Washington Capitals Month In Review: January

While everyone knows that December was a rough month for the Caps, January wasn’t that much better. They finished with a record of 5-5-4, were shutout three times (all by division opponents), went 1-2-2 in the Southeast Division and only scored 1.75 goals per game. Yikes. To make things more frustrating, they have been trailing the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Southeast Division title by at least 2 points almost every night and were shutout by Dwayne Roloson Tampa twice. The offensive drought that has been going on has been well documented and a lot of it has to do with the Caps playing a more defensively responsible system (I’ll refrain from mentioning the “T-word” here). I’ll get to that later but I figure I should post the woeful offensive numbers first.

Let’s start out with the powerplay, the NHL is a league where you live and die by special teams and the Caps powerplay was abysmal this month. Only converting 3/29 tries, good for a pathetic efficiency rate of 10.3%. It got so bad that head coach Bruce Boudreau gave guys like DJ King and Jay Beagle shifts with the man advantage to make a statement. I understand that they are playing a more responsible, less risk based system so there’s going to be less firewagon hockey going on but if we want to be taken seriously around playoff time, the powerplay has to get better. You can’t do much worse than 3 PP goals in a month, really.

The Caps scored only 21 goals this month, which is an average of 1.75 per game on the month and well…that’s not that good. Alex Ovechkin only scored 5 goals (3 came in the Toronto game) and Nicklas Backstrom scored only 1. What’s the scary thing? Those two led the team in points. While I appreciate what Matt Hendricks brings to the team and how well he’s playing, he shouldn’t be tied for second on the team in goals for a month (3). I mentioned in an earlier post that the Caps have had to shuffle lines a lot this month to help generate some chemistry and offense and it hasn’t exactly worked out for the best aside from the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Chimera first line having a few good games. The struggles with the offense can also be attributed to the lack of a second line center and injuries to players like Alexander Semin and Eric Fehr. Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson have been alternating centering the second line for now and while the latter hasn’t been bad, the former has been awful and was recently sent back down to Hershey after producing only 1 point in 12 games. When your top players are struggling, you need secondary scoring, something that Eric Fehr brings and he’s missed six games this month. Although, it would be helpful if Brooks Laich also broke out of this slump he’s in (only one goal on the month). As for Semin’s injury, before he missed the last nine games with a leg injury, he was goalless since November 28th, 2010. His creativity and scoring is definitely missed, regardless.

Let’s talk about the good things now. While the Caps didn’t score that much, they only allowed 23 goals (1.95 goals per game) this month and you can credit to both solid play by the defense and good goaltending. The defense by both the forwards and blueliners has been solid this month but a lot of credit should again go to the tandem of John Carlson and Karl Alzner. These two are the ones who get paired against the other team’s top lines nightly and they have done a good job at keeping them in check for the most part. Also the duo were on ice for the least goals scored of any defensive pairing. Mike Green also had a pretty solid month defensively has he’s done a fairly good job at keeping his game balanced this month, I’ll get to that later, though. One thing is certain, though the forwards playing better defense and playing a less high-risk game has taken a lot of pressure off the entire defensive corps and goaltenders.

About the goaltenders, all of three of them had good months. Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby all had even strength save percentages of over .930 for the month. The only complaint I have is that the first two can’t seem to stay healthy and that’s the only reason Holtby was even called up but he played very well during his time with the big club stopping 69 of 72 shots in 3 games. Washington’s goaltending has been the subject of critciism among the stat community lately and all three played well above average this month, even if that is a small sample size.

Another subject of criticism has been the Caps penalty kill and it was 90.4% effective for January and is 2nd in the league overall right now. While I agree that this success rate isn’t sustainable throughout the entire year, I have to give credit to where it’s due and say they were fantastic this month.

Definitely a month with some highs and lows and the Capitals aren’t exactly the most exciting team in the NHL to watch anymore since their “firewagon” style of hockey has been abandoned in favor of a more responsible game but I guess we’ll see how far it leads us in the end. In January, we ended up with the same number of wins in a month as we did in December, five. What exactly does that mean? Well, I don’t want to jump to conclusions right now but I think it’s unfair to blame the new system immediately. Like I said earlier, the injuries to Alexander Semin and Eric Fehr are pretty big. There have been other numerous injuries as well with Tom Poti always being hurt and Matt Bradley missed all but one game, as well. Anytime you have to call up Brian Willsie for a game, you know you have injury problems. The Caps aren’t in any danger of losing a playoff spot but they definitely need to fix their powerplay and get their key players back on track if they want to win the Southeast again.

Top Performers

Braden Holtby – I think most people that read my blog or Twitter feed know that I’m not a huge Holtby fan yet but he was great when called up and had a wonderful performance against the Maple Leafs stopping 35 of 36 shots. I don’t think he will be with the team come playoff time but he stole a couple wins for Washington this month and deserves a lot of credit. Huge improvement compared to how he did during his first call-up.

John Carlson/Karl Alzner – see above. Carlson’s all-around ability is a welcome addition to just about any team and it works well with Alzner’s defensive game. On a few nights, these two were the Caps top defensive pairing instead of the usual 52-55. Not bad for a coiuple of rookies, eh?

Matt Hendricks – 3 goals and an assist doesn’t seem like much but that contribution from a 3rd/4th liner is huge on a team struggling for goals right now. Hendricks surprised a lot of people with this highlight reel goal against the Leafs last Saturday and this breakaway tally against Vancouver wasn’t too shabby either. His two-way game and toughness is appreciated, as well.

Alex Ovechkin – 10 points is a less than stellar month for Ovechkin but he led the team in goals, +/- and corsi so technically, he’s a top performer.

Semyon Varlamov – Varly got a lot of starts this month and he had an ES percentage of .934, which gets him a positive mark for this month. There’s a lot of problems with the team right now but goaltending definitely isn’t one of them…aside from Varly always getting hurt in some fashion.

Marcus Johansson – He had a handful of good and bad games this month but ultimately, I have to give him a positive rating for his solid work on the third line. 6 points (3 goals, 3 assists) and he even spent some time on the 1st line as a winger which he definitely made the most of. However, the last thing this team needs is another center converted to winger so I’m hoping his play as a center continues to develop for the rest of the year. I keep saying it, but I see a lot of good things from him but he still has yet to put it together. Case in point, half of the points he’s had this year came during this month. In retrospect, that doesn’t look good but it shows that he’s improving.

Under Acheivers

Nicklas Backstrom – The playmaking is still there at times and the 9 assists show that but Backstrom hasn’t looked like himself this season. He’s been playing better over the last week or so but there’s been a lot of games where he just looks off and lazy at times. That and only 1 goal in a month isn’t acceptable for him, really.

Brooks Laich – 1-2-3. That was Laich’s scoring line for the month. Not good. Laich also hasn’t really looked like himself this year and it’s hard to give him a negative rating since he’s one of my favorite players but I’m definitely expecting more of him. You can definitely argue that the constant line shuffling is contributing to his struggles though. Putting him and Mike Knuble (who is basically the same player aged 10 years) on the same line will never, ever work. That and he’s been playing with Mathieu Perreault as his center most nights and that hasn’t gone too well, either.

Jeff Schultz – Remember when Schultz was the best defensive defenseman on the team? That hasn’t been the case since he returned from his injury. He was a -4 on the month and had a brutal corsi rating of -37. That said, his play has improved a bit lately but it definitely wasn’t a month to remember for Sarge.

Jay Beagle – Remember how I said it was injuries that led to Brian Willsie being called up? Well, injuries probably had a lot to do with Beagle being active for EVERY GAME in January. How many points did Beagle score in those games? Zero. He also skated with the second line briefly…yeah, I don’t get it either. I don’t even know if this is considered under acheiving or just bad considering I have no expectations for Beags.

Mathieu Perreault – For a guy who is highly touted for his offense, he really didn’t show it this month. No goals and one assist in January for him. I usually have high expectations for him because he tends to do well when he’s called up and he did at first but that’s died down a lot. Why Boudreau kept assigning him to center the second line when he wasn’t playing well is beyond me. I would say he’s a candidate to be sent back to Hershey but who else is going to center the 2nd line now? Go with Johansson full-time? Not sure about that yet…

Other Notable Performers

Mike Green – Like I said earlier, he’s becoming a better defender and still brings a fair amount of offense to the table. The number of defensive blunders from him are definitely lower this year. What’s keeping him from getting the positive rating is the 10.4% effective powerplay which he quarterbacks.

Jason Chimera – Spent time on the first line and they scored in three straight games since his addition but I figured it would wear off eventually since I don’t see what he brings to the table that Mike Knuble doesn’t aside from his speed. 6 points for Chimera on the month, not great but not definitely not bad at all.


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