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Picking Splinters: Bring on the Stretch Drive



Now 52 games into the season, it’s safe to say that the Washington Capitals are a good team.

Their 70 points trail only the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference, their 21-3-1 home record is second only to the San Jose Sharks (23-2-2) and Alex Ovechkin is having another MVP-caliber season. And Ovechkin has plenty of help. The Capitals have seven players with 10 goals or more, paced by Ovechkin’s league-leading 36.

In the NHL Playoffs though, “good” isn’t good enough. Good teams make the playoffs. Great teams hoist the Stanley Cup. If the Capitals want to count themselves in the latter category, they still have some work to do.

The first area of improvement has to be the team’s play on the road. Most good teams this season, like the Capitals, have a .500 record on the road. The great teams? Far better. Boston is 18-5-3, San Jose is 13-5-3, Detroit is 15-7-5, New Jersey is 17-7-2.

The Caps’ biggest road deficiency is inside their defensive zone. At Verizon Center, the Caps have only given up 53 goals. On the road that figure spikes to 94. There’s an expected drop off for teams on the road, even great teams. But a 41-goal difference? Heck, the Bruins have given up five fewer goals on the road.

Currently, the Caps have allowed the second most road goals in the NHL, trailing only the Toronto Maple Leafs (97) in that category. That’s not the kind of company a Stanley Cup contender wants to keep, but there’s at least one reason for optimism. The Caps are 7-4 away from Washington since Dec. 13.

So, how can the Caps keep those goals against down? By working on two other areas. The first is by defensemen picking up players off the puck. Too often this season, Washington’s defenders will focus on the puck and not the opponent staked out at the top of the goal crease. Jose Theodore has great reflexes and has really sharpened his play since a dismal start to the season, however no goalie could be expected to stop a one-touch redirection from the low slot.

Washington has one of the biggest lineups in the league and they should use that size to dislodge forwards taking up position around the net. At the very least, those opposing forwards should not be able to get a stick on the puck cleanly.

Another problem area for the slick-passing Caps is giveaways at their opponent’s blue line. Washington was burned by this on Tuesday when the Devils intercepted a pass back to the point and sprung Jamie Langenbrunner for a short-handed goal. Washington likes to commit a lot of players to the attack – part of the reason they have 169 goals this year, third best in the NHL – but that also leaves the Caps vulnerable to odd-man rushes.

Speaking of man advantages, would it kill the Caps to take fewer penalties? Currently they have taken the sixth most minor penalties in the league and in each of the last 12 games the Caps have surrendered a power play goal. Great teams generally don’t spot the team a goal.

Now I’m nitpicking, but the last place the Caps could really improve is in the faceoff circle. True, Washington has two of the best centers in the league when it comes to draws – Boyd Gordon (57.7 percent) and David Steckel (55.6 percent). But their top line centers are all below 50 percent in the faceoff circle.

Michael Nylander is at 47.3 percent, Nicklas Backstrom is at 46.3 percent. Is it the end of the world? No. Is it the Caps’ biggest shortcoming? Hardly. However, winning faceoffs is an underrated part of the game. Winning draws on power plays gives you more time to score and a clean win in an opponent’s zone can generate a great scoring chance – particularly with boomers like Ovechkin and Mike Green at the point. Gaining possession shorthanded negates the advantages just mentioned, an edge the Caps could use given their recent penalty killing woes. And in a grind-it out, seven game playoff series, a team needs every advantage it can get.

But let’s put these areas of improvement aside for a minute and end on a high note. This time of year, you want your best players playing their best hockey. The Caps are getting exactly that from Ovechkin and Green, who have combined for eight goals and seven assists in the last three games. But they are also getting it from Nylander. Dormant most of the season, Nylander has even been a healthy scratch a few times this year. But in the last three games? Three goals and an assist.

Bring on the stretch drive.

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