Glenn James

Photo: Glenn James

What do you make of a week like that one? The Caps split the week with two wins and two losses– winning over the bad teams and losing to the good teams. Are we to conclude that the Caps bullied the weak teams but couldn’t compete with the dominant possession teams?

And what about those defensive mistakes that cost the Caps both games this weekend? Matt Niskanen’s giveaway lost the game on Friday, and a half dozen blown assignments lost the game on Saturday. What even does “defense” means in a game like hockey where players transition from attacking to defending in the blink of an eye?

And what can we conclude about back-up goalie Justin Peters based on last night’s game?

In this week’s snapshot, we cut the game in half and question everything, because what do we really know anyway?

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Patrick McDermott

Halfway. Get it? (Photo: Patrick McDermott)

We are 41 games in to the 2014-15 season, exactly halfway, so now is a good time to take stock.

Let’s start with this: The Capitals are good again. After spending the last year or four wandering into the wilderness, the team is finally improving, a feat owed mostly to the hiring of Barry Trotz and the firing of Adam Oates.

The standings, which don’t necessarily tell us much about a team right now, look good. The Caps are 12th in the league with 52 points. That’s a 104-point pace. The Caps are fourth in the division behind the Rangers (who have been even hotter than the Caps lately), and they own the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. At a glance, it looks like the Caps are a playoff team, which is accurate, but there’s a heckuva lot more going on.

In today’s supersized snapshot special, we do the usual stuff– plus a whole lot more. I’ve got six essential conclusions that should inform what the Caps do in the back half. Get comfortable. This is a long one, and I’ll need you to share your thoughts at bottom.

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Week 12 Snapshot: The Schmidtuation

schmidtuation

Photo: Amanda Bowen (See more!)

The Washington Capitals are looking pretty darn good overall. A whole lot of people saw them play a thrilling game against the Stanley Cup favorites on Thursday, and they just wrapped up a month that saw them become the hottest team in the league.

That’s the past. Looking at the schedule ahead, the Capitals face a murderer’s row of — well, just check this out:

  • Panthers
  • Leafs
  • Flyers
  • Red Wings
  • Avalanche
  • Flyers
  • Predators
  • Stars
  • Oilers
  • Blue Jackets
  • Penguins
  • Canadiens

Okay, actually, the Capitals could win a heluva lot of those games in January. Still, they should never stop trying to improve. There’s the usual stuff about optimizing forward lines and evening out defensive deployments, but one player in particular has caught my attention in the last week for his conspicuous absence from play. In today’s snapshot we ask, “What’s the deal with Nate Schmidt?”

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Week 11 Snapshot: It’s Been a Weird December

Gregory Shamus

Here’s Jay Beagle and Brooks Orpik celebrating a goal. (Photo: Gregory Shamus)

This is the final snapshot of 2014. What a weird year– capped off by an even weirder month. With one game left to play, the Caps took 18 out of 24 possible standings points in December, and there’s one thing above all others that is responsible for that success.

(If you’re wondering what that thing is, here’s a hint: People on Facebook spent October debating if he’s an average goalie “at best” or if he’s just terrible.)

This week’s snapshot takes a look back at the streak, the Holtbeast who made it happen, and what the Caps should do to extend it.

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Week 9 Snapshot: Finally Getting Paid

Patrick McDermott

Photo: Patrick McDermott

We’re going streaking! The Caps have won four of their last five games and taken points from all of them. Wins finally seem to be catching to the team’s generally good underlying play. Not every week is going to be smooth sailing like this one, but I think the hockey we saw over the last seven days is a reliable indication of what this team is: pretty good.

It’s tempting to chalk the recent success up to Green’s return, Chimera’s benching, or Backstrom’s heroics. Those are certainly big (and loud) factors, but I kind of see it as the whole team finally getting rewarded for playing well. If only the team had got these results in the season’s opening weeks, they might still be playing like they did in October.

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Week 8 Snapshot: The Sound of Settling

laich and fehr

Wins are paramount. In the end, this sport is measured in wins. Goals scored or prevented are the component parts of wins, and shot attempts generated or prevented are the component parts of goals. So when the Capitals got two important divisional wins this week– both in regulation– I reminded myself that those Ws are ultimately more important than the stuff happening under the surface.

That under the surface stuff, as we’ve been documenting, has been degrading since the end of October. But if this is the basement for the team, it ain’t so bad. The Capitals could presumably get a lot of wins and make the playoffs based on their current performance (plus a little more luck). They’re not gonna win a Cup, and we’ll all know deep down that they’re capable of more, but maybe we should just be grateful for what we’ve got. At least they’re not the Skins.

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Week 7 Snapshot: Erosion and Corrosion

Darren Calabrese

Photo: Darren Calabrese

The primary source of frustration last season was knowing that, deep down, the Capitals had the potential to be a good team. Knowing that the Caps had decent players and that they merely needed to be freed of bad coaching was vexing, but it was also comforting in a strange way. We could wave away game-by-game results because careful, informed analysis told us they’d soon be better.

And when Barry Trotz’s Caps started the season as one of the best teams in the league, we felt vindicated. But for ephemeral reasons, the wins didn’t come in October. That’s okay; we knew they would.

Except then they didn’t. The reasons for the Caps’ losses were not static. The goalies got better (wayyyyyy better), but then the offense’s shooting percentages plummeted. Then the team stopped possessing the puck so much. And now, who knows.

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The Caps just aren’t as good as they were in October. Punishing losses to the Sabres and Leafs this week have led to some quiet reflection and some not-so-quiet caterwauling from the community. And rightfully so.

In this week’s snapshot, let’s do some reflecting of our own.

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Week 5 Snapshot: Orpik, Ovi, and Optimization

Scott Rovak

Photo: Scott Rovak

When the Caps were losing games early in the season, it wasn’t a big deal. The Capitals were playing well when you measured their shot-attempt differential, but the goalies were letting in too many goals. Because goalies’ cumulative save percentages are extremely volatile early in the season, and because Braden Holtby’s career save percentage is pretty high, there wasn’t much cause for concern.

Now, after deflating losses to the Blues and Devils– both great possession teams– the Capitals’ possession seems to have eroded a bit. The goaltending, at least Holtby’s 96.4-percent effort on Friday, hasn’t been bad since early November. The problem now is that the Capitals can’t do the thing crucial to winning games: score goals.

You can chalk it up to urgency, and to some extent I do, but there is also mounting evidence that the Capitals are failing to optimize their offense. That’s the topic of this week’s snapshot.

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Week 4 Snapshot: Patience Pays Off

Alex Brandon anteater

Come! Hug me, for I am an anteater! (Photo: Alex Brandon)

Kevin Klein at Japers Rink wrote a piece about the correlation between puck possession during close games (measured in unblocked shot-attempt percentage) and success. It’s compelling stuff. Here’s my own version of that research.

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Since 2009 and excluding the short season, the top five teams in the league based in the standings control an average of 53.1 percent of unblocked shot attempts. Below them, the solid playoff teams (ranked 6 through 10) get about 51.5 percent of the shot attempts.

Teams 11 through 15 get 50.5 percent and teams 16 through 20 get 49.2.

The not-so-good teams own just 48.3 percent of shot attempts. The bottom-5 teams, who are basically your draft lottery teams, get 47.2 percent.

Last season the Caps most closely represented a draft lottery team. This year, with 54.25 percent possession according to fenwick-stats.com, the Caps look more like a Stanley Cup contender.

That doesn’t mean they are one; the season is still way too young. In the coming weeks we will learn for sure. In the meantime, next time save percentages throw the Caps into a five-game slump, look back at that chart and remind yourself that the Caps climbed from the far right to the far left in just five months.

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Week 3 Snapshot: Patience, My Young Padawan

Scott Iskowitz

I don’t like this angle because you can’t see Schmidt’s smile. (Photo: Scott Iskowitz)

The Caps aren’t winning the game they’re supposed to. They’re playing the right way on a pattern level, but a few turnovers here and bad bounces there have led them to a winless week. That stinks, and it’s definitely causing some dissension in Caps fan ranks.

But the team is gonna be alright. The Caps are still doing the big stuff right. There’s cause for mild alarm in a few places, but this is still a playoff team. I’m confident about that.

The snapshot shows us numbers that help us project future success better than just goals or the team’s position in the standings. Those projections still look good. This is a challenge not of the team’s constitution, but of the fans. Do we have the nerve to stay calm? I think so, and here are some numbers that’ll help us do so.

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