Well Capitals fans here we are nine (9) games into the season and our Washington Capitals are continuing to "struggle" and are continuing their "slow start". That is apparently the politically correct terms to describe what is going on when your team is in last place in their Conference and 29th out of 30 in the league; when your team has the worst goal differential in the league (-12) and as far as anyone knows or professes, your team is not "rebuilding."Here's some interesting thoughts as the Capitals prepare to faceoff tonight at Verizon Center against the Toronto Maple Leafs for their tenth game of the season - a shortened season as we all know. During a regular 82 game season each game is 1.23% of the season; during this 48 game season, each game is 2.08% of the season - or looked at another way 69% more of the season that a game in the 82 game season. The last time the NHL played a 48 game season, 1994-95, the magic numbers to be in the top eight (8) teams in each conference were: 42 points in the Western Conference and 47 points in the Eastern Conference. For a team like the Capitals, who so far, are playing 0.278 hockey the fact that in the last 48 game season to get to the playoffs did not require and over 0.500 record is encouraging. The fact the NJ Devils "got off to a slow start" and won the Stanley Cup in 94-95 being taken as some solace as well. It's been a quirky season, I know, an the Capitals have a new coach, again, I know. However, that doesn't change the fact with so many three point games, I believe strongly, it's unlikely that a team gets into the playoffs this season with less than 48 points (0.500 hockey). In fact right now in the Eastern Conference Carolina is in 8th place and the Rangers are in 9th place each with 8 points in eight games; while out West, the beleaguered Red Wings are in eighth place with 9 points in 8 games while the ninth (9th) place Predators also have 9 points in 8 games and the tenth place Wild have 9 points in nine games.
So what does the above mean for the Capitals. Well if I'm right and it'll take 48 or 49 points to make the playoffs this year it means the Capitals have to really "step it up" and pretty much do so now. After tonight's game in DC, the Capitals will have played 20% of their season - in a regular season that would mean they would have played 16 or 17 games; this year it means 10 games - no issues there. But looking at where they are 5 points with 9 games played and where they'd like to make sure they are 49 or 50 points that means they need to garner 44 points in their remaining 39 games or an average of 1.13 points per game. To make that all work the recent trend of "no point" games has to again become a thing of the past. In perspective in 2009 - 2010 when the Capitals amassed 121 points and won the President's trophy, they averaged 1.47 points per game for the season. In 2010 - 2011 when the Capitals won the Eastern Conference, they did so with 107 points and averaged 1.30 points per game across the entire season. An average of 1.13 points per game is basically playing 0.565 hockey. It may be cliche' but the Caps are either at or very close to the point where, every game truly matters, already in this shortened season. So it's not time to panic - the fact the Capitals have 4 one gaol games in the 9 they've played means they are indeed getting close and hopefully the system will work. The fact two out of those four one goal games are regulation losses is of course cause for concern. The fact the Capitals have not generally played 60 continuous minutes of high tempo, solid hockey in many, if any of their games so far, is also cause for concern, as well.
My concerns right now though center on special teams, and in particular the power play. The penalty kill is seemingly coming around, but the power play not so much. At the Penguins game it seemed to me the 1-3-1 was well played by the Capitals but easily defended by the Penguins, the amount of SOG generated by the Capitals during power plays so far this season seems woeful. In recent years the Capitals had an excellent power play - just look at them from the 09-10 and 10-11 seasons. The alignment was simpler and the execution much crisper. It seems of all the aspects of the game the Caps need to look closest at their powerplay. Goaltending was a concern of mine until recently, when in my view Michal Neuvirth has emerged as a steadying influence and has been playing very well. While the 24 year old "Nuevy" first outing of the year could have been better, his performance has gotten better every game since and his SV% is climbing up to where it needs to be. The blue line hasn't been bad at all with a couple of pleasant surprises - not the least o which is that 32 year old John Erskine is more than capable of playing 20 good minutes every game and still bring all the grit and drive we as Capitals fans have come to expect and love. John Carlson actually seemed to look a little more at ease with the new system during the Penguins game and his almost sheepish, embarrassed grin after his quirky goal was from my vantage point a good sign. Mike Green is doing very well in the new system, and Karl Alzner seems to also be getting smoother with it. I still worry about the load and expectations that seem to be getting place on Tomas Kundratek but expect that when Orlov and Hillen get healed and Erskine's suspension is over we'll see that lessened at least slightly.
Up front, the issue is obvious but again their seem to be signs of the positive there. We seem to have, thankfully, left behind the idea of Ovechkin skating with 3rd and 4th liners as a "good idea" and I say - none to soon. Brooks Laich was spotted skating at KCI recently. Mike Ribero has been very good. During the Penguins game, while Nicklas Backstrom did not score, he got a couple of good looks and an assist and seems to be picking up his production. But for the Caps to do what they need to do the rest of this season the top six forwards need to start routinely putting up top six numbers. It's really that simple, we know the talent level is there, I always assume with pro athletes the compete level is there. So now it's up to the players and the coaching staff to home in on and focus on minor adjustments, or maybe simplify a few things until the others start to "click".
Well that's enough of a rambling muse for the day.