Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lessons from the Western Conference

The Capitals just finished playing four Western Conference opponents in a row. Two home games against Detroit and Anaheim sandwiched a Canadian road trip to Edmonton and Vancouver. These four games revealed a lot about our boys in red, likely because these teams weren't exactly low-class organizations. Detroit has been one of, if not the most successful franchises over the past 15 years. Vancouver has been to the Western Conference what the Caps have been to the Eastern, only with a seven game Cup Finals appearance last season. Anaheim boasts what might be the best top line in hockey, including current MVP and Richard Trophy winner Corey Perry, as well as a top-notch goaltender in Jonas Hiller. Edmonton was probably viewed as the weakest opponent, but they have a budding group of talented young players including Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and are currently allowing the fewest goals against per game. In short, these were games to watch. Here are some takeaways:
  1. The offense is there. The Caps scored seven, one, four, and five goals, respectively. That's 4.25 goals per game, helping them lead the league in that particular category. After last year, it is nice to be reminded that the team is still capable of putting them in the back of the net. Backstrom in particular is at the top of his offensive game, posting his best numbers after 10 games.The offense is definitely boosted by the league's third-best power play, which is clicking at a 23.7% success rate.
  2. When it comes to the PK, we suck again. In my opinion, the most impressive thing about last season wasn't dropping the average shots against per game by 1.9 shots, it was the consistently awesome penalty kill. Well, something happened and now it is back to pedestrian-at-best. Through ten games, the Caps rank 25th, posting only a 75% penalty kill percentage. Given how much of the team's penalty killer carried over from last year, this is unacceptable. Losing Gordon, Bradley, and Hannan to gain Halpern, Ward, and Hamrlik should be an upgrade, or at least a wash. Hopefully this is just a symptom early season adjustments and things turn around soon, but there is definitely cause for concern.
    Look we all know they can do eet,
    so let's see those penalties killed.
  3. They are capable of solid defense. Anaheim is a very solid team, with some great offensive players. Holding them to only 15 shots through 63 minutes is impressive, even if four goals were allowed. "Capable of" just needs to translate into "always playing." The team is allowing far too many shots against, and Vokoun has bailed out the team more often than the other way around. The talent and ability is there, it just needs to be there consistently.
  4. Ride that Vespa all you want, just stay
    healthy and we will pretend you don't.
  5. Mike Green is even more important than we thought. And a lot of people thought he was pretty important. Green has really shaped up his defensive game over the past two years, and his upper body at least has been healthy, and his offensive touch has returned this year. Losing him to a twisted ankle for the past couple showed how important he is on the power play, and how effective he has become at the defensive part of his game. He's definitely playing like it's a contract year. Because, and don't forget it, it is.
  6. Faceoffs are an issue. Backstrom and Laich have been struggling lately on the dot, and Johansson, frankly, just sucks at faceoffs. Halpern has been great, as expected, and Perreault has performed admirably, perhaps more unexpectedly. One center being poor is fine, as is the occasional game where everybody blows, but a pattern of weakness down the middle can lead to problems for everyone. I think the first step is to move MoJo to wing and continue to 2C search. I know I sound like a broken record, but if anything his performance in Vancouver sealed it for me: the guy looks and plays like a winger, and a fairly good one at that. Get him off the dot and everyone wins.
  7. Sasha really may not care. Alexander Semin has two goals and four assists through 10 games, is tied with Hamrlik for a team-worst -2, and leads the team with 12 PIMs. Only one of those points, an assist, came in the last five games. Personally, I think that Johansson and Knuble
    His attempt at showing how much he cares.
    are not appropriate linemates for him, which hurts his point total. In fact, all three of them have six points right now. Johansson has five goals and an assist, while Knuble has the same 2-4-6 line as Semin. The difference is, they are bout +1. The penalties and plus/minus are on Semin,as the blame really can't be placed elsewhere. He is too talented to be playing the way he is, which is to say uninspired. He had a strong start to the season, and has done little to challenge the prevailing wisdom that was so "controversially" said aloud by ex-teammate Matt Bradley and seconded by Dave Steckel this summer. Hard to say he is trade bait with his recent performance and contract, but he sure isn't looking like the guy to re-sign. Dude needs to step it up unless he wants to feel Boudreau's wrath. Or not. Who cares?

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