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Numbers: Caps trying to win with defense

by John Kreiser
The uniforms are the same, as are many of the players who wear them. But the Washington Capitals look like an entirely different team than the one most hockey fans are used to watching.

After winning the Southeast Division title for the last three seasons with a run-and-gun attack before being ousted early in the playoffs, the Caps have reversed course and are trying to win with checking and defense -- the kind of hockey that traditionally wins in the postseason.

So far, the results are mixed.

Washington enters the weekend with a 26-14-8 record and 60 points, just six less than it had through 48 games last season, but the Caps are one point behind Tampa Bay for first place in a division they led by 17 a year ago. The checkers and goalies have done their jobs -- Washington's 122 goals against are 12 fewer than at the same point last season -- but the offense has been stuck in neutral. Washington has just 133 goals for this season, down from a League-leading 178 at the same point last season, and the Caps' goal margin has dropped from plus-44 last season to plus-11.

Amazingly, the Caps have gone 12 games -- since Dec. 21 -- without scoring more than three goals in a game. In the same span last season, they had more than three goals nine times.

Wither Ovi? -- The most notable change in Washington has been in the production by captain Alex Ovechkin, who's on pace for what would easily be the worst offensive season of his career.

Ovechkin has been a 50-goal scorer in four of his first five NHL seasons and has never had fewer than 46. He'll need to go on an incredible burst to reach that number this season -- he has just 16 in 48 games, a pace that would give him 27 over a full season. With 48 points in 48 games, he's on a pace for 82 -- a big drop for a player who had 109 last season and has never finished with less than 96.

Ovechkin is getting neither the volume of shots he's used to, nor is he putting the ones he gets in the net. Though Ovechkin leads the League with 212 shots on goal, his pace would generate a career-low 362. That's down from 368 last season -- but that total came in just 72 games. He has never averaged less than 4.8 shots per game; this season, he's at 4.4 and has just 12 shots in his last five games.

Even more troubling is that he's scoring on just 7.5 percent of those shots -- before this season, his career shootout percentage was 12.2.

Perhaps most amazing is Ovechkin's lack of success on the power play -- he has just 2 power-play goals this season after scoring at least 13 times with the man advantage in each of his first five seasons. Both of those extra-man goals came in the same game -- October 30 at Calgary. He hasn't had a power-play goal in the Caps' last 126 advantages. Ovechkin is second in the NHL in extra-man markers with 93 since he entered the League, one less than San Jose's Dany Heatley.

Slow starts -- Another area in which the Caps have struggled is getting on the board first. They did it 52 times last season, but have scored first just 19 times in 48 games this season. The 29 first-goals allowed are just one short of their total for all of last season. Washington is also tied with the N.Y. Islanders for the fewest first-period goals in the League with 29.

They did get the first goal early in Thursday's 2-1 victory against the Islanders -- but they were playing a team that struggles even more severely to score first. New York has allowed the first goal in each of its last eight games -- including seven in which the opposition has scored within the first five minutes. Washington's 1-0 lead after the first intermission Thursday marked the first time the Caps had led after a period since they took a 2-1 lead into the dressing room after two periods of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Pittsburgh on Jan. 1.

Beasts vs. the East --
Why are the Dallas Stars on top of the Pacific Division? It is mostly because of their success against Eastern Conference opponents. The Stars are 11-2-1 against teams from the other conference -- the best mark by any team against the opposite conference. Second-place Phoenix, which is just five points behind the division-leading Stars, has a better record against the West (21-10-3) than either the Stars (18-11-4) or the third-place Anaheim Ducks (17-15-3) -- but is just 3-5-6 against Eastern Conference teams.

The six losses to Eastern teams that have come in overtime or shootouts have to be especially galling to coach Dave Tippett and his staff. Phoenix went 5-1 in overtime and 14-6 in shootouts in 2009-10, the biggest reason the Coyotes enjoyed the best season in franchise history. This season has been completely different -- the Coyotes are just 2-3 in shootouts and have lost all six games decided in overtime. Their nine post-regulation losses are the most in the NHL.

Scoring in bunches -- Marian Gaborik hasn't been scoring often, but when he does, he's been getting his goals in bunches. Gaborik has scored in just eight of the 35 games he's played for the New York Rangers this season -- but he's tied for the League lead with three hat tricks. Gaborik has 10 of his 15 goals in games against Edmonton (3 on Nov. 14), the Islanders (3 on Dec. 2) and Toronto (4 on Jan. 19). He has just five goals in his other 31 appearances, and has scored only four times against teams outside the bottom five in the overall standings.

More for Orr -- Want more of an appreciation of Bobby Orr's greatness? Consider that Zdeno Chara became only the third Boston defenseman since Orr's departure in 1975 to get a hat trick when he scored three times Monday in the Bruins' 7-0 win against Carolina. Ray Bourque (1983) and Glen Wesley (1993) are the others. Now consider that in nine-plus seasons with the Bruins, Orr scored three goals nine times -- three times as many the Boston defense corps has had in a 35-year span.

Getting the hang of it -- Goaltenders tend to stop about two of every three penalty shots, and after the shooters got off to a hot start, the goalies are starting to get even.

Shooters connected on 11 of the first 18 penalty shots this season -- an incredibly fast start (61.1 percent) after scoring just 16 times in 55 tries all last season. But since then the goaltenders have had much the better of the matchups. Goalies have stopped 20 of the last 28 penalty shots they've faced, including 13 of the 15 taken in the past month.

We're also on pace to see more penalty shots in any season since 2005-06, when there were a record 103 awarded. At this rate, referees will award 80 penalty shots during the 1,230-game schedule.
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