Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Doesn't It Seem Like Just Yesterday that...

We were talking about the playoffs? Oh wait, it was just yesterday. Well...not quite--but it was just a month ago. On December 16, the Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1. Dainus Zubrus, Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin accounted for all the Capitals scoring. Olie Kolzig made 21 saves. It was Washington's 32nd game of the season

The Capitals' record was 15-10-7. They were five games above .500. Now as January is about to end, the Capitals have gone on a horrid streak of 6-13-0 to put themselves 2 games below the .500 mark and are 21-23-7. Back then, the Capitals hopes of the playoffs were flying high. Now, they are 7 points out of that #8 spot. To put it into perspective, if the Capitals had continued at the pace they were playing at before December 16 (1.15 points/game), they would have about 59 points, 10 more than they have now. Thus they'd have approximately 5 wins more (and thus 5 losses less) making their record 26-18-7. That would put us in second place in our division (a spot that we occupied on December 16) and in 6th place in the East.

So what's the problem? What happened to make the Capitals fall off?

Some say the Caps were just hot early. Well you don't just get hot for more than a third of the season and then play horribly for another third. By that logic, its conceivable that the Caps could get incredibly hot and make the playoffs.

Others say that the injuries hurt the Caps. Specifically, they point to the injuries of Erskine, Zednik, and Muir (don't forget, Heward, Morrisonn and Pothier missed multiple games during our stretch). But lets look at the injuries and the injured's impact on the team.

- Richard Zednik's been hurt since 12/2 when he suffered the groin injury. In 20 games, he has 5 goals and 13 points.
- John Erskine was injured in that December 16 game against the Flyers. He is third on the team in PIMs (despite only playing 18 games) and has 1 goal and 5 points (and - 5)
- Brian Muir was injured December 19 against Tampa. He has 3 goals and 5 points in 19 games and is a +8.

But looking at the people who came up and replaced them...
- Boyd Gordon has 2 goals and 14 points in 42 games. He is also 51% on faceoffs (highest on the team of anyone with more than 100 faceoffs taken)
- Lawrence Nycholat has 2 goals and 8 points in 17 games but is only a -3.
- Mike Green has 2 goals and 8 points in 42 games and is only a -1.

So it doesn't appear that the injuries put the Caps behind the eight ball too much. Granted, George McPhee could've gone out and gotten a proven defenseman to anchor the defense rather than throwing inexperienced players into the lineup (after all, we could've pushed to make the playoffs). But still, the loss of 3 guys who weren't helping too much (one of whom will be dealt soon) didn't knock us out of the playoffs.

The fact is, since then, Olie and Brent haven't been playing spectacularly. The defense has looked shaky. The power play's been failing. The fact is: the team ran out of gas because of a lack of depth. It turns out Olie, Ovie and Semin can't carry the team. Zubrus doesn't show up every day. Green and Nycholat are inexperienced, Eminger bounces around like a yo-yo. Heward is slow. Pothier is not a #1 defenseman (no matter how hard we wish) and beyond that second line, we have no firepower. The season is slipping away. Tomorrow I'll break down which players should go and who we should be looking for in return. But Ted and George's excuse of needing to go through growing pains is done. We could've made the playoffs this year. And we'd better make it next year.

Oh, and if the Caps had played at the rate they were in the beginning of the year, they'd have wound up with 95 points and a sure playoff spot.

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Senators 3 - Capitals 2: Brought to You by the Number...


Or the first period in which the Capitals fell behind 2-0. The Capitals spent yet another game having to play catch-up and, once again, failed. This marks the Capital's 13th loss in 19 games. During that stretch (6-13-0), the Capitals have been outscored 31-16 in the first period.

The Senators are a darn good team, especially when going ahead early. They are 20-4-1 when leading after the first period (which they were last night), and are 23-6-1 when scoring first (which they did). Those stats aren't terribly amazing in comparison to the rest of the league (they have the 10th best win percentage when leading after 1 period and 11th best when scoring first). For the Caps, the problem is in the mirror.

They are 5-19-4 when trailing first (4th worst in the NHL) and 2-16-3 when trailing after 1 (3rd worst in league). Basically, the Capitals cannot come back from deficits. That has nothing to do with inexperience, a problem many have aruged is hold the Capitals back. It's from a lack of hardwork (which usually puts the Capitals behind the eight ball) and lack of skill. The Capitals only have 31 games left in the season. They are 7 points out of the #8 spot. They need to get rid of players who can't help them into the future (who I'll pick out soon) and start playing to gain confidence for next year. And I'd suggest that this offseason, they try to add some firepower.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Capitals (20-21-7) vs. Hurricanes (25-19-6): Keys to the Games...

#1. Don't Fall Behind
There are two factors working against Washington in this key. The first is that they are terrible at coming from behind. The second is that Carolina never falls off a lead. The Capitals have only won two of their 19 games when trailing after one period (.192 win percent) and only won two of 21 when trailing at the second intermission (.095 win percent). Also, when trailing first, the Caps are 5-17-4 (.192 win percent, 4th worst in league). Compare that to when the Caps score first, they are 15-4-3 (.682 win percentage). Scoring the first goal and getting a lead early usually gives the Caps a confidence boost, while falling behind early puts them behind the eight ball.
But for a team that has a hard time coming back from early deficits, Carolina is the worst team to be facing. The Hurricanes are best in the league both in winning percentage when leading after the 1st period (.941) and the 2nd (1.000). In fact, Carolina has never fallen in regulation in a game where they lead after the first period. They only have one overtime/shootout loss where they led after the first period. In addition, when Carolina scores first they have a winning percentage that is fourth best in the league (.789). When trailing first, they are a mediocre .323. The good news, for the Caps, is that Carolina has only led first in 19 of their 50 games, as opposed to the Capitals who have scored first 22 times of 48.
So the first period will be a critical one. If the Caps can score first and keep a lead into the second, they will have a good chance. If Carolina scores first and gets a lead entering the intermission, Washington's already in a deep pit. The saving grace for Washington is that Carolina has an even goals for to against ratio for the first period. The 'Canes have scored 38 goals in the first (21st in the league) and allowed 38 (9th in the league). By comparison, the Caps also have an even goals for:against ratio with 50 goals for (6th in league) versus 50 against (5th worst). So the scoring battle looks to be a coin flip. The Caps'll have to outwork Carolina to grab the early edge.
#2. 'Canes Spread Out Attack
Unfortunately for the Capitals, their defensive strategy cannot simply key into one player on Carolina to shut him down (as many teams would do to Ovechkin). Three different Hurricanes lead the teams in the three offensive categories. Ray Whitney leads the team in points (53), Rod Brind'Amour leads the team in assists (39) and Justin Williams leads the team in goals (23).
None of these stats look particularly frightening, but the fact that so many guys are so close to them in scoring is what makes that Carolina offense so terrifying. Carolina has...
- Three 20+ goal scorers (Williams 23, Staal 22, Cole 21)
- Three other 10+ goal scorers (Whitney 19, Walker 16, Brind'Amour 13)
- They have two players with 50+ points (Brind'Amour and Whitney)
- Three others with 40+ points (Williams, Cole, Staal)
- They have seven total players with 20+ points
This spread out offense has worked wonders for the Hurricanes. They are 12th in the league in goals/game (3.06) and average 30.6 shots per game. Their only "flaw" on offense is their power play where they are only 16.4% effective. Washington needs to play a solid offensive game to shut down this explosive offensive core.
#3. Pad the Lead
Unfortunately for the Caps, they have been on the wrong side of close games. In one-goal games, the Capitals only have a .294 win percentage (3rd worst in the league). Luckily, the Caps have only played in 17 one-goal games. But while they lose a lot of close games, they also don't do well in wide margin games. They've lost 14 of 24 games in which the goal differential was 3 goals. But they have won 10 of those games, as opposed to the mere 5 they've won in one goal games.
But the Caps tend to do better in two goal games. They have 5 wins in 7 games when the goal differential is 2. The fact is that the Caps tend to win more games when the lead is bigger. That doesn't offset the fact that they also lose a lot of blowouts. If the Caps can avoid those close games, or at least keep their leads bigger, they will have a much better chance of winning.
Players to Watch For...
Carolina: Cam Ward
For 'Canes goaltender Cam Ward, the last few games before the All-Star break were a jarring experience. After two straight games with save percentages over .940 (wins against the Islanders and Leafs) Ward feel off the sort of play that won him the Conn Smythe Trophy last June. Following a no-decision with the Panthers in which he allowed 3 goals on 31 shots, Ward gave up 8 goals in 55 total shots in his next two games (both OT/shootout losses to Atlanta and Tampa). Now, after the All-Star break, Ward looks to regain his stellar play against the Capitals. Against Washington, Ward's got a 2.96 GAA and .903 save percentage. His numbers against Washington have been slightly better this year (2.50 GAA, .909 save percent), but for the 'Canes to win, Ward must be stellar.
Washington: Olie Kolzig
Olie Kolzig has also had a stretch before the break marked by inconsistent play. In the five games before the break, Kolzig allowed 5 goals twice but also had two games with save percentages above .935. This has been the trend for Kolzig and his inconsistent defensive corps. Now, with Brian Pothier out, the Caps will need more young defensemen to step in.
As highlighted by my column yesterday, the Caps defense is still lacking. Kolzig has had great sucess against Carolina in his career 2.15 GAA, .925 save percentage and if the Caps want to win, Kolzig will have to be a stabilizing force.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Funny Ovechkin Interview

These sorts of interviews that the NHL should be promoting more and more. Alex is such a charasmatic guy, once his English improves, he'll be a very good marketing tool. I can't wait to see what sound byte the kid spouts out next!

A Mid-Season Look: Defense

Caps fans are long since removed from the glory days of intense Capitals hockey. Those days were marked with gritty veterans, stylish young players and, most importantly, exceptional defense. The Capitals have begun to assemble pieces to resemble the first two. They have gritty vets in Clark, Clymer, Brashear and Zubrus as well as young stars in Ovechkin and Semin. But what about defense?
The days of watching Calle Johannson, Mark Tinordi, Sergei Gonchar, Ken Klee, and even Brendan Witt anchoring our blueline are long gone. Now they are replaced by the likes of (and these are listed in order of whom they resemble) Brian Pothier, Shaone Morrisonn, Mike Green, Steve Eminger and Jamie Heward. The lineup is younger, ownerships master plan. But is younger better? Let's look at how the Caps defensive unit has fared this year.

- The Capitals allow 3.40 goals per game (26th in the NHL)
- They allow 34.6 shots against per game (last in the league)
- They have allowed 50 first period goals (5th most in the NHL)
- As a result, they have trailed first 26 times this year (they only have a .192 win percent when trailing first, 4th worst in the league)
- Also as a result, they have trailed at the end of the 1st period 19 times (and only win .105 percent of games in that state, also 4th worst in the NHL)
- To be fair, the 1st period is their best defensive period. They've allowed 56 goals in the 2nd period and 55 in the third (those are both 24th in the league)
- Only three of their defensemen have a positive plus/minus rating* (Bryan Muir +8, Mike Green +3, Lawrence Nycholat +2)
- Their highest paid defenseman, Brian Pothier, is worst on the team in plus/minus* (-9). To be fair, Pothier leads the teams defensemen in ice time (24:59 mins/game)
- However, Brian Pothier does lead the team's defensemen in blocked shots with 94. There are two other d-men with more than 50: Shaone Morrisonn and Steve Eminger. Jamie Heward is also above the league median (42) with 49 blocked shots.
- Brian Pothier is also 10th in the NHL in takeaways (30). Shaone Morrisonn is right behind him at 18th with 26 takeaways.
- The league median in takeaways is 9. Along with Morrisonn and Pothier, Mike Green (19) and Steve Eminger (11) are above that mark.
- Only 2 of their defensemen have more than 50 PIMS. One of them is John Erskine who has only played 18 games, the other is Shaone Morrisonn.
- The league median for PIMs for d-men is 24. Every defenseman who has played 40+ games is above that mark.

* Note: The JET does not consider plus/minus to be an accurate indicator of a player's defensive prowess. In fact, he considers it to be the most useless statistic in sports. He only uses it because the NHL does not do a good job of monitoring more important aspects of defense (how many shots a defenseman blocks, how many shots the goaltender must face when a certain defenseman is on the ice, ect.)

Brian Pothier has been a good addition to this core of young defensemen. Shaone Morrisonn is proving himself to be one of the next great rising defensemen. John Erskine, before he got hurt, was an intimidating and surprising force in the defensive zone. Jamie Heward has been a calming force. Steve Eminger has been streaking hot of late. Mike Green is playing years ahead of where he should be. Lawrence Nycholat has stepped up and proven that he deserves the chance to be an every game defenseman. Jeff Schultz has been good when called upon.
If you're a Capitals fan, you're looking at this and saying "great! We've got a core of young defensemen who are playing incredibly well! We'll be golden at the blueline for years to come."
Not quite.

The first problem for this defensive core is that they still do not have a clear-cut #1 bona-fide defenseman on this roster. Brian Pothier is a great puck-moving d-man, but he is not cut out to be "the guy" at the Caps blueline. Shaone Morrisonn has that potential, but he's probably a few years away. The top line is stocked full of future top-defensive players. That's great...for the future. If the Caps want to win now, they need a stabilizing force at the blueline. A solid, veteran top 4 defenseman who can eat minutes, calm the younger players and provide depth throughout the lineup so Olie Kolzig can get an easy night now and again.

Now, there have been some things that have hurt the Capitals and are things that a veteran defenseman could help the team improve on. These things are skills that a defensive core has to have if they want to be successful. As of right now, I don't think our defensemen can...

#1 Make an Outlet Pass
The biggest and best thing that a team can do to limit shots against and keep the puck out of the net is to get the puck out of their defensive zone. This entails either simply icing the puck (now less common since new rules keep the same, tired defensemen on the ice) or getting the puck and passing it to a forward who can, presumably, take the puck out (lets face it, guys like Ovechkin, Semin and Zubrus can do that). The problem the Capitals defensemen is that they cannot get the puck and do anything with it. They bang it up the boards right to the point men waiting.
What they cannot seem to do is settle the puck in the corner and pass it to the forwards. Instead, they panick and just shoot the puck up the boards. It wouldn't be too bad if they didn't shoot it hard and the puck hit the defenseman before getting out (preventing icing). Unfortunately, the puck can never get out of the zone.
#2 Positioning
I don't know if the NHL approves of or even allows man-to-man defense, but that's what the Capitals do. Rather than follow the conventional defensive strategy (near-side d-man pressures the puck, far-side d-man patrolls the crease, center moves supporting the puck, wings stay with the points) the Capitals seem to play the sort of youth soccer style defense: swarm to the puck.
Too many times I've seen the forwards below the goal line, the defensemen past the face-off dots, the center at the point or the goaltender at the blue line (okay I made up that last part). The Caps look frantic in their defensive zone. They need to play the style of defense that they (presumably) were taught since they were squirts.
The style of defense the Caps play is flawed because it typically leaves one or two fowards in a mismatch. Sometimes one or two forwards will be collapsing around the goal with no one to tie them up. Other times a man will be free in the slot. Or a point man will have a clear shooting channel. The fact is, it allows the other team to create chances that other teams wouldn't give them.
It also doesn't help the breakout passes. It's hard for a forward to catch a breakout pass when he's in the slot and its hard for a defenseman to make a breakout pass from behind the net.
#3 They are Way to Agressive
This has two connotations. The first is the Capitals defensive play in the zone. As mentioned above, they tend to follow the puck, even when its in a non-threatening area (behind the net). The defensemen don't have to attack the puck when the forwards cannot get a shot. Instead of driving at a guy who has the puck directly behind the net and giving him an option, just sit back and prevent him from getting the puck from out of that area. I mean if the puck's back there, the other team can't really score.
The other meaning of the title is the fact that the players (both d-men and forwards) play the body too much. The point of hitting other players is to separate them from the puck. If the defensemen don't come away with the puck or at least knock the guy off the puck, a check is worthless. I have seen the Caps players time after time line up a guy and either miss the check (and end up hopelessly out of position) or hit the puck carrier and have that player (or another player on the team) keep the puck. The Caps need to work on playing the puck and getting it. Puck possession is half the battle. If you have the puck, the other team can't score.

Defense has been the most lacking area of the Capitals game since the season started. Tarik El-Bashir wrote in yesterday's Washington Post Article that the Caps wanted Alex Ovechkin to step up in his defensive role. A quote from the article stated:

Everyone agrees that the 21-year-old Russian's defensive decision making is better than it was a year ago, when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. But there's a reason Ovechkin has been limited to less than 19 minutes 12 times his season, less than 18 minutes on seven occasions and has a plus-minus rating of minus-6. Hanlon said he wants to play his franchise winger an average of about 24 minutes.

"If it's a 2-1 hockey game in the third period, you're not ever above the puck, ever," Hanlon said. "You can't assume someone else is going to get the puck out. If you aren't exactly where you are supposed to be, it throws everything into chaos. That's why when the game is on the line, there are certain guys who are out there. We want Ovie to be one of those guys, every single night."

So Hanlon's saying that if Ovechkin plays defense, that'll help the Caps win a Stanley Cup? Hmm...sorry Glen. If this team wants to win a Stanley Cup, they need to work on the things I mentioned above. Forget your star player being out of position. What about the other 17 guys on the team who are also all out of position. The Caps need a stabilizing force in the defensive zone. They need to stop panicking. They need to hold their positions. And they need to do it soon.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Capitals Offense: The Numbers Only Tell Half the Story

Welcome to part 1 of my series on evaluating the Capitals mid-way through the season in the main areas: offense, defense, special teams, and goaltending. In this new series, I'll attempt to break down the Capitals in each of these categories based on the statistics, and my observations of nearly 10 Capitals games I saw during my winter break.

#1. Offense
- 3.10 goals/game (9th in league)
- 83 5 on 5 goals (15th in league)
- 26.8 shots per game (22nd in league)
- 50 1st period goals, 49 2nd period goals, 47 3rd period goals
- .682 win percentage when scoring first (17th in league)
- .192 win percent when trailing first (27th in league)
- Score first in 45.83% of games
- Two players with 25+ goals (Ovechkin, Semin)
- Three other players with 10+ goals (Clark, Zubrus, Pettinger)
- Team goal median: 2 goals (league goal median: 3 goals)
- Three players with 40+ points (Ovechkin, Semin, Zubrus)
- Two others with 20+ points (Clark, Pettinger)

The numbers don't lie, the Caps have been darn good on offense this year. That's to be expected with a player like Alex Ovechkin on your roster, but Alex Semin has been an incredible "addition." The only problem is that beyond those two, along with the other three top scorers mentioned, the team is not very deep. By observation, the team tends to score most of its goals on the fly (breakaways, 2 on 1s). The biggest problem the Caps have offensively is that their defensemen cannot make a decent breakout pass, which leads to the Caps getting bogged down in the neutral zone. Ultimately, in the offensive zone, the Capitals strategy mainly consists of dump-and-chase and cycling the puck. These problems are both affected by what I believe is the Capital's achilles heel: passing.

If you've watched a number of Capitals games, one thing about their offense is evident: they can't pass. I've seen too many defensemen fail to hang onto the puck at the point on the power play or mishandle the puck at the blue line. There have been many times the Caps have had odd-man rushes, but were spoiled by a poor pass or inability to catch passes. It's especially problematic with the defensemen, but the forwards also have been known to misplay the puck. In addition, the Capitals tend to have passes broken up because they either take to long holding the puck or don't make a crisp enough pass. All this means that the Caps frequently have to dump the puck into the zone, rather than pass it in (as almost all other teams can do).

In addition, the team must cycle the puck because they cannot space themselves accordingly. They can't make a pass to the point and then set up a rotating offense where they can get people into shooting channels. Generally, when the Caps have the puck in the offensive zone, the puck will go into the corner. Two Caps players will converge on the puck along with the defenseman. One player will wait alongside the scrum, typically below the goal line, waiting for the puck to squirt loose to them. The near defenseman pinches down and the far defenseman moves toward the center.
Now, there are two major problems with this setup. #1 is that there is nobody on the far side of the ice, which allows the other team to swing the puck to the boards on the other side where their far-side defenseman can pick up the puck and bring it out. Or they'll simply fling the puck around the boards and past our far-side defender, who is too far out of position to keep the puck in. It's happened many times before. But the second problem is even more one is in the slot!!! So if and when the Caps do come out of that scrum in the corner with the puck, they have virtually no options. If it, say, squirts to the guy waiting below the goal line, all he can do is turn away from the scrum to end up behind the net with nobody to pass to besides the far side defenseman. But typically, the other team's defeseman, who has been camping out in front of the net, will pinch down, pin the player with the puck behind the net and take it.
A simple remedy to this solution is to not have two people converge on the puck. It is a waste of ice to have two of our players on top of each other (particularly when there is one other guy three feet away). Instead, the winger on the near side (the side which the puck is on) should pin the puck on the boards. The center should wait for the puck to squirt out, the defensemen should be where they were and the far-side wing should move to the slot, wating for a centering pass from either the center or near-side wing. Another option is to have the far-side defenseman pinch in and move to the high slot (again, waiting for the pass) and have the three forwards converge on the puck and get it to one of the defensemen. Either way, the Caps cannot continue to have their three forwards occupying a five-foot area while their defensemen hang out in la-la land.

While the Caps offense has been good, it has not been great. If the Caps could be more efficient with the puck in their offensive zone, they could generate more scoring opportunities and draw more penalties.

Stay Tuned: Tomorrow...DEFENSE!

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Why Angers Me!

This is all per Scott Burnside's NHL "mid-season predicitions" on

Capitals coach Glen Hanlon once again is showing he might be one of the most underrated coaches in the game, having guided his team to a 20-21-7 record at the break. The Caps are just three points out of the eighth spot, but rank 13th overall as injuries and a lack of talent are starting to eat away at the hardworking squad.

First-half surprises: The emergence of former Senators defender Brian Pothier as a top-notch leader (he is averaging 24:59 in ice time) and the play of enigmatic Alexander Semin (27 goals, 47 points), who is taking some pressure off Alexander Ovechkin.

Second-half questions: Will ownership free up cash to bring in some offensive help before the trade deadline? Will anyone in the perpetually half-empty Verizon Center notice?

Where they'll finish: It won't be for lack of effort, but the talent-thin
Caps won't have quite enough and will end up fourth in the division and 12th in
the jam-packed East.

Now, let me go through all the points step by step:

Capitals coach Glen Hanlon once again is showing he might be one of the most underrated coaches in the game, having guided his team to a 20-21-7 record at the break.

First off, I don't know how you can be underrated as a coach when your team has a losing record at the midway mark of the season while in the top 10 in scoring with a former Vezina trophy winner in Olaf Kolzig (I know, its been a while, but he still has a .910 save percentage and 3.12 GAA). Don't get me wrong, Hanlon's a great motivator who has gotten this team to play lightyears ahead of where they should be, but the team still looks frantic in the defensive zone and cannot sustain pressure in the offensive end. As much as other Capitals faithful would like me to applaud Burnsie for this, I don't think he's quite right.

The Caps are just three points out of the eighth spot, but rank 13th overall as injuries and a lack of talent are starting to eat away at the hardworking squad.

I'll agree about the injuries, but the Caps have talent. Maybe not great talent like other teams might but they still have enough to keep from getting embarassed. Most of the players who came here as low level players (Clark, Pettinger, Zubrus, Morrisonn, Green) have proven to be more underrated than others thought and teams that still overspend are not necessarily getting the bang for their buck.

Will ownership free up cash to bring in some offensive help before the trade deadline? Will anyone in the perpetually half-empty Verizon Center notice?

I'll start with the second part first: no. Not as long as the Washington Post glosses over a Caps win with news that some Western Conference NBA coach went on a tirade or Barry Bonds might get caught for steriod use. While Ted Leonsis is partially to blame for not using his talented young players as good marketing tools, no one can blame him for the fact that his team is barely on national television, gets shafted by Comcast whenever the Wizards are playing and are passed over by the Post in favor of coverage of what Joe Gibbs ate for brunch.
The first question is an interesting one posed by Burnside: will management pony up the dough to give the Caps the offensive help they so desperately crave? My answer: why would they?
What Burnside doesn't realize is...
- The Washington Capitals are averaging 3.10 goals per game (that's ninth in the league), ahead of his precious Thrashers (2.98 goals/game), Carolina (3.06), Detroit (3.02), Montreal (2.90), and Dallas (2.58)
- The Capitals have two 25+ goal scorers (Ovechkin and Semin) and three others with 10+ goals (Clark, Zubrus, Pettinger)
- Washington is 12th in the NHL in power play goals scored (45) and are ahead of the New York Rangers (44), Buffalo Sabres (42), and Calgary Flames (37)
If the Capitals have a flaw to fix, it's defensively. Granted that's a place where they've been plagued with injuries (Muir, Erskine, Morrisonn, Pothier, Green were all out for multiple games), but they have long been last in the league in shots against per game (in my mind, the greatest indicator of defensive prowess) and look frantic in their own zone. They have had rookies playing extended minutes for a long time, and while this is good for their experience, it hurts the Capitals. If I were in charge, I'd trade some of my younger forwards (particularly a left wing since we're loaded there) for a youngish, physical, top-4 defenseman. The Caps need help on defense Scott.

It won't be for lack of effort, but the talent-thin Caps won't have quite enough and will end up fourth in the division and 12th in the jam-packed East.

We'll beat out Philly, I think. Florida too. The Islanders, Toronto, Boston and Pittsburgh are all teams that could fade out or move up in the next few months. I'd say 12th is a good place, since we could finish anywhere from 13th to 9th.

Scott Burnside, no disrespect, but watch a Caps game and maybe get your story straight.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Capitals (19-19-7) @ Senators (26-19-2): Keys to the Game

#1. Shut Down the Kelly-Alfredsson-Heatley Line
The recently formed line of Chris Kelly, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley has been responsible for the Sens recent turnaround in points. When this line was formed, Ottawa was in dead last in the Northeast Division. That was back in December. Now, Ottawa is on a four-game winning streak and is 9-1-1 in its last 11 games. This new line has carried most of the offensive burden during the winning streak.
Heatley and Alfredsson are 1-2 in points on the Sens with 61 and 46 points, respectively. Kelly is fifth on the team with 26 points. This line also has all players in the top 10 in goals (Heatley 26, Alfredsson 15, Kelly 9). This line has combined for 133 points and 50 goals. By comparison, Washington's top line of Clark-Zubrus-Ovechkin has a combined 134 points and 60 goals. So shutting down Ottawa's top power line could tip the scale of balance in Washington's favor.
#2. A Goaltending Conundrum?
The first time these teams met this year, Ottawa chased starter Olaf Kolzig in the first period, scoring 3 goals on 7 shots. Brent Johnson then stepped in to stop all 21 shots that came his way. In that same game, Ottawa starter Martin Gerber stopped 22 of 26 in a 4-3 OT loss. In the December 6 meeting, Olie Kolzig started again, but made it through the whole 60 minutes. In that matchup Kolzig only allowed 2 goals on 37 shots, while Ottawa's Ray Emery let in 6 on 37.
So in only two meetings this season, four goaltendenders have played, with two different goaltenders getting wins (for Washington) and losses (Ottawa). For these four goalies, their stats in the games against their season averages makes choosing a starter for this game incredibly difficult.
- O. Kolzig - 88.6% save percent, 5.5 GAA (90.8%, 3.15)
- B. Johnson - 100.0% save percent, 0.0 GAA (89.2%, 3.58)
- R. Emery - 83.7% save percent, 6.0 GAA (91.9%, 2.55)
- M. Gerber - 84.6% save percent, 4.0 GAA (89.5%, 3.15)
The anounced starters for tonight are Johnson and Emery, but the question remains: how will the goaltenders fare?
#3. Third Period Comeback
Ottawa is and has been (as evidenced by their 3 goal collapse to Washington in November) a team suceptible to comebacks. They are 12th in the league in terms of winning percentage when leading after the first period (.810) but they are 22nd in terms of winning when they have a lead going into the third period (.792). But the problem is that they are following a disturbing trend of teams that find it harder to hold onto a lead as the game goes on (Dallas, Buffalo, and Boston also rest on this list).
This could be due to two possiblities: they score most of their goals in the first period, and allow more goals in the latter stages of the game, or they get a slight lead that they carry into the third and give up a few goals to lose. The fact is that Ottawa is 4th in the league in goals scored in the first period (48) and 24th in goals allowed (34). They are still 4th in goals scored in the second (60) and 7th in goals for in the third period (51). But they are 6th in goals allowed in the second (52) and 13th in third period goals against (46). This suggests that Ottawa holds slight leads entering the third and then loses them in the period where they score the least and allow a lot of goals. For Washington to win, they must continue to perservere late into the game.
Players to Watch For...
Ottawa: Dany Heatley
Heatley is a member of that new unstoppable top line for the Sens. He is currently on a two-game multi-point streak and a 4-game point streak in which he amassed 5 goals and 11 points. In his career against the Caps, he has 20 points in 19 games including 6 goals. All in all, Heatley spells trouble for the Capitals if they can't contain the man leading the Sens with 61 points and 28 goals.
Washington: Brent Johnson
For Johnson, it's always a matter of who will show up for the game: Jekyll or Hyde. When Johnny's on, he can be spectacular, but when he's off, he looks positively amatuerish. In his last three games he's allowed a combined 10 goals on 43 shots (a meager .767 save percentage). Two of those games were losses, one was a no decision. Before that, he had won 2 in a row with a combined save percentage of .924. His season streaks look like this:
O-O-L; W-W; L-O-L; W-W; L-L
It would seem that Johnny is set for an OT loss tonight, but the streaking Sens might be his saviors. In his career against Ottawa, Johnson has 3 wins, a 0.91 GAA and a .972 save percentage. If his good side shows up tonight, the Caps could put one up in the win column.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Capitals 3 - Thrashers 2 (OT): Brought to You by the Letter...


A for Alex. Normally. the only Alex who jumps to mind when talking about the Caps is the Ovechkinator. However, in last night's victory over ATL, it was Semin who put the Capitals in the win column. Semin got the game winning goal off a beautiful setup by Steve Eminger and lofted a beautiful backhander over Kari Lehtonen. That goal made two on the night after Semin had scored a second period goal to tie the game at 1-1. Semin also had an assist on Ovechkin's game tying goal in the third period, the goal that ultimately sent the game into OT.

And Ovechkin was not quiet either, scoring his goal and assisting on Semin's first. Still, the goal was a 5 on 3 blast which propelled the Caps to a comeback tie and eventually a win. The goal was Ovechkin's league leading 26th on the year (tied with Marian Hossa). It also put him into the third overall position in terms of points with 56 (Sidney Crosby leads the league with 62).

Ovechkin and Semin have been the offensive 1-2 punch for Washington this year. Ovie leads the team with 26 goals, 56 points, 11 power play goals and 228 shots. Semin is right behind him in all those categories (21 goals, 40 points, 10 power play goals and 129 shots). Ovechkin is on pace for 51 goals and 109 points (he had 52 goals and 106 points last year) while Semin is on pace for 43 goals and 82 points (he had 10 goals and 22 points in 2003-2004).

The "Alex and Alex Show" came to DC last night and they brought back a win. They provided the scoring and have been shouldering most of the offensive load all year. More production from these two can only lead to good things for the Caps.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Capitals 5 - Canadiens 1: Brought to You By the Number...


Power play opportunities for the Montreal Canadiens, only one of which they were able to score on. The game, which ended the dreaded Capitals' five-game losing streak, was marked with incredible discipline shown by the Capitals against the NHL's second best power play. The Caps are 20th in the NHL in terms of penalty kill with an effectiveness of 80.8% while the Habs are a solid 22.9% on the power play.

The Caps are also 15th in the league with 219 times shorthanded, an average of 5.3 per game. Going under your season average against a team that knows how to cash in on their limited power play chances (they have 41 power play goals on 179 chances). The Habs only average 4.5 power play chances a game and 1 power play goal a game. That the Caps held them to that and prevented them from scoring even strength goals (one of my keys to the game) was the reason the Caps were able to win.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Capitals (15-16-7) vs. Canadiens (23-11-5) Keys to the Game

#1. Don't Fall Behind in the First
During the Capitals current 5 game losing streak, the Capitals gave up the first goal in every single game. The team, which is fifth in the league in terms of goals scored in the first period (42) only scored three in their last 5 regulation loses and gave up 14. Granted, Washington is also fifth worst in the league as far as giving up first period goals (42), but 14 of them came in the span of about a week. The Caps only gave up seven combined goals in those five loses in the second and third periods, and scored five. It also hurts the Caps that they cannot seem to come back from a first period deficit (their winning percentage when trailing after one is .067). If the Caps can come out and at least be even after one, they will have a chance to snap their losing streak.
#2. Make the Habs Score Even Strength Goals
When it comes to power play goals, the Habs are 13th in the league in 5 on 4 goals for (32), and 10th in 5 on 3 goals (6) translating to only 40 power play goals (11th in the league). Yet their power play is the best in the league at 22.9% (their road power play is slightly worse at 19.5%). How is this possible? Because Montreal is second worst in the league as far as power play opportunities. They also lead the league in shorthanded goals with 12. But their deficiency is playing at even strength. There, Montreal is 26th in the league in 5 on 5 goals with a mere 58 (as opposed to the Caps who are 14th with 69 goals). Montreal has only scored 60 even strenth goals (2 4 on 4 goals). That means out of Montreal's 119 goals, only 50.4% are even strength goals. If the Caps (who have scored 120 goals, with 60% of them coming at even strength) can keep Montreal from scoring in special teams situations (either up or down a man), they can shut down that lethal offense.
#3. Olie Needs to Step Up
I don't like to put the onus on goaltenders, but in the 5 straight regualtion losses, Olie Kolzig has a 3.22 GAA. He is 14-11-3-1 in his career against the Habs (2.34 GAA, .920 save percentage) but he's been playing on short rest and it has started to show. In his last three games, his save percentage never exceeded .890. On the year he has a GAA of 3.15 (33rd among goaltenders) and a .910 save percentage (17th). Certainly, those numbers have been deflated due to the lack of rest, an injured defensive unit (John Erskine and Bryan Muir are still listed as out indefinitely) and a tough stretch of games, but if Washington wants to pull out a "W" today, Olie needs to backstop them.

Players to Watch For...
Montreal: Cristobal Huet
Huet has been a Capital killer throughout his career. Huet is 4-1-0 in his career against Washington with a 1.99 GAA and a .928 save percentage. On December 27, he stopped 30 of 31 shots on the way to a 4-1 Montreal win. He is also the top goaltender in the NHL in terms of save percentage (.930) and has the 6th highest GAA (2.34). Beating him will be the key to winning.
Washington: Alex Ovechkin
Alex Ovechkin continues to be the Russian dynamo that leads the Caps to victories (up until those last 5 losses). He is the leagues leading goal scorer (25) and is 5th in points (51). During the Caps 5-game losing streak, Ovechkin had only 1 goal and 4 points. Despite only having 1 goal, he had 27 shots on goal. If Ovechkin can break out of his scoring "slump" the Caps will have a much better chance at winning.