But there are two key points that take away much of any solace that can be found in that top-half ranking. First, that's a decline of more than a goal per game over 2009-10's 3.82. And while the team has brought down it's goals-against per game from 2.77 to 2.56, it doesn't take a terribly skilled statistician to recognize that the per-game goal differential is worse this year than it was a season ago.
Second, and more importantly, that aggregate number doesn't reflect how much the team has struggled to score goals lately - their goals-per-game over the second half of those 46 games is just 2.30 (which would rank 28th in the League for the season), and over the last 20 games, that drops all the way to 2.05 (which would place them ahead of only the Devils on the campaign).
So where have all the goals gone? The first place to look is the power-play, where the Caps are clicking at just 18.1% on the season, this after leading the League at 25.2% in 2009-10. Per-game power-play chances are down a bit for the Caps as well (from 3.8 to 3.6), as is the team's shooting percentage with the extra man (from 16.5% to 10.7%), and the result is that the team that scored .96 power-play goals per game last year is down to .65 this year. There's one-third of a goal per game. Admit it - you thought that would be higher, didn't you? Probably because over the last 19 games, the Caps have scored just .37 power-play goals per game and converted on just 9.6% of their chances.
The bigger year-to-date difference has come at five-on-five, where the Caps dominated the League last year (not just in goals-for, but also in ratio of goals-for-to-goals-against), but have dropped in per-game goal production from 2.60 to 1.76. (On a sidenote, despite the improvements in even strength defense, the Caps have actually given up more five-on-five goals per game this season than last - 1.72 up from 1.66).
Combine the power-play woes with the five-on-five slide and, well, you've got the situation in which the Caps currently find themselves. To be sure, no one could have reasonably expected a repeat of last year's once-in-a-franchise offensive explosion. The team and individual shooting percentages were generally off the charts, and some regression was bound to happen.
But perhaps as unexpected as last year's perfect storm has been this season's over-correction. It's one thing, for example, for Mike Knuble to best his previous career-high 16.4 shooting percentage by 2.8 percent, as he did in 2009-10, riding shotgun on the Caps' top line. It's another thing entirely for Alex Ovechkin to shoot 3.8% over a 28-game stretch (as he currently is), when his career shooting percentage over the 414 prior to that was 12.5%.
So what could one have reasonably expected, offensively, from the current Caps? As a rough approximation, we can take a look at the players who have suited up for the team this year and the total number of shots they've taken, and applying their pre-2010-11 shooting percentage come up with "expected" 2010-11 goal totals. It's certainly an inexact and crude methodology, but it gives some idea of who is and isn't pulling their respective weight:
|Player||GP||G||SOG||S%||Pre-2010-11 S%||Expected 2010-11 G||Δ|
Click on columns to sort
The first thing that jumps out, of course, is The Captain. We should be having the "Will Alex hit 50?" discussion right now, not the unspoken "Will Alex hit 30?" nightmare. The next two names on the list complete the picture of a first line gone south. There are a few more disappointments there, and a few (relatively minor) pleasant surprises, but it's worth noting that the only "over-performing" top-six forward is Perreault - the top-six, even top-nine forwards, almost to the man, are having off years.
The bottom line here is that if the Caps were scoring as reasonably expected (i.e. totaling up the Δ here), that would be 28.1 more goals - just .61 per game - which would put them third in the League in goals per game with 3.41, or a 10.7% drop from 2009-10. Realistic? Probably. And certainly more believable than the offensive output we've seen so far in 2010-11.