December of 2010 will probably be a month to forget for the Washington Capitals. At least from the 2nd to the 19th when the team was on their much publicized 8-game losing streak. During that stretch we saw the Capitals play some of the worst hockey we’ve seen them play in awhile. Bad special teams, bad goaltending, lazy offensive and defensive play and poor game management from the coaching staff. Basically everything that could have gone wrong, did. This is the firs time the Caps have had a losing record in a month under Bruce Boudreau (5-6-3). It resulted in the them losing first place in the Southeast Division for the first time in awhile and they are currently tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the lead in the division now with 49 points right now.
It’s definitely something a lot of Caps fans aren’t used to but I still say this is nothing to panic about yet. After the 8 game skid ended, the team won 4 of their next 5 games and earned points in all of them. I have no doubts that the team will return to first place in the Southeast and stay there if they can take care of business from here on out. I’m not calling for a huge winning streak like last year but no more losing streaks like the one we just endured would probably be necessary. Let’s look back and see what went on during this wild month of December
The Caps started the month off by trading struggling/misplaced forward Tomas Fleischmann to the Colorado Avalanche defenseman Scott Hannan. How has that worked out? Fleischmann has 12 points in 12 games for the Avs (moving back over to the wing and playing on a line with Paul Stastny probably helped him, just sayin’) while Hannan has the team’s worst relative +/- for active defensemen. I was for this trade when it happened because Fleischmann was out place at center and this team doesn’t need another winger right now and what it did need was defensive depth. Hannan’s done just that. While his play left a lot to be desired at the end of the month, the Caps have seen injuries to Jeff Schultz, Tom Poti and Mike Green, leaving Hannan to play on the top pairing on a lot of nights this month. I’m not sure if GM George McPhee intended for that to happen when he traded for him. I know Hannan did that in Colorado but I really don’t see him going beyond the 3rd pair once Jeff Schultz is ready to take his place back on the top pairing with Mike Green. Also, Tyler Sloan and Brian Fahey have only played in 2 combined games this month. Which means Hannan has done his job in my mind. Now if he could play the way he did the last few games where he actually looked like a good defensive player then that would be swell.
The powerplay was another area of problems for the Caps this month. A 10.8% efficiency rate isn’t going to get the job done and neither will scoring only 6 times on 58 attempts. It’s still hard to believe that Alex Ovechkin hasn’t scored a powerplay goal at the Verizon Center this season. This leads me to my next issue, the team’s star players weren’t producing this month. Ovechkin and Backstrom led the team in points this month with 9…yeah only 9 points a piece from the two of them. Ovechkin’s goal "drought" which lasted a few games was highly scrutinized by the media when what should have been talked about was Alexander Semin going goalless…for the entire month. Yikes. Everyone knows that Semin’s in a contract year and played out of his mind in November (12 goals, 7 assists) but now he’s only got 5 points for the entire month of December and is goalless in 11 games. I know he missed a few games but it appears that Alex Semin will never be able to shake off his reputation as a streaky player. These three combining for only 6 goals is a main reason why the team was outscored 31-36 in December. Mike Knuble, on the other hand, had a good month and was one of the top six players who contributed well. He was tied for the team lead in goals with 5, which is just about what you can ask from.
One good thing that did come from this were other players picking up the slack offensively. 16 different players scored this month for the Caps, which is good but 9 of them only had one goal. Still, when the big names are slumping, it’s good to have the other guys contribute. Hershey call-up Mathieu Perreault scored 5 goals in 9 games, which is very good but his offensive production has come in spurts which could be a problem later on. Fleischmann being gone opens up the door for him to have a permanent spot on this roster and if he can develop some consistency he might earn it. Other Hershey call-ups like Andrew Gordon and Jay Beagle have also made the most of their time in Washington, the latter scoring two goals. Unfortunately, I don’t think these two will be in Washington for much longer unless they really surprise someone. Beagle did the other day.
I’ve made my comment on the coaching "situation" in an earlier post saying that I don’t think we need to think about replacing Boudreau unless another ridiculous losing streak happens (one that's way more than 8 games) or until the end of the season. His management of the players ice time has gotten better recently (Pens game is another story) and I’m noticing they are playing a lot more responsible in their own zone. I’m not the world’s biggest Boudreau fan but I am in favor of keeping him as the coach for now.
Moving onto goalies, both Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov didn’t have a great or terrible month. Neuvirth (2-3-2 .908 185 shots faced) seemed to have the upper hand for a little bit as Boudreau elected to start him in four straight games in the middle of the month and he played well during that time and had his best performance of the month against New Jersey making 35 saves. Varlamov (3-4-0 .903 207 shots faced) on the other hand, had a bipolar month in a way. Some nights he looked like the goalie from playoffs in 2009 (see game vs. St. Louis and Montreal) and other nights he looked horrible (games vs. Rangers and Panthers). Both of them had their moments good and bad and I think they played on about an equal level. Neuvirth was the more consistent of the two but he can definitely get better and the same can be said for Varly. Not sure who I would give the nod to for the Winter Classic tomorrow.
Ended up writing more than I wanted, so now let’s get to the fun part:
Mike Knuble – As I said earlier, he’s doing about all you can ask from him, which is creating chances by going to the net and knocking in loose pucks. I can’t complain with the 5 goals he scored this month at all and it’s an improvement from his rough start to the season. He also scored a huge shorthanded goal against Pittsburgh to tie the game.
Mathieu Perreault – Another one I mentioned earlier. Like I said, it would be nice if he could be more consistent with his scoring but it’s hard to complain with 5 goals.
John Carlson – Him and Karl Alzner have been constantly matched up against other team’s top lines and the young duo have been doing a solid job at containing them. Carlson’s been getting a good chunk of ice time on both the powerplay and penalty kill, as well. Also, he’s the highest rated defenseman on the team. Go figure.
Karl Alzner – See Carlson, minus the powerplay. He did get on the scoresheet, though with a goal in Boston.
Jay Beagle – Two goals in six games doesn’t exactly scream "huge week" but this along with some solid penalty kill work is all you can ask from an AHL call-up. Maybe more.
Tom Poti – Missed five games with various injuries but he played well this month when he was in the lineup. 5 assists and some good defensive play on the third pairing. I think he fits best there. Maybe him and Hannan can be a solid pairing in that role.
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom – see above. I’m definitely not questioning either of their efforts at all because I know both give 100% every night (and have recently) but the low point totals get them put in this section of the feature. Backstrom was playing with the flu for a lot of the month so that could have been a reason for it.
Alex Semin – Also: see above. Maybe a goalless month means he’s due for a November-like month in January?
Jason Chimera – one goal in 14 games and a -7 for the month. Bad season continues for Chimera.
Marcus Johansson – Let’s see, only one point this month, only 37% on faceoffs, scratched for a few games this month. MoJo’s not exactly winning me over for the 2nd line center spot like a lot of people think he is. He’s only a rookie so I’m willing to give him more time.
Scott Hannan - Again, see above. He was thrown into the top pairing role because of injuries and it seems that he’s not going to work out there but he may have just needed more time to adjust to this team’s system. Who knows? He played well lately and could be going back to playing less minutes a nights so it’s possible his play will improve.
Other Notable Performances
Andrew Gordon – Scored his first NHL goal against New Jersey and played a solid game overall. Aside from that, not much else to say and he didn’t get a lot of ice time. Usually around or less than 10 minutes a game for Gordo. Likely on his way back to Hershey soon.
Boyd Gordon - Not too good on the penalty kill this month but he had the best faceoff percentage on the team among regular centers (71.6%). He's also hurt....again.
Mike Green – Didn’t get in the top performers column because of underwhelming performances at the beginning of the month and he missed a couple of games. The last week or so, he’s been playing some of his best hockey all year in terms of all-around ability. Doing it with a huge workload, too.
Eric Fehr – Only 3 points in 11 games but he’s been one of the more harder working guys on the team. He’s going back to what worked for him last year with crashing the net and generating chances that way and he’s been doing A LOT of it. Earned himself a spot on the top line when Semin was hurt against Ottawa. I have a feeling the goals will come for him but if not, then him, Chimera and Hendricks/Johansson could make a solid checking/energy line. I don’t think he’ll score 20 goals again but he’s definitely proving to be useful in other ways.
Jeff Schultz – Missed 9 games and 7 of which were during the losing streak. Why it’s notable is that I think the losing streak showed how valuable Schultz is to this team. The defensive corps sure looks better with him in the lineup.
Brooks Laich – 2 goals, 7 points. Not much else to say.
Here’s to a better year (or better month of January in our case) for the Capitals. Hopefully we can start it off on a good note by beating the Pens at Heinz Field come New Years Day.