What is happening in Washington?
The most anti-climatic game of the Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin rivalry was played Thursday night. Pittsburgh and Washington played to a 2-1 Penguin win that was far more emblematic of Tomas Vokoun’s career—the game itself was a microcosm of what Vokoun has been through—and Crosby and Ovechkin were held off the score sheet.
Washington is in a free fall and have been for weeks. After a perfect 7-0 start where nothing could go wrong, things started to go wrong. High percentages, close, overtime and shootout victories caught up to the Capitals. A week after their 7-0 start, they were 7-2. A month later, they had fallen to 12-11, with Thursday’s loss sending the Capitals to an unconscionable .500 on the season.
They’ve fired their coach, benched their superstar, sent another to the pressbox for a game and have yet to generate wins. Why?
It’s cliché, but percentages do play a big part. The Capitals were a much better team than the 5-8 November-under-Boudreau record indicated. They outshot their opponents 364 to 324 at even strength. Michal Neuvirth stopped just 87.2% of pucks and Tomas Vokoun just 88.5%, well off their career averages. Boudreau was a victim of his team’s lacklustre goaltending, which was bound to turn around.
After all, Tomas Vokoun has stopped 93.1% of shots at even strength over the last three seasons in Florida. Neuvirth’s record is a little more modest, stopping 92.2% of the 1355 shots he faced in three shortened seasons before this one. It’s so clear that the two of them will regress to a number more consistent with their past performance. Why judge a goaltender after his last 20 games instead of his last 100?
You can out-shoot a team, you can out-chance a team, your skaters can dominate the game by every available metric we have on paper and can be visibly better than the other team, keeping the puck at the right end of the ice at all times, but that doesn’t always guarantee wins. Goaltending, and the bounces a team picks up in the whereabouts of the crease, is the volatile constant in the great equation of hockey, and Washington believed they had finally found their man this season.
Vokoun is not the best goaltender in the world, and won’t retire with the Vezina Trophies won by Dominik Hasek or the Stanley Cups won by Patrick Roy. He won’t be remembered for any clutch victories or his win totals, but is more like the Czech version of Curtis Joseph: he has played in anonymous markets for bad teams and stopping just as many shots as the top keepers in the league. When he said after the Pittsburgh game that “it’s hard to win with one goal.”
One quote, out of context, can make Vokoun appear like he isn’t a team player, and the misfortunes of the Capitals aren’t landing on his own shoulders. But, as mentioned above, the Pittsburgh game, and the St. Louis game which was the first for the Capitals in the post-Boudreau era, the Capitals no longer became a good team hindered by bad goaltending. They became a lifeless team, failing to win puck battles or generate offense. The Blues outshot Washington 30-19, and the Penguins 35-17. The Capitals, down by a cheap goal in the third period allowed by Vokoun, generated just a pair of shots in the frame, despite being behind, and therefore all the more likely to control the play.
Just two shots, both midway through the period, recorded by Karl Alzner and Cody Eakin. There was no Alexander Ovechkin, no Alexander Semin, no Nicklas Backstrom, no Mike Knuble or Troy Brouwer. The last recorded shot attempt for the Capitals was with 3:12 to go, an Alzner attempt blocked by Pittsburgh’s Tyler Kennedy, and, at the conclusion of the game, even with the extra skater, Washington couldn’t gain the zone.
This is a hockey team that tried to fix too much too soon. Rather than trust the shot counters and the numerical indicators, all the ways we can predict a hockey season, the Capitals instead fired their coach, and the expected boost or jump hasn’t come from Dale Hunter, the new man in charge.
Is Hunter trying to do too much and possibly taking away from how dominant the Capitals are at controlling shots and scoring chances? Has his influence made the Capitals both unlucky and awful? Why did Ovechkin record a single shot attempt against the Penguins? Why has the most dominant offense since the lockout just run into a stump? We’ll need about 20 games to be able to put our finger on the pulse of the Capitals under Dale Hunter, but the early symptoms aren’t favourable. Not only has the team lost two bad, 1-goal games, they have looked terrible doing it, playing much of those games inside the wrong blue line.
It just goes to show what a month of bad goaltending can do. The team’s focus has shifted after an offseason where the team picked up important pieces at every position. General Manager George McPhee refused to overspend on any of these pieces, not falling into any kneejerk trap. But a few bad losses that take you to two games above .500 that had the team on pace for 93 points despite knowing that things will turn around can change an analytical thinker into an emotional beast.
Washington was a good team that wasn’t getting the bounces. It remains to be seen, after having watched their last two contests, whether they still fit into that mould, or if they’ve become an average team that isn’t getting the bounces.