Looking ahead: What is wrong with the Washington Capitals?

The Winnipeg Jets host the Washington Capitals tonight in a Southeast Division showdown. I’ve written before that the key to Winnipeg staying in the playoff hunt rests on whether or not any players from the Jets’ marginally talented division play like they can. Thus far, both Washington and Tampa Bay have showed little that indicates that they’re playoff teams.

Well, Washington did for a while. The team got off to a very hot 7-0 start but have tapered off since, going just 8-13-1 since. A coaching change hasn’t helped—the team has gone just 3-4, with their wins coming against Ottawa and Toronto, since Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau behind the bench.

But it’s the darndest thing: despite being a team that didn’t work hard enough, or had lost the trust of its coach, under Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals were one of the top teams in the NHL at controlling the play at even strength. Corsi Tied, a measure which records the percentage of total shot attempts that were taken at the other teams net with the score tied, was favourable to the Capitals. Unfortunately, their goaltending came up lame in the early going:

  Corsi Tied SV% Sh% PDO
Boudreau 55.4% 90.5% 9.1% 99.6%
Hunter 45.8% 90.6% 8.1% 98.7%

The team’s underlying numbers are not so favourable under Hunter, but Tomas Vokoun has been marginally better, particularly in close situations. (The team has gotten .918 goaltending in score-tied situations since the switch, compared to .879 before-hand).

In fact, even if you believe that teams can influence shooting and save percentages (efforts to prove this are 100% fruitless), the team is doing no better under Hunter than Boudreau. The team has been outscored 13-17 at even strength. Only the special teams have kept the Capitals somewhat above water and giving chances to win.

Via Illegal Curve:

To compound problems, Alexander Ovechkin has been human, scoring only nine goals thus far (Jason Chimera has 11 goals). The Capitals simply didn’t count on poor offensive play of Ovechkin and thus the whole deck of cards has seemingly collapsed underneath them.

It has been a pretty wild fall from grace in Washington. Ovechkin, a career 11.8% shooter who takes 5.2 shots per game, has seem that number decrease this season shooting 3.7 times per game and, some luck plays a part of it: he’s only scored on 8.4% of his shots this season.

Since Hunter took over, Ovechkin has gotten more offensive zone starts and that has helped his shot totals come closer to his career norms (4.4 per game) but his shooting percentage continues to be unsustainably low at 3.2%.

Ovechkin is a player dying for a breakout, but I’m not sure if we can say that about the rest of the Capitals team, who have had trouble keeping the puck out of their zone, and their net, this season. Particularly with some pretty lousy goaltending, the Capitals have no more chips left to deal before they may have to tinker with their roster, though indications are the Vokoun/Michal Neuvirth combination is here to stay.

So this is a team that’s vulnerable, and a very important game for the Jets. It’s crucial that Washington continues to play at a sloppy pace for Winnipeg to stay in the playoff hunt, because if Washington plays the way that their roster allows them to, it takes up another berth that the Jets are trying to land in.

Just a point separates these two teams in the standings, although the Capitals have a game in hand. This is a true December four-point game, really counting in March. If the Capitals still can’t figure out their even strength play or their goaltending by the stretch run, they’re a team that could be neck and neck with the other playoff bubble teams as we drive towards the postseason.