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Washington Capitals and the Elusive Hunt for Balance

It is hard to draw conclusions after seven games, but there are warning signs of trouble.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Seven games into the season is but a small slice, but for the Washington Capitals it is a disturbing start. Their 3-3-1 record is not a disaster – yet – but how they got there makes for early rumblings of one that might come. And it boils down to this: production. Those lovely numbers describing shot attempts and shots on goal, are informative, but performance – goals scored, wins, and losses – matter.

The performance of the Capitals has been inconsistent, which is not surprising given the roster changes made over the summer, but what is perhaps most disturbing about it is how much the Caps have relied in the early going on their top two lines of forwards and, to no small extent, goal scoring by Alex Ovechkin to carve out wins. It can be neatly displayed by this graphic of goal scoring among forwards through seven games:

The shaded groups can be thought of as the nominal lines. Not strictly adhered to (they never are), but a rough approximation of who plays where in a lineup on paper. So far this season the forwards account for 21 of the 22 goals scored by the team. Getting three goals per game out of the forwards is a welcome level of effort, but the balance is utterly lacking. Of the 21 goals, 19 of them have been scored by the top two lines, and the Caps do not have a goal from the nominal third and fourth lines since Game 2. Looked at another way, the Caps did get a goal from the third or fourth line in Games 1 and 2, and those games account for two of the three wins so far.

Then there is the matter of Alex Ovechkin. That he is off to a hot start is welcome news to Caps fans, but there is a cloud surrounding that silver lining. The Caps are 3-1-0 in the four games in which he scored at least one goal, 0-2-1 in the three games in which he did not record a goal. It is worth noting that while T.J. Oshie has scored at least one goal in one fewer game than Ovechkin, the Caps are 2-0-1 in those games, but the larger point here is that the Caps are not getting that second and third order help from the bottom-six forwards.

The defense does not escape this point about performance, either. So far, the eight defensemen for the Caps have combined for one goal, that one scored by rookie Christian Djoos in the 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh in Game 4. Only three teams through Tuesday night’s games have not had a defenseman score a goal – the Buffalo Sabres, Minnesota Wild, New York Islanders, and San Jose Sharks – teams that have combined for six wins in 22 games among them so far.

That the Caps are averaging 3.14 goals per game is a good thing, even if it ranks only 14th in the league in scoring offense. But their scoring imbalance is going to have to be solved if the Caps are to win more consistently than they have so far in this young season.