What a difference a year makes. Last season the Caps were the most explosive offensive team in the NHL. They led the league with 313 goals scored, which were the most since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins, and at times they looked unstoppable. There were many instances last season when they were down by multiple goals late and came back and won. They had seven 20-goal scorers and on any particular night a different guy could win them the game. This was a plus for the Caps because they were never out of a game. But it was bad because they became dependent on scoring late because they always trailed early. This worked throughout the regular season, but when they got into the playoffs against a hot goalie, the philosophy failed. As a result, the highest scoring team in the NHL last season was bounced in the first round by a No. 8 seed. Something needed to change.
The way the Caps were knocked out of the playoffs last season was shocking, to say the least. They relied way too much on their offense to win them games and didn’t focus on defense, which wins championships, as the cliché goes. So coming into this season, I’m sure one of their goals was to improve on defense and goaltending. If they could combine stifling defense with the offensive firepower they already had, they’d be very hard to beat. Well, someone forgot to let the offense in on this plan because they have been anything but explosive this season. They have already been shut out eight times this season after being only blanked once during the regular season last year.
It’s hard to say exactly what the problem is with the offense. They have virtually the same players they had last season and haven’t had to deal with a lot of notable injuries this season with the exception of Alexander Semin for a few games recently. I think the sputtering offense could be a combination of things, though. First of all, they got lucky last season when it came to scoring goals. I know this may not be the most popular explanation because all fans wants to believe they were just that good. But if that were the case, why wouldn’t they be at the top of the league in scoring again this season with virtually the same personnel? If you have watched the Caps this season, you know that they have been very unlucky and have missed a lot of opportunities that they would’ve put away last season. But hockey is like that. Games can swing one way or another depending on a few bounces that go or don’t go your way. It’s a crazy game, but that’s what makes it so interesting and fun to watch.
Despite the offensive troubles the Caps have had this season, their defense is looking much better than it did last year. They are only allowing 2.42 goals per game this season, which is good for sixth in the league. Their penalty-killing unit has been strong as well, and ranks second in the league at 86.2%. They also have two great young goalies in Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, as well as Braden Holtby, who only plays sparingly but is more than capable of getting the job done. I still think Varly is the No. 1 goalie going into the playoffs, assuming the Caps make it there, based on the experience factor. Varly only has nine wins this season to Neuvirth’s 16, but has started 10 less games. But he still ranks fifth in the league in goals against average at 2.22 and sixth in save percentage at .925. He is also much quicker post-to-post than Neuvirth and doesn’t allow as many second chance opportunities.
On the defensive side of the puck, the Caps are right where they want to be. They have a solid 5-on-5 group, a suffocating penalty-killing unit and strong play from their goaltenders. Let’s just hope the offense can somehow find its stroke when the playoffs roll around or the Caps will be sent home early once again this season.
Submitted by Steve Giles