Hurricanes vs. Capitals: What's the Difference from Last Season?

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIIFebruary 26, 2013

Hurricanes vs. Capitals: What's the Difference from Last Season?

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    Tuesday evening the Carolina Hurricanes travel to Verizon Center to renew their rivalry with the Washington Capitals.

    Expect the two Southeast division rivals to amp up the intensity significantly.

    This will not be a usual regular season meeting between the two teams. Alexander Semin will return to Washington and face his former team for the first time.

    With Semin returning to Washington, the Verizon Center should be dripping with drama on Tuesday night.

    Last season, the two teams split its six meetings with the Caps winning the first three but the Canes winning the next three—including two shutouts in which Carolina outscored Washington 8-0.

    Nevertheless, a season ago the Caps finished as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference with 92 points while the Canes missed the playoffs finishing 10 points behind the Caps with 82.

    This season has seen a role reversal of sorts. The Hurricanes currently lead the Southeast division, along with the Tampa Bay Lightning, with 19 points; the Caps sit dead last in the Southeast division with 13 points.

    If the Caps hope to make a move and climb back into contention for the division crown, then the game Tuesday night almost becomes a must win for Washington.

    It is an intriguing matchup between two teams built quite similarly.

    How are the teams different from last season and how might those differences effect how things play out Tuesday night?

    Let's look at some key differences from a season ago and find out.

New Faces in New Places

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    One of the biggest differences between the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes from last season are the additions of some key new players to both teams.

    In one very specific example, the Canes addition of a player was a direct result of a subtraction from the Caps.

    I am, of course, talking about Alexander Semin.

    As most know, the Caps allowed Semin to go to free agency this past offseason and Semin signed a one-year, $7 million deal with the rival Hurricanes (NHL.com).

    Semin rose to prominence as a member of the Capitals and he along with Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green formed what had been termed as the "Core Four."

    That refers to a group that helped to lift the Caps from obscurity and make them a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference.

    Undoubtedly, Semin will want to show his former team what a mistake they made by letting him go.

    Also, Ovechkin—despite his fondness for his countryman—might want to show Semin exactly why he was always considered the "other Alex" during his time in Washington.

    In addition to Semin, the Hurricanes also acquired Jordan Staal in a trade they made with the Pittsburgh Penguins back in June 2012 (NHL.com).

    Semin and Staal have made a big difference to the Canes so far this season and they are key reasons Carolina currently leads the Southeast division.

    Staal is second on the Canes with 15 points (his brother Eric leads the team with 19) while Semin is tied for third on the Canes with 14 points. Semin and Staal are tied for third on the team in goals with four.

    Meanwhile, the Caps made a big addition of their own when they added Mike Ribeiro to the lineup. On Draft Day 2012 George McPhee cut a deal with the Dallas Stars whereby the Caps got Mike Ribeiro in exchange for Cody Eakin and the 54th pick in the draft (Washington Times).

    The move has paid dividends—and then some.

    Ribeiro leads the Caps with 21 points. Ovechkin is a full seven points behind him with just 14. Ribeiro leads the Caps with 15 assists and he is third on the team in goals with six.

    He has been the most consistent player on the Caps this season by far. His vision and passing ability on the power play have been nothing short of incredible.

    The additions of Alexander Semin, Jordan Staal and Mike Ribeiro to their respective teams is one of the biggest differences to the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals from a season ago.

Some Statistical Role Reversal

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    Another difference between the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes from a season ago is that the two teams have reversed roles in regards to several statistical categories.

    One such category is in the area of goals-per-game. During the 2011-2012 season, the Caps ranked 14th in the NHL with a 2.66 goals-per-game average. The Canes ranked 16th with 2.58 goals-per-game.

    Thus far this season, both teams' numbers have improved in this category but the Canes have found another gear. Carolina currently ranks seventh with a 2.94 goals-per-game average; Washington ranks 13th with 2.82 goals-per-game.

    As such, one big difference between the teams is that now, the Hurricanes seem to be the more effective team on offense.

    As further evidence of this, take a look at stats relating to shots per game.

    During the 2011-2012 season, the Canes ranked 12th in the NHL with 30.5 shots-per-game; the Caps ranked 23rd in the NHL with 28 shots-per-game.

    So far this season, Carolina is again the better team as far as shots-per-game are concerned—but the gap has widened.

    Carolina ranks No. 1 in the NHL with 33.2 shots-per-game. Washington, meanwhile, ranks 22nd in the NHL with 27.9 shots-per-game.

    The Canes are therefore averaging 2.7 more shots per game than a season ago while the Caps are averaging .1 shots fewer per game.

    Defensively, there has been a surprising role reversal as well. A season ago, the Caps ranked 21st in the NHL giving up 2.76 goals-per-game while the Canes ranked 25th, giving up 2.89 goals-per-game.

    This year, the Canes are the better defensive team. Carolina is ranked 22nd in the NHL as they are giving up 3.00 goals-per-game. No, that's not too good. But the Caps are even worse as they are ranked 26th in the league giving up 3.24 goals-per-game.

    These are just some examples of how in several key statistical categories the Caps and the Canes have reversed roles. Carolina now possesses the more potent offense and, for the time being, have the better defense.

    All of this strongly suggests the Washington Capitals will have their hands full on Tuesday night.

A Wider Gap in Special Teams

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    It would be inaccurate to say, however, that Carolina holds all the statistical advantages. In fact, in the area of special teams, the Caps have improved quite a bit while the Canes have not.

    This is especially true as far as the power play is concerned. Last season, both teams were ranked 18th in the NHL with matching 16.7 percent efficiency rates.

    This season however, the Canes have slipped a bit more as they are ranked 21st in the NHL with a 16.2 percent efficiency rating.

    The Caps power play has absolutely caught fire, as many expected it would with Adam Oates as the coach. Oates—himself a major difference between this season and last season—has the Caps' power play humming along at an astonishing success rate of 28.8 percent. Only the St. Louis Blues, at 30.6 percent, have a better power play than the Caps.

    If you watch the two teams power play units, the difference is very visible. The Caps move the puck fluidly, especially Mike Ribeiro and Alexander Ovechkin. The Canes struggle to find their rhythm at times and the Caps more than 12 percentage point advantage here is no fluke.

    As far as the penalty kill is concerned, this has been a weak spot for both teams this season. The Caps have a penalty kill rate of 77.0 this season as opposed to 81.6 percent a year ago. The Canes penalty kill so far this season is operating at 76.8 percent, as compared to 80.6 percent a season ago.

    Both teams relative difficulty killing off power plays is another difference from last season, albeit a slight one.

    But the Caps' drastically improved power play is a definite difference from the Caps team the Hurricanes saw last season.

Goaltending Concerns for Both Teams

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    A key difference for both teams has been in regards to their goaltending situation.

    For the Caps, a season ago they were using Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth to handle the net minding duties.For most of the regular season, that worked. Vokoun had a 2.51 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage. Neuvirth was not quite as effective with a 2.82 goals-against-average and a .903 save percentage.

    Things did not work out well at all with Vokoun and Neuvirth late last season though. When both got hurt just before the playoffs began, the Caps had to turn their fortunes in net over to a rookie net minder, Braden Holtby.

    Anyone who followed the playoffs last spring knows just what Holtby accomplished as he outplayed Tim Thomas and led the Caps to a stunning series victory over the defending champion Boston Bruins. He then followed that up by getting the Caps to a Game 7 against Vezina trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist and the top-seeded New York Rangers before the Caps ran out of steam.

    Heading into the season, great things were expected of Holtby. But Holtby struggled badly earlier in the season and lost the starting job to Michal Neuvirth. Neuvirth struggled too and Holtby eventually reclaimed the starting job.

    Holtby has been playing better since he won the starting goalie job back. He is 3-2-0 in his last five games with a 2.80 goals-against-average and a .914 save percentage. It seems pretty obvious that Holtby now has a solid hold on the starting goalie job and this was made even more clear when the Caps signed Holtby to a two-year, $3.7 million extension on Monday (ESPN).

    While the Caps goaltending situation looks to be improving, the Canes situation has to be a bit concerning for their fans.

    Cam Ward has always been one of those guys who just does what he does. And what he does is win hockey games. Let's face it—the Hurricanes were not really that good last year. Nevertheless, Ward still had a solid winning record with a mark of 30-23-13.

    In 68 games played a year ago, Ward posted a .915 save percentage and a 2.74 goals-against average. Those numbers were a bit off from the 2010-2011 season—but then again the Canes, as a team, were off as well.

    This season though, Ward is off to a bit of a slow start. He is 6-5-1 with a 3.16 goals-against-average (good for 40th in the NHL) and a .898 save percentage (good for 36th in the NHL).

    Carolina fans are not really used to numbers like that from Ward. If the Hurricanes are going to continue to challenge for the Southeast division title, Ward's numbers will have to improve.

    For both teams though, the relative uncertainty and inconsistency between the pipes is a difference from last season and something to which both teams will have to adjust as the season progresses.