Sunday, February 17, 2013

A NO-point night -- Game 15: Rangers 2 - Capitals 1

If the Washington Capitals miss the playoffs by one point this season, their 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Sunday will weigh heavily on their minds as a point (or two) that got away.  Not that the Caps played well – with the exception of goalie Braden Holtby they did not – but their opponents consistently failed to put the Caps away when they had ample opportunity in the first two periods to do just that.

The Caps would break on top in this one just 79 seconds into the game when John Carlson fired a laser of a slap shot over Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s blocker.  It was the end result of an early flurry by the Caps that had Alex Ovechkin test Lundqvist, Eric Fehr find a post, and then Carlson score the goal, all in a space of nine seconds.

Braden Holtby made the goal stand up for almost 28 minutes.  But the Rangers, despite outshooting the Caps to that point by a 29-10 margin, finally scored on their 30th shot on goal, a redirect by Carl Hagelin of a Ryan McDonagh slap pass that snuck by Holtby’s left pad.

That would be how the teams stood until the fifth minute of the third period when the Rangers, on a power play, executed like you draw it up.  Brad Richards won a faceoff to Michael Del Zotto, who found Derek Stepan behind John Carlson to Holtby’s left for a short snap shot that slipped past Holtby for the game-winning goal.  The Caps would outshoot the Rangers, 7-4, after the Stepan goal, but could not get any past goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and the Capitals skated off with their modest three-game winning streak ended.

Other stuff…

-- Tomas Kundratek is a really nice story.  He is a young guy (23) formerly of the Rangers who might have been expected to toil primarily in Hershey with the AHL Bears.  He has been pressed into duty with the Capitals as the team deals with injuries and age on the blue line.  But what does it say about the state of personnel management on this team when a borderline NHL player is getting top pair minutes (23:25 in this game)? 

-- How good was Braden Holtby?  Well, let’s follow up on the last point.  For the defense in front of him, Tom Poti had not played since February 5th and is coming off having missed the better part of two seasons.  Kundratek had not played more than 11:09 in any of his five NHL games coming into this season and had not played more than 16:26 in any game this season.  Jeff Schultz had played in 12 games coming into this game but was averaging barely 12 minutes of ice time in his appearances.  John Erskine had appeared in only eight of 13 games.  John Carlson was replaying the misadventures of his 2011-2012 regular season, having been on ice for more goals than any other defenseman in the league through 14 games.   Only Karl Alzner was resembling a reliable working defenseman.  And yet, Holtby still stopped 38 of 40 shots by game’s end.

-- For you Fans of the Fenwick, the Caps had 39 Fenwick events in this game (28 shots on goal, 11 missed shots).  Alex Ovechkin had 11 of them by himself.  It bears noting that the Rangers had more shots (40) than the Caps had total Fenwick events.

-- One can take this whole Fenwick thing a bit far though.  Wojtek Wolski had three, one shot on goal and two misses.  The two misses were crippling for the Caps; he could have – should have – buried either or both of them.

-- The line of Mathieu Perreault-Eric Fehr-Joel Ward was arguably the most energetic of the forward lines for the Caps in this game, but the Rangers were very adept at denying them chances. They combined for three shots on goal and one point (an assist by Fehr, although that came on a power play on which he was matched with other forwards).

-- Some leaders lead overtly, by the well timed speech or getting in teammates’ faces when they deserve it.  Some do it by example.  What to say of the example of Ryan Callahan for the Rangers.  Six blocked shots, two of them rockets off the stick of Alex Ovechkin, including one in the last minute when the Rangers were hanging onto a one-goal lead.  What’s more, on that last block of an Ovechkin drive, Callahan still managed to get into the play at the other end of the ice and harass Karl Alzner and bleed a few more seconds off the clock.  Its a style of play that teammates might see and think, "I don't want to let him down."

-- The six-game streak with at least one power play goal came to an end with the Caps going 0-for-4 on the man advantage.  It was only the fourth time this season in 15 games that the Caps failed to record at least one power play goal.  It was not as if the Caps did not get the puck to the guys who needed to get it.  Ovechkin had six power play shots on goal, and John Carlson – subbing for injured Mike Green – had a pair of the Caps’ total of nine power play shots.

-- One has to wonder if there is something wrong with Nicklas Backstrom.  In 20-plus minutes, no shot attempts.  He is not generally a heavy volume shooter (2.32 per game for his career before this season), but 1.87 shots on goal per game?  He has only one game this season in which he recorded more than three shots on goal.  Right now he is not much of an offensive threat.

-- The Caps were 11-for-19 on faceoffs in the offensive end, but that is a bit misleading.  Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle – not generally relied upon for their offensive contributions – accounted for a perfect 5-for-5.  Oddly enough, those two were a combined 1-for-4 in the defensive end.

-- On the other hand, there was the Rangers’ power play goal… faceoff-pass-goal.  Seven seconds, game-winner.

-- The difference…the Caps could not convert from their strength, the league’s third best road power play going 0-for-4.  Meanwhile, the league’s worst power play converted just enough of their chances – one out of five – to get the win.  The power play game winner left the Caps 0-8-1 when they allow at least one power play goal and 1-7-1 when they allow more than three power play chances.

In the end, the Caps are right back where they started before their three game winning streak.  Here is a useful, if depressing, way to think about it.  When the Caps took the ice against the Florida Panthers on February 9th in a game that would begin their three-game winning streak, they were in 15th place in the East, five points out of eighth place.  Tonight, after the loss to the Rangers, the Caps are in 15th place, five points out of eighth place... right back where they started.

If the Caps had been able to bank wins against the likes of Tampa or Winnipeg or Toronto, they could afford the odd loss to a good team on the road, such as this 2-1 loss to the Rangers.  But there is nothing in the bank, and losses to any team become less and less tolerable if there are any realistic dreams of this team making the playoffs.  There is just too much ground to have to make up.  Although a team can only play games one at a time, as a practical matter the Caps almost have to sweep their upcoming three-game home stand to remain in the race.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 15: Capitals at Rangers, February 17th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

In a 48-game season played in fewer than 100 days, you take your lulls where you get them.  The Washington Capitals get theirs with only one game to be played in the week following their 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.  That game will be played tomorrow in New York against the Rangers, the team that eliminated the Caps from the Stanley Cup playoffs last May.

This is the first rematch of these two teams since the Caps lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on this same Madison Square Garden sheet of ice.  Both teams stumbled out of the gate to begin this season relative to expectations.  The Caps had that awful 2-8-1 start before peeling off three wins in a row this past week.  The Rangers – on many prognosticators’ short list of Stanley Cup contenders – played the January portion of their schedule to a 3-4-0 record.  However, they have turned things around in February with a 4-1-1 record so far this month.

For all the hype over the trade for Rick Nash last July, coming a year after the well-hyped signing of Brad Richards as a free agent, this last six-game February run has been led by the relatively less renowned Carl Hagelin.  The second-year winger from Sweden by way of the University of Michigan started the month with an assist and the game-winning goal in a 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and he is 4-2-6 over his last three games to leave him 5-3-8, plus-4 for the month.

Speaking of Nash, he has not yet been the goal scorer that folks might have envisioned when he was obtained.  He has only three goals in 13 games (a 19-goal pace over 82 games), but he is tied with Brad Richards for the team lead in assists with eight, and he is tied with Marian Gaborik for the team lead in points with 11. He will come into this game with his offense heating up, going 1-3-4, plus-4 over his last three games.

Marc Staal is not going to be anyone’s idea of an offensive defenseman, but at 1-7-8 for the season he has already surpassed his assist and point totals from last year when he played in 46 games.  That is the product of his leading the Rangers in assists so far this month (five).

Here is how the teams compare, numbers-wise:

1.  Your odd Ranger number for this game: 1.  The Rangers have lost only one game outside the Atlantic Division so far, a 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins in their season opener.  The Blueshirts are 2-4-1 in the Atlantic Division, 5-1-0 outside of their division.

2.  The Rangers have goals from 11 different players in their 4-1-1 February, points from 14 different players.

3.  If the Caps have had trouble allowing goals in the second period of games this season, the Rangers have had trouble scoring them.  With only nine goals scored, only Nashville has scored fewer goals in the middle frame than have the Rangers.

4.  The Rangers are another of those teams that have happy endings in games at which they lead at intermissions.  They are 5-0-1 when leading after 20 minutes, and they are 5-0-0 when leading at the second intermission.  Then again, they are 1-4-0 when trailing at the first intermission and 1-5-0 when trailing after 40 minutes.

5.  Here is an odd juxtaposition of numbers.  The Rangers are third in the league in hits, but they also have taken the third fewest number of minor penalties.

1.  Only three teams have fewer major penalties taken than the Caps so far.  Matt Hendricks has four of the five taken so far; John Erskine has the other one. 

2.  In this three-game winning streak for the Caps, the line of Eric Fehr (3-2-5, plus-4), Joel Ward (1-4-5, plus-4), and Mathieu Perreault (1-4-5, plus-4) lead the team in scoring.  Fehr and Troy Brouwer (four goals) account for almost half of the 15 goals scored by the Caps in their streak.

3.  Of 330 players having scored at least one goal so far this season, Nicklas Backstrom is tied for 313th in shooting percentage (3.6 percent), and John Carlson is tied for 319th (3.0 percent).  Jason Chimera would qualify but for the fact he does not yet have a goal on 27 shots so far.  For Chimera the Rangers might be the team to break out against; he had three goals in the seven-game playoff series against them last spring. 

4.  Mike Ribeiro is tied for the scoring lead on special teams with ten points.  He has had a hand in ten of the 13 power play goals the Caps have so far this season.

5.  Eight different defensemen have recorded points for the Caps so far this season.  The flip side of that is that only five Caps defenseman have played in at least ten games (including Mike Green, who is questionable for this game).  Two of those defensemen might be considered of the unexpected variety – Jeff Schultz (12 games) and Tomas Kundratek (13).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Brian Boyle

Two seasons ago Brian Boyle set a career high in goals scored with 21. Last year he dropped by almost half, down to 11 goals.  This year he has yet to light the lamp in ten games.  His problem has been getting shots.  Two years ago he averaged 2.66 shots per game.  Last year it was 2.01.  Through ten games this season he is down to 1.3 shots per game.  If there is a team against which he might reverse the trend Washington might be that team.  He has five goals in 13 career games against the Caps, just two fewer than Rick Nash or Marian Gaborik.

Washington:  Tom Poti

If Mike Green is unable to go on Sunday, Tom Poti would seem the likely candidate to take his place in the lineup.  Poti has not played since February 5th, having sat out the last four games.  In the five games in which he has played this season the Caps are 0-5-0.  Poti, however, was on ice for only six of the 18 even strength goals scored against the Caps in those four games, despite logging an average of 15:36 in even strength ice time in those games.  In what might be a make-shift defense for this one, Poti’s experience could be important.


1.  Be Better Than Even.  Only the New York Islanders have allowed more goals at 5-on-5 this season than the Caps.  Even in this three-game winning streak they have allowed eight even strength goals (although they have scored 11 themselves).  The Caps need to whittle down that goals against at even strength even more.  The Rangers will be a challenge, since they are tied for seventh in the league in even strength goals.

2.  Discipline.  The Caps are 4-2-0 when allowing three or fewer power plays, 1-6-1 when they do not.  Their penalty killing is just not efficient enough to successfully deal with high volumes of shorthanded situations.  Even though the Rangers are borderline inept so far on the power play (tied for 25th in home power play this season), the Caps need to stay out of the box.

3.  Strong Down the Middle.  Capitals centers – Mike Ribeiro, Nicklas Backstrom, Mathieu Perreault – have combined for 10 assists in the three-game winning streak.  The strength down the middle and success are not likely to be mere coincidence.

In the end, the Caps have to be better in this game than they have been in any of the three wins on this streak so far.  Neither Florida nor Tampa Bay have especially stout defenses, and neither exhibit the sort of 200-foot pressure that the Rangers can apply.  Compounding the Caps’ challenge is the fact that Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist seems to be getting into a rhythm.  In his last three appearances he is 3-0-0, 1.62, .946. He has not allowed a power play goal in that span, which flies in the face of the Caps’ 4-for-6 performance with the man advantage over their last three games.  That could very well be the fault line on which this game is decided.

Capitals 3 – Rangers 2