Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Caps and the Baseball Cap Brigade: How Backup Goalies Might Have Been Opportunities Lost

The Washington Capitals have had, by anyone’s reasonable definition, a disappointing season to date. When the season started, few would have guessed that by the time the Caps had completed 50 games, they would be skating for a different head coach and would find themselves on the outside, looking in at playoff eligibility.

It might have been even more incredible to entertain that scenario after the Caps got off to a 7-0-0 start to open the season, capped off by a 7-1 demolition of the mighty Detroit Red Wings. But in that seven-game winning streak to start the 2011-2012 campaign the seeds were sown for disappointment that would sprout later. It comes down to two words…

“Backup goaltender.”

In those first seven games the Caps outscored their opponents by a 29-14 margin. To the fan who might have followed the Caps on a casual basis the past few years, it might have looked as if the high-flying Caps were back to their lamp-lighting ways, the 2010-2011 season of “defense first” but a memory. But in those first seven games, the Caps faced no fewer than five backup netminders (backups in blue):

The Caps lit up those five goalies for 19 goals in five games, and the Caps used that to jump out to their 7-0-0 record before the season was barely two weeks old.

That has been a recurring underlying theme for the Caps this season – facing backup goaltenders on a rather regular basis. They have not taken advantage of the opportunity. In 52 games through last Sunday, the Caps faced a backup goaltender 20 times.* In those games the Caps have posted a 10-8-2 mark. And as a group, those backup goalies have a 2.69 goals against average, a .896 save percentage, and one shutout (the Islanders’ Evgeni Nabokov) against Capitals shooters.

It is strange that the Caps would struggle so against backups when you consider that the record they have against number one goaltenders over 32 games is not substantially different than the record they have against backups. Through last Sunday the Caps were 17-13-2 against number ones (10-8-2 against backups). Number ones had a 2.69 goals against average against the Caps (compared to 2.68 for backups). The number one netminders had a save percentage of .905 in 32 games (backups were at .896). Each group had one shutout against Washington (Cam Ward for the number ones, Evgeni Nabokov for the number twos).

There is something to note about the losses to the backups. In eight regulation and two extra time losses to backup goalies, the Caps have failed against a largely veteran group. Scott Clemmensen (twice, before beating him last night), Jaroslav Halak (who was behind Brian Elliott in St. Louis), Jean-Sebastien Giguere (at the time behind Semyon Varlamov in Colorado), Evgeni Nabokov, and Johan Hedberg were among the veteran netminders serving in a backup capacity who beat the Caps.

But the Caps had success against some veteran backups, too. They did beat Brent Johnson, Brian Boucher, Alex Auld, Ty Conklin, and Martin Biron, among others. It just seems rather confounding that the Caps have not had any markedly better time of it against the baseball cap brigade than against the number one goalie teams have to offer.

Part of the problem is, as has been the case for much of the season, getting shots to the net at all. Against backup goalies the Caps are averaging only 25.7 shots per 60 minutes of play, fewer on average than they have against number one netminders (28.2). And with the Caps scoring two or fewer goals against this specie of goaltender ten times in 20 games, it suggests that the Caps have left standings points on the table by failing to make opponents pay for sending out their number two in goal.

As the season dips under 30 games left to play, one would expect that the Caps are going to see fewer and fewer backups as teams get their number one goalies loaded for the stretch run and prepped for the playoffs. But it hasn’t seemed to matter much for the Caps so far this year. Backup or number one, it has been the same tune. Come the spring, the Caps might regret not having taken greater advantage of the opportunities presented to them in the form of the backup goaltender.

* Backup means just what it suggests. Even if the number one goalie was injured and out of the lineup, and the number two goalie started, that is considered having faced the “backup.” It is where the goalie sits on the depth chart. For purposes of this exercise, to avoid confusion, we considered Rick Dipietro the number one goalie for the Islanders (he did face the Caps once this season), and Semyon Varlamov as the number one for the Avalanche (he was ahead of Jean-Sebastien Giguere on the depth chart at the time the Caps faced Colorado).

A TWO-point night -- Game 53: Capitals 4 - Panthers 0

The hook for the game last night between the Washington Capitals and the Florida Panthers was that it was a “playoff” game. At stake was the top spot in the Southeast Division, the winner claiming the prize, the loser dropping to ninth place and out of the top-eight playoff-eligible clubs.

It was Washington that rose to the occasion, scoring early and often, and keeping Florida from doing the same in a 4-0 win. If there was any doubt about the Caps’ showing up for this one, it was set aside early. Very early. Mathieu Perreault scored 13 seconds into the game. It started when Panther goalie Scott Clemmensen circled around his own net and snapped the puck around the wall and up the left wing boards. Alexander Semin cut off the puck and sent it back down to Jason Chimera at the Florida goal line. Chimera sent the puck back out in front, where it found its way onto Perreault’s stick. Perreault snapped a shot at the Florida net that slithered under Clemmensen’s pads before he could get down into position to smother the shot, and the Caps were off and running.

Alex Ovechkin made the lead two on a power play nine minutes later. Dennis Wideman authored the play by carrying the puck from the Caps’ zone right up the middle of the ice without any Panther forcing him to give up the puck. With the Panthers backing off, Wideman made it to the Florida blue line before dishing the puck to his left and onto Ovechkin’s stick. As Wideman was making the pass, Panther defenseman Mike Weaverwaved weakly at the puck going by, and it provided enough of an edge for Ovechkin to gain position and a clear path to the net. He took a couple of strides in and rifled a wrist shot through Clemmensen’s five hole for his 21st goal.

The Caps made good on special teams once more early in the second period. Jason Chimera picked up a loose puck just inside the Capitals’ blue line and started out of the zone where the Caps soon found themselves on a 3-on-2 rush. He tried to send the puck across to Matt Hendricks on his right, but the puck was deflected into the air. Brian Campbell waved at it with his stick as it was drifting over his head, but he missed, and Hendricks picked it up. Hendricks dropped the puck for John Carlson, who then sent the puck to the Florida net. The Panthers by this time lost Chimera behind the play, and the forward was all alone in front of the Panther crease. The first shot by Chimera was muffled by Clemmensen, but not stopped. With the puck lying still in the crease, Chimera stepped up and around the fallen Clemmensen and bunted it into the open net to make it 3-0, Caps.

Alex Ovechkin ended the scoring by starting and ending his own play. He started it from the Capitals’ blue line, skating down the left wing boards and into the Florida zone. As he was about to move the puck in deep, Panther defenseman Mike Weaver poked it away. No Panther could control the puck until it was Ovechkin who did as he circled back around the top of the left wing circle. With Weaver trying to close the distance, Ovechkin snapped the puck across his body and over Clemmensen’s blocker in the top corner to make the score Caps 4 – Panthers 0. That was more than enough for goalie Tomas Vokoun, who turned away all 42 – yes, 42 – Panther shots to record his fourth shutout of the season, and the Caps were once more on top in the Southeast Division.

Other stuff…

-- By the time the Caps had their two goals in the first period, the Caps outshot the Panthers, 3-2, and out-attempted them 8-5. Then things changed. Over the next 22:26 – from the time the Caps got their 2-0 lead until Ovechkin scored to make it 4-0 – the Panthers outshot the Caps, 11-4, and out-attempted Washington by a 32-15 margin. After they got to 4-0, the Caps battened down the hatches as far as offense goes. Florida outshot the Caps 22-10 over the last 28:13 and out-attempted them, 37-16. For the game, the Panthers had a 42-24 edge in shots and a 74-39 edge in shot attempts.

-- Karl Alzner earned a roughing minor penalty at 3:31 of the second period. Write it down. It was the first roughing penalty of ALzner’s NHL career in his 186th game.

-- When Jason Chimera scored a shorthanded goal 61 seconds into the second period, it was the second shorthanded goal of the season for the Caps and the first at home this season. Chimera has both shorthanded goals, getting the other as the game-winning goal in a 3-1 win in New Jersey on November 11th.

-- The Caps had 24 shots for the game. Chimera had eight of them, Ovechkin had five, Matt Hendricks – Matt Hendricks??? – had three. Eight shots for the other 15 skaters? Ovechkin had ten shot attempts, Chimera nine, and Hendricks three. Seventeen shot attempts for the other 15 skaters? Are you kidding me?

-- Brooks Laich got a sweater, bad knee and all, and skated 9:28. With the Caps holding a big lead, he took a seat for the last 8:21. Still, he managed two hits and won seven of eight draws.

-- Speaking of draws, the Caps had only ten in the offensive zone, and they took 23 in the defensive zone. OK, “scoring effect”… but still, an awful lot of plays starting in the Caps’ end, and it is not a new phenomenon.

-- For the Panthers, Marcel Goc might want to burn the tape of this one. He was on the ice for both even strength goals for the Caps and the shortie, he took the penalty that led to the Caps’ power play goal, and he lost nine of 14 draws.

-- Jeff Schultz… two hits (two hits!!!), three takeaways, and a plus-1 in almost 15 minutes. Next stop…Norristown.

-- Efficiency, thy name is “Caps Power Play.” One opportunity, one shot, one goal. Heck, the Caps had more shorthanded shots (two, both by Chimera on the same play).

-- Mathieu Perreault played in his 35th game last night, tying his career high in three seasons. He is also working on career highs in goals (getting his ninth last night) and points (16). He’s also shooting to a 27.3 percent success rate for the season.

-- It was not the most shots on goal Tomas Vokoun faced this season, but he could see the top from there. The 42 shots he faced and turned away tied the volume he faced in a 5-2 win over the Flyers last October 20th, and it was just short of the 44 he faced in a 2-1 win against Carolina on January 15th.  He is 4-0-0 when facing more than 40 shots.

-- Remember we had Sean Bergenheim as the “Player to Ponder” in the pre-game scribbles? Yeah, well, he was the only Panther to fail to record a shot on goal. Nice call, moonyok.

In the end, it was a nice win. In another time, it would have been a win of an expected variety, but one wonders on a game-to-game basis which Caps team will show up, the one that sleepwalked through a loss in Florida last week or the one that jumped all over the Cats from the opening faceoff last night. The Caps got what they needed – Alex Ovechkin stepped up with a pair (of goals, that is), they got support from Mathieu Perreault and Jason Chimera to get and pad a lead, and they let Tomas Vokoun do the rest. Is that a recipe for putting some wins together until the Caps get healthy? It worked just fine last night. Now the trick is bringing that every night.