The 2016-17 edition of the Washington Capitals has varied in performance, but the common denominator throughout the year is winning. Here are insights into how the second half of the season has unfolded, and what we should expect in the regular season games that remain.
At the beginning of this calendar year, in the first half of January, the Capitals were playing their most dominant brand of hockey. With their top 18 skaters healthy and firing on all cylinders, the Caps shut down all opponents, displayed unequivocal strong starts, and comfortable finishes. They won eight straight (including four shutouts) – nine if you count their New Year’s eve clash with the New Jersey Devils in Newark.
With defenseman John Carlson out, the Capitals’ rhythm started to falter. After an unfortunate loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins (that included Patric Hornqvist’s malfeasance and Caps breakdowns in the second period), they returned to their winning ways, but it was more of the “firewagon” variety: outscoring the opponent rather than utter domination. All four forward lines were contributing to the scoresheet. A hiccup here and there for sure, but a 10-2-0 record nonetheless, heading into the bye-week. Even though Carlson returned to the lineup, the Caps inevitably suffered more man games lost, especially in the three rough and tumble affairs against the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings in mid-February. Nevertheless, the Caps have continued to find ways to win.
The Caps have posted a 5-2-1 record after the bye week, with both regulation losses coming in the second games of two back-to-backs, and a shootout lost in the first game back from the break.
In comparison, both the Penguins and the New York Rangers went 5-5-0 in their first ten games back from the bye week.
The Capitals’ current winning streak at “the Booth” (Verizon Center) is well-noted, but the Caps are also 8-1-1 in their away games in 2017, that are not the second game in a back-to-back set. Continuing along these lines is important, but also increasingly difficult. So in summary, here’s how the Caps’ breakdown in their last 30 games played:
Games # GF | GA | GFPGA | GAPGA | GDA Wins/GP
1-9 (least recent) 40, 11, 4.44, 1.22, 3.22, 9/9
10-22 (before break) 61, 35, 4.69, 2.69, 2.00, 10/13
23-30 (after break) 18, 14, 2.25, 1.75, 0.50, 5/8
Outside of the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes, every NHL team is within ten points of a playoff spot, but the number of games remaining for each of them is now in the teens.
As a result, the intensity is rising as playoff hockey is just around the corner and teams are doing whatever it takes to remain in the hunt.
Games are generally more closely contested and, with that in mind, the Caps are being approached with heightened game plans that, if appropriate, leverage trade deadline acquisitions. Some opponents want to emphasize speed, others brute force, and still other disciplined structure / tactics, whichever they feel give them an advantage or at least their best shot at points.
Hockey is invariably the world’s fastest team sport, but we may need to verify radar gun readings when the New Jersey Devils or Ottawa Senators take the ice to ensure we don’t run afoul of FTC truth-in-advertising laws. The stifling defense of these two teams slow the game down and it’s difficult to penetrate and beg opponents to take a chance and make a mistake. After the 1-0 win against the Devils, Caps goalie Braden Holtby quipped: “I don’t think we created too many hockey fans tonight.”
Similar to the Devils, the Flyers made the Capitals work Saturday to eke out an overtime win. The Flyers’ forecheck was particularly crippling and their 5-on-4 PK looked as if they had stolen the Caps’ PP playbook.
Much of this may have to do with the fact that trade acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk is learning a new system, but the Caps generated very few goal-scoring opportunities in regulation power play situations. Is it time for the Capitals to consider some adjustments to their “go-to” plays?
The increased competitiveness also underscores the importance health will play in the Capitals’ upcoming games. When the top 18 are healthy, the team has been more dominant, but that’s one of the reasons why General Manager Brian MacLellan pulled the trigger in acquiring Shattenkirk, who is a serious insurance policy, and one that allows the Caps not to weaken, even if one of their top defensemen goes down, or to field a stronger defense if no one is injured.
The Capitals’ one constant has been the solid goaltending of Holtby and Philipp Grubauer; and that remains an essential. The skaters need to continue to emphasize puck management fundamentals because it’s been critical to their wins too. Lastly, they need to improve upon:
1. entering the offensive zone by using the appropriate tactics based on the way they are being played,
2. shooting the puck (frequency), and
3. shooting it accurately, as these three measures should increase the goals-scored average, which has started to dip.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have started 4-1-1 after their bye week, the Wild have 90 points, and the Chicago Blackhawks are notably hot as of late. With two tilts against both the Blue Jackets and the Wild coming up in the stretch run, and many other games against desperate teams, the pressure to regularly secure two points every night remains on the Caps. Thankfully, the Caps are finding different ways to win regardless of how the wins are delivered, and the competition the Caps face. That’s the way I like it.
By Tim Foisie