Sunday, November 10, 2013

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 6

It could have been perfect.  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.

Record: 2-0-1

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  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:

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. 

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 18: Capitals at Avalanche, November 10th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON the zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

We are high above the dark plain below us, flying somewhere near The Four Corners on our way to Denver, Colorado, where the Washington Capitals will face the Colorado Avalanche in the back half of their back-to-back western road trip.

We might already be in Denver, asleep in our beds, but we made one fatal mistake.  We left the flight arrangements to Cheerless.  It seems he knows a guy, who knows a guy, who heard of a guy who did flight charters, and he thought (if “thinking” can be considered a part of his repertoire) “why not?”

We should have known “why not” as we were getting to the airport, such as it was…

I don’t think this was the main runway at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.  The whole “why not” thing was pretty much driven home as soon as the plane was brought out to the tarmac…

The flight crew did not inspire the highest of confidence, either…

The tower seemed concerned about an approaching weather front…

…but we did manage to get airborne just as the weather was about to take a turn, giving us at least the illusion of safety…

…until they brought the in-flight meal…

We passed on that bad boy, and it’s a good thing.  Not 15 minutes later, there was a lot of moaning, and we don’t mean new members joining the Mile-High Club, if you know what we mean.  Fortunately, there was a doctor on board…

…a rather serious fellow named “Dr. Shirley,” I believe.  Things seem to have settled down, but we have a way to go in this rustbucket, so let’s get down to tonight’s game…assuming we get there.

Colorado has spent most of the season sitting atop the league standings.  Although they trail the Anaheim Ducks by three points for the most standings points, they remain tops in standings points earned per game (1.73 to 1.61 for Anaheim). 

They do not come across their ranking lightly.  Through games of Friday, the Avs were a top-five team in scoring offense (5th), scoring defense (1st), 5-on-5 play (3rd), penalty killing (3rd), margin of victory (2nd), record when scoring first (the only team with an unblemished record, 11-0-0), one of only two teams (the Rangers being the other) with perfect records when leading at the first intermission and at the second intermission, and power play goals allowed (tied for fewest with the Caps).

Colorado is one of only four teams not to have endured a loss by three or more goals this season (3-0-0); they are unbeaten in one-goal decisions (5-0-0).  Only two teams have allowed fewer 5-on-5 goals than the Avs (Minnesota and Boston).  Only Tampa Bay (5) has allowed fewer first period goals (6).  Only Minnesota (8) has allowed fewer second period goals than Colorado (10).  They have the best team save percentage (.944), the fourth best shooting percentage (11.1 percent), and the best team PDO overall (1055).  Through 15 games, at least, this is a formidable team.

Here are the overall numbers for both clubs…

1.  One thing that has contributed to Colorado’s early season run – health.  Twelve skaters have appeared in all 15 games (13 if you include the Steve Downie/Maxime Talbot duo, since one was traded for the other), 18 of them have appeared in more than 10 contests.  The Avs have only 16 man-games played by replacements.

2.  Another thing – depth.  Twenty of the 22 skaters appearing for Colorado have recorded points, and one who has not – Maxime Talbot, obtained in the trade with Philadelphia for Steve Downie – has been with the club for only four games so far.

3.  Colorado won six in a row to start the season before losing a game, then won another six games in a row before losing a game.  Here is the thing about the losses.  Those two games are the only ones this season in which the Avalanche allowed more than two goals.

4.  The Avs have achieved an almost perfect 2:1 workload ratio between their goaltenders.  Semyon Varlamov has appeared in 10 games, Jean-Sebastien Giguere in five.  Varlamov has 599:09 in ice time so far, Giguere has 299:53 (a 1.998:1 ratio, if you are keeping score).

5.  It is hard to find a soft underbelly of this team on defense.  There does not appear to be that one or two players who are frequently on the ice when the opponent scores goals.  Defenseman Andre Benoit has been on ice for 13 goals against, most on the club.  However, through Friday’s games there were 145 players on ice for more goals against (of 719 players having dressed this season).  Of the 239 defensemen having dressed, 87 of them have been on ice for more goals than Benoit.

1.  The Caps do not visit Denver often, but it is not the horror show they face in some other western cities.  They are 4-2-1 in their last seven visits to Pepsi Center dating back to 2001.

2.  The Caps’ 4-for-6 effort on the penalty kill last night was their first game allowing two or more power play goals this season.  It dropped them to second in the league in penalty killing (88.2 percent), behind Vancouver (89.1 percent).

3.  Only four teams allow more shots on goal per game than the Caps (34.3).  Only Buffalo, Toronto, and Ottawa have larger negative shot differentials per game.

4.  That penalty kill is efficient, but the Caps are showing signs of slowing effectiveness in preventing power play goals.  Why?  Only five teams have faced more shorthanded situations than the Caps.  The Caps still have the fourth fewest power play goals allowed, but there are cracks in the framework.

5.  With three third period goals last night, the Caps now have the most goals scored in the second period this season (29).  It makes up (sort of) for the fact that only four teams have fewer first period goals scored.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Colorado: Maxime Talbot

When Colorado traded Steve Downie to Philadelphia for Max Talbot on Hallowe’en, the story line was that Colorado didn’t appreciate Downie mixing it up with team captain and franchise player Gabriel Landeskog in a scrimmage and then being unapologetic for it.  On the surface it was a trade of a volatile sort (he had 32 fights and 696 penalty minutes in 285 career regular season games before the trade) for what might be perceived as a more workmanlike “grinder” sort of player in the traditional sense of the word (he had only 18 bouts and 408 penalty minutes in 515 career regular season games up to the trade).  That might be a fair description of the exchange. 

There is another, perhaps more consequential difference, though.  Talbot has played in 77 post-season games, including appearances in two Stanley Cup finals (scoring the Cup-clinching goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 finals).  He has 18 goals and 39 points, along with a plus-17 in those 77 games.  Downie has 23 playoff games on his resume and only two goals to show for it (he does have 13 assists).  The word “journeyman” might apply to Talbot in the traditional meaning of the term, one who is experienced in his craft, if not a master.  He is a solid, dependable player, one who has had a measure of success against the Caps, 8-3-11, plus-2, in 26 career games.

Washington: Braden Holtby

Braden Holtby has built an impressive early-career resume – 44-21-4, 2.43, .923, and eight shutouts.  The part of that resume that applies to Western Conference teams is not quite as impressive.  Holtby has appeared in 12 games versus the West and has a career line of 7-4-0, 2.74, .910, and two shutouts (for our purposes, we do not include his games against Winnipeg, a former divisional rival, or his appearance against Columbus this season, since they are a divisional rival, but we do include his only appearance against Detroit, who played in the West when Holtby faced them).

This will be Holtby’s first appearance against the Avalanche, assuming the rotation of Michal Neuvirth against Phoenix and Holtby against the Avs holds.  And if his history in Western Conference arenas is an indicator, Holtby will be swimming upstream against his record to date.  It is a small population of games, but in five games in Western Conference rinks Holtby is 2-3-0, 3.35, .895.


1.  First in war, first in peace, first in the first period.  In both of Colorado’s losses (both of which came at home, by the way), they allowed two goals in the first period.  

2.  Don’t lose contact.  Colorado has scored first in 11 of 15 games so far this season.  In six of their seven wins at home they scored first.  In four of those games, not only did they score first, they jumped out to multiple-goal leads.  If they score, it is important to get the next one.  If they do instead, you’ll spend the rest of the game watching them whizzing by and around you. 

3.  It’s a 200-foot rink…make ‘em play all of it.  Colorado cannot use their speed if they are fighting for pucks deep in their end.  The Caps have to do a much better job of making the Avs dig for pucks below their own goal line than they did when the teams faced one another last month in a 5-1 Avalanche win.

In the end…

Whether the Caps are a different team than the one that was strafed by the Avalanche last month will become apparent early in this game.  In 12 games since they lost at home to Colorado, Washington has allowed a first period goal only six times and a total of only eight.  If the Caps can make this more of a grinding game than their first meeting, it negates much of what advantages Colorado has.  That argues for the standard “keep it simple” sort of road game.  And so it will be…

Capitals 3 – Avalanche 2

Washington Capitals: A ONE point night -- Game 17: Coyotes 4 - Capitals 3 (OT/Gimmick)

Things caught up with the Washington Capitals on Saturday night in Phoenix.  The Caps had a 3-1 lead with less than five minutes to play, but they gave up two goals late in regulation to tie the game, then allowed two more in the bonus round to drop a 4-3 decision to the Coyotes.

The Caps dutifully built a 3-1 lead through 40 minutes after allowing the game’s first goal to Shane Doan of the Coyotes.  After Doan put the Coyotes ahead mid-way through the first period, the Caps put up three goals in the second period.  Troy Brouwer evened the game in the first minute of the second period on a power play when he took a long lead pass from Mike Green and blasted a slap shot from the right wing faceoff dot past goalie Mike Smith to tie the game.

Just over three minutes later, John Carlson gave the Caps the lead on another power play, but it was Marcus Johansson who set things up by circling with the puck in the right wing circle, then slipping the puck past David Moss onto the stick of Carlson for the one-timer that put the Caps ahead.

Late in the period Joel Ward gave the Caps a two-goal lead on an odd play that started with Ward feeding Karl Alzner in the neutral zone.  Alzner carried the puck to the Coyotes’ blue line, then left the puck for Jason Chimera at the left point.  Chimera threw the puck toward the net, but it pinballed off Michael Latta onto the stick of Ward. From the bottom of the left wing circle, Ward wristed the puck past goalie Mike Smith, and the Caps had a two-goal lead they would take to the second intermission.

For 16 minutes in the third period, it looked as if the Caps would leave with two points in their back pockets.  Unfortunately, hockey periods are 20 minutes, and in the last four minutes the Caps undid all the good work of the previous 56 minutes. 

Lauri Korpikoski scored only his second goal of the season when he laid out and backhanded a rebound between Michal Neuvirth’s pads as he was falling to the ice to halve the Caps’ lead.   Then, with the clock ticking under two minutes to play and the Coyotes on a power play, Troy Brouwer dove in an attempt to flick a loose puck out of the Caps’ zone.  He managed to get it to the blue line but not over it.  Oliver Ekman-Larsson settled the puck and fed it to Shane Doan, who slipped into the space vacated by Brouwer.  Doan turned and snapped a wrist shot over Neuvirth’s blocker to tie the game with just 1:46 left to play.

After a scoreless overtime, it came down to Bettman’s folly.  Anotine Vermette and Mikkel Boedker sandwiched goals low to the glove side of Neuvirth around a miss by Mikhail Grabovski.  That brought it down to Alex Ovechkin to keep hope alive for the Caps.  When the puck rolled off his stick and went wide of the goal, it was representative of the Caps’ night, one in which they had the game on their sticks and let it slip away, 4-3.

Other stuff…

-- After seven straight wins in the bonus round, this was the first shootout loss for the Caps under Adam Oates.  They had been 15-for-23 in shooting until last night’s 0-for-2 performance.

-- The odd part about the freestyle competition was that the two shooters selected by Adam Oates were, to that point, the only two shooters who had recorded misses for the Caps.  Grabovski was 2-for-4 before his miss, and Ovechkin was 1-for-3.  Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Martin Erat, and Troy Brouwer were/are a combined 7-for-7.

-- The Capitals allowed two power play goals for the first time this season.  Through 17 games last season the Caps had allowed two of more power play goals in a game five times.  It was bound to bite them sooner or later.  This was the fifth time in six games the Caps allowed five or more power plays.  Over the previous five games the Caps allowed only two power play goals in 25 shorthanded situations.

-- On the other side, the two power play goals by the Caps made it seven games in which they recorded two or more power play goals.  Last season, through 17 games, the Caps accomplished the feat four times.

-- At least the Caps spread things around.  Nine different players recorded the nine available points, including Michal Neuvirth, who had the second assist of his career on Brouwer’s goal.

-- As much as the how many on penalties, it was the “what for.”  A delay-of-game on a faceoff violation (aqn incorrect call, by the way), an ensuing unsportsmanlike conduct (which was correct, under the circumstances), too many men on the ice, a puck over the glass call (the one that ultimately undid the Caps at the end of regulation).  Those are penalties that betray a lack of focus and discipline, not penalties taken in the heat of the moment.

-- That Boedker would get the game-clinching goal in the trick shot competition was odd karma.  He might have been the goat for the Coyotes (the conflicting livestock imagery notwithstanding).  Boedker took three penalties – hooking, tripping, goalie interference – one of which resulted in a Caps power play goal (Brouwer).

-- The Caps were shelled, 13-4, in shots at even strength in the third period and lost that battle for the game, 27-21.

-- It was Mike Smith’s first career win against the Caps after six losses. 

-- In former Capitals news… Jeff Halpern (0-0-0) and Mike Ribeiro (0-0-0) were held off the scoreboard, but Ribeiro tied for the team lead in shots on goal (six, with Ekman-Larsson), and Halpern won six of 11 faceoffs in eight minutes of work.

In the end… the Caps let a point get away.  It was disappointing on its own terms – another third period lead wasted – but the additional point could have put the Caps within striking distance of Pittsburgh at the top of the Metropolitan Division.  The silver lining…a thin lining… is that the Caps have a five-game streak with standings points earned.  They will be hard pressed to extend that streak to six as they head to Colorado to face the Avalanche tonight, a team that the Caps might have been peeking ahead to in the third period of this game.