Coming into the 2007-08 season, the Washington Capitals were mindful of the need to score more goals, but they were likely focused more on shaving goals against. Teams that score a lot of goals and teams that score relatively few goals are both well represented in the Stanley Cup playoffs every spring, but teams that give up a lot of goals are almost always on the golf course when the second season starts in April.
With the offseason additions of offensive minded players like centers Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov and power play specialist defenseman Tom Poti, the Capitals probably figured that scoring goals and scoring them on the power play would be the least of their worries this season.
So far, it hasn’t turned out that way.
Defensively, the Capitals have been fine. Even with the hiccup of a 7-3 loss at Buffalo on Oct. 13, Washington has allowed fewer than three goals a game thus far this season, and has allowed opponents to score at a lower rate than any campaign since 2002-03, the last time the Caps made the playoffs.
On the other side of the coin, Washington’s 14 goals scored are second fewest in the NHL. I noted in my Postgame Notebook after the loss to the Isles on Thursday that Washington had gone 15 straight games without scoring as many as four goals in a game. That streak extended to 16 games with Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh, and is now tied for the second longest such streak in franchise history. (More on that a bit later.)
A 7-1 Sunday afternoon whipping of the Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center last Mar. 18 marks the last time the Caps scored more than three goals in a regular season game. Washington is 5-10-1 in that 16-game stretch and has been outscored by a combined 48-31.
Caps coach Glen Hanlon juggled his forward lines a bit at the team’s practice on Monday, and one reason he was able to do so was because left wing Alexander Semin – limited to just part of one game thus far this season because of an ankle injury – skated with his teammates for the entire practice, something he had not been able to do since late September.
“I’m trying to create some offense and we’ll see if that helps out a bit,” Hanlon offers.
Part of the team’s 2007-08 offensive woes can be attributed to the power play. If your extra-man unit is functioning at a reasonable rate, you’ll generally drop in a four-spot here and there because you’ll have a game where you score two or three on the power play alone. But it’s been a while since that’s happened for the Capitals, too.
Again dating back to last season, Washington is 8-for-67 (11.9%) on the power play during the 16-game stretch in which it has not scored as many as four goals in a game. The Caps have never been that anemic with the extra man over a full season. The worst Washington team ever on the power play was the 1977-78 bunch, a group that managed a meager 34 power play tallies over the course of the 80-game season and finished with a 12.2% success rate.
You have to go back to last Feb. 27 to find the last game in which Washington managed multiple power play goals in the same game. That was 25 games ago. Since hanging a 3-for-5 night on the Panthers in a 6-5 shootout loss that night, Washington has connected on just 14 of its 113 power play chances, a rate of 12.4%.
The Caps won’t use injuries as an excuse, but they hope Semin’s return will rejuvenate their attack and their power play.
“It’s not the reason we’ve lost,” says Hanlon. “We miss Alexander Semin. But we still have to be able to find other ways to win hockey games. We came [into the season] with what you saw today, two power play groups: a Kozlov group and a Nylander group. Once Semin went down, we sort of loaded up on one side and it looked like a lot of skill and not enough net presence and puck pursuit. I think that cost us. It was much better last game. So that hurt us.
“You start rotating people in and out of that Semin spot, and the longer it went it seemed like Michael [Nylander] and Nicklas [Backstrom] were having a chemistry and the third guy was like the third wheel on a date, like bringing your little brother on a date. So it wasn’t what we pictured. But again, we’re not making excuses. We’re 3-4. Other things have to be successful. Even without Alexander, we shouldn’t be where we are on the power play. We need to do better. And we commit a lot of time to it.”
The Caps have devoted a lot of practice time to the extra-man unit, and the team’s power play has shown some signs of coming out of the doldrums. It had only three power play opportunities in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Pens, but managed better puck movement, more point shots and more traffic in front of the net. The lone Washington goal in the game came just seconds after the expiration of a Caps power play.
“Whenever it’s not going well you look for that silver lining,” admits Hanlon. “We tried to tell our guys that we felt that goal was a product of good movement on the power play and having good net presence.”
Another problem the Caps have had this season is getting shots on net. Washington has averaged 28 shots on goal per game this season, the same number it averaged in 2006-07. But many other intended missiles have missed their mark. The Caps have 196 shots on goal in seven games. Another 106 have been blocked en route and 93 have missed the net altogether. So more intended shots (199) have missed the mark than have gone on goal (196).
Opposing teams have 220 shots on goal, have had 79 blocked and have missed entirely on 67 in the same seven games.
“I think our [defensemen] have to do a better job of changing the angle [of their shots],” says Hanlon. “Every team plays [defensive] zone almost the same; they collapse, they come out to the point. If they’re in shooting lanes, we have to do a better job of just moving them a little bit. It’s hard to get pucks through now. A lot of teams, they start to use [the area] behind the net. Instead of just throwing it at the net, they get people set up behind the net and the cycle starts again because it’s so hard to get pucks through. It’s a skill. It’s an acquired skill to walk three or four feet, move, change the angle and find a new shooting lane. It takes composure and it takes poise. The good ones are better at it.”
The seven defensemen the Caps have employed this season have combined for 60 shots on goal. Another 51 have been blocked and 26 more have missed the net.
Alex Ovechkin’s normally finely honed radar is also off just a bit in the early going of this season. He is averaging better than five shots on goal per game, as he has done over the course of his career. Ovechkin has 37 shots on goal this season, and that’s more than twice as many as any other Capital. Nylander, Kozlov, Poti and Matt Pettinger are tied for second on the team with 16 shots on goal. But Ovechkin has had more shots blocked (17) and more that have missed altogether (18) than any other Cap has managed to put on the cage.
“When you get a situation where you’re whole group is not scoring enough, I think you press,” says Hanlon. “You shoot when maybe you shouldn’t be shooting. We’re all in this together. The one thing I like about Ovie in regards to that question is that he has kept all the team concepts. He is still doing all the things defensively. He plays the body. He is doing things that we’re extremely happy with. We just keep reassuring him that he has scored a lot of goals the last two years and he is going to score a lot of goals this year if he keeps on doing the things he is doing well.
“I still feel that this is as good as he has played since he has come here. From a coaching standpoint, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been with him. His intensity in practice, his conditioning, all his positioning is I think as good as it has been.”
It seems certain that the Caps will come out of this slump sooner rather than later, and Semin’s return to the lineup could be the catalyst the Caps need. Regardless, the team should take some solace in the fact that this drought is not nearly as bad as the one the inaugural Caps club of 1974-75 endured.
In between a 6-6 tie with the Rangers on Dec. 12 and a 6-3 win over Detroit on Jan. 26, the Caps went 19 games without scoring as many as four goals in a game. The team went 1-17-1 during that stretch, and was outscored by a combined 95-28.
As you’d expect, the power play was particularly putrid then. The Caps went 3-for-100 (3%) with the extra man in those 19 games, and were futile in 60 straight chances with the extra man during one part of that brutal stretch. The Caps scored as many shorthanded goals as they did power play goals during that span, and their power play was victimized for nine shorthanded goals against.
Noteworthy – When Carolina’s Mike Commodore and Pittsburgh’s Ryan Malone dropped the gloves and went at it in Friday’s Hurricanes-Penguins game, it left Washington as the lone NHL team without a fighting major this season. That was remedied the next night when the Caps got into a couple of dust-ups of their own with the Pens. Donald Brashear fought the Pens’ Georges Laraque and Matt Pettinger went with Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal.