Sunday, October 12, 2014

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 1

We return with our weekly feature, “That Was The Week That Was,” a look back at the Washington Capitals over the past seven days.  Week 1 was a new start for the Caps – a couple of rookies standing out and an old coach turned “rookie” getting his first win as the Capitals’ bench boss.

Record: 1-0-1

The Capitals got no break from the schedule makers to start the 2014-2015 season.  Their first four games are against the Montreal Canadiens, the Boston Bruins, the San Jose Sharks, and the New Jersey Devils.  The first three of those teams on the schedule reached the post season in 2013-2014 and had a combined regular season record of 151-69-26.  The Devils are thought to be much improved and have scored 11 goals in their first two games.

The Caps navigated their first two games of that stretch in decent fashion, the inability to hold a lead in the third period against the Canadiens in a 2-1 Gimmick loss being the blemish on the week.  From a distance, though, getting three points against two of the Atlantic Division powerhouses can be thought of as a good week.  The win over the Bruins was especially satisfying, give the respective prognostications for the two clubs, but was not entirely unexpected.  The 4-0 win over the Bruins made the Caps 6-3-0 in their last nine visits to Boston and 5-1-0 in their last six decisions against the Bruins overall.

Offense: 2.50/game (season: 2.50 / T-18th)

The Caps started well against the Canadiens, recording seven shots on goal in the first 6:43, the last of them being Andre Burakovsky’s first NHL goal.  The Caps continued peppering goalie Carey Price (oops...Dustin Tokasrski... thank you, readers), putting 11 shots on net in the first 9:47.  That would be it for the Caps, though, their energy to start the home opener perhaps have dissipated.  Over the last 50:13 of regulation time and five minutes of overtime the Caps recorded only 19 shots on goal, none of them finding the back of the net.

Against Boston the Caps were more effective on the scoreboard, but the fickle finger of fate was particularly fickle with respect to the outputs.  Washington managed only 21 shots on goal against the Bruins, only 15 of them at even strength.  Part of that might be score effect – the Caps had only three even strength shots in the third period of a game they led, 3-0, after 40 minutes.

Although the week was not particularly explosive on the offensive side, it was balanced.  Four players shared in the five goals (Alex Ovechkin getting two against Boston), nine players shared in a total of 14 points.  Andre Burakovsky led the week in the latter with three points on his first NHL goal and a pair of assists.

Defense: 0.50/game (season: 0.50 / 3rd)

Two games is about as small a sample size as you get, but giving up a total of 53 shots on goal for the week (26.5/game, ninth fewest) against a couple of talented teams has to be considered a good thing. And, the Caps avoided the bane of their existence on defense last season – allowing a goal within two minutes of scoring one of their own.  On the other hand, allowing 58 shot attempts to the Bruins in the second game of the week while getting only 38 of their own had the sense of playing with fire.

The defensive pairs are a concern in that they are all new.  Jack Hillen/Mike Green (Green missed the opener against Montreal) and Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen, John Carlson and Brooks Orpik are in that getting-to-know-you period, and at times it showed.  That third pair – Carlson and Orpik – was especially noteworthy and not in the best way.  All six defensemen had positive Corsi plus-minus at 5-on-5 against Montreal, but the picture looked very different against Boston.  The Carlson/Orpik pair was steamrolled at even strength as far as the possession numbers were concerned.  Both had double-digit minus numbers in both Corsi and Fenwick plus-minus.

Goaltending: 0.48 GAA / .981 SV / 1 shutout

Braden Holtby served early notice that goaltending will not be a weakness for the Caps.  Unencumbered by a coaching philosophy that was contrary to his nature, as was employed for large parts of last season, Holtby shined coming out of the gate.  He was good against Montreal, better against Boston. His 29-save effort against the Bruins featured a number of top-notch saves, including big ones after two bad Caps turnovers that left Bruins with point-blank opportunities from the slot.

Even the one goal he allowed for the week – a third-period tally by Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec – was a shot through a maze of bodies that might have been deflected on its way through.  There were no soft spots in Holtby’s game in Week 1.  Well, except for that whole Gimmick thing.  Holtby allowed three goals in five rounds of the trick shot competition.  It was reminiscent of last season in which among 29 goalies facing at least 20 shots in the Gimmick, Holtby was 17th in save percentage (.679).

Power Play: 2-9 / 22.2 percent (season: 22.2 percent /  rank: T-12th)

It was a case of the old reliables doing the damage.  Alex Ovechkin, who did not have a power play shot on goal against Montreal as the Caps went 0-for-5, had two shots on the man advantage against Boston, scoring on one of them.  Then there was Mike Green, who missed the opener against the Canadiens and who finds himself as the second option on the point on the power play depth chart (under John Carlson), potting a goal on his only shot in the Caps’ 4-0 win over Boston.

It was a tale of two games with respect to power play efficiency.  Washington managed only four shots on goal in 6:56 of power play time against Montreal, two of those shots coming from outside by defensemen (Matt Niskanen, John Carlson).  Against Boston, the Caps were sharper – six shots on goal in 4:43 of power play time, four of those shots coming from forwards, two of them by Ovechkin, who recorded one of the two power play goals against the Canadiens.  Mike Green got the other one when he was left alone on the weak side of the power play formation.  Evgeny Kuznetsov found him for the score, fellow rookie Andre Burakovsky getting the other assist.  It is a new day on the power play.

Penalty Killing: 9-9 / 100.0 percent (season: 100.0 percent / rank: T-1st)

Last season, Montreal did not have an especially potent power play (17.2 percent, tied for 19th).  Boston had one, though (21.7 percent, third in the league).  Either way, 9-for-9 is a good week.  Being good meant being efficient.  The Caps allowed the Canadiens only six shots on goal on five power plays in 6:56 of power play time.  Against Boston those numbers were five shots on four power plays in eight minutes of power play time.  Of the 11 shots Holtby faced on the opponent’s power play for the week seven of them came from defensemen.  Neither Montreal nor Boston was able to get much in the way of close-in opportunities, at least in terms of being able to get shots on goal from that area of the zone.

This is where the Carlson/Orpik pair performed much better.  In 14:56 of total opposition ice time on the power play for the week, John Carlson logged 10:00, Orpik logged 8:27, by far the most shorthanded ice time of any Caps defensemen.   On the other hand, all seven defensemen who saw action this week got some penalty killing work, even if Nate Schmidt (0:36) and Mike Green (0:24) got only a taste of it (every other defenseman recorded at least one minute of shorthanded ice time).

Even Strength Goals For/Goals Against: 3-1 / plus-2 (season: 3-1; 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio rank: 4th)

If one thing contributed to the Caps’ misfortune more than any other from a performance standpoint last season it was their ratio of goals scored to goals allowed at 5-on-5.  Their 0.90:1 ratio ranked 23rd in the league, their 155 goals allowed at 5-on-5 ranked tied for 19th.  Starting off with a 3-1 margin in Week 1 is getting off on the right foot.  And, small samples notwithstanding, the Caps got an even strength goal from each of the top three forward lines: Alex Ovechkin, Andre Burakovsky, and Joel Ward getting them for the first, second, and third lines, respectively.

Faceoffs:  53-for-126 / 42.1 percent (season: 42.1 percent / rank: 30th)

Faceoffs were a case of getting off on the wrong foot.  Whether one things faceoffs are important or not, ranking 30th in the league in anything is not a good thing.  And, it was not a case of being particularly poor in any one zone.  If anything, the Caps were worse in the offensive zone (40.8 percent) and defensive zone (40.5 percent) than they were in the neutral zone (45.7 percent). 

Nicklas Backstrom took the largest share of draws and was respectable overall (50.0 percent on 40 faceoffs), and Troy Brouwer won seven of 11 draws.  After that it gets bad very quickly.  The rooies Kuznetsov (6-for-13) and Burakovsky (4-for-19) had it rough.  So, too, did Brooks Laich (8-for-25).  Hopefully, that’s just rust.

Goals by Period:

Two games, goals scored in every period overall, three first period goals.  That’s the good part.  That third period goal allowed against Montreal is the smudge on the shine in this area for the week.  What the Caps avoided, to their credit, was the soul-crushing goal in the last two minutes of a period.  They scored two of those of their own – an Alex Ovechkin goal with 1:21 left in the first period of the 4-0 win over Boston and a goal by Joel Ward with 1:14 left in that contest, although by that time the game was all but wrapped up.

In the end…

All in all, not a bad week.  Two games against quality opponents, three of four points earned.  When one considers that the Caps were starting a true rookie in his first NHL action as center on the second line (and having him score a goal to boot) and missing top defenseman Mike Green for the opener, the week looked even better.  Individually, players who have to perform – Alex Ovechkin (two goals), Nicklas Backstrom (two assists), and Braden Holtby (one goal on 53 shots faced) – did just that.  Throw in the contributions of Burakovsky (three points) and Kuznetsov (one assist, and might have had another until the last goal in the Bruins game was changed from John Carlson to Joel Ward), and it was a good start to the season.

A TWO-point night -- Game 2: Capitals 4 - Bruins 0

The Washington Capitals got their first win of the 2014-2015 season when they rode a pair of goals by Alex Ovechkin and a 29-save effort by goalie Braden Holtby to blank the Boston Bruins 4-0, at TD Garden in Boston.  For an in-depth look at what took place, take a look at what we posted over at Japers’ Rink

Some other thoughts…

-- Someday, teams will figure out just how to stop the Alex Ovechkin one-timer from the circle.  It appeared early on that the Bruins had an answer, having forward Loui Eriksson cheating high to positon himself to break up the pass from the point to Ovechkin.  But at some point, that forward has to play honest and defend a potential shot from the point.  When Eriksson slid over to get in the way of a potential John Carlson shot, the lane for the pass opened up once more.  Pass-shoot-score.

-- When you have spent 280 games in the AHL, 142 games in the ECHL, and 135 games in a variety of other leagues, and you are almost 33 years old without having played in an NHL game, you are going to try to make a mark when you get your chance.  Bobby Robins is that player, having waited for his chance to skate in the NHL.  In this, his third NHL game, he made his first shift memorable.  He collided knee-on-knee with Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, then when the referee signaled a delayed penalty, he tore off at the first Capitals he saw.  In this instance it was Michael Latta.  Robins tried to egg Latta on to do something stupid and even up the penalties, but merely managed to take Latta off with him on coincidental fighting majors.  That didn’t work so well for Boston.  The Caps scored eight seconds into the man advantage.

-- John Carlson and Karl Alzner, while not paired on defense in this game, managed to be linked in one respect.  Each defenseman – Carlson in the first period, Alzner in the third – gift wrapped chances for Boston.  Each one tried to send a pass through the middle of the ice from the corner, and both times the aimless passes were picked off by Boston forwards.  Braden Holtby was up to the challenge, though, stopping Chris Kelly in the first instance and Carl Soderberg in the other.

-- The optics of the Caps style through two games suggests a more aggressive approach than they displayed last season.  Although the Bruins dominated puck possession, the Caps did a credible job limiting time and space for the Bruins to make decisions with the puck.  In other words – more pressure on the puck carrier.

-- Little things.  The Bruins are a good faceoff team, but things got ridiculous as the game wore on.  Boston held a 12-9 advantage after the first period.  They were 14-7 in the second period and 8-3 in the third. 

The win was the Caps’ fifth in their last six regular season games against Boston, outscoring the Bruins by an 18-14 margin (not including Gimmick goals).  It leaves the Caps 1-0-1 in a rough four-game start to the 2014-2015 season.  Having earned points against the Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens, the Caps will now face the San Jose Sharks and the resurgent New Jersey Devils (11 goals in two wins so far) to start the coming week.  If nothing else, it is a good early season benchmarking exercise.