With roughly a quarter of the 2014-15 season in the books, the Caps find themselves right around the middle of the League in scoring, their 2.75 goals per game ranking them 14th in the NHL. That number would look a lot higher, however, were it not for a recent slide in which the team has put up just seven goals in five games (1.40 goals/game). In fact, prior to this five-game stretch, the Caps were putting up an average of 3.20 goals a night - an impressive rate that would put them third behind only Pittsburgh and Tampa.
So what the heck happened to the offense?
It's a tough question, one that doesn't really have an easy answer - and perhaps not just a single answer, either. This isn't just a case of running into five hot goalies in a row (unless you consider Mike Smith and Reto Berra to be "hot" which... yeah) or a rash of injuries to top offensive players (although that may be one to lean on in the coming days). Instead, it seems as if a number of factors are contributing to the sudden drought and doing so all at the same time.
Shoot the Puck
Let's start with the most basic: shots on goal. It's almost impossible to score without getting the puck on net, and the Caps have not been getting the puck on net nearly enough over the last five games (their 44-shot outing against the Sabres notwithstanding). Take out that outlier from Saturday night and they're averaging just over 25 shots per night; at even strength, it's under 20. That's a drop of about three to five shots a game from where they were in the season's first fifteen games.
Okay, so they're not getting shots on net... what about towards the net? Well, the news isn't much better there, as the Caps are not only attempting fewer shots than usual but have also been losing the possession battle - and doing so consistently. Here's how the Caps have fared in even-strength shot attempts over the last five games:
So over the last five games the Caps are averaging 52.2 Corsi events at even strength, which is not too significant a dip from the 53.5 they posted over the first 15... but take out the Buffalo game and it drops to 47.27. At all situations, they're averaging 56.9, slightly better than the 55.9 average from the first fifteen. But oh hey let's take out that pesky Buffalo game again... and it's down to 52.1.
It's not that they're necessarily getting steamrolled as far as possession is concerned; when their Corsi% has dipped below 50%, it hasn't dipped all that far. We certainly shouldn't expect them to dominate every single night, either. But for a team that has seemingly focused on puck possession, to not be controlling the game - and failing to do so against teams in the bottom third of the League - goes against not only what they've said they wanted to do, but what we've seen they can do.
Less than Optimal Configurations
Earlier we explored how Barry Trotz is configuring his forward lines lately, and how this particular deployment might not be the best way to spark his team's offense. And while the line combinations aren't the biggest issue with the team's lack of scoring, they're certainly a factor.
It starts with the top trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson, who have combined for just two goals and two assists over this recent slide, with all four points by Ovechkin and Backstrom and all four scored in the same game. Beyond that, there hasn't been much from any of them (although they have been one of the better lines on the ice, particularly in the last two games) - and when the top line gets shut down, the rest of the team needs to step up and provide secondary scoring. It hasn't happened.
The once-hot second line of Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Troy Brouwer has since cooled off (as was to be expected, but perhaps not at this rate), with just one point from the three of them combined in the last five games, a power-play assist by Johansson. The third line has yet to find any sort of consistent scoring like they had last year, with Jason Chimera having a particularly slow start to the season - that they've combined for two goals in the last two games is a good sign, but not enough to convince us that they're going to produce on a regular basis.
Which brings us to the fourth line, a mismatched mishmash of potentially elite scoring talent Evgeny Kuznetsov, doghouse-dweller Eric Fehr and a rotating roster of "energy" guys who aren't able to get much out of either (and really shouldn't be tasked with that responsibility). The result isn't so much a balanced line as it is an island of misfit toys, a trio of players that Trotz doesn't seem to know what to do with.
All of this further serves to underline the importance of someone like Brooks Laich. Coach Trotz has talked before about how Laich provides balance to the lineup, and he's not wrong - Laich's presence pushes some guys down the lineup to where they belong (or even out of it altogether) while taking some of the defensive burden off of the players ahead of him on the depth chart, particularly in his ability to kill penalties and take defensive-zone draws. And if it's not going to be him, if he can't stay healthy, it needs to be someone like him filling that role.
One of the biggest issues facing the Caps in recent games has been a sudden lack of time with the man advantage. Over the last five games the Caps have drawn just nine penalties, and scored just one power-play goal during that span. That's a rate of just under two power plays a game, well off their usual pace of over three a game and one that has caused them to drop to almost the bottom of the League in power-play opportunities. And while there are other factors (namely the other team being more disciplined and/or the officials' subjectivity) most of that lies in their hands - if they're not controlling the puck and the play, they're not going to force the other team to do anything to stop them.
It's not just about scoring power-play goals, either (although that's obviously the objective when going on the power play). Forcing the other team to kill penalties on a more regular basis wears out their best defensive players, limits the time their top offensive players are on the ice and provides extended attack time. And if the puck does go in, it can be a way to build momentum and find other ways to score. All good things, and all things that the Caps are not getting a chance to do often enough these days.
There are a number of other elements that can go into a drought like this, many of which are unfortunately difficult to quantify but - based solely on the highly subjective and often flawed eye test - seem to be having an impact. The lack of a net presence to screen the goalie and capitalize on rebounds, the propensity to dump and then not retrieve rather than carry in and establish a forecheck, mental mistakes, and just plain bad luck... all of these things on their own are small things, relatively inconsequential when they stand alone. But combined they become magnified and more important (and that much more frustrating) when a team isn't scoring.
It's not all bad news, of course. For one thing, a five-game sample isn't nearly big enough to tell us what this team is or isn't (and it certainly isn't a long enough stretch to incite panic). They've done enough good things since the start of the season - and even over the past five games - to show us that the foundation of a good team is there. They just need to find it on a more consistent basis.
For another, while the team isn't scoring in bunches, they're also not giving up goals in bunches. Thanks in large part to Braden Holtby's recent return to form, and aided by tighter defense and a continued emphasis on limiting shots and chances against, the Caps haven't been blown out at all this year (and even their most lopsided loss during this stretch was 4-1 against the Blues). The offense just needs a little boost... and with the scoring talent on the current roster, that shouldn't be a problem.
Is it a guarantee that they return to that high scoring rate from earlier in the season? No, and the reality is that this team's scoring ability likely falls somewhere between where they started the season and where they are now - but there's no reason to think that they're not capable of finding at least that middle ground going forward.
The issues facing the team right now can be overcome, and the areas in which the Caps are struggling right now are mostly areas they've identified and are (supposedly) working on. That's a step in the right direction - fix one, and maybe the rest start to fall in place. Fix more than one, and the pucks start to go in.