Sunday, February 27, 2011

Home and Home

There are a lot of reasons one might point to as a cause for the Caps’ struggles this year – an adjustment of philosophy to a more defensive style that has been painful at times, an impotent power play, injuries, an indifference to regular season results. But whatever the reasons are, they have had a distinct effect in one aspect.

Home sure ain’t where the heart is.

In the three seasons preceding this one the Caps posted a home record of 74-35-14 in the regular season. As the month of February closes on the NHL calendar the Caps are 17-8-7, the eight losses in regulation already exceed last year’s total (five) and is one short of the number posted in the 2008-2009 season (nine). While the overall record at Verizon Center isn’t bad, by any means (the 17 wins is fifth in the East), the record has been assembled in two distinct parts, as if the Caps iced two entirely different home teams. One covers the October-November portion of the season, the other covering December through February. You can look at the numbers and see for yourself:

The Caps started the season picking up exactly where they left off last year when they went 30-5-6 at home. In the first two months of the season they went 12-1-1 and were outscoring opponents by more than two goals a game. They were the most dominant team at home in the league. Then…

The Caps started December splitting a pair of road games, the loss in the second game becoming the first in what would be an eight-game losing streak (0-6-2). In that streak the Caps lost all four games of a four-game home stand (0-3-1), getting outscored 13-7 (not including a shootout-winning goal for Toronto in a 5-4 Maple Leaf win). In one respect it is a streak from which the Caps have not recovered. In 18 home games since the beginning of December the Caps are 5-7-6 and have lost their last three games on home ice.

What happened? Well, plainly put, the Caps stopped scoring. From an average of over four goals a game in their first 14 home games in October and November, the Caps have scored fewer than two goals a game in 18 home games over the last three months. Not even a better defense (2.33 goals per game over the last three months versus 2.50 in the first two months) has been able to give the Caps enough lift to salvage their home record recently.

Only twice in these last three months have the Caps treated their fans to games of four or more goals scored. They beat the hapless (at the time) New Jersey Devils, 5-1, and lost to Toronto in a shootout, 5-4. Both games were in December.

A big part of the problem is, as it is for the Caps in general, the power play. Humming along at almost 27 percent in the first two months in home games, the power play is only 6-for-71 – an 8.5 percent conversion rate – over the last three months. Had the Caps merely performed at a 20 percent level the last three months they would have finished with as many goals on the power play as they recorded in the first two months. Performing at that first two month level would have given the Caps 19 power play goals -- 13 more goals than they actually had (six). Given that the Caps had seven one-goal losses over the past three months at home, it made a difference.

But the drop in power play production accounts for only about 30 percent of the 2.24 goal drop in offense in the last three months. What else is going on? Well, drill down to the individual level. The “Young Guns” have been shooting blanks:

Even with Alexander Semin missing six of the 18 home games over the last three months and Mike Green missing three, a 25-goal drop in production from this quartet from one period to the other has cost the Caps almost two goals a game they are not getting now that they had in October and November. That neither Semin nor Nicklas Backstrom has a goal at Verizon Center since November is unfathomable.

It is laudable that the Caps – and this foursome – has embraced a more defensive posture this season, but the Caps showed (at home, at least) that they could play defense and abuse opponents’ defense during those first two months of the season. In the first two months the team goals-allowed-per-game was only 0.17 goals more than it has been over the last three months, while the offense was scoring 2.24 more goals per game than they have over the last three months. Embracing that ethic doesn’t seem to explain the offensive draught over the last three months.

It would be asking a lot to get Alexander Semin producing at the rate he displayed in October and November. Scoring 16 goals in 14 home games is one of those streaks that might come along once every half-dozen years for the most prolific of goal scorers. But Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green need to raise their production. Backstrom and Green are fighting through injuries, making the task more difficult. But the plain fact is that the power play and the drop in production among the Young Guns go a long way to explaining what has happened to a once formidable team on home ice. These have to improve to make Verizon Center a difficult place for opponents once more.

A TWO-point night -- Game 63: Caps 3 - Islanders 2

If you are a Washington Capitals fan, you might have looked at tonight’s game against the New York Islanders and thought… I hope it’s like their season.

What do we mean by that? Well, the Caps didn’t show up early…like their season to date. They didn’t play well for long stretches in the middle… like their season to date. Then they rallied and came through in the end with a win… like Caps fans hope they will in their last game of the season (in the playoffs, if that isn't clear).

The Caps spotted the New York Islanders a pair of goals, then scored three in the last 30 minutes to get a 3-2 win over the Islanders in Uniondale, NY.

They say fights don’t change momentum. Well, maybe for the most part that is true. The Islanders scored a goal 33 seconds into the second period – an unassisted goal by Travis Hamonic that floated past goalie Michal Neuvirth, making it eight straight goals scored by opponents over barely 80 minutes of hockey (all of them coming at the expense of Neuvirth). That apparently was enough for Matt Hendricks, who dropped the gloves with Zenon Konopka 19 seconds into his first shift of the period, not two minutes after the Hamonic goal. Hendricks might not have won the fight (his 13th of the season), but it would be hard to argue against effect. Until that point, the Islanders had outshot the Caps 15-7 and outscored them 2-0. After Hendricks’ bout the Caps would almost match the Islanders in shots (15 to New York’s 16) and would outscore them 3-0. Hendricks might not have received a star for the game, but he might have been the player most responsible for changing the game’s momentum.

Other stuff…

-- It was a difficult game for the John Carlson/Karl Alzner duo. Alzner was victimized on Kyle Okposo’s goal when he backed in too far as Okposo was pushing the puck into the Caps’ zone, waved at the puck with his stick just as Okposo started to cut to the middle, then looked to screen his goalie as Okposo wristed the puck at the net. On the Hamonic goal Alzner tried to sweep the puck off the stick of Frans Nielsen and missed, then John Carlson could only clear the puck to the Caps’ blue line, where Hamonic stopped it, firing the puck at Neuvirth for the Islanders’ second goal.

-- With Nicklas Backstrom moved to the wing to accommodate his injured thumb, Brooks Laich took turns in the middle, and it seemed to rejuvenate his game. A goal, an assist (both the product of driving to the net with the puck), five shot attempts, eight wins in 15 draws taken. The two points were his first since also netting a goal and an assist against Anaheim ten days ago; they broke a four game streak without a point for Laich.

-- Of the 22 shots on goal for the Caps, one came from a defenseman (Alzner).

-- Two power plays…no shots on goal. Not enough, and not enough.

-- Go – to – the – net. Write it down in big letters on the white board. That’s now Laich scored, that’s how Knuble scored (sit down, Kanoobie). Even Alexander Semin sort of went to the net on his game-winner, backing Hamonic off enough to get room in the high slot for a wrist shot. If anything, the lack of offense has been a result of not enough of this behavior.

-- Hendricks had 13 shifts and only 6:38 of ice time. He had four shifts of under 20 seconds apiece. He does get his money’s worth.

-- Scott Hannan might not get a point for the rest of the year, and we won’t care a bit if he keeps playing like this. In more than 24 minutes he did not have a shot on goal, but he did have a hit, a takeaway, and six blocked shots to lead both teams. Most important, plus-2 and no goals scored by the Islanders when he was on the ice.

-- Not to pick on Jason Chimera, but he is somewhat indicative of the problem the Caps are having. He had no points tonight (two shots on goal in 11 minutes and change). He hasn’t had a goal in ten games and has only one point over that span. The Caps need more out of the third and fourth lines.

-- Semin had the game-winner, but less than 14 minutes of ice time? The lowest amount he has had (not counting a game in which he sustained an injury) since the Winter Classic, when he had only 12:54.

-- Marcus Johansson skated 6:24 in the first period, but didn’t do much with it, considering it was spent mostly on the top line between Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble. He did draw a tripping penalty on Islander goalie Al Montoya, but other than that he was silent. He is not ready for that role, but perhaps better to test drive the idea against this team than against a team fighting for the playoffs.

In the end, the Caps finished the month 6-5-1, scoring more than three goals twice in the 12 games. They gave up 31 goals in the 12 games (2.58 goals/game), but 12 of those goals came in two games (a 7-6 win over Anaheim and a 6-0 loss to the Rangers). If there is a bright side, the Caps extended a rather impressive run on defense in which they have allowed only 38 goals in their last 18 games, including those two six-goal games.

On the other hand, the Caps scored only 28 goals in 12 games for the month, a quarter of them in a 7-6 win in Anaheim. Only five of the goals came on the power play, and the Caps still have not had a multi-power play goal game since November 26th (39 games).

The Caps have been stuck in neutral now for three months, going 15-14-8 since December 1st, and this game was more of the same – an adequate effort (it was, after all, a win) against a team destined for a lottery draft pick. Fortunately, most of the East is marking time, too, with only one team (Boston) currently on a winning streak of more than two games (pending tonight’s game in Vancouver). One can take comfort in putting this one in the win column, but there is no comfort to be had watching this team and thinking about its chances in April. It is a team without an identity and without a sense of purpose about it. They look lost, which is what their season will be in another eight weeks or so if they don’t find both.