context. If you were to play word association, and someone said, “hockeytown,” chances are that you would go through a lot of towns before settling on “Washington.” Hockey has been a tough sell here for the last 30-plus years. In 34 seasons leading up to the start of the sellout streak the Caps managed sellouts in more than half their home dates only twice, none since 1995-1996. They managed to sellout more than ten games only 11 times, and this was a team with built in rivalries such as those along I-95 with Philadelphia and the three New York teams as part of the old Patrick Division. And it is not as if the Capitals have never been a winner, at least as much as they have been lately. The Caps made the playoffs in 14 consecutive seasons from 1982-1983 through the 1995-1996 seasons. They averaged just over ten sellouts a season over that period.

The current administration deserves a lot of credit for making Verizon Center the “in” place to be in Washington sports at the moment, especially without the built-in rivalries of the old Patrick Division days. The combination of a winning team playing an up-tempo style, a game that lends itself to continuous action, a downtown arena with all the amenities, a media-savvy management group that appeals to the gadget-centered culture of the moment, and business horse sense has combined to make an available seat at Verizon Center for a Washington Capitals game among the rarest commodities in Washington sports.

And that is why today, one of the top-ten stories of the season is the Caps’ ascent to the top (well, next to the Redskins) of the local pyramid in attendance, every night a sellout, a sea of red, rocking downtown DC like no other local team seems capable of duplicating at the moment or for the immediate future.