Wednesday, December 29, 2010

If It Can Be Broke Then It Can Be Fixed

Aaaaaaaaaaaand we're back.

Fantastic win for the Caps on New Years Day... great team effort, excellent goaltending. Great to see Varlamov put a little streak together here... Three straight wins, three goals against, timely saves, nary a soft goal to be seen, and he's the NHL Player of the Week. That'll do. Furthermore, he and Neuvirth have finally, for the time being anyway, found a way to both be healthy and play well at the same time. Eventually, one of them needs to take the job from the other, because goaltending platoons do not win Stanley Cups. But that can wait till March. For now, having two healthy and focused guys is a luxury. In the meantime, though, I want to get big picture about the Boudreau-led traptastic evolution of the Caps we've heard so much about during the eight game skid and on 24/7. Yes, on the surface it makes sense. Yes, of course you have to play sound defensive hockey to win the Stanley Cup.

But no, defense alone does not win championships. So I'm just going to say it: I think changing to a more defensive-oriented system is a bad idea. *

Well, that's not the whole story. It's not a bad idea, per se, but I think it shines a spotlight on the wrong things. Because the more I watch this team, and the more I look back on the playoffs in 2008-09 and 2009-10, the more I think the offense was and is the real problem. Specifically, I think the current offense is one-dimensional and streaky, and has proven to be as much in the playoffs these past two seasons.

"But everyone knows that defense wins championships," you say. a point. Like it or not, you need to score, too. The average playoff rank (based on GAA out of the 16 playoff teams) of the ten teams to play in the Stanley Cup Finals since the lockout is 3.10. The average rank of those ten teams on offense, based on goals for? Also 3.10. So you have to have both your offense and defense clicking to get it done. The Caps haven't done enough on either side, finishing sixth in playoff goals per game in both '09 and '10, and seventh and eighth, respectively, in playoff GAA.

"Something has to give though...10-11 in 21 playoff games isn't getting it done." Fine. But before we rush to judgment, let's break down the Caps' 21 playoff games over the last two seasons a little further. When Washington gave up two or fewer goals, their record was 5-4. When they give up 3+, they were 5-7. Makes sense...fewer goals against equals more wins, although not drastically more. Now how about when they score 3+... they're 9-3. When they score 2 or fewer, they're an eye-catching 1-8. 1-8! Furthermore, the average playoff game over the last two seasons has had roughly 5.73 total goals, which means more often than not, you need to score three goals to win. Which we now know, because the Caps are 1-8 when they're scoring fewer than three goals per game.

"Well, but they need to be able to hold a lead when they get it," you say. I agree, but that hasn't been their problem. They're 4-1 over their last three playoff series when leading after two, and they're 8-2 over that stretch when they have the lead at any point in the third period. So holding leads isn't their problem. Getting leads is. In fact, the most surprising stat I came across was this: In those 21 playoff games, the Caps have only led 5 times going into the third. They've been tied seven times (and were 5-2 in those games), and trailed 9 times.

So what are the lessons here for a winning playoff formula? Score some goals, and get the lead. Improve the power play, which looks run-of-the-mill this year, especially given the talent of the first unit, and was unfathomably bad in that series against Montreal last year (going an anemic, pathetic, unforgivable 1-33). Anyone who saw games 5,6, and 7 last spring knows they need to find ways to score gritty, ugly, hard-working goals. Does instilling a more defensive philosophy indirectly instill a grittier offensive identity? Maybe. But now we're getting into the problem of square pegs and round holes... the first two lines are crafted to play a certain way, with a premium on speed and skill, and changing the philosophy does not change the roster. Furthermore, this is primarily a change to how the Caps play 5v5, when they've been very good 5v5 in the last two playoffs seasons. In fact, their 5v5 for/against ratio was 1.31 in 2010, 4th out of 16 (and better than both Philly and Chicago), and 1.17 in 2009, good for 3rd best in the playoffs. Do I think the Caps can run and gun their way to the Stanley Cup? No. But I think, if BB and company are going to instill a new attitude, they should start in the offensive zone, because that's where the real problems are.

*I'm sure I'm not the first person to offer this opinion. But I'm compelled to explain why, anyway.