After nine games into the season, the Washington Capitals sit at 7-2 and in a familiar spot, atop the Southeast Division. On the good side the Caps are leading the NHL in scoring with 3.78 goals per game and their overall net difference in goals for minus goals against is a league leading +12. However, a team that finished in the top four in the NHL in goals against last season, after Saturday night’s 7-4 defeat in Vancouver, has fallen into a tie for 15th in goals allowed per game at 2.56. In the 27 plus periods the Capitals have played they have been really good at times, bad at others, and downright ugly in limited spurts. Basically they’ve played what I will call Clint Eastwood hockey: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Overall, one has to be pretty happy with this team. The off-season additions GM George McPhee made bringing in Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and Jeff Halpern has given Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau four really good lines that at five on five have been quite dominant. On defense, free agent Roman Hamrlik has played very well with Mike Green when they’ve been paired together. In net, the steal of the summer, getting Tomas Vokoun for $1.5M, has been the biggest difference maker and despite a shaky first period last night, he is still 6-1 with a .932 save percentage.
Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are off to decent starts and the Gr8 has five goals and four assists while #19 has two goals and 10 assists. In addition, the Capitals power play is clicking at 25.7%, third in the NHL, and this is with top rearguard Mike Green missing the last two games, which no surprise have been losses (more on that in a minute). The addition of Hamrlik, not to mention that Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau was finally able to put both Green and Dennis Wideman in the lineup for the first time since #6 was acquired at last February’s trade deadline, has allowed Boudreau and assistant coach Dean Evason to move Ovechkin off of the point on the power play, for the most part. Alexander the Great already has two power play goals, both coming in the slot, and his presence down low has opened up lanes for other Capitals to score goals in man advantage situations. This is definitely a big development that could bode well for the remainder of the regular season and in the playoffs.
14 different Capitals players have scored a goal and a big reason for that is the depth of this team combined with a handful of forwards who have no problem going to the crease area to create traffic in front of opposing goaltenders. Brouwer, Ward, Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble, Matt Hendricks, and even Mathieu Perreault have paid the price to get Washington the type of goals that help a team advance in the post season.
The good has clearly definitely outweighed the bad and the ugly combined, but if you asked anyone around the team, they would likely tell you that there are plenty of areas where this team can improve. Consistency is the word you’d hear most from the coaches and players as to what is needed, especially with a tough three game stretch this upcoming week (Anaheim at home on Tuesday then road games in Carolina and on Long Island on Friday and Saturday, respectively). Throughout the course of the opening nine games this team has tilted the ice on their opponents on several occassions, but when they’ve struggled it has mostly been due to penalty trouble and mental mistakes. Here are some of the things the team might be concerned about and looking to correct:
- In the current two game slide the Capitals have allowed four power play goals in 13 opponent attempts and the Canucks game winner came just seconds after Ovechkin’s interference minor expired. First off, the team is taking way too many penalties. Yes, some of those likely were incorrect calls, but in Edmonton the Caps didn’t adjust their game when the zebras repeatedly called stick infractions. Without Green, the Washington defense is far LESS mobile. The absence of the “One Man Breakout” leads to more turnovers plus it puts slower players like Jeff Schultz and AHL call up Sean Collins on the ice more often. Green also had some nice chemistry going with Hamrlik and #44’s play has regressed with #52 out. The two time Norris Trophy finalist, who also does a decent job killing penalties, is hoping to return next weekend from an ankle injury.
- As Alan May (@MayHockeyCSN) has diagrammed on Comcast a few times this year, the Capitals have been vulnerable to being beaten on the back side of their defensive zone coverage. On Saturday in Vancouver, the second Canucks goal illustrated that perfectly as John Carlson found himself totally out of position on the PK. #74, with his d-partner Karl Alzner battling along the boards, was all the way over at the faceoff dot instead of being closer to the front of the net. That gave Chris Higgins the ability to receive the puck below the goal line, skate out in front of Vokoun, then gather his own rebound for an easy marker. The Caps last year were a better shorthanded team because they went to shorter shifts and became more aggressive, but they also played smart. Too many times this season, and even in pre-season, defenseman have been leaving their goalie “hung out to dry” with poor positioning.
- Alexander Semin was arguably the Caps top forward in the first five games of the season but in the last four games he has one point (an assist), is -3, and has taken a penalty in each contest. #28 needs someone to get him the puck so that he can unleash his great shot but he also can blame himself for his poor play over the last 10 days or so. Semin has shied away from contact and his compete level has dropped off as evidenced by a total of five shots on goal in those last four tilts. The Caps need balanced scoring and they will not be a consistent team without #28 contributing. The loss of Green also hurts Semin’s production because he is a rearguard that opens up room for offensive players. It will be interesting to see if Bodureau changes things up and puts Semin with a new center this week, perhaps Perreault (5 points in 7 games and +6) instead of Marcus Johansson? That isn’t to say that MJ90 has not been productive, he has three game winning goals, but for some reason he and Semin have not formed the necessary chemistry that a second scoring line needs, at this juncture.
- The Caps are currently sitting at 27th in the league in faceoff percentage at 47.9%. Backstrom, Laich, and Johansson are the top three guys taking draws and they are 43.9%, 44.8%, and 38.5%, respectively. Halpern is fourth on number of face-offs and he is winning 65.2% of them so that is why you’ll often see him taking key d-zone draws. When you lose a faceoff, your opponent has the puck so that forces the Caps to go get it. I am sure Boudreau and company would much rather start with the biscuit so it will be interesting to see if those stats change as the year progresses.
In summary, the Caps are off to a good start at 7-2 and the Green injury played a large role in the two losses. Green earns an average of $5+ million a year for a reason but it is imperative that Washington find a way to prevent such a dropoff in their level of play when their leading d-men is out of the lineup due to injury. The work ethic wasn’t the big problem on this recent road trip but execution and hockey smarts were and those are controllable. Fortunately we are only one month into a six month regular season journey so there is plenty of time for the team to improve and make adjustments. More importantly, this team is much stronger on paper than it was last October 31st so there is a huge potential upside if the club works hard and sticks together.