Sunday, January 22, 2012

Caps @ Pens Recap: 1/22/12

At the end of the final game in the Capitals and Penguins season series, the Capitals were the OT losers, 4-3, rounding out a 2-1-1 record. Both teams were missing top players due to injury and/or illness, but it still managed to live up to a lot of the hype, with the remaining big stars chipping in to make NBC happy. Some thoughts:
  • For those that actually do follow me on Twitter, or that follow Michael Hoffman (@CapsExaminer) and/or Angie Lewis (@LadyHatTrick), or have even read previous posts, you may have picked up on the fact that I am a big fan of Mathieu Perreault, and that I think he is being under-utilized by the Capitals. Well tonight he got possibly the biggest shot of the season thanks to team misfortunes. Backstrom is still out with a head injury, and Marcus Johansson fell ill this weekend, forcing him to miss the game. First-line center duties surprisingly fell to MP85 on a line with Ovechkin and (*gasp*) Mike Knuble against a fierce rivalry on a nationally televised game. How did he do? Skated a season-high 16:22, posted two assists and a +2, and generally looked solid defensively and offensively. His first point came on a beautiful play with Ovechkin and Semin with the team rushing up the ice. A great pass from Ovi led to a quick, hard shot by Perreault, leading to a juicy rebound and a goal for Semin. Possibly just as important, if not noticeable, was a play in the Caps' end where Neuvirth gave up a juicy rebound, only to have Perreault poke it away from the corner of the net and lead a play out of the zone. Here's hoping for more of this kind of performance and ice time for the diminutive forward.
  • Much has been said about the Capitals' offensive issues this season. Not as much has been said about minor victories masking massive underlying issues. Tonight the team got goals from Laich, Ovechkin, and Semin, their three most expensive (healthy) players, and that was fantastic news. What is terrible news is that they only managed 20 shots on goal, their 7th lowest total of the season, and the fourth time this month they have only scraped together 20 or fewer shots on net. Meanwhile, the team has only allowed fewer than 20 shots against one time this month: Jan 3, when the Calgary Flames got 19 on net. While I am absolutely not ready to put much trust in Neuvirth, I am ready to trust Vokoun. I am also ready to trust the defense to limit quality shots on net, even if they are not limiting the quantity of shots. Hopefully a game like this, moreso than the two shutouts last week, will motivate the guys to shoot the puck more. It's one thing to be shut out, or to win a close game. But after an OT loss in a game where both goalies are playing sub-par, you hope the players are saying to themselves: "What if I had taken one more shot?"
  • One of the big differences between Boudreau and Hunter is line-matching. I think Hunter took it a step further today with the lineup today with team-matching. Putting Knuble back on the top line, even if it was only for a short time, and starting Neuvirth were likely both moves made because they have been thorns in the Penguins' sides. Hendricks, Laich, and Brouwer were put together to match Malkin's line with (theoretically) solid defensive play and physicality. It didn't quite work out, but I have some faith that there was a thought process behind the lineups that just about everyone was questioning this morning. 
  • You have to give props where they are due, even if you hate to do it: Malkin and Neal were fantastic tonight. The game-tying goal was the work of a supremely gifted, powerful forward in Malkin. Geno pushed through, quite literally, all five Caps players on the ice, never lost the puck, out-powered Hamrlik up against the boards, and managed to pass it to James Neal for his 26th goal of the season. There's a reason that Malkin was taken one pick after Ovechkin, and he is reminding the league and hockey fans of that this season. Neal is reminding people why everyone in Pittsburgh thought Pens GM Ray Shero had incriminating photographs of Dallas' GM when he was brought to the Penguins. Why do I also find this hopeful? Malkin was plagued by injuries the past couple seasons, only to come back healthy and dominant. Neal was in a massive slump during his time in Pittsburgh last season, only to come back and remain tied with Malkin for 3rd in the league for goals. So, too, can our Young(ish) Guns come back from injuries and slumps to return to form. Here's hoping they do.
  • More on that game-tying goal, specifically Neal's shot placement. There was a lot of traffic in between Neal and Neuvirth, and a lot of action going on in that short distance. He placed it top-shelf, over Neuvirth's left shoulder. Here's the thing about that shot: most Penguins players are going to make that one go in. Bylsma is a great coach, and Neuvirth is not that great of a goalie. He is very predictable, and while I do not have the capabilities to bring up such statistics (@ngreenberg, anyone?), I would venture a guess that about half or more of the goals against Neuvy over his last 30 games have gone in over his glove-side shoulder, and with increasing frequency the later into his career you go. The reason is that, nearly without fail, Neuvirth will always crouch, sticking his right leg out to the middle of the net, whenever a play is coming out from behind the net on his left side. This leaves an opening above his left shoulder, as he positions his glove near his chest when in this position. I am not a coach, nor am I a scout, and I know this. It is not hard to imagine, especially after watching the 24/7 special from last year, that Bylsma is not only aware of this tendency, but specifically coaches his players to make plays and take shots from that area of the ice. This is also the reason why Neuvirth seems to have so many hard-angle and junk shots go in on him. They are not flukes, those are part of a strategy to defeat a young goaltender with mediocre puck tracking skills and bad habits. In fact, it appears that all four goals went in over his left shoulder, although from different spots on the ice and in different situations. Neal's game-tying goal, while a great shot, needs to be recognized more for the implications for Neuvirth's career, and a probable explanation for his horrendous stats this season: good coaches, and therefore good teams, know precisely how to beat him, and this makes him a liability going forward unless he makes immediate changes. The future of the team he is not.
The Capitals picked up a loser point tonight, leaving them one point behind Florida in the Southleast Southeast division, and two points ahead of Toronto to remain in the top eight teams in the conference. The next five games feature the Boston Bruins bookending two important matches against Tampa Bay and Florida, and a still-valuable two points against the Canadiens. Here's hoping for more of the team we saw in the second and third periods, and none of the team we saw in the first. Otherwise, it is going to be an ugly week for those who rock the red.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Caps Midseason Review

As of the 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals have played 41 out of their 82 regular season games. Halfway mark seems like a good place for a midseason review, eh? Get ready, it's a long one:
Yeah, it has a few smudges, but so does this season.
  • Let's jump into it: The Caps are precisely where I expected them to be, currently sitting at 8th place in the Eastern Conference, a record of 22-17-2, barely ahead of third in their division, a team with more talent than most but lacking an identity. The boys in red have been trying to find the identity they lost back in 2009 during the Montreal playoff series. Through strategy and coaching changes, we have seen the offensive juggernaut from Boudreau's early days all but disappear in an effort to "play the right way." In my opinion, which has not truthfully changed much in over a year, the ability and motivation is there, but the management is not. McPhee has not made the necessary adjustments in personnel, and neither Boudreau nor Hunter have utilized players in quite the right way. The team is almost there, playing more physical and being more defensively responsible, but it's almost to a fault now, as it appears to have come at the expense of the offense that this team was drafted and molded to produce during most of McPhee's tenure as GM. Over 41 games, we've seen a blurry picture become more clear: this is a team that will try to break the other team physically, but with the responsibility to do it cleanly and consistently. Whether this is a team that will also seek to break minds along with bodies by scoring more goals is to be seen, because the talent to do so is there and somehow needs to be unleashed.
  • Every guy on the team not named Jason Chimera needs to score more goals. The physicality and defense under Hunter have largely been acceptable, if not consistently superb. The goaltending from Vokoun has largely been admirable, if not consistently superb. The offense has largely been absent. Granted, this is a problem that is somehow plaguing other teams, too. Anaheim boasts the incredible trio of Getzlaf, Perry, and Ryan, not to mention Selanne, yet they are barely ahead of Columbus for the league's worst team. Columbus, too, sports a fairly impressive roster in terms of past offense, but they can't buy a win. In fact, only 11 out of 30 teams currently sport a positive goal differential. The Caps are tied with the Ottawa Senators (who have played a league-high 45 games along with four other teams) for 12th with a -1 differential. With guys like Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Laich, Knuble, and Johansson, they need to be on the positive side of things.
  • And then there are the injuries.
    Look, nobody said this season would be easy.
    Wait, they did? Oh. Well... now it isn't.
    Really, the Caps haven't had to deal with too many injuries this season, aside from Mike Green. Backstrom likely has a concussion to deal with after taking a nasty elbow from the new-Canadien Rene Bourque, and Tom Poti may actually be in a cellar marked "LTIR," but that's pretty much it. Yes, Jay Beagle has missed almost the whole season to date with a concussion of his own, but he was hardly expected to make an impact on the team this year. When your projected injury fill-in gets injured, there simply is not a lot to be said other than well wishes and welcome-backs. Still, it is hard to blame a lot of the struggles simply on missing one player, even if it is someone with Green's talent. He missed a lot of last season, too, but the team managed to take first in the conference anyway.
  • Varlamov, on the other hand, has played in more games this season for the Colorado Avalanche than he did in either of his two full seasons with Washington. His numbers aren't as spectacular as they were in DC, but he has won 4 of his last 5 with a .933 SV%, 1.8 GAA, and a shutout. Of note in terms of the Caps is that he has not been injured for a significant period of time this season, if at all, despite his designation as chronically injured with a weak groin. Given Green and Poti's current statuses, Varly's problems here, and former Caps Captain Chris Clark (how's that for alliteration?) missing the majority of his final three seasons in DC, all due to groin injuries, maybe the problem lies not with the individual players, but rather with the ice, medical staff, or both. Either that or "groin injury" means in DC what "lower body injury" means for most other teams: absolutely nothing.
  • Empty net goals are not something a team should rely on, and only come when your team has a lead in a close game, but they are still nice to have. Through 41 games, the Caps have only two of the "cheap" goals, good for second worst in the league. Chicago (2nd in the West, 4th in the league) leads the league with eight empty netters. Where the Caps do lead during 4-on-4, with a league-high nine goals for in those situations, while allowing four. Maybe someone should just take a slashing minor if it looks like a powerplay isn't going to go well...
  • Colorado is the Western Conference team to watch for most fans interested in the Capitals' future, given that Washington holds their 2012 1st round pick and either the 2012 or 2013 2nd round pick. So where are they? Ninth in the West, with two more points and four more games played than the Caps. That lottery pick is looking a little unlikely now, eh? At least Troy Brouwer has quietly put together a solid season, leading the team in hits and chipping in 11 goals to date.
  • Orlov did not make the team out of camp, but looks to have earned a permanent spot on the roster. He has unbelievable puck-handling skills, hits much harder than one would expect from a rookie of his size, and has been nothing less than an excellent addition to the team's defensive corps this season. He still makes some rookie mistakes, but he continues to adapt to the NHL game beautifully, and I expect he will look like a true pro by the time I am writing a full season review.
  • Mathieu Perreault, on the other hand, did make the team out of camp because he played better than just about everyone, but nobody seems to have told the coaches. He has seen a team-low time-on-ice average (for players with 20+ games) of 9:03. Cody Eakin, who Perreault theoretically beat out for a spot on the roster, has played in 20 games with an average of 9:51. That is the kind of ice time one would expect a low-level grinder or fighter to get. Matt Hendricks, another of my favorite guys, is one of those fighters, leading the team in PIMs at 47. He gets an average of 35 seconds per game more than Perreault. MP85 has also vastly improved in faceoffs with a season average of 49%, which seems lightyears ahead of second line center Marcus Johansson's 43%. I'm not surprised to see him on a line with Mike Knuble. I am surprised that it is the fourth line, as both guys should be higher up in the depth chart. I think that Perreault deserves a promotion in the lineup, but it doesn't seem to be in the cards.
  • McPhee was considered a genius by most back in July. Now there is some wonder as to whether he is going to keep his job after this season. He decided to keep Boudreau after last season only to fire the guy a quarter of the way into the season, bringing in someone else with no NHL coaching experience. The team is lacking a solid second line center after years of needNearly all the team's money has been spent. If the season ended today, the Caps would be using their own pick ahead of Colorado's. The team has been inconsistent and floundering, and has completely abandoned the identity so carefully constructed through years of drafting and trading. Three first round picks were traded away in the offseason: the 2010 pick, Varlamov, and Eric Fehr. No significant moves have been made since July. GMGM has to pass two big tests this season if he wants to keep his job: the trade deadline in 45 days, and the playoffs. If he is not able to pull off some masterful work before March, and then at least see the Capitals make it to the conference finals, Leonsis may finally have to bring in someone else. Because as it stands, this is no longer McPhee's team. This is a team that McPhee has largely brought in from the outside to fix what he thought were problems. The problem is that those problems were mostly overreactions and falsehoods, and now there are real issues at hand.
  • Every game this season seems to have led the fans to question whether that particular game was representative of the team. Whether it was the 7th straight win, the 5th straight loss, or the first road win, we as fans have read a lot into each point that the team has earned or lost. Many Caps coaches, too, seem to do the same thing. Unfortunately, overanalyzing based on miniscule data sets is what bloggers and sports analysts are supposed to do, while the coaches are supposed to look at the big picture. Thankfully, whether or not you are a fan of his standard lineup (I am not, if you have any doubts by this point), Dale Hunter has been doing at least one thing right by letting the lines mesh for a few games before switching out one or two players. He seems to understand that this is a skilled roster that will not have the same sorts of lines that other teams, or even that he as a coach, typically have. Typically gone are the days of multiple line moves in a period, and that is one thing to look forward to for the second half: chemistry.
  • I think this is how lower body injuries happen...
  • Nobody saw any of this coming once the season began. I even wrote a post saying I was wrong, that Boudreau was doing well, and that a lot of the demons had been exorcised. Well, I was wrong about being wrong. I was right. Boudreau obviously was unable to coach the team anymore, and he is gone as a result. The Capitals, in retrospect, really were winning those seven straight games as much because of scheduling and facing backup goaltenders as because of skill. The playoffs are the current goal, not the Cup. Thankfully, Alex Ovechkin has started to shake off the rust and play like his old self again. He is hitting hard, he is shooting more, and he has been scoring. In fact, he has been playing better than his old self in a lot of ways. He has been less selfish with the puck. He has played with fire when the rest of the team wants to quit. He has even been blocking shots and backchecking. Let no one question Ovechkin this year. A lot may be wrong, but it's not on the captain. Backstrom, too, has continued to play to old form. Dennis Wideman is playing some of his best hockey, and Jason Chimera is having a career year. There's a lot of good going on with this team, and every night it feels like they're going to turn the corner. We're halfway through. There aren't a whole lot of corners left. It's time to see what they can do.
  • Trade talks are sure to be on fire right about now in McPhee's office. Jeff Schultz has a decent sized contract, is a very capable defenseman, and has barely played under Dale Hunter. Given Orlov's promotion ahead of him on the depth chart and the shocking callup of recently acquired prospect d-man Tomas Kundratek, Schultz appears to have lost his spot on the team. I don't think it's because Sarge lacks skill. I do think it is because he lacks physicality, and that is no longer an option on this team, even for guys who aren't listed as 6'6" and 230 lbs. As evidenced by the 19 teams with a negative goal differential, plenty of teams need a top-4 defenseman. It's only a matter of time folks. Expect a salary dump here. The Caps have less than a mil in cap space and are STILL lacking a legitimate second line center, and they cost money. I'm thinking Schultz moves for a pick or two to a bottom-15 team. He won't be the only guy gone by the trade deadline, he is just the most likely.
  • So I took a page from the book over at Japers Rink, and I encourage you to read the bullet points vertically, and then do what I tell you after that. Give me a reason to update this more often!