Sunday, March 16, 2014

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 22

Week 22 was a week that might have been supremely satisfying, but when it was over was something of a disappointment, what with two losses to a hated rival and a win that was all too close for comfort.  And some of the same things that went wrong in Week 21 went wrong in Week 22.

Record: 1-2-0

Week 22 was the second straight below-.500 week for the Caps and the fourth in the last seven weeks.  The two losses came to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a home-and-home back-to-back set that opened the week.  The losses made the Caps 0-7-0 against the Penguins under head coach Adam Oates and 0-8-0 overall since January 2012.  The eight consecutive regular season wins is a record for the Penguins in the history of this series.  Once upon a time, the Caps won nine in a row in this series, but Alex Ovechkin was two months old when the Caps won the last of those nine games in November 1985.

Washington salvaged a measure of the week with a 4-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Friday.  It was the first time the Caps beat the Canucks since winning a 5-2 decision at Verizon Center on October 13, 2008.  The Caps had dropped four straight decisions to Vancouver.  All in all, the Caps started the week in 5th place in the Metropolitan Division and 10th place in the Eastern Conference.  They ended the week in those same positions, three points behind Philadelphia for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Offense: 2.00/game (season: 2.78 / rank: 14th)

It was an uneven week for the Caps in the offensive end of the ice, and what offense they could muster was generally weak.  The Caps managed only two goals on 65 shots in two games against the Penguins, potting both against Pittsburgh backup Jeff Zatkoff in the game at Verizon Center to open the week, then getting shutout by Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh in the second of the back-to-back games.

One thing the Penguins were able to do that most teams could not was hold down Alex Ovechkin’s shot totals.  Ovechkin went into the week averaging 5.35 shots per game, his 332 shots being tops in the league by 86 shots over Toronto’s Phil Kessel.  Ovechkin was held to a total of five shots over the two games against the Penguins.  Goals from Eric Fehr and Nicklas Backstrom in the first of the games and none in the second was not enough to make up the difference.

The Caps got well, to a point, against Vancouver.  Washington scored three goals in less than 33 minutes with eight different Caps sharing in the points.  Evgeny Kunzetsov, playing in his third NHL game had assists on the last two of those three goals.  The Caps would need a third assist from Kuznetsov after the Canucks tied the game in the third period.  They got it when he and Nicklas Backstrom set up Mike Green for the game-winner to close the week.

Defense: 2.67/game (season: 2.91 / rank: 23rd)

It was a strange week in the defensive end of the ice.  The Caps out-shot the Penguins badly (33-20) in the first game of the week and lost, 3-2.  They held their own in shots in the second game of the Penguins, Pittsburgh holding a two-shot margin (34-32) at the end and beating the Caps, 2-0.  Then, in the last game of the week, Vancouver rang up 41 shots to 21 for the Caps, yet the Caps won, 4-3. 

It was an equal opportunity week for being present for goals against, too.  Sixteen different skaters were on ice for opponents’ goals.  Dmitry Orlov was on ice for five goals against for the week, most of any Capital.  Orlov’s difficulties might have contributed to his being moved to the third defensive pair with Connor Carrick off the second pair with Mike Green.  Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were on ice for four apiece to lead, so to speak, the forwards.  Only Dustin Penner and Tom Wilson escaped having a goal-against on ice marked in their ledger.

It was an odd possession week for the Caps.  Both their Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages were on the good side of 50 percent in 5-on-5 close score situations for the week (52.3 percent and 54.7 percent, respectively), and yet their record was 1-2-0.  The Caps dominated Pittsburgh in the first game of the week (58.6 percent and 64.3 percent) in close score situations and lost.  That was the game that ran against expectations, given the underlying possession numbers.  In the rematch against the Pens the Caps lost the possession battle (43.3 percent/42.6 percent) and lost the game.  In the last game of the week the Caps won the close score possession matchup (55.6 percent and 59.0 percent) and won.  

Goaltending: 2.71 / .916 (season: 2.80 / .915 / 3 SO)

Week 22 belonged to the new guy, Jaroslav Halak, who got all the minutes.  While he played well in spots, he did not move the needle this week in terms of the goaltending numbers overall, his goals against average and save percentage for the week being almost identical to the season numbers so far.  What he lacked was consistency by period.  Halak allowed at least one first period goal in each game, stopping 29 of 33 shots overall (.879 save percentage).  He allowed goals in the third period twice for the week, once in the second game against Pittsburgh, twice against Vancouver to finish the week with 29 third period saves on 32 shots (.906).  It was in the second period in which Halak shined, stopping 29 of 30 shots (.967 save percentage).

Power Play: 2-for-8 / 25.0 percent (season: 23.3 percent / rank: 2nd)

This week, the power play was the product of persistence.  It was the fourth week in the last five in which the Caps finished with a power play conversion rate of 25 percent or better, but it did not come easy.  Washington had two power play goals on 21 shots (9.5 percent shooting) over 12:56 of total power play time.  For shots on goal the Caps did not lack.

Nine different Caps had power play shots on goal, four of them – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Jason Chimera, and Troy Brouwer – getting three apiece.  Ovechkin and Backstrom were the only ones to convert during the week.  It was perhaps the frustration the power play had against the Penguins, the number-one penalty killing team in the league when they faced the Caps, that tipped the week into the red.  The Caps were 1-for-6 against the Penguins, registering their only goal on a total of 16 shots on goal (6.25 percent shooting).

Penalty Killing: 7-for-8 / 87.5 percent (season: 80.6 percent / rank: T-24th)

We have said it before, but with this team the key is more controlling opportunities for the opposition on the power play more than stopping them once they have to kill a penalty.  A suspect penalty killing squad limits its exposure and marshals its effort when the chances are few.  Such was the case this week, with opponents getting only eight power play opportunities.  Three games with three or fewer made it six straight contests in which the Caps held opponents to that threshold.  Going 7-for-8 on the penalty kill made it 10-for-13 over that same span.  A 76.9 percent penalty kill over the last six games is hardly the picture of efficiency, hence the need to keep chances down.

It seemed to be more a case of the goaltender being the best penalty killer in Week 22.  Jaroslav Halak stopped 17 of 18 power play shots in 13:19 of ice time, a .944 save percentage that is far better than his .883 save percentage in shorthanded situations overall.  There is a lingering problem with the Caps and penalty killing.  Their shutdown guys are not doing much shutting down.. John Carlson (32) and Karl Alzner (28) rank first and fourth on the list of defensemen having power play goals scored against on-ice this season.

Even Strength Goals Scored For/Against: 4-7 (season 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.90 / rank: 21st)

The Caps seem stuck at that 0.90 ratio of 5-on-5 goals scored to goals against ratio.  The Caps have traded in a very narrow band, between 0.90 and 0.93 for the last three months.  They have not been as high as 0.94 since Week 9.

This week the Caps had a disturbing deficit in third period even strength goals scored.  They managed one for the week – the game winner against Vancouver to end the week – but allowed three.  One of them was the insurance goal in the Penguins’ 2-0 win over the Caps on Tuesday, and two of them allowed Vancouver to tie their game against the Caps on Friday.

The Caps were out-shot for the week at evens, 77-65.  That was largely a product of being lapped by the Canucks in Friday’s game.  Vancouver out-shot the Caps by a 34-16 margin at even strength.  Couple that with the shooting efficiency – the Caps shot to a 6.2 percent mark, while opponents finished at 11.1 percent – and it made for a difficult week for the Caps.

Faceoffs: 72-157 / 45.9 percent (season: 49.1 percent / rank: 21st)

Week 22 was more two different weeks for the Caps in the faceoff circle, the one they played against the Penguins and the one they played against the Canucks.  The Caps were abused by the Penguins on faceoffs over their back-to-back set, winning only 37 of 99 draws (37.4 percent).  It was probably not quite as bad as it seems, though.  A lot of that was piled up in the neutral zone where the Caps were just 4-for-30 over the two games (13.3 percent).  In the offensive end they were 18-for-40 (45.0 percent) and 15-for-29 in the defensive zone (51.7 percent). 

Against Vancouver it was a different story, mostly – but not entirely – good.  The Caps were 35-for-58 against the Canucks overall (60.3 percent), but they took 24 of 58 total draws in their own end (18 in the offensive end).  Winning 18 of them (75.0 percent) lessened the pain of taking so many defensive zone draws, but that was more time spent starting plays in the Caps’ end of the ice than one might like to see.

Goals for/Against by Period:

The Caps started and ended games poorly, if the goal differential by period means much.  Outscored 4-2 in the opening period of games and by a 3-1 margin in the third, it was a recipe for a 1-2-0 week. If not for a Mike Green laser in the third period – the Caps' only third period goal of the week – the Caps might have lost the lead entirely against Vancouver after building a two-goal lead and making it an 0-3-0 or 0-2-1 wek, the last think this club needs at this time of year.

In the End…

It could have been better.  The optimist might say that the Caps outplayed the Penguins in the first game of the week and shot in bad luck.  That makes for interesting bar discussion or blog narrative, but the fact is that the Caps earned no points while looking better is no consolation.  Week 22 ended up being the fifth losing week in the last nine for the Capitals, and if you are keeping score on their tough 14-game stretch to open March, the Caps are 3-4-1 in their first eight games with a west coast trip yet to come. 

The Caps have four games coming up in Week 23, including that trip to California to face Anaheim, San Jose, and Los Angeles after their contest against Toronto on Sunday afternoon.  Splitting these four games is about the least the club can afford at this stage.  Anything less, and the Caps are going to find themselves fading out of the playoff conversation.

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