F Street Faithful
Last spring, the NHL watched as Joel Ward, a defense-first power forward, had a bit of a coming-out party in the playoffs. Despite being averaging less than a half of a point a game, Ward led his Nashville Predators with 7 goals and 6 assists while averaging over 20 minutes per game (he only averaged 17 in regular season). With the Capitals having seen their offence dry up in the post season, specifically the likes of Alex Semin and Mike Green, George McPhee was keen to spend money, if it meant getting more goals in the postseason. With Ward taking offers from several angles, McPhee admittedly overpaid for the winger.
Yesterday, Brendan Shanahan certainly had an interesting day. He had 2 disciplinary hearings scheduled regarding 2 incidents in the same game. To make matters more interesting, the victim of one of the incidents was the transgressor in the other. The result of these hearings? Alexander Ovechkin suspended 3 games for charging Zbynek Michalek, while Michalek received no further punishment for his elbow to the back of the head of Matt Hendricks. To me, this is one of the weirdest decisions rendered by Shanahan this year.
Before I get into this, I do want to state that I think that Shanahan has done a good job this season. I think that compared to the baffling decisions by Colin Campbell over the last years, Shanahan’s no-nonsense approach and his detailed videos have been a god-send. Also, take a moment to check out both videos.
Over the past 11 games, the Capitals are 8-3. In that span, they have outscored their opponents by a combined 28-22, limiting their opponents to a goal or less 6 times. In 7 of their 8 wins, their opponents have scored below their average. All of this points to a team that is finding its stride defensively. The caveat to this appears to be a team that’s offensive production is faltering.
As it stands right now, the Washington Capitals are currently ranked 9th in goals/game, averaging just over 2.8 goals. Most fans should agree that 9th is a pretty good place to be. The issue is at shots/game. For the season the Caps sit at 26th in the league in shots/game, averaging 27.6 a night. That would be nice, if it weren’t for the fact that they are averaging less than 22 per night over the last 11 games. This includes a current 2-game stretch of recording less than 20 shots. They have hit 30 shots just once in the past 11 games, in the 5-2 loss to the Sharks. They are currently giving up over 10 more shots than they are taking, although much of those are coming late in the 3rd, with the Caps protecting a lead.
What this all creates is a paradox. We are watching a team regularly succeed, without taking shots. How big of a problem is this? Looking at their last 11 opponents, we see only 4 current playoff teams, 2 of whom to the Capitals lost.
As I had written numerous times while Boudreau was still coaching, the key to success for any team is finding consistency. While this is typically referring to players at a high level, I also intended it to prove that coaches must provide players with the chance for consistency. That was a problem with Bruce. He became impatient with the lack of chemistry between new additions and the corps, so he was repeatedly inserting new players into the line-up and juggling the lines. With Dale, we have seen a much longer leash given to players in their attempts to hit their strides.
Last night, in the 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders, we saw Dale move some lines around late in the game. In an attempt to get the Caps on the board, Tomas Kundratek found himself with only 1 shift in the third period. This was due in large part to the moving of Laich to the blueline and bringing Cody Eakin up to the 2nd line. Although this is nowhere near as much juggling as we saw under Bruce, I worry that this could be the first step in the wrong direction.
Last Tuesday, Capitals fans everywhere were delighted with the return of Mike Green, after missing 23 consecutive games with a groin injury. An injury that, supposedly, might never fully heal. Midway through Green second game back (@SJ 1/7/12), Hunter shut him down again. Hunter said it was because of tightness, and not a hit he took, but it does little to dispel my worries. Green did not practice with the team on Sunday.
It might only be January, but it is worth reminding that Green is currently in the last year of his deal. A deal that sees him make 5.25 million. Given some of the current contracts, that number was expected to increase dramatically. Since 2008, when Green signed his current deal, we have seen many comparable blueliners sign contracts worth North of 7 million annually. Most recently, Buffalo gave Christian Ehrhoff a deal that gave him 10 mil for the first season. Most fans would have been more than happy to give Green this raise. He is one of the most popular players on this team, and most would probably be in favor of unloading Alex Semin, if it meant that Green would stay.
With last night’s 3-1 victory over the Calgary Flames, the Washington Capitals remained perfect, with Mike Green that is. Despite the fact that the Capitals currently sit in 7th place in the Eastern Conference, they are actually now 9-0 when Mike Green is in the line-up. Last night marked his first game since taking a hit from Devils’ forward Ryan Carter on November 11, 2011.
We learned last week that Green’s injury might never fully heal. As such, it became important for his reinsertion into the line-up be as gradual as possible. Hunter decided to ease the process by choosing to scratch Matthieu Perreault (Semin also scratched for injury) and dress 7 defensemen. It definitely made for some odd line combinations at time, including a shift that put Ovechkin and Hendricks on the ice together. Green spent the majority of his ice time (15:43) skating with rookie Dmitri Orlov. With Orlov regularly joining the rush, Green was able to play a bit more passively, lowering injury risk. He did see a little bit of PP time, but was kept out of penalty killing situations.
Given the poor starts the Capitals have had in recent games, it was understandable to be concerned for the arrival of the high-flying Rangers on Wednesday. Maybe the game against the Sabres was a wake-up call because the Capitals were clearly more prepared for this game.
Between the Pipes: The last time the Capitals tangled with the Rangers, the Caps were completely outplayed in a 6-3 loss. In that game Michal Neuvirth gave up 6 goals on 33 shots while Henrik Lundqvist only needed to make 18 saves to get his team the W. This time around both teams opted for a goaltender change. After Neuvirth’s poor performance against Buffalo, Vokoun got the start against Martin Biron, who was giving Lundqvist the night off. Even though Biron is no longer the goalie he was in the 2008 playoffs, he is still quite capable, entering Wednesday’s game with a 7-1 record.
Last Friday, the Capitals spotted the Devils a 3-goal lead before scoring 3 in the 3rd to force OT. Although they did end up losing in the shootout, the Capitals were lucky enough to overcome a sleepy start to leave New Jersey with a point. Last night in Buffalo, the Caps were not as lucky. The Sabres roared out of the gate, putting 3 behind Michal Neuvirth in the first 10 minutes, and then another past Vokoun. The Capitals were able to hold them off the score sheet the remainder of the game, but only mustered 2 of their own.
The Capitals were essentially doomed from the start, as Roman Hamrlik was called for delay of game only 9 seconds from the start of play. Less than a minute later, Drew Stafford found space between Alzner and Wideman and had an easy feed to Jason Pominville, who easily put the puck past Michal Neuvirth. Three minutes later, the Sabres were able to add another off a seemingly innocent play. Matt Hendricks won a defensive zone draw back to Karl Alzner. No sooner had Alzner received the puck, Matt Ellis simply grabbed it off of his stick and threw a back-hander past Neuvirth. Neuvirth would only last another 6 minutes, as he would be pulled for Vokoun after a Christian Ehroff point shot found its way past Michal’s blocker. While the first 2 goals were defensives gaffs, this one shouldn’t have been in back of the net. The Sabres would add a 4th goal, 2nd on the PP, 3 minutes later. Brad Boyes easily cut across the slot and feed Brayden McNabb, who fired home his first of his career.
To say that the Capital’s goaltending has been subpar in the first third of the season would be a bit of an understatement. Tomas Vokoun, who I thought would be a revelation in net, has struggled to find his rhythm. While his numbers aren’t awful, 12-8; 2.81; .906, Tomas has yet to be good enough to steal games for the Caps. Neuvirth, meanwhile, was has been downright bad. Yes, he was hung out to dry in a few games under Bruce, but this still has not been the Neuvy that we saw last year. Last night in Winnipeg, Michal took a big step to returning to form.
Neuvirth stopped all 26 shots the Jets threw out him, en route to his first shutout of the season and his 5th career. At times, he was the only thing keeping the Caps in the game, specifically a first period that saw the Jets outshoot the Caps 14-7 and outchance them 8-4. Even as the Caps’ offense came to life in the second half of the game, Michal was needed as the Jets were able to muster up a few odd-man rushes. Even better than his statline was how he looked on the ice. He was out challenging, something he had not done consistently since the first game of the season. Although I still believe Vokoun can succeed, I think that Neuvirth has probably earned the next few starts. It very well could be that Neuvirth’s poor play was simply a result of the injury he picked up in the first week of the season. Hopefully Neuvirth’s resurgence will push Vokoun to find his stride.
Today I had the pleasure of joining Mick Kern on Sirius XM HomeIce’s The War Room to talk about the recent coaching change(s). It was a great experience for my first radio interview. Here is the audio.
Some other quick notes to get out:
About F Street Faithful
Welcome to the home of the F Street Faithful, run by Matthew Tate. This is a go-to blog for all things related to the Washington Capitals. The F Street Faithful is 5% news and 95% breaking down the news.
In the past I have written for several other sports blogs as well as the college newspaper while at York College of Pennsylvania. I am a graduate of York College of Pennsylvania but am based out of Southern Maryland.
You can follow me on twitter @FStreetTate but I must warn that I do tweet about more than hockey. You can also e-mail me at any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.