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Capitals Ten Game Review

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Suddenly, Caps brothers and sisters, roughly one-eighth of the regular season is in the electronic books.  October is almost through.  (And I hope all of you attending the October 30th home game vs. the N.Y. Islanders have already carefully planned your Halloween get-ups.)

As we noted this morning in the Clips, Peerless looks at the forwards and the defensemen and goaltenders after ten games.  Here we provide a overall team-oriented assessment.  Ten games is an arbitrary milestone, but a lengthy enough period of competitive play to observe trends.  So what do we find?  Some developments positive and refreshing, and some in territory that seems all too familiar.

Here's ten for ten:

Scoring:  anybody but Ovechkin?  Early on, it was virtually all Alex Ovechkin and the top line of Nick Backstrom and Alexander Semin.  But then there was the game in Atlanta last Thursday.  And that Matt Bradley character broke out too, on a 25-goal season pace! 

Kidding aside, fifteen of the Caps' 36 goals scored on the season have found the net from the stick of a "secondary" scorer.  (In my view, secondary means not the Big Four or Mike Knuble.)  And one of those Big Four, Mike Green, broke out offensively in a huge way on Saturday night, leaving the Islanders broadcast team awe-struck, giving effusive praise for Greenie's "Paul Coffey-like" rush to win the game in OT.  He's closing in on a point-a-game pace. 

What Mo can we ask of Brendan?  Brendan Morrison has been a wonderful surprise so far this campaign, a near-perfect solution to the void at second-line center following the departure of Sergei Fedorov

Brendan Morrison 10 3 5 8 5 4 1 0 1 0 11 27.3 16:08

For now, his scoring pace is exceeding even my optimistic prediction of 20/30/50 for this season.  He's healthy, and excited to play with a dynamic offensive squad again.  When I chatted with B-Mo at the conclusion of training camp about comparing this Caps team to the earlier days of his career in Vancouver, on a line with Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, he said, "It's been a long time since I've played with guys with this much skill."  He's proving quite capable of not only keeping up, but keeping the offensive engine running. 

Give me a sweater, Coach.   We knew it was going to be difficult to rotate eight healthy NHL defensemen through the line up over the course of a season.  But not all of them are going to stay healthy.  John Erskine has already missed four games due to injury.  Shaone Morrisonn has also been ailing a bit thus far this season

Here's how often each of the eight has played this season:

  Mike Green 10 182:06 18:12 23:56 2:23 63:47 6:22 269:49 26:58 280 28
  Tom Poti 10 162:17 16:13 48:15 4:49 11:57 1:11 222:29 22:14 285 28.5
  Shaone Morrisonn 9 136:27 15:09 19:46 2:11 :16 :01 156:29 17:23 227 25.2
  Milan Jurcina 9 127:10 14:07 27:33 3:03 :00 :00 154:43 17:11 212 23.6
  Brian Pothier 9 130:24 14:29 1:51 :12 8:56 :59 141:11 15:41 180 20
  Jeff Schultz 6 85:21 14:13 17:34 2:55 :40 :06 103:35 17:15 138 23
  John Erskine 5 63:54 12:46 10:34 2:06 1:09 :13 73:47 15:07 95 19
  Tyler Sloan 3 40:18 13:26 2:27 :49 :00 :00 42:45 14:15 55 18.3

How do these numbers compare to last season?  Green's getting about a minute and a half more ice per game; Schultz, about a minute and a half less (in the latter case, a reduction in ES ice only).  Finally, Tyler Sloan is too seldom utilized, but too valuable to be exposed to waivers.  Tough spot for the guy, but he's no doubt thrilled to be in the show for this long.  Assistant Coach Bob Woods is deploying his troops, at least in terms of ice time, similar to how Jay Leach had last season. 

Having eight defenseman on the active roster presents a considerable player management problem, but it also allows the coaching staff to play the healthiest six blueliners on a given night, or strategically select the three pairs on the basis of a particular opponent's strengths and weaknesses.  When one or more of the eight is banged up, the decision to carry 8 D looks wise and prescient.  But when (and if) all eight are healthy, it's a situation fraught with second-guessing and unhappy healthy scratches.

Net presence.  These eyes have observed a modest improvement in creating traffic in front of the crease and scoring those "junk" goals from in tight, with or without the power play.  We've seen half a dozen such goals in ten games from Chris Clark, Bradley, Knuble, and Brooks Laich.  

Special teams.  The power play has only converted 10 of 48 opportunities (16.7%) and, in that regard, is dearly missing Semin to create some space for others on the first unit.  Otherwise, it's not entirely clear what is the trouble with the man-advantage.  The team is averaging 63.9 S/G per 60 min of PP time this season, compared with 60.2 S/G per 60 last season.

As for the penalty kill, the Caps are 9th in the league, killing 39 of 49 penalties (83.7).  So, adding the percentages together, the Caps are just over that magical 100.00 mark.

Stopping and starting, again.  The Caps had, after grabbing a lead, allowed their opponents to tie the score in seven straight contests prior to Saturday's game on Long Island.  There's been a bit of a tendency, continuing from last season, to let up off of the gas pedal in the third period.  But on the flip side, they've come back five times from deficits this young season to tie the score (twice in the 10/6 game vs. the Flyers).  Including Saturday's dramatic comeback, when it seemed that the Caps where in a collective fog befitting the humidity in Nassau Veterans Coliseum.

Discipline.  It was a problem last season, and the drama continues (in fact, just search the Rink for "discipline" and you'll find quite a consistent pattern).  The team finished tied for the sixth-most minor penalties last season, and is already tied for ninth-most this season, committing an average of 3.4 restraining fouls per gameThat said, the team hasn't allowed a 5-on-3 opportunity yet.  [ed.:  The team was at a 5-on-3 disadvantage once this season, during the final minute of play at Altanta last Thursday, while it clung to a two, and then a one, goal lead.]  

Though it may seem that the team has committed a disproportionate number of minor fouls in the later stages of matches, in fact just under one-third of the Caps' minor penalties to date (15 of 48) have occurred in the third frame.  (And four of those by players not currently active:  one by Boyd Kane and three by Boyd Gordon.)

Steady as she goes in getting it on net.  Last season, the team averaged 33.5 S/G and allowed 29.5 SA/G.  This season, they've averaged 30.5 S/G and allowed 29.5 SA/G this season.  Also last season, the Caps averaged 11.2 blocked shots, and 8.3 missed shots, per game.  This season, those figures are 11.0 and 5.8, respectively.  Predictable from a team that is largely intact from 2008-09.

Face-offs.  Team wide, Les Capitals are seventh in the league at 51.3% (dropping three spots, incidentally, just on account of Saturday's woeful performance at the circles).  David Steckel is sixth in the league in FOW at 60.6% (67.1% at home) and Morrison, Laich, and Gordon are also all over 50% in FOW.

Backstrom, however, is still struggling, below even his sub-50% mark from last season, and continues to get tossed from the dot far too often.

Saturday night's Islanders game, hopefully, was an aberration, as the team was collectively schooled 7 out of 10 times on average, and won just one of sixteen faceoffs in the defensive zone.  The faceoff leader for the Caps on Saturday, Morrison, only won 40% of his draws taken.

The new enforcement regime.  Before the season, we asked whether the Caps needed a designated enforcer, following the departure of the imposing presence of Donald Brashear.  The general consensus, of management and players (as well as Rink readers), was an emphatic "No."  For what it's worth, it seemed to us that, at the Capitals Convention, the team was marketing Erskine as the replacement for Brashear, at least when necessary.  But even he has been out of the lineup for half of the team's contests. 

Prior to Saturday night's tilt, it seemed that the team was getting along OK without a singular presence on the bench to dispatch.  Even in Philadelphia's home opener, where Bradley dropped 'em with Ian Laperriere early in the match, and that was about it for the rough stuff.  However, Nate Thompson's knee-on-knee collision with Mike Green on Long Island had Caps Nation greatly concerned.  Though Green said post-game, "I'm sure [Thompson] wasn't trying to hurt me," the Caps had no pointed rebuttal to Thompson's hit, other than an immediate scrum and some coarse language to poison Thompson's ear.  DMG floated the possibility of a rental pugilist at some point in the near future.  Brandon Sugden, anyone?

So, while there's some room for improvement (isn't there always?) the Capitals are on a 115-point pace and, still, Brooksy says "we'll be better."  And goaltending has been of nightly interest (if not concern), and we'll look to address that separately in a future post. 

Back to it tomorrow and chance to even the score against the Flyers.