The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
After a four-day hiatus, the Washington Capitals take to the ice once more to visit the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The Caps’ timing could be better. Tampa Bay, among the more surprising teams in the first half of the NHL season, comes into Thursday’s game winners of three of four games in the new year, and with an 8-2-1 record in their last 11 games. It has been more than a month since the Lightning lost consecutive games in regulation (November 29/December 3).
Tampa Bay has yet to play on home ice in 2014, returning as they are from a four-game road trip to start the new year. And, this home game against the Caps is merely a pit stop; the Lightning will head to the road for another three games following this contest.
In the Lightning’s recent 8-2-1 run, the changes in their fortunes have been on full display. They averaged 3.18 goals per game while allowing an average of 1.91 goals per game. Last year’s club could score, too (3.06 goals a game), but they could not keep other teams from matching them goal for goal (allowing 3.06 goals per game). In this 11-game run the Lighting held opponents to two or fewer goals nine times, going 8-0-1 in those contests.
The Lightning have enjoyed the benefits of a balanced attack in their 8-2-1 run. Eleven different players have goals, led by Valteri Filppula with seven. Twenty-one different players have points, Filppula leading the way with 14.
For Filppula, he finally found a groove after starting his first year in Tampa in somewhat disappointing fashion. Until his 7-7-14 scoring line over his last 11 games he was 10-10-20 through 32 games. Not, perhaps, part of the plan when he was signed to a five-year, $25 million deal as a free agent last summer.
Another player who has found a rhythm, but over the longer arc of his career development, is defenseman Victor Hedman. Back in 2009, Hedman was being mentioned as a possible first-overall pick in the amateur draft. He was selected second, behind John Tavares, and for a few years his game, while respectable, did not reflect his high draft status. Last year, however, Hedman started showing flashes of why he was so highly thought of as an amateur. His four goals and 20 points in 44 games were career bests in terms of his 82-game scoring pace (7-30-37), and he was plus-1 for a club with defensive issues while getting predominantly defensive zone starts (41.6 percent offensive to defensive zone start ratio).
This year, Hedman has come into his own. He is a top-20 scorer among defensemen, his eight goals already establishing a career high and ranking sixth among the league’s defensemen. He logs more than 22 minutes a night, second on the club to Matt Carle, and logs almost two minutes a game on the Lightning power play despite his being the youngest defenseman to have dressed for Tampa Bay this season. He is 1-4-5 in 20 career games against the Caps.
Here is how the two teams compare over all…
1. Tampa Bay does a very good job keeping opponents from getting on a roll early. Only three teams have allowed fewer first period goals than the Lightning.
2. You would think that with Steven Stamkos out since breaking his right leg in a 3-0 loss to Boston on Veterans Day, the Lightning would have suffered. The beat goes on, though. When the Lightning lost Stamkos and the game to Boston, their record was 12-5-0. Since then, they are 14-8-4.
3. One of the big reasons the Lightning have been able to withstand the absence of Stamkos has been the play of Martin St. Louis. He has assumed a larger burden of goal scoring and has gone 12-12-24 in the 26 games since Stamkos left the lineup.
4. Tampa Bay has become a stingy team in an important respect. Only five teams have held opponents to a lower shooting percentage thus far than the Lightning (8.2 percent).
5. Possession, Possession, Possession. Last year, the Lightning ranked 27th in the league in Fenwick-for percentage in 5-on-5 close score situations, 26th in Corsi-for percentage. This season, they jumped 20 spots in both categories to rank seventh and sixth, respectively. Seeing as how they have already surpassed last year’s standings points total in 48 games by 16 points in only 44 games, think it makes a difference?
1. Washington is the only club in the Metropolitan Division with a sub-.500 record (based on standings points earned) in their last 10 games. And, they will come into this game with a 1-3-2 record in their last six road games.
2. Alex Ovechkin has one goal in his last six games, but underlying that is the fact that he does not have a power play goal in his last eight contests, his longest such streak of the season and longest since Adam Oates took over as head coach and retooled the power play.
3. Joel Ward is in an odd rhythm at the moment. A goal followed by three without one, a pattern repeated three times (including his current status). Based on how those goals have been scored, it would suggest he would go without one tonight (but score tomorrow night).
4. Connor Carrick was recalled to the club after spending time in Hershey. If he gets a sweater it will be the first time he dressed for a game since Game 3 of the season. He has yet to skate for the Caps in a game won in regulation, but for what it’s worth, when he scores a goal, the Caps do win. He scored his first, and to date only, NHL goal in a 5-4 Gimmick win against Calgary on October 3rd.
5. 42 games into the season, and the Caps are still stuck in the mid-20’s in possession rankings – 25th in Corsi-for percentage in 5-on-5 close score situations, 25th in Fenwick-for percentage.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Tampa Bay: Tyler Johnson
Who? The Martin St. Louis-sized center (5’9”, 182) has career highs in goals (11), assists (12), and points (23) for the Lightning. He ranks fourth on the club in goals behind St. Louis, Filppula, and Stamkos. He has points in five of his last seven games, and he is tied for second on the team in game-winning goals (three). Against the Caps he has a goal and two assists in two career games, all of those points coming in a 6-5 Caps Gimmick win back on December 10th.
Washington: Nicklas Backstrom
Your mission, should you decide to accept it, Mr. Backstrom, is to find a way to take two lumps of clay and make them art. Backstrom might be centering a line with Brooks Laich on his left and Troy Brouwer on his right in this game. Playmaking for that pair could be a tall order. While both are, in a sense, grinders who can clean up messes in front of the net, neither are renowned as finishers, the sort who could take a deftly placed saucer pass and one-time it into the net or take a no look pass and wrist it into the net before the goalie has a chance to react. The watch word for tonight with regard to this arrangement might be “perseverance.” Backstrom is going to have to keep grinding in his own way to get his linemates in position to do damage.
1. Power frequency. The soft underbelly of the Tampa Bay defense is their work killing penalties. Their efficiency is unremarkable (81.8 percent), and they occasional struggle with frequency of use. The Lightning have the 11th highest number of shorthanded situations faceed. If the Caps can make the Lighting work harder – meaning more frequently – there are benefits to be realized.
2. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades…and hockey games. The Lighting are 10-4-4 in one-goal games, quite a turnaround from last season when they ranked last in the league in winning percentage in such contests. If the Caps are going to win, it might be in a rout – Tampa Bay is only 7-7 in games decided by three or more goals.
3. A Marty Party is one thing, but no Flipping for Filppula. The key here, in tortured fashion, is that St. Louis is something of a constant for the Lightning, particularly in the way he abuses the Caps. If he is the only one doing it, though, the Caps can likely deal with it. But if the Lightning are getting support from odd places – Filppula, an Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat – this is going to be a long night.
In the end…
The Caps have had four days off to work things out after losing four straight (0-2-2) and six of their last seven games (1-3-3). Lines have been juggled, schemes refined, minds cleared. The reality is that the Caps have been evicted from their second place perch in the Metropolitan Division and now reside in fourth place, just four points ahead of seventh-place Columbus. Tonight’s game begins a hard stretch in which the Caps face in road games in 13 contests and have four back-to-back sets of games. They need are going to need to scratch and claw for points over the next three weeks, a quality we have not yet seen much of this season. Maybe over the last four days they installed that part of their system.
Capitals 4 – Lightning 3