Solutions to Washington Capitals' Biggest Problems Early in 2013-14
Let the dissection of the Washington Capitals officially begin. It is time to solve some of the issues that are afflicting this very talented team early in the 2013-14 season.
It is important to note that things are not really that bleak in D.C. The Caps held their own on their recent trek through Canada, going 2-2 and, for large stretches, playing their best hockey of the season.
On Friday, the Caps absolutely demolished the Philadelphia Flyers by the final count of 7-0—and Alex Ovechkin was not even in the lineup.
In reality, though, the blasting of the Flyers Friday night only served to illustrate the problem areas the Caps have and where they can improve. We saw the Caps go directly against what their tendencies have been throughout the season in their game against Philly, and the results speak for themselves.
The Caps are a very talented team, and they have played quite well on their longest road trip of the season so far. As for what is wrong with them, there are a few things that need to be addressed. None of them are earth-shattering or beyond repair.
But if the Caps address these few problem areas, there is no reason to believe that they cannot challenge for a playoff spot or possibly even the Metropolitan division crown.
Here are a few issues that have cropped up early in the 2013-14 season that the Caps need to address.
The Offense Needs to Pick Up the Pace
Is it more than a little ironic that the Caps' biggest offensive outburst of the season came on a night when Alex Ovechkin was not even in the lineup?
Ovechkin has been having a tremendous season thus far, but the rest of the team has not followed suit. Whether they are too reliant on Ovechkin—or perhaps complacent is the better word—or whether they just don't want to pull the trigger at critical times, the rest of the Caps definitely need to pick up the pace if they want to score more goals this season.
Heading into the game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday, the Caps were ranked 17th in the NHL in goals per game at 2.67. That number will certainly go up after the beatdown of the Flyers. Still, the Caps have way too much talent and skill to be ranked in the bottom half of the NHL in goals per game.
Part of the problem is that they are just not shooting the puck enough. The Caps are ranked 21st in shots per game, averaging 29.8. The San Jose Sharks, who lead the NHL in this category, average almost 37 shots per game. That does not seem like a big difference, but in reality, it is.
In watching the Caps play this year, it sure seems like, many a time, the team is too intent on trying to be perfect. They always seem to be looking for that one extra pass so that they can get that open look. The Caps still seem to feel they are better suited as a finesse team.
Instead, the team needs to start hammering the puck at the net more and crash the net. Players like Mikhail Grabovski have already shown how effective he can be at screening the goalie and looking for deflections. But you have to shoot the puck to employ that strategy, and the Caps are not doing enough of that, at least not yet.
Look at what happened against the Flyers on Friday. The Caps started shooting the puck in the second and third periods and blew the game open. They were not trying to be cute, and they were rewarded with an offensive explosion. They had 30 shots on goal and seven goals.
And Ovechkin was nowhere to be found.
That is not to say the Caps should completely abandon any semblance of being a finesse team. That is hardly the case based on the skill set and talents of their best players. But the team needs to strive to find a better balance between being too cute and being effective.
If the Caps can do that, I think they will score more goals and will be much more successful.
Tighten Up on Defense
At the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the Caps' bigger problems this season has been their somewhat lackadaisical approach to defense. It is an approach we saw the Caps use last season—for a while anyway—with similar results.
One of the issues the Caps have on defense is that they are allowing too many goals. Going into the game Friday against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Caps ranked 27th in the NHL, allowing 3.17 goals per game.
Obviously, if you are allowing more goals per game than you score, you are not going to fare too well.
A big reason for the Caps defensive woes is that they are allowing too many shots on goal per game. The Caps rank 27th in the NHL in shots allowed per game, surrendering 34.5 shots to the opposition each game.
That means the Caps are allowing almost five more shots to the opposition each game than they are putting on goal themselves. That is another recipe for disaster.
Early last season, the Caps had a similar strategy. They were allowing a ton of shots on goal each game, and they paid the price. The general idea was to give the goalies clear lines of sight so they would have an easier time making saves.
That strategy is fine so long as the defense is actually eliminating screens and so long as the goalie is actually making saves. Neither condition is occurring enough for the Caps this season, the same as last season.
In the win on Friday over the Flyers, the Caps were able to outshoot the Flyers, and they limited the Flyers to 30 shots on goal, almost a full five shots below the average the Caps usually allow.
The end result? Washington's first shutout of the season.
A coincidence? Maybe. But for the Caps to improve this season, tightening things up on defense would be a very important step to take.
The Devil Is in the Details
As for some of the other issues with the Caps early in the 2013-14 season, there are some stats that are not looked at quite as often that tell an interesting story about some tiny details the Caps could tweak to improve their overall performance and, in all likelihood, gather some more wins.
A key area that the Caps absolutely need to get better at is their five-on-five play. The Caps currently rank 23rd in the NHL with respect to their five-on-five goals for and against ratio. The Caps are a .72 in this regard.
Faceoffs have also been a problem for the Caps this year. The Caps are only winning 48.9 percent of their draws, which has them ranked 20th in the NHL. Sure, it could be worse. But being below 50 percent for a team average at winning draws is just not going to get it done.
This is especially true when you look at some of the goals Alex Ovechkin has scored on quick shots right off of the faceoff. If the Caps can improve their faceoff win percentage, other players might enjoy similar success.
Washington's plus/minus rating is particularly bad. As a team, the Caps are a minus-eight. That has them ranked 23rd in the NHL. It goes without saying that those numbers must improve.
Defensively, the Caps are not quite as good a shot-blocking squad as I had hoped. As a team, the Caps have only 85 blocks for the season. That has them ranked 21st in the NHL. That is somewhat surprising since the Caps have one of the better shot-blockers in the league, John Carlson, on the team.
That might explain why so many shots are getting through to Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth. I suspect both goaltenders would appreciate it if the Caps blocked more shots.
Lastly, the Caps simply need to score first more often. Including the rout of the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday, the Caps have scored first six times. They have won four of those games.
In the other seven games where the Caps have not scored first, they have lost five of those games. It sounds very simple, but the Caps are a better team when playing with a lead as opposed to trying to rally from behind.
When it comes to winning hockey games, sometimes the devil truly is in the details.
The Caps need to refine and improve in a few of these detail areas if they hope to succeed in 2013-14.