Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hypothesis Testing

The Tampa Bay Lightning currently rest in first place in the Southeast with, if not a comfortable lead, as least a significant one (five points with a game in hand over Washington). The Lightning, in fact, have the fifth most standings points in the league.

How the Lightning put themselves in this position might look familiar to Caps fans. Let’s put it this way. Tampa Bay will not be publishing how-to videos on defense and goaltending based on their performance to date this season.

But what Tampa Bay has done over 57 games raises a disturbing question for Caps fans. Does the Washington model – that of 2009-2010 – work? Can an offense-centric approach to the game, an attacking style that puts defenses on their heels, realize success? If you look at the Caps of last season and the pace on which the Lightning are performing, both as a team and in individual aspects, you see quite a few similarities:

If anything, the Lightning are not nearly as good offensively as the Caps were last season, and their scoring defense is much worse that was that of the Caps (more than a quarter of a goal per game). Both teams had/have effective power plays, and while the Caps had a more efficient 5-on-5 effort, the Lightning can kill off penalties better than last year’s edition of the Caps. In terms of the relative relationships of offense to defense on these teams, they look rather similar. Offense is the emphasis.

Extending the emphasis on offense to individual results/projections, the Caps were the superior team. More 20-goal scorers, more 30- and 40-goal scorers; more point-getters at the 50-, 75-, and 100-point thresholds.

So, last year the Caps were a better offensive and defensive team than the Lightning project to be this year, but so far in the regular season, they seem to be following similar paths. The Caps had 121 standings points last season, while the Lightning are on a pace for 107 – just a winning streak (such as the Caps’ 14-gamer last season) away from being in the points ballpark.

As any Caps fan knows, the regular season and the post season are entirely different species of hockey. The post season is littered with Presidents Trophy winners that couldn’t get out of their own way in the first or second round. The 2009-2010 Caps count themselves among those teams. But what if Tampa Bay finds success this spring where the Caps failed last year? Would it be a validation of an approach that the Caps largely abandoned in an effort to play “the right way” – tighter on defense, less given to unleashed fury on offense?

The Lightning have shown a marginal improvement in goals allowed, having given up 2.83 goals/game in 18 games since the start of the new calendar year. Still, this is a quite high number, and the Lightning have been terribly inconsistent in their application of defense and goaltending. Tampa Bay has four shutouts in its last 18 games (two of them over the Caps) and has allowed a single goal in four other games. On the other hand, Tampa Bay has allowed five or more goals six times in 18 games. This does not look like the consistency a successful team would need in the post season.

Tampa Bay’s profile as primarily an offensive team will draw comparisons to what the Caps did last season. Will they have the defensive discipline and the goaltending talent to go deep in the playoffs? For fans of Dwayne Roloson (who did have a fine postseason when Edmonton went to the Cup final in 2006 -- 12-5, 2.33, .927), he has those four shutouts for Tampa Bay in the last 18 games. But he also has allowed four or more goals in five of his 14 appearances with the Lightning.

Tampa Bay's individual numbers will also draw comparisons, the questions being whether a team that depends so much on a small number of players for scoring (Tampa's Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis being the only Lightning likely to top the 75-point mark), even more so than the Caps of last year, with their four 75-point scorers and three 30-plus goal scorers, can stand up to teams with deeper defenses in the playoffs.

It is hard to see Tampa Bay going far in the playoffs this season, any roster moves at the trading deadline notwithstanding. But if they do, Caps fans might be drinking themselves into a stupor all off season wondering whether the shift in philosophy was all that great an idea.

Today's Number -- "25"

The Washington Capitals have 25 games remaining in the regular season before the playoffs start – with the Caps or without them. This is the time of the regular season when teams that find their finishing kick are rewarded. For example, teams that go on to win a Stanley Cup use those last 25 games as a springboard to good things later in the spring. To illustrate the point, let’s take a look at the last 30 Stanley Cup winners, a group that spans several eras of hockey – the go-go 1980’s, the dead puck era of the mid-1990’s through the lockout, and the post-lockout period:

The first thing to notice is something simple. These teams win, regardless of the era in which they played. Of the 30 teams, only two managed to win fewer than ten of their remaining 25 games, and 22 of them won a majority of their remaining 25 games (13 or more).

Conversely, these teams didn’t lose, or at least didn’t let standings points get away. Of the group, 23 lost fewer than ten games in regulation; eight of them lost five or fewer games.

In 30 years, only twice have teams going on to win the Stanley Cup finished their last 25 regular season games earning fewer than half the standings points available, only once in the last 23 years. Nineteen of those 30 teams secured at least 60 percent of the standings points available to them.

Playing winning hockey as the season draws to a close is by no means a guarantee of post season success. Many teams might do well, but only one wins a Cup. In fact, last season the Caps played their last 25 games to a 15-3-7 record (37 points, a .740 winning percentage), and it didn’t do them much good in the post season. But teams don’t “flip a switch” going into the playoffs and win a Cup. They show themselves to be playing winning hockey well before that first puck drops in the post-season, at least those clubs that hoist the Cup in the end. If anyone thinks this team – or any team, for that matter – is going to be able to coast into the playoffs and suddenly find their stride, they have another think coming.

A NO-point night -- Game 57: Coyotes 3 - Caps 2

One would like to say that the Caps made progress last night. There were things to point to…

-- They generated five power play chances
-- They had 69 shot attempts
-- They scored first (only the 25th time in 57 games)
-- They got ten shots on goal from their top line (27 total attempts)
-- They held their opponent to 34 shot attempts, only 18 of them on goal
-- They won 40 of 75 draws
-- They had only seven turnovers

It didn’t matter, though, as the Caps dropped another one, a 3-2 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. For all the good things the Caps might have done in this game, the contest came down to what Phoenix did – got fine goaltending, to a point (we’ll get back to that), and they blocked a lot of shot attempts (the Coyotes had more blocked shots (20) than they had shots themselves (18).

As we noted, the Caps scored first, but that is hardly an indicator of victory for this team. Marcus Johansson’s goal (which actually deflected off a Phoenix player and over goalie Ilya Bryzgalov’s shoulder) didn’t hold up as the Coyotes scored three goals in response. Matt Bradley made it interesting early in the third period by flicking the puck through a screened Bryzgalov, but the Caps ended up losing their 18th game in regulation, dropped to sixth place in the East, and finished this game with a 15-4-6 record when scoring first. That might seem pretty good, but it is 25th in the league in winning percentage when scoring first.

Other stuff…

-- Whatever good stuff the Caps did, and there was quite a bit of it, actually, was performed in the first 45 minutes of the game. After Bradley scored at the 5:04 mark of the third period to cut the Coyote lead to 3-2 the Caps managed only five more shots on goal. More to the point, the Caps recorded only one shot on goal in the last 11:48 – a 68 foot shot from Alexander Semin at the 17:50 mark of the period. The Caps only attempted four shots in that last 11:48.

-- Bradley’s goal came only 40 seconds after the Coyotes took their 3-1 lead, and that was the product of a two-on-one break created when defenseman John Erskine could not hold up Vernon Fiddler inside the Phoenix blue line. Fiddler broke out on the 2-on-1 and finished the play off a feed from Scottie Upshall with Erskine unable to make up the ground to even things up.

-- Michal Neuvirth did not have a bad game; he had some excellent saves. But he wasn’t exactly Ginsu sharp on a couple of the Phoenix goals. The Whitney goal and the goal by Martin Hanzal looked stoppable. But one also might wonder what David Steckel was flailing at as Hanzal lifted the loose puck past Neuvirth. Steckel lost his man on the weak side – after looking for him and trying to cover him – just long enough for Hanzal to get his stick to the puck.

-- The Caps were 0-for-5 on the power play, but it looked a lot better than it has recently. They were getting pucks to the net (14 shots on goal) and charging after rebounds.

-- Ilya Bryzgalov is a fine goaltender, and he had a good night, but his job is made much easier when pucks are being fired low into his pads. If the Caps did well to get a lot of shots directed to the net, they did a less effective job making Bryzgalov defend pucks at waist level or higher in his butterfly.

-- Fifteen of the 31 Caps shots were stopped by Bryzgalov. Not redirected to the corner, not left for rebound – stopped for a faceoff. We’re not sure what to make of that – the Caps slow to get to loose pucks dropping in front of Bryzgalov, too much traffic running around in front of him to steer pucks away, Bryzgalov showing more confidence in his glove. But it did seem to contribute to a high faceoff volume (75 draws for the game).

In the end, it was little breakdowns that did the Caps in. Erskine getting caught to allow a 2-on-1, Steckel losing Hanzal for an instant, and Neuvirth not coming up large on either play. The offense was frustrating in that it did all anyone would want it to do…for 45 minutes. They shot the puck, they crashed the net, they made the Coyote defense work on the power play. They did everything but break the game open, largely because the shots they did get to Bryzgalov were in his wheel house for saves. They scored on an odd deflection (high over his shoulder, it should be noted) and through a screen. Then, in the last eight minutes…nothing. One shot, four attempts. In a one-goal game? Are you kidding me?

Those last eight minutes were a microcosm of the last two months. Simply not enough urgency or engagement when two points – or at least one – was there for the taking. The loss gives the Caps three consecutive losses, their fifth streak of at least three losses in a row this season. Before you panic, they had six such streaks last season. But last season they had eight streaks of at least three wins in a row. So far this season…four, only one of them since December 1st.

Doesn’t sound like a switch being flipped, does it?