Sunday, December 2, 2007

7 points out of a possible 12 since Caps coaching change

Well the Caps won again last night. I won't try and give you details, I didn't see the game - couldn't find the channel and was too busy a) watching the havoc going on in the BCS and b) getting ready and then attending a neighbor's birthday party. The interesting thing to me looking at the stats and results of the last 6 games (12 possible points) is the Caps captured 7 of them.

Why the change and is that likely good enough to make the playoffs? That's what I set out to analyze/examine today. As of today the Caps have 20 points in 27 games and are 30th out of the 30 teams in the NHL, though they are now just 1 point below the LA Kings and 2 points behind Phoenix. From a potnetial playoff spot perspective that doesn't help - if the Caps were still rebuilding Caps fans would be watching the negative and looking for the lottery pick. - let's not talk about that until March because a) Caps fans shouldn't want to be defeatists and b) the fact is if things don't change there will be 10 - 11 teams "fighting" for those 4 spots. (That could be the subject of another article couldn't it?) In any case, the important thing is here in the Eastern Conference the Caps are 7 points and 4 wins out of the final playoff spot which the Islanders now hold. It's clearly still mathematically possible for the Caps with 53 games (106 possible points) remaining to make the playoffs but is it practical?

If you project the past 6 games results forward do the Caps make it? The Caps earned 58.3% of the possible points over those six games; 58.3% of 106 possible points is 62 points when rounded up - 62 + 20 = 82 points. All pundits believe that the target number an NHL team should shoot for is 92+ points to make the playoffs, that means the Caps need to capture an aerage of 67.9% of the available points to be in the fight for the playoffs. Can they do that, if they keep playing the way they have, get a few breaks, win a few shootouts, etc. can they maybe do that - I want to be an optimist and say yes so let's do a little more analysis. If the Caps had gotten 2 points instead of 1 from the first game against the Panthers they'd have captured 66% of the available points; and if they captured 1 point instead of 0 from the Canes game they'd have captured 75% of the available points. Also from a pure standings perspective in the Eastern Conference the teams is places 6-14 (ahead of the Caps) currently have point totals between 24 and 28 points. To say the last three playoff spots are up for grabs is probably understatement. Games against those 9 teams (Boston, New Jersey, NY Islanders, Toronto, Buffalo, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay) are critical for the Caps to make the playoffs even more than ever.

Do I think both those could have captured 2 additional points of the available 12 (last 6 games) after watching the games yes but it's unlikely that both would have so let's talk about the 66% when looking at the remaining 53 games answer which we already knew: The Caps are in a dogfight and the next 20 games are critical for them to stay in that dog fight. What's the schedule the next two months look like? There are 12 more games in December, 11 against Eastern Conference teams and 1 against a Western Conference team - Detroit. In January there are 13 games as well, 11 against Eastern Conference teams and 2 against Western Conference teams - Colorado and Edmonton. Of the 22 games against Eastern Conference rivals we compete as follows:

NJ Devils twice, once home and once away; the Devils are currently 13-10-2 (28 points)

Atlanta once here at the Verizon Center; the Thrashers are currently 12-13-0 (24 points)

NY Rangers once here at the VC; the Rangers are currently 15-9-2 (32 points and 7-2-1 in their last 10)

Buffalo once here at home; the Sabres are currently 12-11-1 (25 points but 6-4 in their last 10)

Tampa Bay twice, once at home and once away; the Lightening is 11-13-2 (24 points)

Montreal four (4) times, two at home, two away; the Canadiens are 13-9-4 (30 points)

NY Islanders once - away at Nassau Coliseum; the Islanders are 13-10-1 (27 points)

Pittsburgh twice - both are away games; the Pens are 11-12-2 (24 points; 6-6-2 at home)

Ottawa three games - two home, one away; the Senators are 16-7-2 (34 points but 3-5-2 in the last 10 and on a 6 game losing streak)

Philadelphia - once home here at the VC; the Flyers are 14-9-2 (30 points but it will be all about the last game Bruce Bodreau's first where the Caps beat the Flyers in OT in Philly)

Toronto - twice, a back to back home & home; the Leafs are 10-11-6 (26 points but the 2 games in 2 days thing will be key IMHO)

Summary of Eastern Conference games between now and January 31st for the Caps fro my unqualified vantage point is as follows.

The only team currently on fire is the NJ Devils (6 game Winning Streak 7-3 in last 10) - the Caps play them twice once at VC and once in their new digs at the Rock in Newark. Those games are the next one Dec 7th at the Rock and Monday December 10th at the VC. The December 7th game should be very interesting as it will be the first game we see the Caps play the Bruce Bodreau offense all out after they've had some time to work it in practice. The match-ups will be key and shots on goal very important, goaltending for the Devils continues to be key as a team they have 64 GF and 61 GA Martin Brodeur now has 502 career wins, so far this season he is 11-10-1, 2 shutouts, a GAA of 2.31 with a 91.0 save percentage. Backup Kevin Weekes is 2-0-1 in the four (4) games he's appeared and his GAA is an excellent 2.03 with a 93.0 save percentage. These two teams know each other well so these will be hard fought battles with the Caps looking to slow some of the magic of the streaking Devils and the Devils looking to extend their streaks and move more firmly into the playoff picture as the Senators and Canadiens and to some degree the Flyers struggle or play sporadically.

The team the Caps play the most is the Canadiens, the next meeting (the first of the AH era) is December 20th at the VC. Montreal is 4-5-1 in their last 10 and has lost their last two. Between today and their 12/20 meeting with the Caps, the Canadiens have 7 other games one against the Red Wings in Detroit and one each against 6 different Eastern Confernce teams, the toughest likely being Boston & Carolina next week. That said looking at the records of the last 10 games of all teams in the Eastern Conference you wonder. The thing about the Canadiens schedule between now and 12/20 is while full it is evenly spaced so they will be ready when they meet the Caps. The dates of the four games are 12/20 at VC; 1/5 & 1/29 in Montreal; and 1/31 at VC. Obviously the games on 12/20 and 1/5 could be much more important for the Caps if the in-process turn around doesn't continue. As it stands the Canadiens are as vulnerable as the Caps with a team total 77 GF and 74 GA; the last game versus Nashville (13-9-2, 28 points and 8th in the Western Conference) they gave up a three goal lead in the third period to loose 5-4 in overtime; and since a 4-0-1 streak the end of October the Canadiens haven't won more than 2 games in a row.

The Caps will face the Senators three times over the next eight weeks. The Sens are struggling 3-5-2 in the last 10 and currently in a 6 game losing streak most recently having lost to the Rangers at ScotiaBank Place 5-2 last night. They have 12 games before they face the Caps next on 12/29 in Ottawa. The last time the Caps played the Senators was in Ottawa and the Caps won 4-1 breathing extended life to Glen Hanlon but that didn't last. The Caps are 1-2-0 and 1-0-0 in regular season games versus the Senators so far this season. The Caps have outscored the Senators 9 - 8 in the three meetings have be beaten by only one goal in 2 of the 3 meetings. What that all means along with the new offensive system is very hard to say but it doesn't appear home ice means much in the series so far this year, the key has been goaltending. In their second meeting and loss this year to the Sens the Caps outshot the Senators 35-15 to no avail. Offense has not been the issue versus the Senators this year for the Caps. In the each of the meetings the Caps have had 30 or more shots on goal. Containing the Senators formidable offensive weapons and getting more quality scoring chances (versus shots on goal) will be the key for the Caps to succeed off a team that isn't likely to continue it's current 6 game losing streak for much longer. It's hard to look at the Senator (despite their current skid) and confidently predict a result significantly greater than 0.500 hockey against them, for any team in the league.

As for the other division "rivals" the Caps play twice over the next 8 weeks: Tampa Bay, Toronto & Pittsburgh, all three are in similar positions to the Caps. Toronto is perhaps the toughest if they played tomorrow but they don't they play a home & home on January 23 & 24 and the Caps humiliated the Leafs in Maple Leaf Gardens last time they met so over-analysis of the possibilities vs. them probably isn't worth a lot of effort. The Leafs have won their last two and face the Nashville Predators on Tuesday for their next game, then they play in Conference the rest of December, they have a California swing the second week of January (Anaheim, LA, and San Jose) before they meet the Caps though and could be a very different team by the January 23/24 home & home. The Caps next face the Lightning on December 15th in Tampa then at home the day after Christmas. Tampa Bay beat the Bruins yesterday 4-1, and is 4-5-1 in their last 10 which includes their two wins over the Caps by identical 5-2 scores. Like the Caps the Lightening are better then their current 11-13-2, 24 point record. These teams know each other and the Caps under Boudreau will need to effectively implement the new system to neutralize the formidable offensive weapons the Bolts possess. That said if the Caps do that and the Caps goaltending and Defense continues what is has been doing since the coaching change they could win both games vs. the Bolts. The Penguins are 5-8-1 since November 1st, as compared to the Caps 4-10-2 over the same period. Crosby, Malkin, and Gonchar are all having good seasons but the goaltending and defense has been erratic. the Caps are likely the better team and they need the points. They'll have to work for them but again the new system should help neutralize Malkin and Gonchar and the Poti & Pothier along with Kolzig and Johnson will need to thwart Crosby but the Caps could take these points when they meet the Pens in Pittsburgh on 12/26 and 1/21.

The Caps will need to take 75% or more of the available wins from Montreal, Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh over the next 60 days. You can bet Bruce Bodreau and staff know that and are watching game film accordingly. In all 4 instances (10 of the 22 scheduled games or a record of 7-2-1) the new Offense that Bodreau and the Caps will implement this week will likely be a positive as long as it's well executed. Currently two teams in the Eastern Conference and three teams in the Western Conference have a records this good over their last 10 games so it's possible but it will be a stretch for the Caps given the current injury situation. As for the other 15 of the 25 games assuming the Caps can go 7-7-1 or better in them coupled with the 7-2-1 in the others the Caps would garner 29 of a possible 50 points (58% of the available points) and exit January with 49 points. That would put them "on the bubble" at best but if they can go 8-5-2 or better they will be a real possibility for the playoffs because of what it will mean on the flip side of their Conference rival's records.

Since the Caps play 22 of the 25 games against in conference rivals a record that is at minimum 11-9-2 likely makes up the 4 of the seven points the Caps trail the Islanders for 8th place with and puts them in 9th place or if the Islanders falter could put them in 8th (the Islanders schedule between now and January 31st is a little tougher than the Caps as they have a four game Western Conference swing from 1/5 through 1/11).

My conclusion: it's not too late for the Caps but they'll have to continue to play every game like what the facts say - they are "on the bubble" now. The team has shown a good start since the coaching change and the simpler more straightforward brand of hockey has been more fun to watch for us fans. This week the Caps can get the new system down, the line combos straight, Semin and Clark healthy, they will be in a position to continue and accelerate the turn-around. LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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