|Ovechkin is shooting a lot, his team isn't. (Getty Images)|
It's almost everybody in hockey's belief that the Washington Capitals will, in the end, prevail and take the Southeast Division crown. They have been either behind the Florida Panthers or sharing the top spot with them (as they are now) since mid-November.
The rationale goes something along the lines of people believing the Caps can and will play better, or up to their potential, as many say.
Well I can't help but wonder ... what if this is their potential? They aren't the same team they were a couple of years ago. Under new coach Dale Hunter, they won't light teams up. It's not because they don't have players who can score, it's that they stopped shooting the puck.
I'm in attendance for most Capitals home games, I see them play first hand a lot. It seemed to me that every game they have played lately, they have been outshot and outchanced. In this case, perception is reality.
The Capitals have been outshot in each of the last seven games and 12 of the last 13. The only game where they outshot their opponent? The Calgary Flames where the Caps had a 21-19 shot advantage, a number that more often than not will be less than the opponent. In total, they have been outshot in 17 of the 23 games under Hunter.
It actually seems to be getting worse in this regard. The Capitals just played back-to-back games, Tuesday at home vs. the Islanders and Wednesday at the Canadiens. In those two games the Capitals had 33 shots on goal ... combined. The other teams had 59.
In fact, since Hunter came along, the Capitals are averaging only 24.7 shots on goal per game while giving up 30.5 per game. Those team totals are in spite of the fact that Alex Ovechkin is actually still shooting at a high rate, clocking in at fifth in the league in shots on goal. That means the rest of the team? Not so much.
Thanks to my colleague Adam Gretz, here is a chart showing the disparity in shots between the Capitals and their foes, splitting it up also to see the differences between the Bruce Boudreau reign and Hunter era.
You'll notice that the disparity lately is starting to settle into a trend where the Caps are not getting the shots off like their opponents are. It would be logical to assume that that must mean the Caps are focusing more on defense and aren't giving up as many shots either, but that's not the case. Notice in recent games how the volume of shots against has been at 28 or more. To state the obvious, that's not good either, it indicates that they aren't controlling the puck often enough.
What's more, another thing that seemed to me without looking at the stats to be the case is that when the Capitals get ahead, they shut down offensively. It has felt like every game they have won at home recently, the puck has been in their defensive zone for 75 percent of the third period. To illustrate that, take a look at this shots graph from Wednesday's win in Montreal and not the plateaus in Capitals attempts after the goals, marked by the vertical colored lines (via behindthenet.ca). Granted, most teams play more in their zone when they have the lead in the third period, but in the case of the Capitals, it feels pronounced.
Now the interesting part is where I tell you that the Capitals are winning these games. They have won eight of their last 11, in fact.
The question then becomes a matter of if the Capitals can continue to sustain their winning ways if the shot totals remain roughly the same. Let's just say the odds aren't in their favor.
On the season the Capitals are 13-13-2 when they are outshot. It's just more than a point per game, which would put them on pace for around 85 points or so in a full season. Conversely they are 12-5-0 when they outshoot their opponents. It's pretty easy to see the benefits of throwing the puck on net.
Sooner or later those numbers will catch up a team. It's hard to keep up a pace of scoring three goals on 16 shots as they did on Wednesday in Montreal. A shooting percentage a touch under 20 percent in a game? Unsustainable.
One reason why they have been able to creep on the Panthers in the division has been the play of former Panther Tomas Vokoun in net. He has rebounded since he was benched for five straight games and has done an excellent job of keeping the Caps in games and their leads safe.
They have also enjoyed the comfy confines of Verizon Center where they are 17-6-1 this season as opposed to 8-12-1 on the road. Of those eight wins in 11 games, seven have come at home.
Now to be fair, it has to be noted that Nicklas Backstrom has missed each of the last seven games. He is still dealing with post-concussion symptoms since his hit from Rene Bourque when he was with the Flames. That can certainly account for their recent drop in shots, after all he is still the team's leading scorer
The good news in all of this though is that they aren't in a division where a team is going to run away with the lead. We've already seen the Panthers come back to the pack. The same idea holds for the Eastern Conference as a whole. There's still a little less than half of the season to go, but it's sure shaping up to be a situation where there are 10 teams fighting for the eight postseason spots.
But if they don't start throwing the puck on net more, people are going to continue to wait to see their potential.
It's an adage as old as the game itself: Just throw the puck on net and see what happens. There is hardly ever anything bad that can come from getting the puck on goal. A soft shot might go in. A surprising rebound might present itself like a big present underneath the Christmas tree. Or in some cases the goalie can freeze the puck to cause a faceoff in the offensive zone. Stats show how valuable that is to creating offense.
I'd suggest the team adopt the motto of shoot first, ask questions later.