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The Sideline Observer

Sports and Culture Commentary

The Caps Are Suck: Will They Turn It Around?

Last week, the Washington Capitals reached a stat that will bring joy to the city of Pittsburgh: they lost seven straight games for the first time since 2014, a season that marked the only time Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have missed the playoffs while playing together.

Right now, the Caps are suck, as Ovechkin would probably put it. Just two weeks ago, I wrote about how well their season was going. At the time, I was right. But the NHL is a tough league, and success can turn to misfortune fast.

It’s not time to hit the panic button (yet). Every team loses games, and every team goes through slumps.

Despite their recent play, the Caps are still comfortably in a playoff position in second place in the Metropolitan Division. Their record is evidence of how good they were before this slump, and it’s evidence of how good they can be when they’re in form.

But there are also real reasons for concern. First and foremost: terrible defensive play. The Caps have given up six or more goals in four of their last five games. Their team PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage, a measure of quality of shots taken versus quality of shots given up) has taken a plunge in the last few weeks, indicating a team struggling to prevent high danger scoring chances.

Accordingly, both goalies have struggled recently. Braden Holtby has an .844 save percentage in his last four starts. Pheonix Copley has an .840 in his last four games.

They’re also not being supported by good defensive play in front of them, in part because of personnel issues. Christian Djoos, who is a better defensive player than he gets credit for, is out long-term with a thigh injury, limiting the Caps’ options on defense. Prior to his injury, Djoos had the fourth best Corsi for percentage among Caps defensemen (in basic terms, Corsi for percentage measures how much a player’s team is on offense versus defense when he’s on the ice).

Other defensemen have been poor lately. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov, for some years the Caps’ best pair defensively, have struggled this year, leading Caps coach Todd Reirden to split them up. When Niskanen and Orlov are on the ice, the Caps have taken only 44.1 percent of shot attempts. It’s also notable that when the two of them are split up, Orlov’s stats improve significantly while Niskanen’s improve only marginally.

John Carlson and Michal Kempny are a bright spot in the Caps lineup, and they’ve actually been pretty good even as much of the team has struggled.

Brooks Orpik’s return hasn’t helped the Caps as much as some hoped it would. In fact, I hate to be the guy to point it out, but the Caps’ recent woes have coincided directly with Orpik’s return to the lineup after he missed two months with a knee injury. The Caps are 8-9-5 this season with Orpik in the lineup. They’re 19-8-1 without him. The Caps’ average PDO is higher and their average goals against lower without Orpik in the lineup. Coincidence? I’ll let you decide.

It is, of course, completely unfair to pin a losing streak on one player. It’s a team sport, and I’m not saying that scratching Orpik would immediately turn the Caps around. Moreover, Orpik’s advanced stats are actually up a bit from last season. Still, some kind of shake-up is necessary, and scratching Orpik for a game or two makes sense.

So what can be done to break the slump? I know it’s a lame answer, but I think the best strategy is to not do much. Reirden should and will continue to tinker with lines and D-pairs to get some guys going, but there’s not much that should drastically change. There’s always an element of luck to a stretch like this (whether it’s good luck or bad luck), and I think the Caps are getting massively unlucky. Their luck will turn eventually, and their confidence will come back with it.

I honestly think the Caps will be fine. They’ve had the All-Star break to rest and regroup. I expect them to win a few games out of the break and get back on track. They’ll see a strong Calgary team next, but after that, they’ll play the Bruins (who are a good team but haven’t beaten the Caps since about 1945), the Canucks, and the Avalanche. That sounds like three potential wins in a row to get hot and return to form.

-Tiger Bjornlund

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