Friday, March 22, 2013

Washington Capitals -- "Traction" and the Consequences of Not Having It

The Washington Capitals are "only" five points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference of the NHL.  The Washington Capitals are "only" seven points out of first place in the Southeast Division.

If "only."

Five points... a 2-0-1 record in a week.  Sounds doable.  Sounds so tantalizingly plausible that but for a bit more puck luck, a bit more effort, a bit more reward for playing complete games, the Capitals could make up that difference.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is, the Caps are right where they were six weeks ago.

Let's take a look at the week-to-week progress in record and standings for the Caps since the beginning of February:

On February 10th the Caps completed a week of play in which they went 1-2-0 to drop their record to 3-8-1.  It left them five points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division and five points behind the New York Rangers for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.  It was the last "losing" week the Caps had coming into this week (they are 1-1-0 so far this week with two games left to play).

But have the Caps improved their standing with their change in win-loss fortune?  Granted, the turnaround has not been stunning (10-8-0 since February 10th), but it is also clear they have made virtually no head way in the standings.  In fact, they are further out of the Southeast Division lead than they were on February 10th, although that could change tonight when the Caps face the Winnipeg Jets.

It calls into question the matter of plausibility.  Is it plausible at this point in the season, with 18 games remaining for the Caps, to think that a five-point deficit -- one that has essentially been unchanged for more than a month -- can be made up?

If eighth-place Carolina goes .500 over the rest of their schedule, the Caps will need 23 points in 18 games to tie the Hurricanes.  Starting with Game 18, the Caps have played 13 18-game segments this season.  In those 13 segments only four times have they hit the 20-point mark (they have not exceeded it).  It just so happens that three of those instances are the last three segments, making it ever more tantalizing the possibility that the Caps might nudge themselves closer.

The Caps have their remaining 18 games split evenly between home and road.  The old adage goes, "split on the road, win at home."  If the Caps earn a split of available standings points on the road (nine in nine games, which would be quite an improvement on their 5-9-1 record to date), they would still need 14 points in nine home games to achieve the theoretical "tie" with Carolina described above.  Do they have a 7-2-0 or 6-1-2 run at home in them?  In years past, one would be tempted to say, "hell yeah!"  After all, the Caps were 110-33-21 at home over the last four years coming into this season.  But this year they are a pedestrian 8-7-0, the ninth best home record in the East.  And, they have Ottawa, Boston, and Carolina on that schedule -- teams that will themselves be playing either for their own playoff lives or seeding.

One could argue that only now are the Caps finally able to ice a team that resembles what the vision was in September, before The Troubles.  Neither Brooks Laich nor Dmitry Orlov had played a game this season before this week.  Jack Hillen was injured in his first game as a Cap and has come back only recently.  Nicklas Backstrom might have been nursing an injury that he sustained while playing in Russia.  Mike Green has been, well, Mike Green (13 of 30 games missed to injury).  As that thinking goes, the Caps are poised to make a push with the team they thought they would have.  But again, do they have the time with 18 games left, and is there too much rust on the likes of Laich or Orlov for them to provide the juice the Caps need for that longed for late push?

If you look at things in a certain light through a certain colored lens at a certain angle, you could...maybe...possibly convince yourself that yes, the Caps can make the playoffs where "anything can happen."  But there is that whole pesky notion of the Caps playing decently over the last six weeks (a 91-point pace over their last 18 games) and making up absolutely nothing in the standings.

It all comes down to the fine line between "hope" and "delusion."  More than that, it goes back to a idea we have had in the past that comes to mind thinking about that 3-8-1 hole the Caps dug for themselves.  You cannot win a Stanley Cup in the first month of the season...

...but you can damned sure lose one.

Analysis? Or Profiling

You are a National Hockey League player.  Over your last 14 games you have eight goals, nine assists, and you are a plus-3.  You have five power play goals in that span of games.  Over a full-season’s worth of games that works out to a 47-53-100, plus-18 pace.  Your team is 8-6-0 over that span, a 94-point pace that might have been better but for the fact that of the defensemen your team dressed over much of that span, half of them spent big chunks of time (or should still be) in the AHL.

Folks might think you are doing not just your share – you are, after all, a well-known star – but more than your share to keep your team at least within shouting distance of a playoff spot.  No doubt you would be getting praise from the pundits and pontificators in the assembled hockey media for your effort and results, at least on a personal level.

Well, maybe not.  In the midst of this last month of hockey in which you put up these numbers, you would have one “analyst” describe your effort in one game as an “awful display of hockey” and tell you to “get up and act like a man for God’s sake” when knocked down.

You have another “analyst” saying that you’re inconsistent, that you are uncoachable, that you are toxic, and that you and your contract are the impediment to your team changing its culture.

A former player thinks you let yourself go, that you’re fat.

Another thinks you’re a dolt.

Another analyst thinks you’re just not very good.

Never mind that you are playing in your fourth system and third head coach in 28 months. 

Never mind that you have spent a lot of time this season skating alongside a center with whom you had never skated before this season or that you are playing a position you had never played before this season. 

Never mind the fact that that the other side of your line has been for most of this season an endless revolving door of grinders, bargain signings, and spare parts.

Never mind that over the last month’s worth of games you’re playing at a 100-point pace.

Truth be told, Sidney Crosby is better.  That debate has concluded.

Steven Stamkos is still in the blush of a goal-scorer’s youth (he's 23, and his day is coming when the bloom will be off that rose).

John Tavares is (finally) showing why he was a first overall draft pick in 2009.

But it is not as if Alex Ovechkin has become hockey’s version of the old, soft, fat, droopy dog on the porch who can barely be motivated to get up for a Milk Bone.  He has not had the comfort of playing alongside players with whom he has shared a line in almost unbroken fashion for the past three-plus seasons (Crosby, when he's been healthy).

He is not playing with the same cast of set up men (the last few games notwithstanding) this year as he has in the last two-plus years (Stamkos).

He is not playing for a team with low expectations, that whatever success they have can be wrapped in a pretty “overachiever” bow (Tavares).

Much is expected of Ovechkin.  That comes with his name and his past performance. He is expected to play to a 100-point pace (leaving aside the matter of there being only five players in the NHL on a 100-point pace today).  He is expected to be a 50-goal scorer (whether that is to be expected given the life cycle of goal-scorers).  He is expected to lead by example and inspire with the style of his play.

At the moment – over the last month’s worth of games -- he is meeting those expectations, not exceeding them.  But that’s not the crime here.  The crime is this sense of “seriosity” that has consumed media in general, and hockey media in particular.

We are not going to argue that Ovechkin is the player he was perhaps three years ago.  Nor are we going to argue that his performance this year has inspired the Caps to overachieve.  Sitting in 13th place in the conference sticks a pin in that balloon.  But apparently, a pundit or an analyst cannot be taken “seriously” by their fellow wizards unless they find fault – real or imagined, persistent or temporary – and pick at it and pick at it and pick at it.  It leads to blanket statements that do not inform as much as inflame… “you’re fat”… “you’re not acting like a man”… “you’re uncoachable”… “you’re toxic”… “you’re stupid”… “you’re not very good.”

It is profiling masquerading as “analysis.”  There is a profile to which the player must fit, regardless of whether the objective evidence laying in front of the analyst says something else.  And it seems that ever since Alex Ovechkin disappointed with his performance at the Vancouver Olympic Games, a lot of the hockey media have seen it as an opportunity to nurture and propagate a narrative that Ovechkin is fat, stupid, and lazy, when in fact the lack of analysis is a mirror, showing those analysts – at least in the quality of their commentary – to be fat, stupid, and lazy.  Because right now, and for the last month for that matter, Alex Ovechkin has been a pretty damned fine hockey player.

A TWO-point night -- Game 30: Capitals 4 - Jets 0

Spoiler Alert!

We are not quite there, yet, but the Washington Capitals played the role of “spoiler” last night.  In beating the Winnipeg Jets, 4-0, in the first half of a back-to-back set in Manitoba, the Caps kept the Jets from securing a stronger hold on their Southeast Division lead.

Washington broke on top early on some relentless play by Troy Brouwer.  It started at the Capitals blue line when Grant Clitsome could not keep the puck in the Capitals’ zone.  As he backed off the blue line he was stripped of the puck by Brouwer, who batted it down into the Winnipeg end. Brouwer headed after it, Clitsome giving chase.  At the end wall, with Clitsome closing, Brouwer dropped the puck for Brooks Laich.  Brouwer did not give up on the play, circling out to the left wing circle to receive a pass from Laich.  As Laich circled out himself to set a screen in front of goalie Ondrej Pavelec, Brouwer fired through that screen, Pavelec unable to track the puck as it went by, and the Caps had a 1-0 lead barely three minutes into the game.

Washington took a choke hold on the game late in the first.  The play started innocuously enough, when Marcus Johnasson was bumped off the puck at the red line as he was dumping it deep into the Winnipeg zone.  Dustin Byfuglien retrieved it for the Jets and hurried it around the boards to Evander Kane waiting along the half wall.  Kane could not handle the pass, and the puck trickled over to Alex Ovechkin pinching down the boards.  Ovechkin circled around Kane and spied Johansson across the ice at the edge of the left wing faceoff circle.  Ovechkin snapped a hard pass through Byfuglien’s legs and onto the tape of Johansson’s stick, who had merely to redirect it behind Pavelec for a 2-0 lead with less than four minutes to the first intermission.

After a second period of no scoring the Caps put things away in tidy fashion in the third period.  After Pavelec was docked for delay of game to put the Caps on the power play, Nicklas Backstrom held the puck in the right wing corner to tempt the Jets’ penalty killers to edge over to his side of the ice.  When they did, Backstrom threaded a pass through defenseman Zach Bogosian’s legs and across to an uncovered, yes…an uncovered Alex Ovechkin.  Ovechkin fired a one timer sent to the far side of Pavelec, off the post, and in for his league-leading ninth power play goal of the season.

The roles were reversed on the fourth and final goal.  Ovechkin circled out from the left wing corner and sent a no-look pass to Backstrom in the high slot.  Backstrom’s one timer looked to be going wide, but the puck hit both skates of Derek Meech, coming out from behind the Winnipeg net, and off the post to the left of Pavelec, skittering behind the surprised goalie for the goal that provided the final margin.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps played a solid road game from start to finish, tending to the “keys” we identified in the prognosto.  For example, “no ‘Jet’ lag.”  Washington avoided the problem they often faced this year, falling behind teams in the first period.  They jumped on the Jets early with a goal, added a late first period goal, and held the Jets to eight shots on goal after 20 minutes.

-- On the second key, the object was to keep Evander Kane – the “cocktail of speed, power, and finish,” as described by the Winnipeg Free Press – from doing damage.  Kane was held to no shot attempts in the first period and finished the game with no shots on goal, only a miss and a shot that was blocked on his line of the score sheet.  The frustration was there when Kane cross-checked Mike Green in the last minute and got an extra ten for expressing added displeasure.

-- The third key was “knock ‘em out.”  The Jets had done well in close games this season, with a combined 16-6-2 record in games decided by one or two goals.  But they could be stomped.  The Caps did just that when they got goals from the big guys in the third period.

-- The Caps did something they have struggled at doing all season.  They shut down a team utterly and completely in the second period.  The Caps held the Jets to four shots on goal in the period.  Winnipeg did not record its first shot attempt until the 4:40 mark and did not have its first shot on goal until 5:23 had elapsed.  But here is the big number here.  Of the 16 shots attempted by the Jets in the second period, half of them – eight in all – were blocked.

-- The 20 shots on goal allowed is a season low for the Caps.  It was the first time since February 23rd (a 5-1 win over New Jersey) in which the Caps allowed fewer than 30 shots on goal in a game.  It broke a 12-game streak of allowing 30 or more.

-- With another game in Winnipeg less than 24 hours after this one, head coach Adam Oates was economical with the time of his big contributors in the third period.  Ovechkin skated only 5:38 (total of 18:23).  Mike Ribeiro skated only 5:32 (15:15).  Backstrom only 5:53 (17:25).

-- The top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson – one that has struggled to produce when assembled – was 3-4-7, plus-6 for the evening, each of them getting a goal.

-- Eric Fehr is in a bit of a bad-luck rut at the moment.  He might have had a goal last night on a fine chance in front of Pavelec that the goalie turned aside, but the fact is that Fehr is shooting the puck with frequency – 22 shots in his last eight games – but has no goals to show for it.

-- The shutout by Braden Holtby was his second of Winnipeg this season and fourth overall.  In his last eight games against Southeast Division opponents this season Holtby is 7-1-0, 1.69, .950, with four shutouts.  One guesses he is not a fan of realignment.

-- The faceoff numbers are a bit misleading.  The overall totals will say the Caps were 23-for-49 (46.9 percent).  However, they were 7-for-14 in the offensive end (50 percent) and 11-for-17 in the defensive end (64.7 percent).

-- Back to those 20 shots on goal for Winnipeg.  Of that total, Dustin Byfuglien had five.  The other 17 skaters split 15 shots, none having more than two.

In the end, Tim Campbell of the Winnipeg Free Press has perhaps the best take on this game
“The Winnipeg Jets may be single-handedly dragging the Washington Capitals back into the playoff picture.  The Jets have precisely zero goals against Washington in their last 120 minutes of hockey — on MTS Centre ice, no less”
The trouble is, though, the Caps get only two more cracks at the Jets this season, one of those games to be played tonight.  Last night’s game does have ramifications for the one to be played tonight.  Braden Holtby having faced only 20 shots in last night’s game, he could get the call again tonight as the “hot” goaltender.  And given the way he has played against the Southeast lately, that would be something Winnipeg might not be looking forward to facing.