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A Tale of Two Months

Where we compare offensive production in January to that of February, two months that look like two different seasons.

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

The Washington Capitals have 18 games in the ledger for the 2020-21 season, nine in January and nine in February. Looking at their offensive performance, it looks more like two different seasons than two different months.

The Capitals had the third-ranked scoring offense in the league in January, averaging 3.78 goals per game over nine games. Through nine games in February, ending with the 3-2 overtime loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, the Caps were tied for 16th with the New York Islanders, scoring 2.78 goals per game for the month, a full goal per game drop and a 26.5 percent drop in performance.

What happened?

At the team level, one could say that the Buffalo Sabres’ presence on the schedule (four games) inflated the January numbers, and their absence (one game) suppressed goal scoring. You might be wrong as to the former, though. In the nine games of January, the Caps faced the Sabres four times and averaged 3.50 goals per game, an average less than what they had for the month. Washington scored 20 goals in the other five games of the month (4.00 per game), those games including matchups with more stingy teams like the New York Islanders (nine goals in two games against the league’s 11th-stingiest team in the league) and the Boston Bruins (four in their lone meeting against the league’s number two team in January scoring defense).

As to the latter, their scoring offense in February, it was a team-wide problem. Only three times in nine games did the Caps score more than three goals, one of them an overtime win and in another a loss. The Caps did face strong defensive teams, though, at least in their scoring defense component. Three goals against Buffalo (11th in February scoring defense through Tuesday), three in two games against the fifth-ranked Rangers, eight in three games against the 13th-ranked Pittsburgh Penguins.

And it is not as if shots on goal are an issue. The Caps averaged just 27.1 shots per game in nine January games and 31.1 shots per game in nine games to date in February. The flip side of that is that the Caps were uncommonly efficient shooting the puck in January, their 13.9 shooting percentage ranking third for the month. That number has dropped to 8.9 percent in February, 17th in the league. So let’s drill down into the individual performances.

The Scorers

Folks know that scorers gotta score, and for the Caps, that generally means the top-six of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie. To that add John Carlson on the blue line. These seven players do the heavy lifting in the offensive end of the ice. The comparisons of February to January present a grim picture.

Not one of these seven players averaged more points per game in February than they did in January, and in some cases the drop in points per game is more than a third of a point per game. Tom Wilson suffered the biggest absolute drop off in this category, from 1.14 points per game in seven January games to 0.56 points per game in nine February games. He also owns the biggest percent drop-off at minus-50.9 percent.

Goals are another month-to-month disappointment in this group. The only player with more goals in February than in January is Alex Ovechkin, but that in large part a product of games played. He had two goals in five games in January (0.40 goals per game) and four in nine games (0.44 per game) in nine games in February through Tuesday. For the rest, Nicklas Backstrom’s goals are almost cut in half; Tom Wilson’s by more than half (in more February games); Jakub Vrana’s and John Carlson’s down. As a group, these seven players had 20 goals in 52 man-games in January (0.38 per game), but in February they had 16 goals in 58 man-games (0.28 goals per game), a 26.3 percent drop in goals per game.

The drop-off among the “Less Than Magnificent Seven” in goal-scoring is almost entirely an even-strength problem. In both January and February this group posted seven power play goals. The effect of shorthanded goals on this problem is negligible, Tom Wilson posting the only shorthanded goal among this group (in February).

January totals in first row, by player, February in second row.

The Support Group

The membership is this group is a bit more arbitrary. The third line and fourth line are reasonably well defined for our purposes (Lars Eller, Richard Panik, and Conor Sheary on the third line, although Sheary has been all over the place as of late; Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway, and Carl Hagelin on the fourth line). On the defense, this group might take into its membership Dmitry Orlov, Zdeno Chara, and Justin Schultz – defensemen who provide timely offense more than they do elite offense.

The third line is a group that showed improvement as a group in February (although the reliability of that improvement has to be tempered by the movement of Sheary and Eller among the lines). Four goals and eight points in 23 man-games in January, five goals and six points in 24 man-games in February. The changes among the individuals is a bit different, though. While Eller had a goal in both January and February, he realized a significant improvement in points per game – 0.29 in January to 0.71 in February (playing seven games in each month). That is entirely a product of the power play, where Eller has three power play points (all assists), his only points with the man advantage this season to date. What might be of concern with him is his efficiency. He had one goal on eight shots in January (12.5 percent) and one goal on 16 shots in February (6.3 percent).

Sheary’s goal scoring was up from two in January to three in February, but his points per game are off in eight February games to date (0.38) from his January production (0.43). But even though Sheary’s shooting efficiency dropped in February to 27.3 percent from 40.0 percent in January, he remains a most efficient shooter with a 31.3 percent mark overall.

Panik remains an enigma. He has had his ups and downs as a Capital, but there he was, being all consistent from month to month – a goal and with assists in January and a goal with a goal and two assists in February, both in nine games played. What was off in February was his shots on goal, down to ten from 18 in January. As a result, his efficiency was up, though, from 5.6 percent in January to 10.0 percent in February .

The fourth line is not expected to carry the water on offense, but it cannot be a void, either. As a group, it went 4-3-7 in 27 man-games in January, not a bad level of performance. But in 27 man-games in February, that group-level performance dropped to 1-3-4. Each member of the line has a goal this month, but only Hathaway has as many as two points.

The three defensemen in this group had a drop off in the nine games played in February so far. From three goals and nine assists in 21 man-game in January, Chara, Schultz, and Orlov have two goals and four assists in 24 man-game so far this month. A lot of that is due to the absence of Justin Schultz for three February games after taking a puck to the face. He is 0-2-2 in six games this month after going 2-4-6 in eight games in January. Chara has been consistent, going 1-2-3 in each month, while Dmitry Orlov has been consistent in another way, and not a good one. He went without a point in four games in January and has one point (a goal) in nine games this month.

In the end…

The drop-off in offense for the Caps from January to February is not the product of a player here or there. It is a team-wide problem. That is not to say that the level of concern is equivalent among the members of the team. At the top of the list of things to be concerned about is the output of the top six forwards, plus John Carlson. To a man, their production is off this month, and significantly. Defense might win championships, but you still have to outscore the opponent to win. And this team depends on that group of seven to do just that. They haven’t.

What the Caps got in their run to the Stanley Cup in 2018 was contributions from the bottom-six forwards and the next tier of defensemen. The third line is providing some comfort in this area, but the fourth line has been largely silent. If they had as many goals in February as they did in January (four), that difference of three goals might mean a point or two in the standings.

The next tier of defensemen have not been awful in their performance level, especially given the absence of Schultz for three games this month. But the Caps must get more out of Dmitry Orlov.

This is a team that is not only not firing on all cylinders, the engine of offense is sputtering overall. And time is running out to get the engine back in tune.