Sunday, October 19, 2008

Thoughts On Last Night's Caps Game

There's a lot of posts and thoughts out there in the "blogsphere" about last night's game which was a "1 Point Night" against the Devils. I watched the game on CSN and chatted with a lot of folks on NHL Game Center while looking at the statistics.

The starting lineup for the Capitals included Chris Bourque, who was called up from Hershey, on the fourth line, and Sergei Federov on Defense due to the injuries to Donald Brashear and Tom Poti. Chris Clark was on the first line, right wing, for the injured Vicktor Kozlov. The jumbled lines were productive and the Caps started out with a 1-0 lead off an really beautiful goal by Alexander Semin off an outlet pass from Sergei Federov, that no other Caps Defensemen and few D-Men in the NHL could ever have made. However, as Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau noted in his post-game comments, the Caps never really took control of the game. Of course, the New Jersey Devils were the biggest reason for this fact. While the Caps didn't work quite as hard as they might have otherwise done, the Devils worked and played their "2008-2009 updated version" of "Devils Hockey". This years version of "Devils Hockey" is not so smothering in the neutral zone, but with a more energetic and aggressive offense, then in past seasons. Last night, there wasn’t nearly as much neutral zone slogging as you’d see in Devils games in seasons past. The result has been New Jersey has out shot its opponent in each of its first five games this season, and this game had a good bit of back-and-forth to it. However, even though the Devils have been out shooting their opponents regularly their shooting percentage has been pretty woeful. The Devils entered Saturday’s game with an average of 35 shots on goal per game this season, third most in the league. They fired 37 at the Caps on Saturday to push that average up a shade. But with nine goals on 177 shots, they’ve got an anemic 5.1% shooting pct.

Unfortunately, the Caps would have needed to get another 9 shots on goal given last nights statistics to have won the game in regulation, and that wasn't going to happen. The Caps own shooting percentage was a 12% on the 25 shots they had in regulation. Even more important is where they scored from, look at the shot chart captured over at The Peerless Prognosticator from last night's game, for a lesson in why if you coach hockey you spend a lot of time teaching mites "where the slot is" and how to drive for it. The Caps only got 5 shots on goal in the third period and in their best period last night, the second, they only had 11 shots on goal. New Jersey came out "banging" during the third period. For the Caps to have put up a total of 14 shots in the stanza, they would have had to have played a third period like they did in Pittsburgh. Instead, the Devils out shot the Caps 9-5 and outscored them 2-1 in the third. The Caps did get a point out of the game taking it all the way to "the skills competition" aka a shoot-out, and they remain atop the Southeast Division two points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes though Carolina has a game in hand and are playing win-less Anaheim this evening. The real disappointing thing about last night is Brent Johnson played a super game and deserved the win, his 101st, as much or more than Marty Brodeur deserved to get his 542nd career NHL win.

The Caps now go on a three game West Coast road trip where they will face two 2007-2008 playoff teams: Calgary on Tuesday, and Dallas on Saturday with Wayne Gretzky's improved Phoenix in between on Thursday. Then they return home to face another 2007-2008 playoff team, the 3-3 Nashville Predators, who took apart the Columbus Blue Jackets 6-3 last night. By the end of the month of October, the Caps will have played 9 regular season games, 5 of those games will have been against teams that went to the playoffs last year. Only one of the Caps games in October will have been against "weak" Southeast Division rivals; their 7-4 loss in the season opener in Atlanta. Assuming the Caps continue to play well and finish the month as strongly as they have started it, they will have proven the "rebuild" is over to all. However, don't look for them to be ten points ahead of Carolina, or Atlanta like San Jose could be in front of either Los Angeles or Phoenix. The Southeast Division is much stronger this year than it was over the past three seasons. That said the Caps will need to play strong two way hockey for all sixty minutes of regulation during their next four games to keep their momentum going.

There were several other interesting things of note during last night's game.

- First the impact of Tom Poti's injury? Simple, Mike Green logged 34:05 of ice time on 30 shifts, and Sergei Federov logged 20:45 on 24 shifts. How long this can be sustained is anyone's guess but with the current Salary Cap situation, a call up of Karl Alzner would put the Capitals approximately $1M over the Salary Ca. Even calling up Sami Lepisto would put the team just over the Salary Cap, unless some other actions were taken. Tom Poti is currently listed as "day to day" an all accounts indicate that he will travel with the team and likely will return to the line-up, hopefully sooner rather than later.

- Second, in relief of the injured Donald Brashear, Chris Bourque logged 11:25 of ice time on 13 shifts including 2:59 of power play time, during which he took two shots and had 1 hit. During the first three games before he was injured, "Brash" averaged 9:05 of ice time and 1.3 shots on goal. Aside from the lack of a "certified heavyweight", which might have been useful against the Penguins, but wasn't necessary last night, Bourque seemed to do a very good job filling the empty slot on "the energy line." That said, it looks like Brashear is ready to return to the line up and he has played very well in the first three games of the season, including scoring a goal, as well as being a "catalyst" when he's been on the ice. So once again, C-Bo has been assigned back to Hershey.

- Third, the Capitals power play was less than overwhelming last night. Also a lot of the 25 shots in regulation were from above the centers of the face circles. When you're playing a goaltender as good as Brodeur, that's not likely to "get it done" and it didn't. All three of the Caps goals were scored from the center of the low slot. The Caps need to continue to press and crash the net - that's what's been working for the Caps so far and what they have to continue to do. That's why all 20 guys on the opening night roster now have at least one point and 10 different Caps have scored goals so far already this year. That's great news for a team that had issues with "secondary scoring" last season.

- Fourth, Alexander Semin continues to be on fire. Semin has 6 goals and 10 points and is +6 in the first five games of the season. While he is no doubt benefiting to some degree from the attention opponents direct at Ovechkin, there is no denying "the other Alex" has arrived as full blown NHL force to be reckoned with in his own right.

- Fifth, goaltending wasn't an issue last night, and hasn't been an issue in the last four games (since the abysmal performance the entire team had in Game 1). Last night Brent Johnson stopped 34 of 37 shots for a save percentage of 0.919. Overall discounting the outlier performance of game 1, during the last 4 games Johnson and number 1 goalie Jose Theodore have a save percentage of 0.904 having stopped 85 of 94 shots faced. In fact, in a show of consistency, in three of the last four games, Caps Goaltenders have had save percentages of 90% or better.

- Sixth, when the Caps haven't won, Game 1 against Atlanta, and last night against New Jersey, as well as during the early going of the games against Chicago and Pittsburgh, their Achilles heel has been a lack of energy, focus and less than relentless forechecking. Make no mistake, the Caps are one of the most talented teams, especially at forward, in the NHL; however, the great, fun, exciting style of hockey they play means they have to play with full commitment all the time. That's what has been the hallmark of "Caps Hockey" since Boudreau has taken the reigns. That's the style of hockey that has re-energized guys like Sergei Federov. That's the style of hockey that made Jose Theodore want to come to DC to re-energize his career. That's what the Caps need to play all the time. The problem? Can you play that style of hockey with just 6 defenseman on the roster for 82 games? Probably not, but given the Caps salary cap challenges the bigger question's right now are: a) can the Caps succeed at that style of hockey without Tom Poti in the lineup or calling up either Alzner or Lepisto during this next road trip (i.e. how many consecutive games can Mike Green play more than 25:00 without getting tired, burned or hurt?); and b) can the Caps play "Caps Style Hockey" for the first 40 games of the season with just 6 defenseman on the roster? In the meantime here's being very, very glad Sergei Federov is just so awesome, and we have him around. How's $4M look now for our number 2 defenseman; a guy who has one of the best face off win records on the team, and has the best Corsi numbers on the team, again this week?

Well, next up the Flames in Calgary on Tuesday night. The Flames have started slow this season, are 1-3-1, and just 3 points find themselves in the cellar of the Northwest Division. Though the Flames haven't quite gotten up to a full gallop yet this season, they have a lot of talent. Led by their own classic power forward, Jarome Iginla, and all star goaltender Finn Mikka Kiprusoff, the Flames will not be an easy opponent as they look for their second win of the season. Hopefully, the Caps can start off the road trip fast and on a solid note. I'll be watching from a hotel room as I'll be on the road most of next week, but rest assured I'll be wearing my red Caps T-shirt and "Rockin' the Red".

LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!!!!!!!

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