It's a little known fact...
The Caps have relied a lot on trick shots this season. OK, that's not a little known fact, but really, they have. After last night's thrilling conclusion against the Los Angeles Kings the Caps are 9-9 in the freestyle competition. That's 27 of 80 points earned in the Gimmick. Let's look at how they got there...
-- Of their nine wins in the extra-extra session, the Caps went into them having already scored three or more goals in regulation five times and four or more four times. Success in the hockey portion of the show carries over?
-- At the other end, of the Caps nine losses in the Gimmick they managed only two or fewer goals in the hockey phase of the evening seven times and one goal five times.
-- Streaky shooting has characterized the Caps in the trick shot phase. Washington started the season with the good sort of streak. They converted ten of their first 14 attempts (71.4 percent) over their first four trick shot competitions, winning all four games. Streaks end, though. The Caps went two for their next nine over their next three games (22.2 percent), going 1-2. Like we said, streaks end. After that 2-for-9, the Caps went 9-for-11. Then six of nine over their next two competitions, both ending in wins. After nine shootout competitions, the Caps were 18-for 32 shooting (56.3 percent) and had a win-loss record of 7-2.
-- Then came their tenth dance round. The Caps had a ten-round freestyle competition against the Florida Panthers on Friday, December 13th. The Caps lost that game, 3-2, failing to convert on their last six shot attempts. That dry spell to close their fun against Florida set in motion a string of futility that undid a lot of the good work they did earlier.
-- In Game 11 of the shootout portfolio this season against Philadelphia on the night following their 3-2 shootout loss to Florida, the Caps went 2-for-3. But then the roof fell in. The Caps lost five shootouts in a row, shooting 2-for-22 in the process (4.6 percent), leaving them 8-8 in the freestyle competition. The Caps went 1-1 in their last two shootouts, shooting 2-for-3 in their win over San Jose and getting blanked last night on two shots in their loss to the Los Angeles Kings.
-- Adam Oates certainly has been a creature of routine. In their first six shootouts Mikhail Grabovski led off for the Caps. Alex Ovechkin was second in line five times; the only time he did not take the two-slot being against the Florida Panthers on November 2nd when he was out with an injury. Nicklas Backstrom was third four times in those first six instances, and in the only two games in which he did not take the third slot the Caps did not need a third shooter (winning one game and losing one before getting to a third shooter).
-- Oates changed up in the Caps seventh shootout competition against Toronto on November 23rd. He led off with Eric Fehr. Mikhail Grabovski, who led off in each of the Caps' first six shootouts, sat this one out, perhaps the product of his being cut earlier in the game by David Clarkson's skate blade. But there were Ovechkin in the number two slot and Backstrom in the number three shooting position. Fehr scored, but Ovechkin and Backstrom misfired in a 2-1 loss to the Maple Leafs.
-- That game against Toronto was the first of nine in a row in which Oates opened with the Fehr-Ovechkin-Backstrom trio. When necessary, he added Grabovski (placed in the four-slot in four straight games in which a fourth shooter was needed, until Grabovski was injured in late January). When needing a fifth shooter, which would happen on four occasions, it would be Troy Brouwer. When Oates settled on a thing, he stuck with it.
-- How did all that routine work? As you might expect with a 9-9 overall record, it was mixed. Out of that one-slot to open the season, Grabovski was good on two of his first three attempts, but he was 0-for-3 in his last three. Grabovski out, Fehr in. Eric Fehr was good on his first five tries out of the one-slot before going 0-for-4 in his last four attempts. When Evgeny Kuznetsov joined the club Oates stuck him in that top spot to replace the skidding Fehr. So far, Kuznetsov was good on his first two tries out of the one-slot, but he was unsuccessful last night in the Caps' 5-4 loss to the Kings.
-- About that two-slot. Alex Ovechkin was the go-to guy in that spot in 15 of the Caps' first 16 shootout competitions, missing only the November 2nd game against Florida when he was out with an injury. He hit on his first attempt back in the home opener against Calgary, a 5-4 win for the Caps. After that, though, Ovechkin had just one goal in his next 14 shootout attempts. Oates finally sat Ovechkin down for the trick shot competition last week against San Jose and again last night against Los Angeles, giving Fehr the two-slot.
-- Grabovski might have the best shooting percentage for the Caps this season among players taking more than three shots (50 percent on ten shots), but it is Nicklas Backstrom coming out of the three-slot who has been the difference. Backstrom has come out of that spot in each of his 15 appearances in the freestyle phase. Even with a five-shot scoreless streak as part of the that 2-for-22 drought the Caps experienced (not coincidentally, coming in five straight losses), he has been successful seven times and has four game-deciding goals to lead the club.
-- Does it matter whether the Caps shoot first or last? Maybe. The Caps are 6-4 when shooting first, although all six wins came at home at Verizon Center, where they are 6-3. The Caps have shot first only once on the road, that coming in Florida on December 13th, the night of the ten-round shootout that the Caps lost. It is just as much a matter of "where" as "when." The Caps are 6-3 at home, 3-6 on the road in shootouts.
In the end, the league shoots to an overall 32.5 percent rate in the trick shot competition. The Caps are at 36.1 percent. The thing is, though, the Caps started the season hot, then cooled off. It is reflected in their 9-9 record overall. You could say that they have regressed to the league norm. Put another way, live by the trick shot, die by the trick shot. For the Caps, there might have been just a few too many of these coin flips this season. It leaves them with nine games to figure out how to win games in the hockey phase of the competition.