Sunday, December 22, 2013

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 12

It was a heavy schedule for the Washington Capitals in Week 12.  At the end of it, one could find the good, the bad, and the ugly in it.  That’s why we’re here, so let’s get to it.

Record: 2-1-1

It was the eighth winning week for the Caps so far this season, their second in a row.  It also was “Metro Rivalry Week.”  The Caps had a home-and home set with the Philadelphia Flyers and games against the Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils.  When the week started the Caps had a two-point lead on third-place Carolina, a five-point lead on fifth-place New Jersey, and a six-point lead on the sixth-place Flyers.  At week’s end, the Caps’ lead expanded to four points over Carolina, while they held their own over the Devils and Flyers, maintaining the margins over those teams with which they started the week.  When you are the lead dog among those four teams, not losing ground has to be considered a good thing.  Perhaps, however, it could have been better.

Offense: 3.50/game (season: 2.97 / rank: 7th)

Ten Capitals shared in the 14 goals scored for the week.  Alex Ovechkin led the way with four goals, one in each of the four games. He is into round numbers lately – four in four games for the week, ten in his last ten games.  He became the sixth player in the post-1967 expansion era to record 30 or more goals in each of his first nine seasons.

Marcus Johansson had a pair of goals this week, the only other Cap to record a multi-goal week.  It brought him out of a drought in which he had only one goal in 16 games dating back to his scoring in consecutive games back on November 5-7.  When he was held off the score sheet against New Jersey to end the week, it broke a three-game streak of points for the week and a five-game points streak overall.

Speaking of overall, 13 different Caps recorded points for the week.  Nicklas Backstrom topped the list with seven point, all on helpers.  His four assist game against Carolina on Friday was his ninth career four-assist game, the most in the league since he came into the NHL in the 2007-2008 season.  In fact, he has as many as the second and third place players (Ryan Getzlaf, Sidney Crosby) combined.

Defense: 4.00/game (season: 2.94 / rank:24th)

Blech!  The Caps allowed nine goals over two games to the 22nd ranked scoring offense in the league, five goals to the 23rd ranked offense.  There is no way to put a prom dress on that pig and make it prom queen.  The Caps allowed 141 shots on goal – 35.3 per game.  True, that is precisely the Caps’ season average of shots allowed per game, but that is the second worst average in the league.  It caught up with them this week.

The possession numbers?  Yeesh.  For the week the Caps were sub-40 percent in both Corsi-for (37.8 percent) and Fenwick-for (39.9 percent) percentage in 5-on-5 close score situations.  They were sub-40 percent (38.0 percent) in Corsi-for and barely cracked the 40-percent level (43.2) in Fenwick-for in all 5-on-5 situations.  Graphically, the trend (depicted as a rolling 10-game progression for Fenwick-for, 5-on-5 close situations) is, from a hockey perspective, alarming. 

The last few games of that chart look disturbingly like the share price for Lehman Brothers leading up to their bankruptcy in 2008…

Let’s hope things turn around for the Caps more than they did so for Lehman.

Goaltending: 2.55 GAA / .930 save percentage (season: 2.69 / .922 / 1 shutout)

A tale of two goalies.  One tale describes that of Philipp Grubauer, who was called upon twice this week. He won both games, stopping 63 of 69 shots in the process (.913 save percentage).  It was a good, if not extraordinary performance overall. 

Then there was Braden Holtby.  Two appearances, two losses (one in overtime), ten goals allowed on 72 shots (a .861 save percentage). It is part of a longer struggle Holtby has had recently.  In his last five appearances he is 1-2-1, 4.92, .863.  Holtby’s problem, at least this week, was later-game collapses.  In his two games he stopped 16 of 17 first period shots (.941 save percentage), but allowed four goals on 26 shots in the second periods of those games (.846) and four goals on 27 shots (.852) in the third periods of those games.

It was not a good week overall for the goaltenders, Holtby in particular, but then again they had a heavy workload, too.  They faced an average of 34.8 shots per 60 minutes of work for the week, part of a longer trend in which the Caps have yielded a lot of shots.  The word for this week might be “regression.”

Power Play: 5-12 / 41.7 percent (season:  percent 26.1 percent / rank: 2nd)

The Caps are making teams pay, and pay dearly for stepping outside the rule book.  This week it was power play goals in three of the four games, five power play goals overall on 13 chances.  The Caps recorded those five goals on 21 shots in 17:14 of power play time.  Four different players had power play goals for the Caps this week, Marcus Johansson being the only one to hit the twine twice.  The one thing each power play goal had in common was that Nicklas Backstrom recorded an assist.  Five of Backstrom’s seven assists for the week came on the man advantage.  Backstrom finished the week with 21 power play assists for the year, a five assist lead over Evgeni Malkin for the league lead.

Penalty Killing: 12-17 / 70.6 percent (season: 81.3 percent / rank: 20th)

It seems so long ago now, all those penalties killed off in a row back in October and early November.  In the here and now, the Caps’ penalty kill stinks on toast.  First, there were the opportunities.  The Caps allowed opponents four or more power play opportunities in three of the four games for the week.  When the penalty kill is struggling, you don’t want the penalty killers on the ice.  Then there were the shots.  Opponents recorded 30 shots on goal in 26:03 of power play time.  It seems almost inevitable, absent some herculean effort from the goaltenders, that the penalty kill would continue to struggle.

Even Strength Goals For/Against: 9-11 (season: 70-77; 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.92 / rank: 20th)

Despite the minus-2 week at even strength the Caps did not sink lower in the league standings in 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio.  That’s the good part.  Seven of the even-strength goals against either tied the game or gave opponents a lead.  Washington was out-shot at even strength by a 107-88 margin for the week.  The Caps out-shot their opponents at even strength in three of the first four periods in regulation for the week and failed to out-shoot opponents at even strength in any period thereafter for the week.  It is not as if these are isolated circumstances.  The Caps have been struggling at even strength for most of the season.  Only Ottawa and Toronto allow more shots perminute at 5-on-5 than do the Caps.  Only five teams allow more even strength goals per minute of ice time than do the Caps.  This is not a good even strength team.

Faceoffs: 125-232 / 53.9 percent (season: 49.3 percent / rank: T-18th)

It was a uniformly good week in the circle for the Caps.  The Caps won all three zones – 55.2 in the offensive zone for the week, 53.7 percent in the defensive zone, 53.3 percent in the neutral zone.  Nicklas Backstrom was a good reflection of the consistency, going 55.0 percent in the offensive zone (11-for-20), 55.0 percent in the defensive zone (11-for-20), and 52.2 percent in the neutral zone (12-for-23).  Martin Erat carried the biggest load in the defensive zone, taking 25 draws for the week and winning 14 of them (56.0 percent).  Jay Beagle was right there, though, winning nine of 15 defensive zone draws (60.0 percent).  No Capital taking more than ten draws this week finished below 50 percent for the week.

Goals For/Against by Period:

The second period was once more good to the Caps, but again, it might have been better.  Eight of the 14 goals for the week scored by Washington came in the second period, but they allowed six to opponents.  And, the Caps allowed another six goals in the third periods of games.  It made for a difficult week, especially since the Caps still cannot seem to get off to good starts on a consistent basis.  They had only one first period goal for the week.  Only five teams have fewer goals scored in the first period this season than the Caps.  They are a minus-11 in goals scored for and against in the first periods of games this season.

In the end…

A 2-1-1 record is not bad.  It shows a certain consistency of results, the Caps having recorded winning weeks in three of the last four weeks (the other being a .500 week) and eight winning weeks in the last ten.  But scratch the surface, and the question remains, is this a team playing to its record?  If you answer that question in the negative, then the question becomes one of whether there is a correction – and perhaps a big one – to come that aligns the Caps’ record more cleanly with their underlying performance numbers. 

The Caps are not playing well at 5-on-5, their penalty killing has been fair to awful, they allow too many shots, their possession numbers are weak, they are being carried more or less by Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.  Yet, they win.  For now.

Washington Capitals: A ONE point night -- Game 36: Devils 5 - Capitals 4 (OT)

This being the holiday season, the Washington Capitals were in a giving mood on Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils.  The Caps twice had two goal leads in the third period, but allowed the Devils to come back to tie the game, then win the game in overtime, 5-4.

After the Devils scored the first goal – a one-timer from the left wing circle by Marek Zidlicky on a Devils power play in the first period – the Caps came back with a vengeance in the second period.  Joel Ward got the first scoring play started by digging the puck out from the left wing wall and chipping it along to Martin Erat in the corner.  Erat eased the puck along the wall to Jason Chimera, who was lost by the Devils’ defense, allowing him to circle around the cage to try to stuff the puck past goalie Martin Brodeur.  His first attempt was unsuccessful, but with no Devil close enough to challenge Chimera, he got another whack at it and batted it under Brodeur to tie the game.

Four minutes later the Caps took the lead. It was a tic-tac-toe play starting with Troy Brouwer in the left wing corner getting the puck into the high slot for Eric Fehr.  From there, Fehr had the option to shoot or pass.  He chose to take a half step around defenseman Eric Gelinas to open a passing lane to Mikhail Grabovski stepping out from below the goal line.  Fehr hit Grabovski, and Grabovski snapped the puck behind Brodeur to make it 2-1, Caps.

The third goal in the Caps’ sequence came in the last minute of the second period.  It started with a pad save by Braden Holtby that allowed the Caps to break out in numbers.  Mike Green carried the puck into the New Jersey zone on the right side and unloaded a slap shot that Brodeur handled a bit clumsily.  His right pad save allowed for a long rebound onto the stick of Joel Ward.  With Brodeur still down, Ward buried the rebound in the back of the net, and the Caps had a 3-1 lead at the second intermission.

New Jersey started their comeback in the sixth minute of the third period.  New Jersey won a power play faceoff in the Caps’ end, despite the puck lying tantalizingly free at the top of the circle after Travis Zajac pulled it back from the draw.  Patrick Elias was first to the puck, but Andy Greene chipped it off Elias’ stick into open ice where he took control.  Greene maneuvered around a diving John Carlson and circled around the Caps’ net.  With Carlson down, his partner Karl Alzner slid over to cover Zajac at the front of the net.  That left the ice to the left of Holtby open, and who should be there but old nemesis/friend/nemesis Jaromir Jagr.  From behind the Caps’ net, Greene had only to get the puck to Jagr’s stick.  He did, and Jagr chipped the puck into the open net behind Holtby to get the Devils to within a goal.

The Caps restored their two goal lead less than three minutes later.  Patrik Elias could not clear the puck out of the Devils’ zone from the left wing circle, as he was being challenged by Marcus Johansson.  The puck made it only so far as the stick of Karl Alzner at the blue line.  Alzner, perhaps knowing his role, found the shooter rather than take the shot himself.  He bump-passed the puck to Alex Ovechkin, who wristed the puck through the pads of Brodeur to make it 4-2.

Then things took a turn.  Zidlicky got the Devils to within a goal when Zajac wriggled free of Jason Chimera behind the Caps’ net and found Zidlicky coming down the slot.  Zajac’s pass barely eluded the stick of Joel Ward, but it did, and Zidlicky buried it to the far side of Holtby to make it 4-3.

Getting a chance in the slot figured again for the Devils just over two minutes later.  Holtby tried to clear the puck around the boards from behind his net and got the puck to the top of the circle along the wall where Zajac picked it off.  Zajac threw the puck at the net, and Dainius Zubrus – another nemesis/friend/nemesis of the Caps – who was steaming down the slot, beat Carlson to the puck and deflected it past Holtby to tie the game.

That is how things ended in regulation, but it took little time to settle things in overtime.  In the first minute of the extra session the Devils moved deliberately out of their own zone, the puck making its way to the stick of Patrik Elias on the right wing outside the Caps blue line.  Elias gained the zone, then fed Jagr, who wristed the puck at Holtby.  The initial shot was stopped by Holtby, but it popped into the air to his right where Andy Greene was arriving.  The puck struck Greene and tumbled into the net for the game-winner just 43 seconds into overtime, giving the Devils a Christmas gift, a 5-4 overtime win.

Other stuff…

-- OK, now we are concerned about Braden Holtby.  Not every goal is a goaltender’s fault, and the Devils had a hall pass to the slot all night.  However, in his last five appearances he is 1-2-1, 4.92, .863.  Here are some other numbers… .895, his even strength save percentage over those five games… .650, his save percentage on the penalty kill… three, the number of consecutive games now that he has allowed two power play goals.  On the power play theme, he has allowed at least one power play goal in nine of his last 12 appearances.

-- The goalie is said to be the team’s best penalty killer, but there is a team aspect to it, too.  And right now, penalty killing is killing, alright.  It is killing the Caps’ chances of advancing further in the standings.  New Jersey scored on both of its power play chances last night.  That leaves the Caps 23-for-31 in December, a 74.2 percent penalty killing rate.

-- Another game, another goal.  Alex Ovechkin has goals in four straight games, five of his last six, six of his last eight, and…well, you get the point.  In the modern era of hockey (since the 1967-1968 expansion), only six players had 30 or more goals in each of their first nine seasons in the league – Mike Bossy, Mike Gartner, Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Brian Trottier, and now, Alex Ovechkin.  Ovechkin is the first to accomplish the feat since Kurri posted his ninth straight 30-goal season to start his career in 1989.  Ovechkin is the only one of the six to do it having to hit the 30-goal mark in an abbreviated season.

-- At least the Caps had balance.  Nine different players shared in the scoring for the evening.  The third line was conspicuous in this regard.  Martin Erat had a pair of assists, Joel Ward had a goal and an assist, Jason Chimera had a goal.  The trio combined for seven of the Caps’ 22 shots on goal and nine of the team’s 37 shot attempts.

-- It was a hard night for John Carlson.  He was on ice for all five Devils’ goals.  His partner, Karl Alzner, escaped that result only because he was not paired with Carlson on the overtime winner; Carlson was on ice with Dmitry Orlov.

-- Jaromir Jagr has found the fountain of youth.  His goal and two assists made it seven straight games with points (2-9-11), and he is now tied for 17th in the league in points (13-20-33). 

-- Andy Greene had three points for the Devils (1-2-3).  It was his first three-point game since he had three assists in a 6-5 Gimmick loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on October 29, 2008, 345 games ago.

-- Martin Erat seems to be taking to his role as a center.  He has assists in three straight games and six of his last ten contests (0-7-7).

-- Joel Ward’s goal was his first at Verizon Center since November 12th in a 4-3 overtime win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

-- For Jason Chimera, his goal broke an even longer home goal-scoring drought.  His goal was his first at Verizon Center since he scored a goal on October 10th against Carolina in a 3-2 loss.  That is his only other home goal this season.

-- If you think possession is a crucial factor in determining outcomes, consider the Caps lucky to have come out of this game with a point.  Their possession numbers were awful – 35.0 percent Corsi-for percentage in close score 5-on-5 situations, 38.6 percent Fenwick-for.  Graphically, the Fenwick chart looks like this…

In the end…

The Caps opened the door for their guests, and the Devils came in and took the presents from under the tree.  No team with bigger aspirations than merely contending for a playoff spot gives away two-goal leads in the third period.  Washington has yet to lose in regulation when leading after two periods, but with two extra time losses, their winning percentage when leading after 40 minutes is merely middle of the pack.  One could argue that the overtime winner was a bit of luck, caroming off Greene, or even a bit of subterfuge, the puck being knocked in with Greene’s glove.  However, there is no way things should get to that state, because when you have the opportunity to close a club out and don’t, things happen.  And not in a good way.