The Last 15, The Next 15
That worked out well, last night’s trouncing of the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center. The Caps got secondary scoring (maybe even third-ary scoring), they exorcised the Tim Thomas demons that have plagued them for a few seasons now, and Alex Ovechkin reached a big milestone in front of the home folks, doing so with his usual blend of verve and panache. The crowd was large and loud, and the Caps came away with a pair of desperately needed points.
They’ve got 70 now, matching the total of each of the last two seasons, and there are 15 games remaining with which to pad that sum. Last night proved to be a great start to what some of us believe is a crucial week in this stretch drive. Corey Masisak and I were discussing this week’s slate before last night’s game. It’s a daunting one, with four games in seven days, but as Corey and I were noting, it’s mostly made daunting by the Caps’ recent history against this week’s foes. Prior to last night, the Bruins and Sabres were the only Eastern Conference teams the Caps had not defeated this season, and Washington crossed Boston off that list on Monday. Buffalo, Boston and Pittsburgh are the next three opponents, and even with last night’s win, the Caps are a combined 6-19-7 against those three teams since the lockout ended.
We still don’t know how many points will be required to squeak into the playoffs, but that Carolina disappearance that some pundits predicted after Rod Brind’Amour’s knee injury has yet to materialize. Carolina has won four of its last five and is 7-2-1 in its last 10 games. The Hurricanes are sixth in the league in scoring with an average of 2.97 goals per game. They’ve averaged 3.5 goals per game in the eight games since Brind’Amour’s injury.
Carolina has allowed the fourth highest number of goals in the league this season at 3.1 per game. Since Brind’Amour’s injury however, they’ve allowed 2.88 goals per game. In their last six games, the Canes have surrendered only 2.33 goals per game. The Hurricanes are in action tonight against the lame-duck Thrashers (0-4-3 in their last seven), so the Capitals can’t expect much help.
The Caps are eighth in the league in goals scored with an average of 2.91 per contest. Washington is 24th in goals against, giving up 2.96 goals per game. While Washington’s recent offensive explosion has been very noticeable (scoring 10 goals in a game will draw some attention), the Caps have quietly gotten much better at the other end of the ice, too. And not just in the few games since goaltender Cristobal Huet’s arrival.
Since surrendering a six-pack to Carolina in the last meeting between the two teams on Feb. 23, the Caps have allowed just eight goals in five games. Washington has allowed just 36 goals in its last 15 games, a rate of just 2.4 goals per game. Discounting empty-net tallies, the aforementioned Carolina game is the only one in the last 15 in which Washington has allowed more than three goals. Prior to the last 15 games, the Caps had surrendered an average of 3.12 goals per game. That’s almost 25% fewer goals allowed during that span, a fairly significant amount.
The Sabres will provide a strong test to the Caps’ recently minted defensive mettle tomorrow. Buffalo has nicked the Caps for 51 goals in 11 games (4.64 goals per game) against Washington since the lockout, forging a 9-2 record against the Caps in the process.
Let’s hope the improved team defense (noted above), the improved penalty kill (84.2% in the last 15 games) and the improved power play (24.1%) in the last 15 games combines to put the Caps in the win column against the Sabres. Even without the departed Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, the Sabres are averaging three goals a game this season, the fifth most in the league.
If Washington had allowed 2.4 goals per game, had a penalty killing outfit at 84.2% and had a power play unit clicking at 24.1% over a full season, it would rank fifth, seventh and second, respectively in those three categories.
With all that good stuff going on, you’d figure the Caps for better than the 7-5-3 they’ve managed over those frequently referenced previous 15 games. Hopefully, the 3-1-1 mark in their last five is more indicative of what we can expect over the next — and last — 15 games of the season. I’m guessing a 7-5-3 mark over their next 15 games won’t be enough to propel the Caps into the playoffs.