We’re almost one-third of the way through the lockout-shortened NHL season and the Washington Capitals have to feel a sense of urgency. The Caps are only four points behind in the race for the last playoff spot, and as this article goes online, they play head-to-head with the New York Rangers, currently the team holding the cutoff spot at #8. But Washington also opened Sunday in 15th place among 15 Eastern Conference teams, meaning it will take some sustained winning to leapfrog everyone else. Let’s take a look at what’s wrong with the Caps this year and how it compares to the last two years.
The problem isn’t on the offensive end. While Alex Ovechkin hasn’t really cut loose yet, with five goals and five assists, he’s at least productive. And the rest of the Washington front line is very balanced and deep when it comes to scoring threats. Joel Ward has five goals on the opposite wing of Ovechkin, as does Troy Bouwer. The passing is excellent, with centers Mike Riberior and Nicklas Backstrom, along with forward Jason Chimera, doing a good job getting the puck to the scorers. Washington can attack from any point on the ice and do it two lines deep.
Washington is 10th in the league at lighting the lamp, so clearly it’s not goal-scoring that’s the problem. That only leaves one other possibility and the defensive end has been a disaster in the early part of the season. The Caps are 29th in a 30-team league at stopping goals. Most of the blame for this falls, as you might expect, on the goaltenders. Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby have split time and been equally ineffective.
Furthermore, the defense in front of the goalies has not exactly been stellar. While the Caps aren’t rock-bottom awful at preventing shots, they’re still in the lower half of the league. Thus, you have a team that leaves it goalies exposed, and those goalies aren’t any good. Yes, that would qualify as a problem.
If we flip back to the offensive side, you might say things are actually going to get worse, because Washington’s scoring ranks significantly above its ability to generate shots on goal, normally two stats that merge together. However, I’d go to bat for the Caps on this one—the same phenomena existed last season, and it’s not unusual for teams with a signature offensive star (in this case Ovechkin) to be able to convert goals at a rate higher than their total shots would suggest. And in fact, Washington is doing a better job getting shots this year than was the case a year ago.
What’s most alarming about this franchise though, is the way the defensive play has fallen off steadily for two consecutive season. The 2011 Caps were a vintage team that got the #1 seed in the East before losing in the second of the playoffs. Last year’s team got some respect for winning a playoff round over Boston as an underdog, but it was still a second-round exit and the team was obviously worse throughout the regular season, coming in as the #7 seed. Now the Caps are sitting on #15. Their ranking in goals allowed has gone from 4th to 21st to 29th over this timeframe, with the ability to prevent shots going from 9th to 16th to 19th.
Thus, while the loss of goalie Semyon Varlamov after 2011 obviously hurt, and seeing last year’s main goalie Thomas Vokoun performing at least respectably in Pittsburgh, the Caps can’t ignore that the defensive play has been a team-wide problem. Maybe the 22-year-old Holtby is just going through some growing pains and can find the insanely hot mojo he had in the Boston playoff series a year ago. Because that’s what it’s going to take. Fixing a team-wide defensive epidemic takes time, and time is not something that’s on Washington’s side in a season where there’s no time to dig out of a hole.