Sunday, February 05, 2012

That Was The Week That Was -- Week 17 (January 29 - February 4)

Week 17 could have better, it could have been worse, many more weeks of this, and the season’ll need a hearse…

Record: 1-1-1

Odd fact… The Caps have had seven consecutive weeks without finishing below .500 in standings points earned. Over that time they are 11-6-3, a 103-point pace. This week, however, a 1-1-1 record is something of a disappointment. An overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning might, under other circumstances, been viewed as a good point earned, given that the Caps trailed by two goals midway through the game. But Tampa Bay just is not that good a team, and it was one more instance of the Caps not getting a “W” on the road. A loss to Florida the following night was confounding in that the Caps just did not seem to treat the game and the circumstances with the respect it deserved and required. A win over Montreal was the one expected outcome that came to pass, but Montreal is a club that is having one of the worst seasons in its memory. This was a week that in the past few years very well could have ended in a sweep. That the Caps split the points is indicative of the disappointing season they are having.

Offense: 2.67/game (season: 2.80/rank: 10th)

Eight goals is by no means awful, but eight goals – and the manner in which they were scored – meant that the Caps could see “awful” from there. If there was a word to describe the Caps’ offense this past week, it might be “disjointed.” Of the eight goals, one came on a penalty shot (Alexander Semin) and three others were unassisted. No evidence of a smoothly operating offense there. Part of the problem might have been the absence of Alex Ovechkin for the first two games of the week (serving the rest of his three-game suspension). And other players did step up – Matt Hendricks had two goals to lead the Caps for the week; Mathieu Perreault added one to give him five goals in five games at the time. Troy Brouwer broke a personal six-game streak without a goal when he scored against Tampa Bay. But the Caps faced not one, not two, but three backup goaltenders this week. It should have ended better on the offensive side of the ledger.

Defense: 2.67/game (season: 2.80/rank: 18th)

Much has been made about the Caps’ inability to generate shots on goal (they had 80 for the week – 26.7 per game). Failing to get past 30 shots made it 22 straight games. But the other side of that is that the Caps allowed 99 shots on goal for the week (33.0 per game). That made 13 of 15 games in which opponents recorded at least 30 shots on goal. And it was not a scoring effect where opponents fire shots in the third period with the Caps in front. The shots by period this week went 35-30-30 with another four in the 4-3 overtime loss to Tampa Bay. Opponents out-attempted the Caps, 192-147. Getting more than 30 percent more attempts than the Caps is just one more piece of evidence that the Caps are spending too much time in their end.

Goaltending: 2.31/.929, one shutout

What more can one ask of the goaltenders? The Capitals are not playing in front of their netminders as if they were the Bruins or the Red Wings, or even the Rangers. They are putting their goaltenders on edge by spending a lot of time in their own zone, and the goalies are facing more than 30 shots a game on a regular basis. A 2.31 goals against average would make a goalie a top-15 netminder, but a .929 save percentage would put him squarely in the top ten (sixth, actually). Tomas Vokoun had the better of the week between Michal Neuvirth and himself, stopping 57 of 61 shots (.934) and allowing only four goals in almost 123 minutes of work (1.95 goals against). And that is not to say that Neuvirth was bad. Oh, he had his moment – falling for the old fake-hard-around and shoot the puck on net by Mikael Samuelsson in the 4-2 loss to the Panthers. But he had an otherwise solid game. Goaltending is not the problem for this club at the moment.

Power Play: 0-for-8/0.0 percent (season: 17.6 percent/rank: 15th)

By going oh-for-the-week, the Caps are now on a seven-game streak without a power play goal (0-for-17 chances). They are 1-for-25 in their last ten games (4.0 percent). They had five shots on goal in 12:42 of total power play time. And the five shooters – Dennis Wideman, Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson, Troy Brouwer, and Alexander Semin… except for Semin, those aren’t necessarily the players you would expect to be taking the shots. But this is life without Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green. What those absences do not excuse, though, is allowing three shorthanded shots on goal on their own power play.

Penalty Killing: 5-for-6/83.3 percent (season: 80.9%/rank: 22nd)

On the other side of special teams, the Caps didn’t have a bad week, although the one goal they did allow gave Florida a third-period lead, and the Caps could not overcome it in a 4-2 loss. Still, killing off five of six chances is a decent enough performance; the six situations faced was even better. The Caps didn’t give opponents much of an opportunity to capitalize on those chances, either – seven shots allowed in 9:01 of shorthanded time.

Paying the Price: 81 hits/58 blocked shots (season rank: 12th/6th)

The Rangers have more blocked shots on the season than do the Capitals, but otherwise being sixth in the league in this statistic is a pretty seedy neighborhood – the Islanders, the Wild, Montreal. Not teams doing all that well. The 58 blocked shots represented 30.2 percent of all the shot attempts taken by opponents, marginally less than was the case last week (31.7 percent). But having to block shots at a volume that is more than 70 percent of the number of shots the Caps took themselves is still another piece of evidence that opponents are dominating possession.

Faceoffs: 64-for-151/42.4 percent (season: 50.4 percent/rank: T-12th)

The Caps had 38 draws in the offensive end, 51 in the defensive end. It does not sound like a big difference – 13 faceoffs in three games, but again it is a reflection of spending more time in one’s own end than in the other. And the Caps were poor in this phase of the game this week. They were 42.4 percent overall, but they won a total of only 15 offensive zone draws for the week (39.5 percent). With Nicklas Backstrom out, Brooks Laich is taking the lion’s share of draws. He was 28-for-62 for the week 45.2 percent). Another effect of Backstrom’s absence is the fact that Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson are getting more calls in the circle. Combined, they were 16-for-46 for the week (34.8 percent). It was a tough week on the dot.

Turnovers: minus-15

Three road games, three results that left the Caps on the minus side of the turnover battle. They had more than ten total turnovers in all three games and managed to get more than ten only in the shutout of the Canadiens (owing largely to ten Montreal giveaways). And part of not getting turnovers is – again – more evidence of the other guys spending too much time with the puck at the Caps’ expense, from which they can generate all those shot attempts and shots on goal. It is all part of a piece.


Like we said at the top, this is seven straight weeks of a .500-or-better finish, but it had to be a disappointment to get only three points out of three games against this level of opponent. It left the Caps on the outside looking in, and now the schedule is going to start to get harder with Florida and Winnipeg – the two teams fighting the Caps for the Southeast Division lead – with the Rangers and San Jose to follow.

But for now, one thing seems to be coming into focus. In football, there are certain things that work at one level, but not at another. Things like the wishbone offense and the “wildcat” formation might work at the college level of play, but they have had almost no success at the highest level of play – the NFL. At the college level, the disparities in talent among teams that execute those offenses well and the defenses they play makes those schemes successful. But in the NFL, where talent is much more evenly spread among the teams, those schemes are too easy to defend.

Maybe we are witnessing something of that with the Caps. What works for Dale Hunter at one level – that man-to-man concept in the defensive zone – does not seem to be working at this level. It seems too easy for other teams to break it down into odd-man situations in their favor down low, and it does not seem to be able to afford the Caps a means of getting out of their own end consistently enough. It is putting too much pressure on their goaltenders, and when the schedule stiffens down the road, one wonders whether the Capitals will improve enough in their execution of the system to make up for whatever deficiencies it might have as a concept. It makes things that much more challenging going forward.