It ended up being just short. Let us just hope that last sentence is not one we will have to write come April for the Washington Capitals because of a point left behind in November. In a week that had a lot going on, that might be the lasting image of it.
For the fourth consecutive week the Capitals put together a winning week. They are 8-3-1 over that span. The week began in dominating fashion with the Caps pounding the upstart New York Islanders, 6-2. That would be the high point of the week. The Caps had to come back late to tie the Minnesota Wild before escaping with a win via the Gimmick. Washington slipped a little further when they went out west, letting a two-goal lead evaporate in the last four minutes against Phoenix to force overtime before losing the extra standings point in another trick shot competition. In a season of ebbs and flows, of ups and downs, the week was good, but the trend was not as comforting.
Offense: 3.67/game (season: 3.06 / rank: 9th)
Averaging 3.67 goals a game duplicates the result of the previous week, and once more it was swelled as the product of a big night. Last week it was a seven-goal eruption against Philadelphia. This week it was a six-goal barrage against another Metropolitan Division opponent, the New York Islanders.
On an individual basis the Caps spread things around. Eleven goals were spread among seven different players, Alex Ovechkin leading the club with three. What might be the surprising part there is that John Carlson and Marcus Johansson were next with two apiece. Those two came into the week with only one goal between them (Carlson).
The points were spread around as well. There were 15 players – 14 skaters and goalie Michal Neuvirth – sharing in the fun. Ovechkin led the club with a five-point week (3-2-5) that lifted him into a tie for fifth in the league in points (20). He was joined there by Nicklas Backstrom, whose four assists for the week led the club. Again, though, the surprise here is who finished tied for first in points – Marcus Johansson (2-3-5). In case you have not noticed, he is now tied with the likes of Evgeni Malkin, David Krejci, and Zach Parise in points for the season (15), and he is tied for seventh overall in assists (13) with folks like Anze Kopitar and P.K. Subban.
Defense: 2.33/game (season: 2.76 / rank: 19th)
On one level, the consistency was good – two goals, two goals, and three goals allowed. But that two goals allowed in the last four minutes of the Caps’ 4-3 Gimmick loss to Phoenix sticks out like a sore upper body injury. It was the natural product of the context of the third period. In the last ten minutes of regulation time the Coyotes outshot the Caps 11-1. The shots continue to be an issue. Opponents averaged 35.3 shots a game this week and made it 12 games in a row in which opponents recorded 30 or more shots in a game.
If you are looking at individual players, it was not a good week for the shutdown defensive pair of Karl Alzner and John Carlson. They were on ice for six of the seven goals scored against the Caps and all three power play goals against. It was not an especially good week for the third line, comparatively speaking. Jason Chimera and Mikhail Grabovski were on ice for three of the four even strength goals against, Joel Ward for two.
Goaltending: 2.22 GAA / .934 save percentage (season: 2.66 / .921 / 1 shutout)
It is hard to fault the goaltending this week. Save more than 93 percent of the shots you face, and you will win a lot of games. With the week that both Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth had, both have climbed onto the first page of the goals-against leaders at NHL.com. And, Holtby is now tied for 12th in save percentage (at .925, with Philadelphia’s Steve Mason), while Neuvirth is now tied for 23rd (.913, with Jaroslav Halak and Antti Niemi).
In fact, the last four weeks have been pretty impressive. All four finished with save percentages over .910 and twice the save percentage was over .950. Over the 12 games covering those four weeks, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth are a combined 8-3-1, 2.20, .936, with one shutout. Only once did either of them (Holtby) allow more than three goals in a game, although they combined to allow five to Calgary on October 26th. This week was solidly in that recent performance range. There is a persistent narrative that goaltending on this team is a weak, or at least an unproven, commodity. How long do we go until we move from the persistent “small sample” argument to “this is what they are?”
Power Play: 7-16 / 43.8 percent (season: 28.2 percent / rank: 1st)
The Caps came into the week in a bit of a slump with the man advantage. In the five games preceding this week they were 2-for-20 (10.0 percent), both of those power play goals coming in the Caps’ 7-0 rout of Philadelphia on November 1st. That slump came to an end in a big way in the first game of the week when the Caps abused the New York Islanders for four goals on eight shots over six power play opportunities. In that game the Caps averaged only 55 seconds spent per power play and scored their four goals in a total of 93 seconds on those four power plays.
It would be hard for the rest of the week to measure up to that performance, but it came close. Washington had three power play goals on ten chances in the other two games and finished the week with their first three-game streak of power play goals since the first three games of the season. Individually, the usual suspects had big weeks. Alex Ovechkin was 2-3-5, and Nicklas Backstrom was 0-4-0 (to the careful reader, these numbers should mean something, but we’ll get to that). Marcus Johansson had four points (1-3-4). Six other players recorded power play points, including Tom Wilson, who notched his first NHL goal on a power play against the Islanders.
Penalty Killing: 11-14 / 78.6 percent (season: 88.2 percent / rank: 2nd)
It was going to catch up to them sooner or later. Coming into the week the Caps were on quite a run. They killed 35 straight penalties over nine-plus games, dating back to their last shorthanded situation face against Colorado on October 12th. In their last shorthanded situation faced against Florida on November 2nd, the streak was broken. Still, 35 of 36 is hardly bad (97.2 percent).
However, in their three games leading up to this week the Caps faced a total of 17 shorthanded situations. That should have raised a flag. This week the volume was again high (14 shorthanded situations) and the law of averages caught up with the Caps. They were perfect against the Islanders to start the week but allowed one against Minnesota, then gave up a pair (including the game-tying goal late in regulation) to Phoenix to close the week. Part of the problem, as it were, was allowing 28 shots on goal in 21:05 of penalty killing time. A .893 save percentage in a penalty killing situation is respectable, but there were too many opportunities for misfortune.
Even Strength Goals For/Against: 4-4 (season: 30-35; 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.94 / rank: 16th)
The Caps fought the opposition to a draw in aggregate even strength goals this week. Shots on goal were roughly equal (73 for the Caps, 76 for opponents), and shooting percentages were similar (5.5 for the Caps, 5.3 for opponents). And, if you are looking at underlying numbers, it was a “Fenwicky” kind of week for the Caps. In two of the three games the Caps had impressive 5-on-5 Fenwick/For Close numbers (61.8 percent against the Islanders, 55.6 against Phoenix; source: extraskater.com).
But here is the thing. Recall above we hinted at foreboding to the careful reader. The top line had one even strength point for the week, a goal by Marcus Johansson when he was skating with Tom Wilson and Brooks Laich. If you think of the top line as being Alex Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson, and Martin Erat, then the top line had no even strength points for the week.
Faceoffs: 100-214 / 46.7 percent (season: 48.7 percent / rank: T-22nd)
It was an uneven week for the Caps, but a consistent one in the circle, if that makes sense. The consistency was in losing the faceoff battle overall in all three games. The uneven part came in the zone results. It was a brutal week in the offensive zone, Washington winning only 31 of 78 draws (39.7 percent). Nicklas Backstrom (7-20) and Marcus Johansson (5-12) combined to win only 37.5 percent of the offensive zone draws they took. Only Mikhail Grabovski enjoyed any success (12-20/60.0 percent).
The defensive zone draws looked a lot better. Overall the Caps finished 40-for-73 (54.8 percent). The odd part of this result was that of Backstrom, who won 11 of 15 defensive zone draws (73.3 percent). Grabovski did his part here, too, winning eight of 15 faceoffs (53.3 percent).
Goals For/Against by Period:
The Caps continue to dominate second periods. A five-goal second period against the Islanders will do that, but even without that the club was most productive in the second period. It left them leading the league in second period goals (29). It would be nice, though, if the Caps could put teams behind the eight-ball early more often. It was not a lack of opportunities; they had 29 shots on goal in the first period over the three games. However, they had just one goal to show for it, that coming in the middle game of the week against Minnesota. A 3.5 percent shooting effort is, one hopes, due for a correction.
In the end…
One can like the result, yet not be too enthralled with how it was achieved. A big win followed by a pair of trick shot competitions, one win and one loss. It was a week that finished right where it counts – wins and losses – but one in which the underlying performance was uneven and perhaps trending downward. Over the last two weeks the Caps are 4-1-1, but in there are two blowouts. It is a good thing that both of them were Capitals wins, but each of the other four games were one-goal decisions, three of them decided in the freestyle competition, and the Caps split those four games into two wins and two losses. It is a thin margin, certainly thinner than making a big deal out of a 4-1-1 (2-0-1 this week) record would indicate.
That said, the “glass half full” perspective is that the Caps banked two wins in each of the last two weeks despite a couple of chancy performances. And, the Caps did earn a standings point in one of the losses. None of that is bad. Just don’t think of it as a formula for consistent success.