Despite Recent Wins, Caps are in Trouble

The Capitals are finally winning hockey games, having gone 7-3 in their last 10 games and pulling themselves into a playoff spot. It’s their first sustained stretch of winning hockey since they won seven in a row to begin the season. From the outside, it might even appear that they’ve turned things around under Dale Hunter.

Not so fast. The underlying trends are uglier than a study of the housing market in October 2008. If the Capitals were a stock, you’d be well-advised to sell high.

Let’s start with the weak competition over that stretch. Six of those seven wins were against teams currently out of a playoff spot (the lone exception being a 4-1 win at home over the Rangers). All of them came on home ice.

By itself, that’s not such a bad thing. After all, good teams are supposed to beat bottom feeders and that’s what the Capitals have done. But is the way in which they’ve been winning those games sustainable?

Probably not. First of all, they’re routinely failing to generate sustained offensive pressure, even against the pretenders. Per Capitals senior staff writer Mike Vogel, the Caps have generated 30 or fewer shots on goal in 15 straight games now (9-5-1), their most futile output over that many games since the 2003-2004 season.

Tomas Vokoun has started every game in goal during the ten-game run. He’s been brilliant, and he’s had to face an average of 34.2 shots per game over that stretch while his teammates have generated an average of just 22.5 SOG.

For perspective, a team firing 34.2 SOG per game would rank third in the NHL (San Jose leads with 34.6) while 22.5 SOG would rank dead last by a mile (Anaheim is currently last with 26.1). Thank goodness for Vokoun, who’s been playing out of his mind with a .934 save percentage throughout that stretch.

Can we expect Vokoun to keep it up? It seems unlikely. Dominik Hasek had a save percentage of .930 or better just three times during his brilliant career. Tim Thomas did it two of the last three seasons (.938 last season and .930 three seasons ago). Vokoun has never hit the .930 mark, and that’s no knock on him because it’s an exceptionally hard feat for a goalie to accomplish.

Vokoun, long  considered one of the best in the NHL, maxed out at .926 in 2008-2009. Maybe he’ll continue to play like Dominik Hasek circa 1999, but it’s far more likely that the 36-year old’s numbers will regress. When they do, it’s hard to be encouraged about the Capitals’ chances of beating anyone in the top eight of either conference.

Still not convinced the Capitals are being outperformed? After all, Dale Hunter likes to talk about how scoring chances are more important than shot totals. Those don’t look too flattering either.

Stats guru Neil Greenberg of ESPN.com, who tracks scoring chances for each Caps game, put together this chart which shows the difference in chances for and against at even strength. Dale Hunter supporters may want to not click on the link.

Notice how the graph begins to resemble the stock market in 1929 beginning with the red dot, which is the first game when Hunter took over as head coach. The Capitals were actually faring  better at generating chances and limiting opponents chances under Bruce Boudreau than they are now, but Vokoun happened to be going through a miserable stretch before the coaching change (as was backup Michal Neuvirth).

Those numbers don’t exactly suggest that the Capitals are a safe bet to keep winning once they hit the road and play tougher competition. On Wednesday night they embark on a stretch in which they play six of their next seven on the road, where they’re 7-12-1.

If you’re the type of Caps fan who doesn’t consider every game must-see TV, good for you. This might be a good time to skip a few games, maybe work on that new year’s resolution and use the gym membership you just bought. For the rest of us, there’s always beer.

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