The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
When the National Hockey League realigned and put its schedule together for the 2013-2014 season, March 10th and 11th might have been circled by hockey fans as a chance to see two bitter rivals fighting for bragging rights and playoff seeding in front of loud crowds and national television audiences.
Things have not quite worked out as planned. The circle on the calendar has faded, as has the intensity of the rivalry between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. No longer are these teams the signature rivalry in the Eastern Conference; no longer are Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin fighting it out to demonstrate who is the best hockey player on the planet.
Caps fans might realize – grudgingly – that the Caps are not now on the short list of what most would consider Stanley Cup contenders, and none but his most rabid fans would consider Ovechkin the best hockey player on the planet. But things are not all that rosy in Pittsburgh, either, given the lofty expectations for a team led by Crosby and a cast of stars. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Penguins have qualified for the playoffs in each season, but they have managed to win only three playoff series, one more than the Caps in that span. And despite leading the Metropolitan Division by a comfortable margin this season, there are questions about this Penguins team. Is their goaltending – specifically, Marc-Andre Fleury – up to the challenge of a playoff setting, one that he has not met over the past four years? Is their defense sturdy enough, or healthy enough, to withstand the rigors of four playoff series over a two month period? Is head coach Dan Bylsma nimble enough to react on the fly and adjust in the faster paced setting of the post-season?
Those questions might take on a bit more urgency, given the Penguins’ performance of late. They are hardly in danger of falling out of the Metropolitan Division lead (they have a 14-point lead on the second-place New York Rangers), but they come into this home-and-home series against the Caps with a 2-2-2 record over their last six games.
The usual suspects have been as productive as they need to be for the Penguins. Evgeni Malkin is 2-5-7 over those six games, while Sidney Crosby is 1-6-7. James Neal has chipped in three goals and three assists. What the Penguins have also had, if not entirely expected, is significant contribution from rookie defenseman Olli Maatta, who leads the Penguins with four goals over their last six games and has a couple of assist for good measure. Maatta is second among all NHL rookie defensemen in goals (9) and total points (27) to Boston’s Torey Krug (13 and 35), and his plus-10 trails only Tampa Bay’s Mark Barberio (plus-12) and Anaheim’s Hampus Lindholm (plus-24) in plus-minus.
What the Penguins are not getting in this six-game lull is secondary scoring. Of the 17 goals they have in that span, Maatta (4), Neal (3), Malkin (2), and Crosby (1) have ten of them. That leaves seven goals out of 14 other slots for skaters over those six games.
Chris Kunitz has two of those goals. He has already set a career high for goals in a season (29) and now has four straight seasons of more than 20 goals, six for his career. Kunitz has slowed down of late, though. After recording game-winning goals in consecutive games to end the month of January, he has only two goals over his last nine games. It is not for lack of shooting. Kunitz has those two goals on 29 shots, although he was held without a shot in his last game on Friday against Anaheim. It was the first time he was held without a shot since December 3rd against the New York Islanders. Consider it regression of a sort. Before this dry spell Kunitz had an 18.0 shooting percentage for the season. His 2-for-29 spell dropped him to 16.2 percent for the season, tied for 18th in the league. He is 6-7-13 in 18 career games against the Caps.
Another player is having a career year – defenseman Matt Niskanen. When James Neal was obtained from the Dallas Stars in 2011 for defenseman Alex Goligoski, Niskanen was “the other guy” in the deal going to Pittsburgh. In two-plus seasons after that trade Niskanen was 9-30-39, plus-11 in 133 games. Through 63 games this season he is 9-28-37, plus-31, that last number leading all skaters in the NHL. If anything, he has grown hotter with the passage of time. In 28 games since December 18th, Niskanen is 8-16-24, plus-13. However, since the absence of Kris Letang following the stroke he suffered that has kept him out of the lineup since January 27th, Niskanen is 2-5-7, plus-2. He might be slowing down with the added responsibility. Niskanen is 1-4-5, plus-7, in 10 career games against Washington.
Here is how the teams compare overall:
1. The Penguins’ power play leads the league (25.5 percent), and it has not missed a beat despite the sluggish 2-2-2 record over their last six games. Eight of the Penguins’ 17 goals over those six games have been scored with the man advantage (8-for-27; 29.6 percent). Maatta has three of those power play goals over that span to lead the club.
2. Pittsburgh is known more for its offense, but in an important respect its defense should not be overlooked. Only four teams have allowed fewer first period goals this season than the 40 allowed by the Penguins (Tampa Bay, New Jersey, San Jose, and Boston).
3. The ability to keep the clamps on other teams early in games makes the Penguins formidable. They are 29-3-1 when scoring first (second best record in the league) and 20-2-1 when taking a lead into the first intermission (fifth best record).
4. Pittsburgh is the only team in the league to have received two match penalties this season, Deryk Engelland on December 14th against Detroit and Robert Bortuzzo on January 11th against Calgary. They do trend to the lower end of the penalty scale, though. Their 230 minor penalties is tied for the 11th lowest number in the league this season.
5. Despite their lofty perch in the standings, the Penguins are not an especially dominant possession team. In 5-on-5 close score situations Pittsburgh ranks 16th in Corsi-for percentage (49.7) and 14th in Fenwick-for percentage (50.8).
1. The Caps are 2-3-1 in their last six games against Pittsburgh at Verizon Center. Both wins were shutouts. Tomas Vokoun pitched a 30-save shutout in a 1-0 win on January 11, 2012; and Michal Neuvisth blanked the Penguins on 22 shots in a 3-0 win on February 6, 2011. Neither goaltender is still with the Caps.
2. This is the Caps’ third back-to-back set of games this month. It will be their 14th set so far this season. In 10 of the 13 back-to-backs to date the Caps either won both games (four times) or lost both, either in regulation or in extra time (six times). They have an 11-8-7 record overall in back-to-back games.
3. The Caps power play ranks second in the league this season, but it has struggled lately at Verizon Center. Over their last five games at Verizon Center the Caps power play is 1-for-22 (4.6 percent). It has been a different story on the road. The Caps are 8-for-14 (57.1 percent) on the man advantage over their last five road games.
4. The Caps have nine players on the “plus” side of the plus-minus ledger this season. Five of them are in Hershey (Steve Oleksy, Nate Schmidt, Patrick Wey, Julien Brouillette, and Casey Wellman), two are no longer with the organization (Martin Erat and Alexander Urbom), and one currently injured (Mikhail Grabovski). The leader in plus-minus – only plus player, in fact – likely to take the ice against Pittsburgh is Joel Ward (plus-2). Of 18 players having dressed for the Caps this season who are a minus-1 or better, only Ward, Jason Chimera, Troy Brouwer, and Tom Wilson are on the roster and have played in at least 40 games.
5. The Caps seem to be allergic to the puck these days. In 10 of their last 12 games they have finished under 50 percent in Corsi-for percentage in 5-on-5 close score situations and have a combined Corsi-for percentage of 45.0 percent. Their Fenwick-for percentage has been under 50 percent nine times in that span with an overall 45.0 percentage as well.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Pittsburgh: Marc-Andre Fleury
All eyes are going to be on Marc-Andre Fleury when the post-season begins for the Penguins, given his playoff struggles over the last four seasons. However, there appear to be nicks and dents in his armor in the present. Leading up to the Olympic break Fleury was 3-1-1, 1.52, .945, with one shutout in his last five appearances. Coming out of the break he has been less impenetrable, going 2-1-1, 3.12, .891 in four appearances. So far this season, only Mike Smith (54) and Kari Lehtonen (53) have made more appearances than Fleury (51). That kind of workload has not been unusual for Fleury, who had 62 or more appearances five times in a six year period ending in 2011-2012 (he had 33 in 48 games last season). However, the Penguins are in a difficult place. The expected backup goalie – Tomas Vokoun – has not played this season due to a blood clotting condition that had him on blood thinners and that kept from practicing, let alone playing. Vokoun has been cleared to practice, but it remains uncertain when (or if) he will see game action. The Penguins have a substantial division lead and might want to give Fleury more rest to keep him fresh for the post-season. However, they want to keep him sharp, too. Fleury is 15-7-2, 2.51, .913, with two shutouts in 25 career appearances against Washington.
Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov
Finally. It took 1,354 days since Evgeny Kuznetsov was drafted 26th overall by the Capitals in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft to get into the Caps' lineup, but Kuznetsov is expected to make his NHL debut against Pittsburgh in this series. Fans might expect that he will slide seamlessly into a top-six forward role, and in fact that is what he is expected to fill…eventually. It appears likely he will man the left side, a position from which the Caps have not had much punch this season (23 goals, if you consider Brooks Laich’s eight goals as being from the center position). But it would be a stretch to expect an immediate impact from the youngster. There is this, though. On Hallowe’en 2003, Alexander Semin scored the game-winning goal in his first career game at Verizon Center, a 2-1 win over the Atlanta Thrashers to end what was an eight-game winless streak for the Caps. On October 5, 2005, Alex Ovechkin scored two goals in his Verizon Center debut, a 3-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2005-2006 season opener. Maybe it’s a Russian forward thing. No pressure, kid.
1. Not So Special. Pittsburgh has the best special teams in the league, first on the power play, first in penalty killing. Unless the Caps enjoy a whopping advantage in power play opportunities (they do lead the league in that statistic; Pittsburgh is tied for 17th), the Caps are likely to have to earn points with better play at 5-on-5.
2. Two-Minute Drill. The Caps have had their issues with allowing goals within two minutes of scoring one themselves. Pittsburgh has the firepower at the top of the roster to add to this misfortune and to score in bunches. The Caps need to be especially disciplined in such situations. They can’t let one of theirs become one of the Penguins’, and they certainly can’t let one for them become two…or three.
3. Tend to Business. The Caps have not goalies steal many games this season. The Penguins are not particularly prolific in generating shots (tied for 14th in shots per game), but they are efficient (tied for second in shooting percentage: 10.3 percent). Whether Jaroslav Halak or Braden Holtby tends goal, they will have to raise their game.
In the end…
The Penguins are on cruise control in terms of a playoff spot, the only matter left to settle is whether they or Boston will be the one-seed in the Eastern Conference. The Caps are, or should be, the more desperate team. They have rarely played that way this season, and when they have, they have been inconsistent in displaying that trait. Two wins would go a long way to making the tough March schedule successful. Not entirely, mind you, since the Caps still have a west coast trip and home dates against Los Angeles and Boston to navigate. But it would be nice to put these in the bank and let the Penguins know that there is still some life in this rivalry.
Capitals 4 – Penguins 2 (at Washington)
Capitals 3 – Penguins 2 (at Pittsburgh)