Saturday, November 25, 2006

Caps Stranded on Island

The Caps fell to the suddenly resurgent Islanders 4-1 tonight. Despite the loss, though, I was pretty impressed with their performance overall. There were some minor glitches on defense and the offense is still sputtering, both of which I will go into in a moment. But as a whole there were some good chances and fairly solid penalty killing after allowing an early PP goal in the first. The Caps even managed to *gasp* outshoot the Isles 34-30. Amazing.

And yet the Caps have extended their losing streak to 6 total, their 3rd straight in regulation. Tonight's game was indicative of some trouble areas that have plagued the Caps throughout that stretch -
1) Defensive Glitches: I'm not sure what is going on back on the blue line, but there have been turnovers galore lately. Bad passes, lost battles along the boards, incomplete clearing attempts - all have left the goaltender facing odd-man rushes and open shooters.

which brings me to...

2) Goaltending: This hasn't been an issue through the whole winless stretch, but more in the last two games. While Olie and Johnny have both continued to come up with decent saves and held their team in games, last night against Toronto and tonight against the Islanders were probably the least comfortable I've seen either of them in net. Johnny obviously got the worst of it last night, but 11 goals over two games is not normal for this top duo.
3) Offense: For whatever reason, this once potent offense has struggled lately, scoring an anemic 9 goals in 6 games. One thing I've noticed is the reluctance or inability of all the shooters to shoot high - almost all the shots have been right on the crest or at the pads. In this age when the majority of goalies are using a butterfly style, shooting 5-hole is not going to do it. The Caps also continue to be unable to set up anyone in front of the net consistently, meaning most of their shots are coming from the outside. Like I've said a million times before, shots from the point will be stopped most of the time.
4) Specialty Teams: Both areas seem to have slipped a little - granted, the power play is still clicking somewhat, with goals in now 7 straight including tonight, but it's only been one. The Caps had so many opportunities with the extra man, including an extended 5-on-3, and only connected on one. Penalty killing is a whole other issue; it gained some momentum tonight, but it has steadily slipped from a one-time ranking of 15th to 21st in the league. If you're not killing penalties and not scoring on the power play, you are likely going to lose more games.

Still, tonight was a good solid road game and the best effort I've seen them put together in a few games. They almost played a full 60-minutes, giving up only 2 goals in the second period (is it said that I had to say only there?)

- Young'uns - I really liked the line of Laich/Beech/Fehr; I thought they had some of the Caps best chances tonight and really drove the net consistently. A few minor turnovers, but that's to be expected on such a young line. I was particularly impressed with Fehr, who had some good shots in his own right and has now had 2 pretty solid outings. Mike Green also had a great game, drawing a penalty and creating offensive drives. He just continues to develop and impresses me night after night.
- Shots on Net - The Caps outshot or were even with the Islanders in each period, the first time I've seen that in many moons. As I've mentioned, most of them were from the outside or were low, but it was a nice change from the usual. After Ovechkin's goal, they seemed to put more quality chances on net and DiPietro looked a little shaky for a few minutes before pulling it together for the win.
- Team Toughness - The Caps manhandled the Thrashers at the end of Wednesday's game and were manhandled by the Leafs last night, but I thought they found a nice balance on the island. There were some quality hits, including several by Ovie on his shadow Martinek, and a nice heavyweight bout between Erskine and Simon that looked like a draw to me.

- Spoiled Chances - Twice the Caps caught the Isles' defense flatfooted and had a 3-on-1, and twice Ovechkin shot it right at DiPietro. I'm not sure if they're just not used to having that kind of odd-man rush or what, but if Ovie doesn't pass it the advantage is lost and it goes back to a 1-on-1 situation.
- Spoiled Chances II - When the Islanders caught a steady stream of penalties at the end of the first period, I thought for sure the Caps would be able to climb even with the Islanders. It wasn't for lack of shots on net, necessarily, but quality shots were again lacking and they failed to connect. As Hanlon has said in the past, if you can't score 5-on-3 you're going to lose the game most of the time.

All in all, though, a pretty good game. I have to give the Islanders some credit, too - they played very well and it's easy to see why they're now 6-1-1 in their last 8 games. I think all of the craziness in the offseason distracted me and most of the league from the fact that they improved in a lot of areas and have suddenly snuck into first place (pending a final between NJ and San Jose) in a very tough Atlantic Division.

So 6 games, 6 losses. It's not the end of the world, but what concerns me is that looking at the schedule, tonight's game and Tuesday's game look like the ones the Caps had a chance at to break the streak. I'm not saying that the Islanders and Lightning aren't tough teams, because they obviously are, but the Caps are much more evenly matched with those teams than with their next few opponents - after Tampa the Caps have a 4-game home stretch against Dallas,
Buffalo, a suddenly alive Senators team, and the Ducks.

The Caps have 2 days off to readjust and regroup before traveling to Tampa Bay on Tuesday - if they can build on the performance from tonight and add some scoring, they may be able to leave the sunshine state with a couple of points.

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