Okay, so 20 games down and 62 to go. We’re basically a quarter of the way through this 82-chapter story that unfolds annually over a period of six months. What can we tell about these 20 games that will give us an indication of what lies ahead? I’m not sure, but I will toss a few ideas around.
The Capitals have a higher number (six) in that limbo column, the third column in the standings, than any other team in the NHL right now. Those are games not won, but games in which the Caps earned a point simply by playing even for 60 minutes of regulation. Seven of Washington’s first 20 games required more than 60 minutes to determine a victor, and the Caps have won only one of those seven.
Conversely, the Caps have only eight wins. Among Eastern Conference clubs, only the futile Philadelphia Flyers have fewer with five. But the Caps are getting points on a regular basis. They’ve claimed at least one in 14 of thier 20 games, and have yet to go as many as two straight games without a standings point. As a result, they go into tonight’s NHL action tied for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Caps are in the middle of the pack in virtually all of the significant team measures. They’re 14th in average goals (2.95) per game, and they’re 19th in average goals (3.05) surrendered. Four wins have come at home, and four were earned on the road. They’re 17th in power play prowess (15.9%) and 17th in penalty killing (82.5%).
Washington’s goaltenders are sixth in the league in save percentage, and third in the Eastern Conference. The goaltending has been simply stellar, and it has had to be. If the goaltending didn’t have to be so good, the Caps could be better in other areas of the game.
Here is what I mean. Washington has averaged 27.5 shots on goal per game this season; they rank 23rd in the league in that department. Toronto leads at 34.5 shots per game, and Chicago brings up the rear at 25.2. So you can see the Caps are much closer to the bottom than they are to the top.
Part of the reason they’re down so far on the shots on goal ledger is that they’ve spent a lot of time in their own end, giving up shots on goal. The Caps have surrendered an average of 36.5 shots per game, the highest total in the league. No other team has allowed more than 33.6. The Red Wings are far and away the best in the league in this category; they’ve allowed a mere 20.9 per contest. No other team is below 26.
The Capitals’ shot differential is minus-9, the worst in the league. Pittsburgh is second-worst at minus-6.3. By playing so much in their own end, the Caps are depriving themselves of one of the prime spoils of playing in the other end of the rink: power play opportunities and the resulting scoring chances they provide.
The Caps have drawn just 247 minutes worth of penalties from their opponents this season, tied with Florida for the second fewest in the NHL. Only the Islanders (215) have drawn fewer. The Islanders are also in the lower reaches of the NHL in shots allowed (33.2) and shot differential (minus-5-5). The Panthers, on the other hand, appear to lack discipline. They’re only 16th in shots against, but they’ve taken 110 more PIM than their opponents through their first 22 games of the campaign. That’s the highest differential in the league.
Back to the Caps. Shave that shots against total down to 30, which is the middle-of-the-pack range. (St. Louis has permitted exactly 30 per game, and it ranks 14th overall.) That’s only about two fewer shots per period. Spend a little more time at the other end of the rink. Draw some penalties. Get some power plays. Score some goals. Win more games before overtime or (shudder) the shootout becomes necessary. Get two points instead of one.
Make the playoffs.
It’s not a pipedream anymore, not with 22 points in 20 games. Already those who picked the Caps to finish in the nether reaches of the Eastern Conference standings are backpedaling and readjusting their preseason calibrations. (I recently asked a reporter where he picked the Caps before the season started. “Tenth,” was the reply. Then I checked myself. Twelfth was his actual preseason pick.) And here’s the best part. They should get better. They’re a young team, and that’s what young teams do.
Last season, the Caps were 8-12 (16 points) at the same juncture. The next quarter of the 2005-06 season was flat; the Caps picked up 15 points and were at 31 at the season’s midway point. They rallied for 19 points in the third quarter, and 20 in the fourth. The 31-point first half was followed by 39 in the second.
Washington’s current pace would give it about 88 points at season’s end. In this era of the proliferation of the three-point game, that is not likely to get the Caps into playoff position. But a 44-point first half followed by a second half of say, 50 or 52 points might do it. Spending more time at the other end of the ice could be the key variable in the equation.
One more thing. The Caps will play 43 games between now and the Feb. 27 NHL trading deadline. No other team in the league will be in better position to add payroll and talent from a salary cap standpoint between now and then. In a perfect world, the Caps could get it done with the players currently on the roster, and add a key player or two next summer. But it’s nice to know that they’ve got the flexibility to add if management and ownership decide that is the route to take.