Saturday, October 18, 2014

Caps Are 2-0-2; Playing 0.750 Hockey; and On Pace For a 100+ Point Season

The Capitals have started the season right, playing four games against 3 playoff teams and getting at least a point a game.  That's a good thing, as is the fact that four Caps skaters - Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky, and Mike Green are on pace for 100+ point seasons just like the team on which they are members. So lets take a look at a brief recap of the Capitals first four games along with how the team and their "simple" vice "fancy" statistics are looking so far.

Game 1: Canadiens 2 - Capitals 1 (SO), a 1 point night.

Opening night at Verizon Center and while a good game, Caps fans left 7th and F Streets dissapointed. Unfortunately the Caps did not get a win in their 40th NHL home opener. Rather the stories of the night were solid performances by two rookies.  Canadiens rookie goaltender Dustin Tokarski made 29 saves on 30 shots against through 65:00 of play and 'one more' save than Caps goalie Braden Holtby in the "gimmick" to get his team two points.  Caps rookie Andre Burakovsky got his first NHL regular season goal in his first NHL game and while failing to score in the shootout, the 19 year old had a great first game in what I believe will be a long and productive, likley notable NHL career. 

The story to me really was Tokarski, the Caps came out and dominated Montreal through the entire first period outshooting the Habs 15-2 and Tokarski stopped a several great scoring chances by the Capitals to keep it a one goal game until Montreal finally got one by Barden Holtby at 10:31 of the third period. Also as is often said a teams best penalty killer has to be it's goalie and - "That's where we lost the game is in the first," Trotz said. "We scored the first goal and then we had to back-to-back-to-back power plays and we had a chance to really take the game over. They were sort of hanging on and we really needed that second goal. We couldn't get it." Enough on the slightly disappointing home opener.

Game 2: Capitals 4 - Bruins 0, a 2 point night.

The first road game of the season led to a first road win, these two points were driven and delivered to the Caps by the goalie - Braden Holtby was spectacular at times, while he made all the saves you'd expect him to, he made several that were "highlight reel worthy. The team Captain, led by example - the Great8 Alexander Ovechkin was great with a 2 goal night, not an unusual feat for him, but even more notably and important, to me he played a 200 foot game for 60:00 with more enthusiasm and joy then I think I've seen him play in a while.  He wouldn't take "no" for an answer from anybody and he was both playing with intensity, and responsibly as a team Captain should buth seemed to be having fun doing it.

Who doesn't love it when "your team" gets a shutout of a division opponent in their barn, it's hard to be anything but effusive or say anything too reflective after a result like that, but hey why not try.  As I mentioned above to me the great story here was Ovechkin being the Ovechkin we've come to know and love through his early career - two goals, one on the powerplay and one 5 on 5 to start his season's scoring.  Another good story (if not great) is it was Mike Green's first game in the lineup and he scored a PPG and 19 year old Andre Burakovsky had another excellent game with two assists, as did Nicklas Backstrom.  Green's return also was the fuel the Caps second powerplay unit needed to enable the Capitals to put out two different PP units that had ten skaters, any one of which, could be the one to find the back of the net.  Something that should make nights like the home opener loss against the Canadiens where the Caps power play didn't produce when given the chance(s) few and far between.

As far as the team developing and "everyone" buying in to Trotz's system, I really liked this Trotz quote after the game on Ovechkin: “He’s playing good offensively, as you saw tonight,” Trotz said. “He’s shooting pucks, he’s scoring goals, but I’m really happy with him. The other part of his game is really good. He’s committed on the walls, he’s committed defensively, he’s just skating. He’s actually really fun to watch now again which is exciting for me, but it’s really got to be exciting for him because he’s one of the best players on the planet.”

Game 3: Sharks 6 - Capitals 5 (SO), a 1 point night.

To me this was the game the Caps needed, even though they only got one point out of it.  The first period ended with the Sharks up 3 - 0, so perhaps you might be tempted to say the Caps "stole" a point in this game.  To any statement like that I'd had to respectfully disagree, because the Caps got back in this game by sticking with their system and playing hard the rest of the game; in other words, this was to use a cliche' - a "charachter game." A BIG TIME "charachter game."  Another two goal night (one 5 on 5 and one PPG) for Ovechkin; a PPG to start Marcus Johansson's season scoring; a 5 on 5 goal by Mike Green to get his second of the season; a great 5 on 5 effort and goal by Troy Brouwer at 15:25 of the third period to tie the game completed the comeback and pushed the game into OT.  Unfortunately the Caps couldn't "finish it" off and get the second point in either the five minute OT or the shootout.  However there was a lot the Caps could be proud of in the second and third period and take forward with them for the rest of this season though it's early.  I like the Marcus Johansson quote after the game:

"We knew they were going to do it and I just think we let them," Johansson said of the Sharks' first-period dominance. "They came out hard and we didn't push back and I think that's what got them those early goals. It's tough to come back from three goals behind, but I think we did a great job of doing that. That start cost us the two points. In the long run, that can cost us a lot, but I think we've got to bring the last two periods of the game with us and keep working off that because we played great and worked really hard and that's what we need."

Game 4: Devils 2 - Capitals 6, a 2 point night.
In a game the Caps never trailed (Ovechkin scored his fifth goal of the season, 5 on 5, just 34 seconds into the game) with the first period ending in a 2-2 tie, the Caps showed they understood what its going to take to put opposing teams who play hard on the puck away.  That's being harder on the puck, playing a 200 foot game, and playing with intensity for all 60:00.

Post game notables, in my view:

A)Five (5) of the Capitals 6 goals were five on five and the fact they came out in the second period and "got better" than they played in the first are key things.  That along with the fact the powerplay was 20% (1 for 5) while the PK "batted 1.000" making it hard for the Devils, despite having three chances, to generate any momemntum while playing on the road.
B) A great "bounce back" game by Braden Holtby in goal after a "rocky" first period against the Sharks, in game three was also excellent to see. As Trotz said after the game: "Braden Holtby was really good in the first," Trotz said. "They could've put a couple of goals on us and he made some big saves at key times when the game was 2-2. Up 3-2, he made a big save. That's what good goaltenders do. They give you the timely saves."

C)Once again the Caps played a 60:00 - 200 foot game; oh, and who said Barry Trotz was a "defensive coach"?  I think we are seeing a more aggressive style of play and game than we've seen since Bruce Boudreau left town - yes the Caps are a defense first team when you look at the "little things" now (the "devil" is in those details) but they are virtually always pressing forward during a game as soon, as often, and as much as they can.  The result? An average of of 4.0 goals for per game (GFG) versus 2.5 goals against and scoring up and down the lineup - so far everyone on the roster with the exception of Jason Chimera, Nate Schmidt, Jack Hillen and Michael Latta have a point or more, and Hillen and Latta have not played in all four games.  I am surprised Chimmer is still looking for his first goal or assist as he has been flying and playing well in all four games I've watched, his points will no doubt come - perhaps when he and Ward get the center between them who adds to their chemistry? Schmidt is playing his role on the team and with three (3) SOG with an ATOI of 14:38 per game Schmidt's points will come - he has a very heavy shot from the point and with the traffic the forwards are generating even though he doesn''t take many SOG, I think he will get at least a couple points and get off the scheid soon.  Latta has nly played in two games for a total of 14:02 TOI, and his major role and value right now seem to be his 75% face off win percentage.  However he drive the net hard and when the time comes that he is needed and given the opportunities I'm thinking he'll respond - I love his game.  Jack Hillen has only played one game and when Orlov returns from IR he's either number eight (8) or nine (9) on the depth chart so I'm not sure he'll get too many more games in a Caps sweater.

All in all to me Matt Niskanen's post game quote below sums up how the season is shaping up so far for our Washington Capitals and I remain very optimistic about what this team can and WILL do this season.

"It's early in the year. A lot can change, but two points is two points. They're in the bank now," Niskanen said. "Things that felt good for us [are] the process of how we want to play and who we're going to be. You saw at times even tonight, where we weren't that detailed and we weren't that good and they had some good looks and Holtby had to bail us out, keep it tight, then we got to what our game should look like and we had good success. That's encouraging. Hopefully guys can believe in it now."

A couple of "notes" and thoughts on the team so far this season worth looking at and thinking "on" IMO:

1) Time On Ice:  The team's average TOI (Time On Ice) leader so far is, perhaps surprisingly to many, Matt Niskanen with an average of 23:42 per game played (and an average of ~0:51 secs & 28.3 shifts/game); thats pretty low especially since its despite the fact he's played in all four games so far including two that were 65:00 (vice 60:00).  Think about it, the league leader is Duncan Kieth with a total of 28:18 per game (and 00:51.46 per shift). The Capitals forwards average TOI/game leader is Nicklas Backstrom at 20:57/game (followed closely by Alexander Ovechkin at 20:33/game (24.8 shifts/game, 49.72 seconds/shift). Compare that to the league leader Steven Stamkos with 21:31 and 23 shifts/game. Before the season started I indicated I thought one of the hallmarks to watch and a key to what I thought the system changes Barry Trotz and staff would put in place would involve had to do with ice time and shift length. I truly believe that to play the game/system Trotz preaches and teaches requires a lot more energy than the system either Oates or Hunter wanted to play.  I think to do that well you need more, shorter shifts up and down the line up.  These stats seem to confirm that, as well as the buy in, and the intensity the team plays the system both comes from and is fueled by (both mentally and physically) the shorter shifts and more logically distributed TOI up and down the lineup.   length.  So far it seems to be playing out that way.  Shorter, more intensly played shifts and more "logical" distribution of ice time, particularly 5 on 5 ice time are evident in the statistical recaps from each of the first four games of the season.  By "more logical" I mean you can see/coorelate ice time to depth chart location for each of the forward lines and defensive pairings.  Also the ice time spread is not in anyway glarringly diproportinate for any individual on the Capitals - they are playing a "team game" in that regard, rolling four lines and all three parings whenever possible. (No Dan Girardis or Duncan Kieths on this team/in this system - at least so far.)

2) 20.8% - that's Alexander Ovechkin's shooting percentage so far this season.  That more than anything tells me he's bought in to Barry Trotz's system and is both playing that system harder on the puck than he has in a couple of seasons, and he's skating to and shooting from the higher percentage areas that system intends for him to get to and shoot from.  I mentioned earlier that the changes Trotz's system has over the last aggressive system the Caps played under Bruce Boudreau are subtle and sublime and to me they are. Whether it's noticing that at the end of a powerplay, the second unit is on the ice and Matt Niskanen drops 10 feet back from the offensive blue line so making a quick breakout pass to an opponent exiting the sin bin is more than "a little hard"; or it's noticing that in five on five play the forecheck is different than under Oates - it's a two man forecheck and it's in many ways a simpler system where if you have any room to drive towards the low slot every forward regardless of who they are does, these sublime details are how you know this entire team has bought in.  Ovechkin's shooting percentage while still averaging 6 SOG/game are the result of him "buying in" and playing this system - it's a statistic that you can watch to validate any belief you ight have in the star's positive statements on his new coach and the system as it's in many ways directly tied to where he will be when he is playing without the puck in the offensive zone. The fact it lets him play the game to his strengths and have fun being Ovechkin is the gravy, the results, including being the Captain of a winning team is the steak that will continually reinforce his buy in to this system; of course, I don't expect many, if any of the NHL main stream media journalists to notice or change their mantras on our team's Captain any time soon. In fact look at the "ice tracker" on NHL game center and where the Caps are shooting from this season and you're likely to see what I'm talking about pretty easily from the display of where the Caps' SOG are being taken from.

3) Pleasant surprises - i.e. "the new guys" Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, O'Brien, Orpik and Niskanen.

While Evgeny Kuznetsov might not be a surprise, his transition onto the team in this regular season has seemed to go smoothly and with each game he seems to get more and more "comfortable" with the NHL/North American Game. With each game his number of shifts/game and his TOI rightfully is increased.  With each shift on the powerplay in game situations he gets more dangerous as the playmaker/quarterback of the Caps' second powerplay unit.  All good things since at least so far this season Brooks Laich hasn't found his stride in 5 on 5 play and seems tentative regardless whether he is on the wing or playing pivot on the second and third lines.  Kuznetsov's versatility and quiet, solid work ethic playing 200 foot hockey as the fourth line center is somewhat a pleasant surprise to me.

Andre Burakovsky is a great story and of course a pleasant surprise, at least to me.  Anytime a ninteen (19) year old can come onto any NHL team and clearly deserve a roster spot in every game he plays, that's a pleasant surprise, at least to me.  "Bura" is a surprise, especially playing ceneter for the first time in his career.  He, along with Kuznetsov, hold the answer to the Capitals' second line center questions.  The 19 year old is averaging 20 shifts and 13:59 TOI per game; and with 5 points (2 G, 3A) is currently the Caps third leading scorer.  Hopefully he won't wake up and realize playing in the NHL is "really hard" until sometime in late June 2015.

Liam O'Brien - everyone's pleasant surprise, undrafted, came to camp unsigned. Yet here after four regular season games played has earned his sweater and shown he's deserved it every second of the 26:04 he's been on the ice so far this season. O'Brien is still in quest of his first NHL regular season point but he's +2 and he's played well, IMO.  To me his best game so far was the Boston game.  I'm really rooting for this kid - how can anyone not?

Matt Niskanen - the pleasant surprise is so far to me, he's even better than I thought he was/would be in a Capitals' sweater. Look we all knew he was good, but nobody on this team's blueline puts the puck on net faster from the offensive blueline from what I've seen.  That's another pleasant surprise because it seems to be helping the team's five on five play improve in ways I didn't anticipate.  Niskanen is currently the team's ice time leader and that is deservedly so. 

Brooks Orpik - my pleasant surprise(s) with Orpik are several.  i) I'm pleasantly surprised how much I enjoy watching him play and how he plays in this system.  ii) I am surprised, pleasantly, just how much Orpik helps the Caps penalty kill effectively, and how good he is at playing the PK. iii) I am pleasantly surprised at how fast, when he needs to do so, Orpik can and does get back in proper position. and iv) I am surprised at how good his hockey sense and IQ is - how else do you explain a guy with 0 SOG having 2 assists in 4 games played.  Right now he's on pace for a 40+ point season - last season only eight (8) defensemen had 40 or more assists. Think about that the next time someone tells you they are "positive" the Caps overpaid for him.

In the meantime, next up are the  Florida Panthers at Verizon Center at 7:00 PM tonight.


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