Life on the Limb
Way back in September, on the morning of Washington’s first preseason game of the 2006-07 training camp, I went out on a limb and said that the 2006-07 Capitals would make the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was not a hard thing to do; I still come in under 200 pounds and the limb was completely empty when I got there.
I took a lot of grief (I’d prefer to use a different word here than “grief,” but I am instead relying on the reader’s intutitive powers to substitute the correct word) over that prediction in the days and weeks and months that followed. Grief from other members of the media, grief from co-workers here in the Caps offices, and grief from fans who sent e-mails accusing me of drinking Kool-Aid and forgetting my medication.
Funny thing is, the “grief” has slacked off a good bit as time has gone by. I even see some people eyeing my limb. And even though the Capitals did not half as good a first half as I had expected them to have, I’m staying out here. I still think it’s going to happen. Here’s why.
I based my prediction on a few things. Last season, the Caps had a 31-point first half and a 39-point second half. And their AHL affiliate in Hershey won the Calder Cup. Despite dire predictions from some that none of the Cup-winning Bears would ever amount to anything at the NHL level, I watched more than 30 Bears games last season (including all 21 playoff contests) and I chose to believe otherwise. Last year’s Caps team was the fourth-youngest in the NHL. I expected them to improve this season, as that is what good young players do. They improve. I figured after the Caps made an eight-point improvement from the first half to the second half of last season, a similar improvement over the first half of this season would be in the cards. My thoughts were that the Caps would post a 47-point first half and match it over the second half. That would get them 94 points and one of the last couple playoff berths in the Eastern Conference.
Now that we have actually arrived at the halfway mark, it’s convenient to stop and take stock of what the Caps have done to date and what the second half might have in store for us.
The goaltending has been good, bordering on the spectacular at times.
The offense has been much improved. Washington managed 2.8 goals per game in 2005-06, good for 23rd in the league. They’ve bumped that average up by a quarter of a goal per game, to 3.05. That makes them the ninth most potent offensive team in the league this season.
Special teams have been consistently in the middle of a pack all season, a significant jump from the lower 20s where the Caps resided in both power play and penalty killing for almost all of last season.
The defense has improved more than the offense, in that it has shaved just over a third of a goal per game off last season’s average, dropping from 3.66 per game (29th in the league) to 3.32 per game (26th in the league). It’s a young group, so you have to hope the improvement continues. I believe it will.
The Caps have put together 17 straight games now without surrendering 40 or more shots on goal. That’s the longest such stretch for this team since it finished the 2002-03 season (Washington’s last playoff team, by the way) with 34 straight games without 40 or more shots on goal against.
Near the end of November, the local media was making a big deal about the Caps’ total of shots against. At the time, Washington surrendered an average of 36.2 shots on goal per game, and 3.25 goals per game. In the last 17 games, the Caps have shaved that shot total down to 32.2 per game, but the goals against per game average has actually climbed to 3.41 during the same span (nothing yet from the media on that, but stay tuned). Chalk that up to some injuries and illnesses, and probably a bit of a fluke, too.
Since the season started, the Caps have identified John Erskine as one of the team’s top six defensemen. He has missed the last three weeks with a broken bone in his foot and might miss as much as another month. Prior to his injury, he had averaged nearly 18 minutes a night and frequently logged more than 20 minutes in the handful of games leading up to his injury.
Recently, Lawrence Nycholat has been on the verge of cracking the team’s top six, too. He has averaged 20:49 in his seven games with the Caps, putting up two goals and six points in the process. Erskine started the season as Washington’s eight defenseman; he was reassigned to Hershey before he could get into a game with the Caps. He returned about a month later when Jamie Heward suffered an elbow injury. Erskine had made himself a fixture, and Nycholat may be about to do the same. The Caps have more depth at the position than they did at the season’s outset. They’re also more banged up than they were at the start of the season.
Steve Eminger, Shaone Morrisonn and Mike Green are all under 25 and have less than 200 games worth of NHL experience. All can be expected to show improvement over the remainder of this season and beyond. If the Caps can get Erskine and Bryan Muir (also suffering from a broken bone in his foot) back in the lineup while the defense continues to improve as a group, it’s not hard to see the Caps shaving that goals against total even more, and putting up several more standings points in the second half than they did in the first.
The Caps got 41 first half points. I was hoping for/counting on 47. But it’s not a real big problem. Washington recently endured a five-game losing streak, its longest stretch of consecutive road losses in nearly three years. Despite the skid, the Caps remained close to the pack in the tightly bunched Eastern Conference. At the end of the first half, the Caps find themselves just three points out of eighth place in the East. Only eight points separate 10 clubs ranked from fifth to 14th in the East. The Caps are in that pack, and they are likely to remain in that pack for the foreseeable future.
As Glen Hanlon stated emphatically today, the next stretch of five games or seven games or 10 games or whatever is no more important than any other stretch of the schedule. The next five games are no more or less important than any five games in October or late March. Games are games, and points are points. The Caps need points, but they may not need as many as they (or I) originally thought. I had set my sights on a 94-point season, and Hanlon’s game plan called for 96. Both totals should be enough for a playoff berth, but a team might be able to get the job done with fewer points. Toronto is the current eighth-place team, and it has 44 points in 42 games. That’s a pace of about 88.
With the “new” NHL and the wonder of (and proliferation of) three-point games, there is no way of knowing how many points the Caps will need to get in. But I still believe they can cross the 90-point threshold and I believe that might be enough to get in. The last Caps team to get to the playoffs (2002-03) put up a 43-point first half and a 49-point second half to claim the seventh seed.
I’ve seen enough of the Caps and anough of the other teams in the East to believe that Washington is one of the eight best teams in the conference. If their overall health holds up, I believe that over the course of an 82-game schedule, the Caps will end up occupying one of those top eight spots.
So I’ll just stay out here on this limb by myself. Eventually, I’ll have company out here and the limb will break. Don’t worry though. Whenever these kinds of limbs break, they tend to break off cleanly and fall right into a moving bandwagon. See you there.