As rough as the start of the 2013 season has been for the Washington Capitals, it has not been all bad. And following the Caps 5-0 thrashing of the Florida Panthers on Saturday night (ESPN), Caps' fans, for the first time all season, were able to smile for a while and hope that the worst is behind them.
What is behind the Caps thus far though has been pretty bad.
Taking stock of the Caps' 2013 season so far is not a particularly fun exercise for those who routinely Rock The Red.
With a record of 3-8-1, the Caps are officially the worst team in the NHL. And yet they are only five points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Half of the Caps' losses have been by one goal. Turn that around and the Caps would be 7-4-1 and 15 points would have them ranked third in the East.
So, if one wants to have a "the glass is half full" mentality, one could say that the Caps are not that far away from being a good team.
Then again, there are other numbers and stats that paint a darker and more negative picture.
The Caps are averaging only 2.50 goals-per-game, which has them ranked 21st in the NHL. They are giving up 3.42 goals-per-game, which has them ranked 27th in the NHL. Their penalty kill percentage sits at 71.7 percent, which has them ranked 28th in the NHL. With 161 penalty minutes, the Caps are the ninth most penalized team in the NHL.
On the other hand, the Caps' power play has started to click. At 22.7 percent efficiency, the Caps' power play is ranked ninth in the NHL.
As you can see, there are a lot of negatives to discuss so far in the Caps 2013 season—but there are some positives to look at as well.
Let's take a closer look at some of the positives and negatives at the quarter point of the Washington Capitals' 2013 season.
Mike Ribeiro has been the best player for the Caps this season
Even though the Capitals are off to a very slow start, there are a few players who have shined early on. A few in particular are Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Mike Ribeiro.
How good have these three been? Ward and Brouwer are tied for the team lead in goals with five. Ribeiro is right behind them with four.
Ribeiro leads the team with 14 points. Ward is tied for second on the team with eight points. Brouwer is tied for third with seven points.
Ribeiro leads the team with 10 assists. Ward leads the team with a plus-five efficiency rating; Ribeiro is second with a plus-four. The three men combined are a plus-seven.
Only five members of the Caps have power-play goals this season and guess who three of them are. Ribeiro has three power-play goals on the season, Brouwer has two and Ward has one.
Ward's performance is perhaps the most surprising. Take a look at Ward's stats page from ESPN for a moment. Ward's career high in goals has been 17, which he accomplished in Nashville during the 2008-2009 season. With five goals in the first twelve games, he would be on pace for a staggering 34 if the Caps were playing an 82-game schedule. He would also be on pace for a career high in points with 54.
As it stands, even with a 48-game schedule, Ward is still on pace for an astonishing 20 goals, a career high.
The hero of Game 7 against the Boston Bruins last spring has been playing as hard as anyone on the Caps and it is hard to find much to complain about as far as Joel Ward is concerned.
Troy Brouwer really stepped it up against the Florida Panthers on Saturday night with two goals, including the game winner. The second goal was a fantastic power-play tally off a great feed from Braden Holtby. It was the highlight goal of the season for the Caps so far.
Like Ward, Brouwer would be on pace for 34 goals if an 82-game schedule was being played. Like Ward, that would be a career high for Brouwer. As it stands, he is on pace for 20 goals in this shortened season, which would be the second-highest total for his career.
The only complaint one can make with Brouwer is his minus-two efficiency rating. But one cannot fault Brouwer's effort. He has been trying as hard as anyone to right the ship.
But if you are looking for consistent hard work and effort on a night in and night out basis, then you have to be impressed with Mike Ribeiro.
Ribeiro came to the Caps on Draft Day 2012 when George McPhee cut a deal with the Dallas Stars whereby the Caps got Ribeiro in exchange for Cody Eakin and the 54th pick in the draft (Washington Times).
The hope was that Ribeiro could come in and be the second-line center that the Caps had been looking for ever since Sergei Fedorov went back to Russia.
Mission accomplished—and then some.
No player on the Caps has been as solid as Ribeiro this season. He scores goals, he wins faceoffs, he assists, he plays hard every night. He has done it all for the Caps through the first quarter of the season.
He would currently be on pace for 27 goals this season, which would match a career high. He would also be on pace for career highs in assists with 68 and points with 95.
As it stands with the shortened season, the man known as Ribs is still on pace for 16 goals, 40 assists and a 56-point season. It is hard to complain about that.
Despite the bad start to the first quarter of the season, the exceptional play of Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Mike Ribeiro is definitely something about which Caps fans can feel very good.
A big reason the Caps are dead last in the NHL at the quarter point of the season is because of the relatively poor play of the goaltenders, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth.
The Caps' goaltending woes were one of the factors George McPhee cited as a reason for the Caps' poor start to the season (NHL.com).
Braden Holtby was supposed to be the long-term solution to the Caps' goaltending issue. After his playoff performance last spring expectations were high that Holtby could be an elite goalie, possibly even someone who could be in the Vezina Trophy conversation.
And why not? Holtby out-played Tim Thomas and led the Caps to a stunning upset of the defending champion Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
He then very nearly repeated that feat against Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist and the top-seeded New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Holtby posted a 1.95 goals against average during the 2012 NHL playoffs and a .935 save percentage.
So far this season though, Holtby has not been very good. He has a 3.87 goals-against average, which has him ranked 41st in the NHL. He has an .879 save percentage, which has Holtby ranked 37th in the NHL.
The quality of the goals he has allowed have been rather questionable with several of them rightfully being labeled soft.
To be fair though, Holtby looked very sharp Saturday night when he shut out the Florida Panthers, 5-0. Holtby stopped all 27 shots fired at him as the Caps snapped a three-game losing skid.
To put this into perspective a bit, Holtby has a shutout this season while Lundqvist, Ryan Miller and Carey Price do not.
Perhaps things are looking up for Braden Holtby. We will find out soon enough.
Neuvirth has, so far, looked to be the more solid of the two goaltenders—but that is not really saying too much.
Neuvirth has a 3.05 goals-against average, which has him ranked 33rd in the NHL. His .889 save percentage has him ranked 32nd.
Statistically, Neuvirth has been the better of the two goalies.Even so, Neuvirth is the only of the two goalies to actually get pulled from a game this season—and that happened in Pittsburgh last Thursday after Neuvirth gave up only the Pens' second goal of the game.
But if you have watched the Caps play lately, it certainly seems like Holtby has all the momentum and is going to get the majority of the starts from here on out.
Regardless of which goalie plays, that man has to play much better than what we have seen so far. Being ranked 27th in the NHL in goals allowed per game is not going to get any team very far.
If the Caps are going to turn things around and get back into playoff contention, it will all start with improved play from Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth.
The Caps power play has been improving
One of the main reasons Caps fans were excited to see Adam Oates hired was the feeling that Oates could revitalize a Capitals power play that had been rather uninspiring the past couple of seasons. There were good reasons to believe this, as well as hard data in support of it.
When Oates took the reins of the New Jersey Devils' power play, New Jersey's power play was a mess. It ranked 28th in the NHL in power-play percentage, clicking on just 14.4 percent of their opportunities.
By the end of last season, the Devils' power play was ranked 14th in the NHL with a 17.2 percent success rate. In no time at all, Oates had increased the Devils' success rate by 2.8 percent and gotten them into the top half of the league as far as their power-play success rate.
For the 2011-2012 season, the Caps' power play ranked 18th in the NHL with a 16.7 percent success rate. If Oates could repeat the success he had in New Jersey with the Caps, then the Caps' power-play success rate was projected to go up to somewhere in the neighborhood of 19.5 percent.
That would have been good enough for seventh in the NHL a season ago.
Projections are nice, but reality is even better. The Caps' power play is currently operating at an efficiency rate of 22.7 percent. They are already 3.2 percent better than where a potential best-case scenario had them.
This has the Caps ranked ninth in the NHL as far the power play is concerned.
This is vitally important for the Caps because when the teams are skating five-on-five, the Caps have not been doing so well.
In other words, until the Caps can equalize their five-on-five problems and get the goal differential closer to even, they need to score whenever and wherever they can.
The power play is one of the areas where the Caps are succeeding. If the second quarter of the season is to be better than the first, that is a trend that will have to continue.
The Caps penalty kill has been a major problem this season
As good as the Caps' power play has been this season, the same cannot be said for their penalty kill.
As mentioned previously, the Caps' penalty kill percentage sits at 71.7 percent. That has them ranked 28th in the NHL. Only Anaheim, at 67.5 percent, and Winnipeg, at 66.7 percent, are worse than the Caps as far as killing penalties.
But when one really digs deeper into the Caps' penalty issues, the picture gets even more bleak.
The Caps have been shorthanded 53 times so far, making them the ninth-most penalized team in the NHL. When they are shorthanded, the opposition is pouncing as they have fired 88 shots on goal against the Caps while they have been shorthanded. Only Buffalo and Edmonton have surrendered more shots against them during the penalty kill.
The Caps have also allowed 15 power-play goals, which has the Caps tied for dead last in the NHL with Detroit.
Where this becomes an even more pronounced problem is when the Caps are playing away from Verizon Center. The Caps have yet to win on the road this season. In fact, they have accumulated all of one point in road games this year and that came in an overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils.
When the Caps are on the road, they are putting themselves in bad situations by taking too many bad penalties. The Caps have 43:50 of penalty kill time while on the road. They have been shorthanded 12 minutes more on the road than they have been on the power play.
Compare that to how the Caps have done at home. At home, the Caps have been on the penalty kill for 36:14, but they have been on the power play for 4:13 longer. It is not hard to see why the Caps have been more successful at home than on the road.
The Caps' penalty kill—and their disturbing propensity to take penalties—was another factor noted by George McPhee as the main reason for the Caps' bad start. As McPhee said to NHL.com's Ben Raby:
The issue with our club right now, in my mind, is all these penalties that we're taking. It's too much. We're playing a good game and then we start taking penalties and we take them in bunches. No system, no coach, no team can survive that. We've given up the most shorthanded goals in the League and for good reason—we're taking too many. It's too hard on the goaltenders and it's too hard on the team.
McPhee has a very valid point. No team is going to be able to succeed when they are constantly trying to kill off penalties. It is a major problem and a key reason the first quarter of the season has been such a disaster for the Caps.
If things are going to turn around, the penalty kill must improve and the Caps need to cut down on the penalties dramatically.
The Great 8 is starting to play better
After a very slow start to the season, Alexander Ovechkin has definitely picked up the pace the past few games.
Obviously, that is great news for the Washington Capitals.
Ovechkin's slow start had all sorts of people actually contemplating whether or not Ovi should be traded away. But the impracticality of actually trading the Great 8 was recognized by most analysts and fans. A good example of this was Neil Greenberg's article on the topic that appeared in The Washington Post last week.
But Ovi has been playing much better over the past five games for the Caps and if he can continue to progress, the team should follow along with him rather nicely.
On February 1st, the Caps won their second game of the season, beating the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2. In that game, Ovi put seven shots on goal, which is still a season high for him.
On February 3rd, while the Caps were being battered at home by the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3, Ovi was one of the few Caps who played well as he had an assist, five shots on goal and a plus-one rating.
On February 5th, during a 3-2 home loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ovi had an assist.
On February 7th in Pittsburgh, Ovi played well again, notching a goal, an assist and six shots on net. It did not help as the Caps were humbled by the Pens again, 5-2.
On Saturday against the Florida Panthers, Ovi scored almost immediately off of the faceoff, a wicked shot that Jose Theodore probably never saw.
Ovechkin is therefore on a four-game point-scoring streak. He has scored a goal in two consecutive games and his goal against the Panthers was his first even-strength goal of the year.
On the power play, Ovi has been very good. He continues to be a huge threat to blast the puck by the goalie at any time and he has been working very well with Mike Ribeiro on the power play.
Ovechkin's intensity level seems to be up as well and he has looked faster the past few games. The only thing missing from the resume so far is a multi-goal outing and if he keeps playing as hard as he has the past few games, there is no reason to believe a two- or three-goal outburst might not be far off.
At the current pace Ovechkin is on, he would end up with 16 goals and 16 assists for 32 points. Over an 82-game season, that would give Ovi only 27 goals, which would be a career low.
Alexander Ovechkin's numbers are still off, but they are improving.
If the Caps are going to climb back into playoff contention, that is something that absolutely has to continue.
Too often this season the Caps have failed to play with the intensity and emotion necessary to prevail.
Another big problem that the Capitals have had in the first quarter of the season has been the lack of intensity and emotion with which the team needs to play in order to succeed.
If you have watched the Caps play this season, you will know what I mean. Far too often, the team just seems to be a step behind. They are allowing other teams to impose their will upon them too often.
There are too many moments where players are standing around or not giving that extra effort. Players like Nicklas Backstrom have seemed almost disinterested at times this year. Alexander Ovechkin has seemingly been skating at half-speed on occasion.
If things do not go right, the Caps do not seem to have the intestinal fortitude to fight back. Much of the heart and grit and determination we saw during the 2012 NHL Playoffs has seemingly vanished.
You can look at all the stats and data you want to try and come up with an explanation for the Caps' struggles. But it is the intangibles that truly tell the tale.
The stark reality of the situation has not been lost on the Caps. After the brutal 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins last Thursday, the Caps' shortcomings as to many of these issues were noted by several key players. Many of these thoughts were summarized in an article by ESPN's Scott Burnside.
Troy Brouwer felt that Caps were not mentally prepared to play.
Ouch. That's harsh.
Alexander Ovechkin took it a step further, agreeing with Brouwer and adding that the Caps played with no emotion.
Indeed. During the second period of the game against the Penguins, the Caps simply did not have the heart and will to fight back—and the Penguins buried them.
How can a team not have the will and desire to fight to the bitter end against its biggest rival?
And all the penalties? A blatant example of a lack of discipline. That is something Adam Oates has to address.
Mike Ribeiro, in the Scott Burnside article, talked about working harder and preparing better before games. That is all fine and great. But what this team needs more than anything is to look at itself in the mirror and really try and find the will to win once again.
Before it's too late.