The Cup has been won, the parties held, the days with Lord Stanley filling players and fans with memories, the reminiscences by Capitals Nation of spring glory frequent and heartfelt. Winning that first Stanley Cup still has a warm glow, one that will perhaps last forever in the hearts of everyone who played, watched, and cheered in that glorious march last spring.
A hangover from a short summer and a completely different end to the season was, if not expected, certainly unsurprising. To that add the quirky nature of the schedule to open the season for the Caps. In their first 11 games they have had two back-to-back sets of games and three instances in which they had three or more days off. They opened the season with five games against playoff teams from last spring. Only once in five weeks have they played their first game of the week earlier than a Wednesday.
On top of that, the Caps have played those first 11 games without their top line right winger, Tom Wilson, who is serving a 20-game suspension to open the season. This is not to say that Wilson is the second coming of Mike Gartner as a Capitals right winger, but his absence has thrown the forward lines into a cocked hat as head coach Todd Reirden has spun the wheel a number of times in search of someone to take on that role in at least a stop-gap fashion.
That the Caps are 5-4-2 after those 11 games is equal parts disappointing, unsurprising, but, not to put too fine a point on it, better than last year through 11 games (5-5-1). So what are we to make of this going forward?
Chief among the concerns is the unsettling performance of the defense and goaltending to start the season. Through 11 games the Caps have allowed 3.82 goals per game. That scoring defense is tied for third worst in the league through Thursday’s games. Washington has allowed five or more goals four times so far, a total exceeded only by Calgary and Philadelphia (five apiece). The alarming part is that the performance does not discriminate between even strength and shorthanded situations. The Caps are allowing the third-most 5-on-5 goals per game (2.45), exceeded only by Columbus (2.58) and St. Louis (2.64).
Meanwhile, their penalty kill is stumbling along at 73.8%, tied for 23rd in the league with the woeful New York Rangers. And there, too, one finds a certain lack of discrimination. Their home penalty kill of 73.7% ranks 24th, while the road penalty kill of 73.9% ranks 22nd. They have allowed a power play goal in eight of 11 games, three times allowing a pair of power play goals.
We are of a mind that offense is “skill,” and defense is “will.” There isn’t a lot of glory, other than the satisfaction of a job well done, in clamping down and shutting off an opponent’s offense, but it is here that the “hangover” from the playoffs and the postseason might be most evident. If you get up after a short night’s sleep, perhaps after spending the previous evening socializing at public houses, chances are those first couple of hours at the office the next day are not going to be productive, especially doing the mundane tasks that have to be done. There is thinking you are putting your nose to the grindstone, and there is actually doing it. Through 11 games, in the defensive end of the ice, the Caps look more like the former.
The defensive performance extends to the goaltenders. It was expected that there might be a “let’s-wait-and-see” look to Pheonix Copley in his first turn as a true NHL backup goaltender, and his performance has been predictably equal parts uneven and suggesting incremental improvement in the early going. Still, he has a long way to fill the skates of the departed Philipp Grubauer in that role.
That has put a bit more pressure on number one netminder Braden Holtby, and his performance so far has been a little too reminiscent of the late season slump he had last season that resulted in his ceding the number one duties to Grubauer to open the postseason. After opening the season with a sparkling 25-save shutout against the Boston Bruins, he has a save percentage of .876 in eight appearances and has been over .900 in save percentage in only four games. He has faced a fair amount of rubber (31.9 shots per 60 minutes), but a heavy workload has not seemed to pose a significant problem in the past (he was 13-2-1 with a .929 save percentage last season when facing 35 or more shots). His even-strength save percentage (.906/31st of 39 goalies appearing in at least five games) and shorthanded save percentage (.742/38th in that same group) cannot be sustained if this club is going to contend going forward.
A long season has its rhythms, and part of that is the regularity teams and players have in their schedule. Knowing that there is a game just about every night allows teams and players to settle into routines. The Caps have not had that luxury over the first month of the season.
November is a different animal, though. The Caps have two back-to-back sets of games this month, but there are not the long stretches of time off between games that they experienced in October. Only once this month will the Caps have three full days off between games, between a visit to the New York Islanders on the 26th and a home contest against New Jersey to end the month on the 30th.
If the Caps are going to cast off the hangover that they might have had after the celebrations of summer, this is going to be – this will have to be – the month to do it. If not, it could be a long winter looking back at what was won last year instead of what could be won this year.