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Opening Act

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
Through the season’s first month and the first 11 games of the schedule, the Washington Capitals have four wins. That’s the same number of victories the Caps had at the end of October and through the first 11 games of the 2005-06 season, too. But if you’ve been paying attention, you know there is quite a bit of difference between this year’s model and the ’05-06 edition of the Capitals.


 
 Brian Pothier
On the first day of Washington’s training camp for the 2006-07 season, Caps left wing Matt Pettinger was asked what type of team the Capitals would be in the season ahead.

“It’s a long season and people have asked what kind of team we’re going to be,” said Pettinger. “We’re going to be similar to the way we were last year, in that we’ve got a lot of hard workers. I think we brought in a few guys to complement that; obviously [Brian] Pothier is a skilled defenseman and Alex Semin and [Richard] Zednik are going to help out a lot. And we got a little toughness there with [Donald] Brashear. It’s really early right now to say where we stand.”

That was six weeks ago; now we have a better idea of where the Caps stand, and how Pettinger is at prognostication (he’s pretty good).

First and most obvious, this year’s Capitals have a better record and more points. The Caps are 4-3-4 (12 points) through 11 games vs. last season’s 4-7 (eight points). It's the first time the Caps have gotten out of October with a winning record since 1997-98. Washington’s goal differential is also much more favorable this season. In 2005-06, the Caps had been outscored by a whopping 46-24 after 11 games. They had scored as many as three goals in only four of 11 and did not surpass three goals scored in any single game. The Caps had also suffered four losses by a margin of four or more goals. This year’s Caps have scored three or more goals in seven of 11 games and have lost by as many as four goals just once (an empty-net goal was responsible for that four-goal defeat).

Discounting the duplicitous “goals” the NHL feels compelled to award to teams that win games via the shootout, the Caps are even up at 35 goals scored and 35 allowed this season. That’s an increase of 11 and a reduction of 11, a goal per game, and a two-goal swing per game. Last season, both Montreal and Tampa Bay made the playoffs despite negative goal differentials (excluding the aforementioned duplicitous goals) on the season.

Washington’s performance on the road this season has been better as well. The Caps went 1-4 in October road games last season. They were outscored 24-10 in those contests. Thus far in 2006-07, Washington is 2-2-3 away from Verizon Center. The team has been outscored only by 21-18 in those games. The Caps recorded their second road win of the 2006-07 season on Oct. 30 in Calgary, three weeks ahead of last season when they nailed their second road win on Nov. 19 to lift their road record to 2-8.

“That’s a huge step,” said Caps captain Chris Clark after the team won on the road in Calgary. “With a team like us, we’re always building, always building: next game, next game, next game trying to get everybody better, and I think this is a huge step in the right direction.”

Another obvious area of improvement is in Washington’s special teams. After the season’s first month, the Capitals’ power play unit ranks 13th in the NHL with a success rate of 16.9%. The Caps are 19th in the penalty-killing department this season with a kill rate of 81.8%. Eleven games into last season, Washington had a power play success rate of 11.3% and a penalty kill success rate of just 76.1%.

The general rule of thumb is: if your combined special teams percentages exceed 100, you’re doing well. The Caps are edging closer (16.9 + 81.8 = 98.7) to that figure.

At this stage of last season, the Caps had gone shorthanded 30 more times than they had been on the power play. This season, they have had just seven fewer man-advantage opportunities than their opponents.

The team’s goaltending has been superb this season, giving Washington a chance to win virtually every game to date. Through 11 games of last season, Caps netminders had combined for a 3.90 goals against average and a save pct. of .893. This season, Olie Kolzig and Brent Johnson have combined to forge a 2.94 GAA and a .918 save pct.

Finally, the Caps have a good deal more scoring depth this season. Through the first 11 games of last season, Alex Ovechkin had accounted for a third of Washington’s goals (eight of 24) and Dainius Zubrus (three) was the only other player on the club with more than two. Ovechkin is third on the team in goals this season, and four players have as many as three.

As much as the team has improved in the last 12 months, there are a couple of areas that still need some work. The 2005-06 Capitals surrendered an average of 36.5 shots per 60 minutes; this year’s model has trimmed that only by a hair, to 35.9 shots per 60. As good as the goaltending has been, it would be nice to see the rest of the team combine forces to cut down Kolzig and Johnson’s workload, even by a shot or two per period.

Three times this season Washington has had the lead in a game in which it ultimately did not win. The mark of a good team is to be able to close out opponents. The Caps did so on Monday in Calgary, and they want to make it standard practice.

“A lot of our talk in the locker room between the second and third is to learn how to win,” said Clark. “Good teams close teams out. If they’re ahead, they’re almost automatic. A lot of the Stanley Cup winners are automatic if they’re ahead going into the third period. We want to be one of those teams.”

 
 Chris Clark
“Our obvious goal is to make the playoffs,” said Pettinger six weeks ago, “but it’s September and the playoffs are in April. We want to take things in 10-game segments and say that out of 20 points, we want 14 of those, whether it’s a few ties or a few wins. Ten or 15 games in, you’ll get a feel for where you stand in the league. And you need a good start, too. You can’t get out of the gates 5-15. It’s tough to recover. If you can get out of the gates at least .500 or better, anything can happen in the second half. It’s 82 games, so it’s a long year.”

That much is true. Last year’s Capitals continued to get better as the long season wore on. If this year’s edition can follow that model, the Caps might find themselves playing meaningful hockey in April.

 “You can’t make the playoffs in the first 10 games,” Clark sagely said, “but you can definitely miss the playoffs in the first 10 games."


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