Washington Capitals: First month report card

The Capitals are off to a 5-6 record in the first month of the season. Photo: Alexander Ovechkin/AP

WASHINGTON, November 1, 2013 — It is a month in to the NHL regular season and the Washington Capitals are one of the league’s most perplexing teams. Hot one night and cold the next, surefire goaltending that evaporates into Swiss cheese, a lackluster power play that will magically catch fire, and a superstar who either carries the team on his back or lists aimlessly along the blue line.

The Caps are just shy of .500 with a 5-6-0 record, having played some tough teams and a few pushovers as well. So, with what seems to be a different team taking the ice every night, what do fans really know about the Washington Capitals?
The Great 8
Alexander Ovechkin is having an amazing season. He has silenced the doubters from the beginning of last season, and the critics who said his scoring spree from last season was a fluke are eating their words. The man is on a tear right now, and he takes the team with him. He is tied with Alex Steen of St. Louis for first in the NHL with ten goals, and has another five assists. Ovechkin can be a wrecking ball on the ice, and although many teams have been able to foil his usual deke off the boards, no one has been able to slow him down physically, and probably never will.
Special Teams Dominance
If there is one thing the Capitals are doing incredibly well, it is the Power Play. They are currently third in the league with a 26.8 convergence rate. The numbers do not tell the whole story though, because this team’s system is textbook power play executed with pinpoint precision at alarming speed. This squad could well be the best example of the Umbrella strategy that has taken the ice in years. With every pass, the skaters inch closer to the net, tightening the trap on the other team’s defense. It is a beautiful thing to watch, and it has been the saving grace for Washington in several games this season.
On the flip side of the coin, when the Caps have to go on the penalty kill, they are not letting much in. Second in the league with a 89.2% kill, Washington is not giving up on the odd-man advantage. Special teams must have been the focus this offseason, because they are crushing opponents this year with the power play.
Flat Out of the Gate
Maybe they need a new pregame song, or shorter introductions, or more smelling salts on the bench, but Washington has come out pretty flat in the first period this season. Thus far, they have only scored six goals in the first period in 11 games. If the Capitals are holding their opponents to a goal or less, it is not as much of a problem, but they are often digging themselves a tough hole out of which to climb. Twice they have faced Calgary this season, both times getting behind by a 3 point deficit. The first game they made a late comeback for an overtime win, the second meeting resulted in a 5-2 loss. Adam Oates needs to fire his boys up a little more before they take the ice.
The Defense Needs Help
One of the roots of the Capitals’ struggles is an underwhelming defensive core that struggles to keep the puck away from the net. This team is a mess in its own zone, and turnovers and soft play abound. Former Norris Candidate Mike Green, who has been battling injury the last few seasons, has struggled to be a defenseman. Granted, he is probably the most dangerous man in the NHL shooting from the point, but he has been stagnant when it comes to defense. Green was so bad that in the October 22 shootout win against Winnipeg he was benched for the last several minutes of the game. The Caps D corps has size; they just do not know how to use it. There might as well be a “For Rent” sign in front of their crease, because no one, not even the big guys like Erskine and Carlson are winning the battles in front of the net. Blown assignments and overall soft play is killing this team, and something needs to be done about it. The offense can only score so many goals.
Where are the Reinforcements?
General Manager George McPhee did not make many waves at the deadline last season, nor did he shake things up too much this summer. The addition of Grabovski is already paying off, but other than that, it has been pretty quiet. While a lot of heads were scratched over the pick-up of Martin Erat at the expense of top prospect Filip Forsberg, Erat has been effective, but not outstanding. Generally, McPhee relies on the cash-crop of talent he can farm from the Hershey Bears, who are a goldmine of potential NHL stars. Arguable one of the best minor league affiliates around, the Bears follow a similar system to their parent team and have a strong winning culture that has brought up many stars and fan favorites like Mike Green, Braden Holtby, Matthieu Perreault, and Tom Wilson. However, there has not been a major move that has made the Capitals more of a contender, especially when playoff time comes
The Goaltending Mystery
Braden Holtby is not having the feel-good storybook season he had in 2012. Filling in for injured starters Tomas Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth, he stole the show, and the starting job, with his stellar play at the end of the season and into the playoffs. The honeymoon is over now, and it is time to be an NHL starter. Neuvirth, the perennial backup, has had more than his fair share of shots at starting, and the onus is now on Holtby.

SEE RELATED: Capitals out-lasted in Vancouver, lose 3-2.

The kid is good, really good, but not always consistent. In Holtby’s defense, his defensemen must think he’s a wet t-shirt, because they are always hanging him out to dry. A lot of great goalies have played for terrible teams, so that argument only goes so far. Holtby’s flashes of brilliance need to outbalance his embarrassing gaffes. The season opening loss in Chicago rests squarely in his muddled catching glove. He has been pulled twice already in ten starts, and probably could have been pulled or benched more often if management had any faith in Neuvirth, one start, 5-1 loss. How does a goalie who is known for having ice in his veins struggle so often? Is he too loose in net? Should he tighten up more? Capitals top brass will have to figure that out as the season rolls along, because right now it is hard to put a lot of faith in anything but the offense.

So, with the several known factors, there are still a lot of unknowns out there. What happened to the production of Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward, who combined for nine points? Will Ovechkin continue this wild points streak he is on, and will the Sochi Olympics affect his output? The Caps could very much benefit from the struggles of their Metropolitan Division rivals, and the playoffs are definitely not out of reach by any stretch of the imagination. With Pittsburgh having an AHL-level backup goaltender, and waiting for the other shoe to drop on Marc-Andre Fleury, the potential to win the division is not that far-fetched either. It is a long season, and anything could happen.


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Scott Huntington

Scott Huntington is a writer, reporter, blogger, and long-time hockey fan. When he is not watching hockey, he is playing music or spending time outside with his family. Scoot will be posting his thoughts on the NHL throughout the season and you can find him on Twitter @smhuntington

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