Sunday, February 24, 2013

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 5

It was a light week, game-wise, with only two contests on the schedule, but it was chock full of twists and turns.  And when it was over for the Washington Capitals, they were worse off than when they started the week, despite jumping a spot in the standings.  They started the week five points out of a playoff spot and finished it six points behind.

Record: 1-1-0

It was six periods of hockey against the New Jersey Devils this week.  If you look at it that way, the Caps “won” the week by a 7-4 margin.  Unfortunately, this was not a two-game, total goal series.  If you look at things period by period, the Caps “won” the week with a 2-1-3 record over six periods.  Unfortunately, the NHL does not award standings points by period.  No, the Caps lived and died – well, won and lost, actually – by the 60 minute game.  They lost a third period lead in Game 1 of the week, allowing a pair of goals in a 3-2 loss to the Devils.  They took and held a third period lead in Game 2 of the week, a 5-1 win. 

Offense: 3.50/game (season: 2.82 / rank: 12th)

The best you could say about the Caps offense this week is that it was patient.  And yes, that is intended as a compliment.  Washington had no goals on a total of 15 first period shots over the two games against the Devils.  The two first periods differed in type, too.  In Game 1 the Caps managed only four shots on goal against New Jersey, while in Game 2 they recorded 11 first period shots on goal. 

Things got better from there, though.  In the second period, which has been a problem for the Caps this season, Washington outscored New Jersey, 3-2, leaving the Caps either ahead (in Game 1) or tied (in Game 2) at the second intermission.  Against a team that squeezes the opponent and the clock over 60 minutes, neither was a bad outcome.  It denied the Devils the luxury of falling back into a prevent defense.

What the Caps did in Game 2 that they could not in Game 1 was close the deal.  They scored four goals on 10 shots over a 16:46 span of the third period of Game 2, three of them on special teams (two power play goals and a shorthanded goal to go with an even-strength score).  Of course, the problem in Game 1 was not so much offense as much as it was quick-stepping to the penalty box, which brings us to…

Defense: 2.00/game (season: 3.24 / rank: 26th)

There was the good and the bad in Game 1 of the week.  The bad first – six minor penalties in the third period, four of them of the obstruction sort (holding, tripping, hooking, interference).  Say what you want about the officiating, but there was a consistent theme that the Caps were a half-step behind.  If anything the Caps were better defensively when a man down in that third period.  At even strength the Caps were outshot 10-3 in the third period of Game 1 (30-12 for the game at even strength).

Game 2 was a different story.  The Caps allowed the Devils only 17 even strength shots for the game and only three of those by the trio of Ilya Kovalchuk (2), Patrik Elias (1), and David Clarkson (0), who came into the game with a combined 21 goals of the total of 45 scored by the Devils.  Kovalchuk scored on one of his even strength shots, tying the game in the second period on a defensive breakdown by the Caps, but otherwise this trio was not heard from at 5-on-5.  It was a much better effort.

Goaltending: 2.03 / .932 (season: 3.24 / .897)

It was Braden Holtby’s week, and he had a fine one.  He stopped 45 of 47 shots at even strength (.957 save percentage), and even his save percentage on the penalty kill (.909) was excellent (it is a small population of saves but the percentage is exceeded only by five goalies who have appeared in at least five games).  By period he was sturdy, going 18-for-18 in the first period and 20-for-22 in the third period of the two games.  Even the 17-for-19 record in the second periods this week was not bad (.895), in the context of his overall season save percentage entering the week (.888).  He gave the Caps a chance to win Game 1 of the week (before the parade to the penalty box) and kept the Caps engaged with the Devils until the power play allowed the Caps to shake New Jersey off in the final frame.

Power Play: 4-7 / 57.1 percent (season: 28.8 percent / rank: 2nd)

If you go 50 percent for a game, it is a good game.  If you go better than 50 percent for the week, you are on a run.  If you go 50 percent on the power play over 25 periods of hockey – more than eight games – you are pretty good.  The Caps finished the week with all of those statements being true, going 2-for-4 in Game 1 of the week, 4-for-7 for the week as a whole, and 12-for-24 over their last 25 periods of hockey as the week came to a close.

Penalty Killing: 8-9 / 88.9 percent (season: 77.0 percent / rank: 23rd)

There is no clearer indicator of wins and losses for the Caps than their performance on the penalty kill.  Coming into the week they were 1-7-1 when facing more than three shorthanded situations, 4-2-0 when they faced three or fewer.  They were 0-8-1 when allowing a power play goal, 5-1-0 when they did not.  And sure enough, the Caps lost the game in which they faced more than three power plays; they lost the game in which they allowed a power play goal.  They won the game in which they were perfect on the penalty kill; they won having allowed only three power play opportunities in that game.  Having to kill five power plays in the third period did them in, in Game 1.  The Caps simply spent too much time (almost eight minutes in all, including 2:28 in 3-on-5 time) killing penalties to develop any rhythm at the other end of the ice, and it provided New Jersey with too many opportunities for what would eventually be a tie-breaking goal in a 2-2 game.

Paying the Price: 55 hits / 31 blocked shots (season rank: 21st / 21st)

Going into the week’s play the Caps were averaging only 11 hits a game at home.  They more than doubled that in two games this week, averaging 27.5 a game.  Alex Ovechkin got his (nine in two games), but Matt Hendricks got his, too (eight in an average of 27:40 of total ice time).  But the number that might be most (or in a way, least) significant in the hits department  is “5.”  The Caps had five players with at least four hits in Thursday’s game… and lost.

Faceoffs: 74-for-126 / 58.7 percent (season: 50.8 percent / rank: 11th)

The Caps won all three zones for the week.  They were especially efficient in the defensive end, going 26-for-43 (60.5 percent).  It enabled the club to climb over 50 percent for the season.  The surprise was not that Mike Ribeiro and Nicklas Backstrom went 11-20 in the offensive end, or even that Backstrom and Jay Beagle went a combined 16-for-23 in the defensive end.  It was probably that Mathieu Perreault continued his improvement in the circle, going 12-for-19 (63.2 percent) to finish the week at 56.1 percent for the season (third on the team).  He gets some measure of protection in this regard (10 of his 19 draws came in the neutral zone), but possession is possession, and it is better to have it than not.

Turnovers: minus-5

The 23 giveaways stood out this week, especially since New Jersey was charged with only 11 combined for the two games.  But there were only eight giveaways by defensemen, perhaps a reason why the Devils did not have a lot of opportunities in the two games this week. 

In the end...

It was a nice finish to the week, especially getting the Captain untracked (a hat trick and four points in Game 2 for Alex Ovechkin), but that is not what the Caps need now.  They need “nice weeks” – plural.  They have one winning week in their first five, and the Caps sill have only one streak of consecutive wins this season (the three game streak from February 9-14).  They leave the Devils – the only team in the top eight the Caps have defeated this season – behind to take on three teams this coming week that are not among the league’s elite.  Of this week's opponents, only Carolina is in the top-eight, but as a group the Hurricanes, the Jets, and the Flyers went 7-5-0 this past week (Winnipeg and Philadelphia each went 3-1-0).  The Caps can either use their “nice finish” of the week as a springboard to a run of success, or they can lose contact altogether with the top-eight…if they haven’t already.

A TWO-point afternoon -- Game 17: Capitals 5 - Devils 1

And sometimes, it all comes together.

So it did on Saturday afternoon as the Washington Capitals defeated the New Jersey Devils, 5-1.  The big story, of course, was Alex Ovechkin recording his first hat trick of the season… first multi-goal game since March 23rd of last season… first hat trick since January 22, 2011… first hat trick at home since February 7, 2010…

Enough of the “first since” stuff, okay?

It was actually a case of the hockey gods rewarding Ovechkin for playing with an intensity over the last few games that was not there earlier in the year.  He averaged more than five shots on goal per game over his previous nine games, but had only three goals to show for it.  He matched that goal total in seven shots on goal on Saturday afternoon.

Ovechkin did it in familiar ways but by new means, beginning in the second period.  His first goal started on a rush down the right side – not his customary left side – when he took a breakout pass from John Erskine.  Then Ovechkin left the puck for Jason Chimera at the Devils’ blue line before drifting off to the left side in the New Jersey zone. Chimera laid the puck off to Mike Ribeiro, by which time Ovechkin set up camp in the left circle.  He needed only to one-time the pass from Ribeiro past goalie Johan Hedberg, and the Caps had a 1-0 lead.

After Ilya Kovalchuk knotted the game late in the second period, Ovechkin grabbed the lead back for the Caps early in the third.  Matt Hendricks sent a long cross-ice pass to Ovechkin, again heading down the right wing.  After crossing the blue line he used defenseman Anton Volchenkov as a screen – how many times have we seen that on the other side – and rifled a wrist shot past Hedberg on the long side.

Less than three minutes later Eric Fehr scored a shorthanded goal, then it was Ovechkin’s turn again.  On a power play, after missing a one-timer from the left wing circle, Ovechkin recovered his own shot to reset the offense.  His cross-ice pass missed its mark, but John Carlson flagged it down at the blue line.  Carlson to Nicklas Backstrom at the right wing wall, to Ribeiro at the goal line, out to Ovechkin at the edge of the left wing circle – bang… back of the net.

He was not done, though. On another Caps power play, the threat of his shot seemed to occupy Hedberg as a pass came to him in the left wing circle from Tomas Kundratek.  This time, though, Ovechkin one-timed a pass to Troy Brouwer in the slot,  Brouwer redirected the shot through Hedberg’s legs before Andy Greene could tie him up, and the Caps had their final 5-1 margin.

Other stuff…

-- Going 2-for-3 on the power play means that the Caps are 12-for-24 (50.0 percent) going back to the third period of their game against Pittsburgh on February 3rd, covering eight-plus games.  Whatever the Caps’ problems have been, the power play is not among them.  They are now second in the league overall at 28.8 percent.

-- All of a sudden, Alex Ovechkin is in the top-15 in goals scored (tied for 14th, actually).  Mike Ribeiro, who had two assists, is now tied for sixth in helpers and tied for ninth in points.

-- It was the best of $600,000 signings, it was the worst of $600,000 signings.  Eric Fehr picked goalie Johan Hedberg’s pocket with hustle to score a wrap-around shorthanded goal to give the Caps some insurance in the third period.  That makes four goals on just 18 shots in 14 games for Fehr.  He is fifth on the team in goals scored and sixth in points now, despite averaging barely ten minutes a game in ice time.

-- As for that “worst” part, it might be a bit unfair to characterize Wojtek Wolski’s signing as “worst,” but he is really in a rut.  He couldn’t finish a play with an open net in front of him, five feet away.  The puck might have been bouncing on him, but like a baseball hitter who is in a slump and squeezing the bat too tightly, there was Wolski flipping the puck wide of the net.  He is now without a point in his last seven games and is a minus-3.

-- If Ilya Kovalchuk is standing at center ice waiting to take a penalty shot, a goalie might be concerned (he was 11-for-14 in trick shots last season, if you need a comparison).  If it is Patrik Elias staring down at the goalie, it will get the goalie’s attention (Elias was 6-for-12 in Gimmicks last season).  Steve Bernier?  He was 1-for-4 in shootouts over a seven year career coming into this season.  It is not his forte.  He skated in on his penalty shot, pretty much telegraphed going five-hole all the way, and all goalie Braden Holtby had to do was the ol’ knee-dip with his right pad, and that was that.

-- Yup… John Carlson was on ice for another goal against.  Not really his problem, though.  He had Andrei Loktionov covered on his side as Ilya Kovalchuk slipped into a void created when John Erskine slid over to cover…Loktionov.  Huh?  By the way, that scoring play – Kovalchuk from Loktionov and (Alexei) Ponikarovsky – is the season leader for letters used in a scoring line.

-- Ovechkin had quite the line on his score sheet.  In addition to the three goals  and the assist he had seven shots on goal (tied a season high), twn shot attempts, and five hits.

-- Ovechkin did not lead the team in hits, though.  That would be Matt Hendricks, who had six in less than 13 minutes of ice time.  And, he chipped in an assist to boot.

-- With his goal, Troy Brouwer has points in nine of his last 12 games and is 7-4-11 over that span.

-- Part of the charm of playing goaltender for the New Jersey Devils is not having to face a heavy workload on most nights.  Johan Hedberg faced only 26 shots, but it was actually Braden Holtby who was the beneficiary of a lighter workload in this game.  Holtby faced only 22 shots, seven in the third period as the Caps were abusing Hedberg at the other end. 

-- The Caps were consistent in the circle.  Twelve faceoffs won in the offensive end, 12 in the defensive end, and 12 in the neutral zone.  All with winning percentages.  The “offensive” guys – Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro – were a combined 7-for-12 in the offensive end.  The “defensive” guys – Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle – were a combined 5-for-7 in the defensive zone.  And there was Mathieu Perrault going 8-for-10 overall.  Whodathunkit?

-- Speaking of faceoffs, Andrei Lokitonov was 0-for-10 for the Devils.  Geez, you’d think a guy would win one by accident.

In the end, one could consider this the best game the Caps have played this year, given their opponent.  It was the first time the Caps beat a team in the top-eight in the conference, and they did it after what might have been a disheartening loss to the same club in the third period less than 48 hours earlier.  They got a big game from their big game player.  They got solid goaltending.  They had a crisp power play.  They had an effective penalty kill.  They now get a chance to take a bite out of a divisional opponent when Carolina visits on Tuesday before heading out on the road.  Time to put a streak together.