October 30 2010 09:41AM
After Thursday night's disaster at the 'Dome, I suspect that more than a few fans are eying this evening's match against the Capitals with a bit of dread. That's understandable, given the way that the visitors from the World's Most Important City torched the net last season on their way to the President's Trophy. That noted, Washington hasn't really lit it up in the same manner this season, and it's largely due to the effect of our old friend variance.
The Caps had a terrific year in 09/10, but as good as they were, they did benefit from having just about everything work for them as well. In 08/09, a very good Washington team badly out-shot their opposition 5v5, and had a pretty standard looking 8.2 EVSH% along the way. Last year, the Caps were nowhere near as dominant, but shot 11% 5v5, and scored nearly 60 extra goals because of that gaudy percentage. This year, they're shooting 8.3%, so it's possible that they didn't invent a new way of playing in 09/10 ;-) The crazy PDO numbers from last year haven't carried over across the board at any rate.
Throw in the fact that the Caps are shooting a rancid 5.2% when up a man, and it's pretty clear that most of their fall-off through their first ten games has been percentage related. It isn't that they're playing dramatically worse than last year, but they're getting normal results at EV and bad ones on the PP, to the detriment of their goal totals. It happens. The PP shooting will almost certainly improve, and at that point, I'd make a small wager that a fair chunk of the Caps' early scoring woes will disappear, but that EV shooting would be very hard to repeat. I don't see a total repeat of last season's scoring on the horizon for Washington, but a more modest performance where they're simply good again.
Where the return to normalcy has manifested itself in the most obvious manner is via a drop in the secondary scoring that drove their goal differential off the charts last year. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Knuble, Semin and Laich are all very good, of course, but Tomas Fleischmann is nothing special for a number two center on a good team, and the Capitals' depth players like Fehr, Chimera and Mathieu Perrault are just OK.
Their defense misses Tom Poti, which might seem strange to fans of teams that had him on the roster earlier in his career, but it's true. He and Jeff Schultz played the toughs most of last year, letting Mike Green have a free run against the other team's second string. Without Poti, they've stuck guys like Tyler Sloan under the gun, and that's not necessarily a recipe for success when the Capitals are forced to defend.
For all the talk about goaltending in Washington leading up to the start of the year, Michael Neuvirth has looked acceptable thus far, but his SV% has been boosted by unsustainable numbers when Washington has been killing penalties. He's still been decent enough at EV, but at some point, the Capitals might well use their salary space on a goalie with a bit more pedigree. Regular commenter Lawrence suggest Tomas Vokoun earlier this year, which would likely be a pretty nice move if/when Florida falls out of the playoff picture.
Added up, Washington has had a slightly sluggish beginning to the year, and they were not particularly good on Thursday in St. Paul, either. If I were to hope for one thing for this evening's affair, though, it would be for the Caps' PP to take one more night off. That 5v4 SH% is so poor that it can't last, and when they bust out, it might get ugly for their opposition. Short version: stay out of the box, because they're due as due can be. If the Flames can manage that trick, they might have a decent chance tonight.