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Sittin' at the End of the (Capitals) Bar

With the NHL and the Caps about to resume their 2013-2014 schedule, The Peerless has some observations on what things have been disappointing thus far and that need improvement over the last 23 games.

Bruce Bennett

Gentlemen... what are the four pillars?

"Tradition! Honor! Discipline! Excellence!"

So it was at the fictional Welton Academy in the movie, "Dead Poets Society." If the Washington Capitals don't turbocharge their last 23 games this season, those four pillars will end up being the students' version... "Travesty, Horror, Decadence, Excrement."

While they have been a disappointment once making the playoffs, making the post-season for six straight seasons is not to be sneezed at. Since the 2004-2005 lockout, here is the list of teams that have compiled streaks of playoff appearances of six years or more:

All of those streaks are active, and as the NHL heads back into league play this week all of those teams would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Except the Capitals.

If the playoff streak is to continue, the team is going to have to play better, both as the sum of its parts and in its individual components. For example, it is a little known fact...

-- Braden Holtby returns to action this week having made 36 appearances in goal this season. Over those 36 appearances he has allowed five or more goals six times. Last season he allowed five goals or more five times in 36 appearances in the 2012-2013 season. The difference, though, is timing. Last season he endured three of those five instances in his first seven games, only two over his last 29 appearances. This season, five of those six five-plus goals allowed instances have come in his last 17 games, over which he is 7-6-1 (three no-decisions), 3.22, .896, with two shutouts. The good thing is that he stopped a total of 59 of 61 shots (.967 SV) in his last two appearances before the break.

-- 11, 7, 4, 11, 5. Those are the consecutive games streaks Brooks Laich has gone without a goal this season, in reverse order of occurrence. That first 11-game streak happens to be current; he has not recorded a goal since January 15th and has not recorded a goal in a Caps win since November 15th (a goal in a 4-3 win in Detroit). Only once - a two goals in three games stretch in mid-October - has Laich given the slightest hint that he might be climbing back to being that player who scored a total of 69 goals over the 2007-2008 through 2009-2010 seasons for the Caps.

-- In his last five games heading into the Olympic break, Karl Alzner's Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 was 41.7 percent. He is underwater on that stat for the season (48.4 percent) and is tied for 93rd among 137 defensemen having played in at least 44 games this season (compare that to last season when he was 80th of 133 defensemen). He is the closest thing the Caps have to a shutdown defenseman. That responsibility is going to mean he will not rank among the top defensemen in possession statistics (although one does see the likes of Drew Doughty, Victor Hedman, and Zdeno Chara among the top 15 defensemen, even if that trio has wider offensive responsibility). However, he has to do better.

-- Marcus Johansson scored an even strength goal on November 7th to tie the Minnesota Wild, 2-2, in a game that the Caps would eventually win in a Gimmick, 3-2. That is Johansson's only even-strength goal this season. There are 383 forwards in the league with more even strength goals. One of them is the Caps' own Aaron Volpatti, a fourth liner who has appeared in only 40 games this season and has barely a third of the even strength minutes (291) that Johansson has (837). He has two even-strength goals. Another is Casey Wellman, also with two even-strength goals, a player with barely a tenth (84:37) of Johansson's even-strength ice time this season (chew on that awhile, Caps fans).

-- In 235 minutes and 30 shots on goal over his last 16 games, Eric Fehr has one goal, that coming in the third period of a 4-1 game that the Caps would lose, 5-2, to Columbus on January 30th. He has four shots on goal in his last five games, despite getting 13-and-a-half minutes a game.

-- Among defensemen playing in at least half their team's games, the Los Angeles Kings have five defensemen with a Corsi-for percentage in 5-on-5 situations in the top 15 in the league. Willie Mitchell, the last of those five Kings, is 14th in the league at 55.3 percent. The top-ranked Capital is Mike Green (46th at 52.8 percent). The fifth-rated Cap is John Carlson (tied for 138th at 48.2 percent).

-- The Caps have had only three defensemen play in more than 33 games this season (by way of comparison, the Blackhawks have five that have played in 58 or more games; the Kings have had five play in at least 54 games; the Flyers have had five play in at least 56 games). No team has had so few players play more than 33 games. Of those playing that number or fewer, you cannot attribute it all to injuries. Steve Oleksy, Nate Schmidt, Connor Carrick, Alexander Urbom, Tyson Strachan, Patrick Wey, and Julien Brouillette represent seven of the ten defensemen to have played 33 games or fewer with the Caps. None of them were held to that number by injury issues. Whatever that says about the Caps' defense this season, it's not good.

-- That Mike Green is one of those defensemen having played in more than 33 games (51 actually) is welcome. It is the most he has played in any regular season since he played 75 in the 2009-2010 season.

-- There are folks who think that the Caps should not mortgage the future by sending picks/prospects to the Buffalo Sabres for goaltender Ryan Miller. On the other hand, there are those who say that the Caps' goaltending situation has been so uneven this season that Miller is the only hope of salvaging it. What does it say about the performance of Capitals goalies this season that the team leader in goals-against average by almost a half-goal per game (2.38 to 2.82) and the save percentage leader by more than ten points (.926 to .914) is playing in Hershey (Philipp Grubauer)? For the record, put us down in the "don't trade for Miller" book, but the Caps' goalies have not made folks comfortable this season.

-- On Thursday, Adam Oates will coach his 60th game this season. The Caps are 27-23-9. In 2011-2012, Dale Hunter was behind the bench for 60 games. He was 30-23-7. Phil Connors nods knowingly.

So, let's recap. In the last 23 games, the Caps need...

  • A goalie - any goalie - to step up and steal games to a degree they have not this season.
  • Get more shutting down from guys who are supposed to shut down the other guys.
  • Get more game out of guys like Brooks Laich or Eric Fehr (this might apply to more than Laich or Fehr as far as secondary scoring goes, but they are convenient examples).
  • More of a threat from guys getting the benefit of top six, if not top line minutes.
  • A miracle to heal the bottom half of the open wound that is the Caps' bottom-three on defense (which might lead to better possession numbers).
  • Evidence of growth behind the bench.

If the Caps fail to realize these ambitions, the pillars of their 2013-2014 season might be reduced to rubble.