Sunday, March 23, 2014

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 23

Week 23 was very good to the Washington Capitals.  More precisely, the Capitals were very good to themselves in Week 23.  They hit the hardest part of their road schedule, a three-game swing through California, and came out the other side with an historic performance in the Golden State.

Record: 3-0-1

The Caps had their best record for a week this season.  It was also just their second three-win week this season and only their fifth week without a regulation loss.  For only the third time this season the Caps posted a streak of at least three games without a loss in regulation on the road (2-0-1), the first time they did it on one road trip.  What set this road trip apart was two things, the “who” and the “where.”  When the schedule was published for this season fans might have looked at March and thought, “oh, this isn’t good.”  Of greatest concern might have been the three-game trip to California, which has been a pit of despair for the Caps in recent years.  However, when it was over, the Caps had something never before achieved in team history, a three-game California trip with five of six standings points in their carry-on baggage.

What made the trip special, what put the cherry on top of the tofu sundae, was a win in San Jose against the Sharks.  The 3-2 trick-shot win was the Caps’ first since Alex Ovechkin was about this age…

It broke an 0-11-1 streak of grief in San Jose for the Caps and pulled the club into a tie with Detroit in points (79) for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot.

Offense:  2.50/game (season: 2.76 / rank: 14th)

There wasn’t much, but what there was certainly was timely.  Offense, that is.  The Caps scored first in three of the four games this week, and at no point did they allow a team to get out to a two goal lead when they did fall behind.  If the Caps’ offense was a menu, the special of the week would be “grinders.”  Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer each had three goals for the Caps.  For Ward, who scored in each of the first three games of the week, the three goals meant hitting the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career, finishing the week with 22 for the season.  Brouwer’s three goals gave him 21 for the season, closing him to within a goal of his career high (22), set with Chicago in 2009-2010.  Nicklas Backstrom had four helpers for the week, giving him 56 for the season and leaving him third in the league in assists behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (60) and San Jose’s Joe Thornton (58).

Defense: 1.75/game (season: 2.85 / rank: T-21st)

Four games, seven goals against, on the road.  That is a good week, by any measure.  The seven goals in four games represents the second-best four-game stretch of goals allowed this season for the Caps.  They allowed six goals in a four-game stretch to open November.  Here is what made it better.  They did it playing three teams in the top-ten in scoring offense (Anaheim, San Jose, and Toronto). 

If you are looking for good news here, you can find it where you can find most good news for the Caps lately – the third line.  The trio of Joel Ward, Jason Chimera,  and Eric Fehr was on ice for one goal against this week, and that one was a bit fluky, the product of a Jason Chimera shot attempt that hit San Jose forward James Sheppard’s shin pad and rebounded into the neutral zone where Sheppard could run it down for a breakaway that resulted in a Sharks’ goal.  It was the last goal allowed by the Caps for the week.  At the other end, Nicklas Backstrom was on ice for six of the seven goals allowed this week.  No, that is not a typo.

The Caps still struggled intermittently with shots allowed, giving up 45 to the Ducks and 36 to the Sharks.  Those intermittent struggles were reflected in the possession metrics for the week.  Taken together the Caps were on the wrong side of 50 percent in both Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages at 5-on-5 over the four games (48.6/47.0).  The numbers were not appreciably different in 5-on-5 close score situations (48.8/47.7).  However, it bears noting that Washington faced, in Los Angeles and San Jose, two top-five teams in possession metrics this season.

Goaltending: 1.68 / .949 (season: 2.73 / .917 / 3 SO)

With the Caps managing just 110 shots on goal for the week and scoring 10 goals (9.1 percent shooting), then allowing 34.5 shots on goal per game on top of that, it fell to the goaltenders to stand tall.  They did.  Jaroslav Halak got the call for the first three games of the week and stopped 97 of 102 shots he faced (.951 save percentage).  He was better as games went on.  Halak posted a .842 save percentage in the first period of games, allowing goals in each of his three appearances in the opening frame, including a goal on only two shots faced in the first period against Toronto to open the week.  In the second period, though, he stopped 45 of 46 shots (.978) and in the third stopped 33 of 34 shots (.971).  He stifled the Kings on both overtime shots he saw for good measure in the Caps’ 2-1 Gimmick loss to Los Angeles.

Braden Holtby got the call in the last game of the week, his first week since stopping 40 of 42 shots in a 3-0 loss to Boston on March 6th.  Facing the top shooting team in the league in terms of shot volumes, Holtby was up to the task, allowing only two goals on 36 shots in the Caps’ 3-2 trick shot win over San Jose.  It was the 19th time this season that Holtby faced more than 35 shots in a game.  He has an 11-6-2 record in those games with a save percentage of .927.

Power play: 4-for-13 / 30.8 percent (season: 23.6 percent / rank: 2nd)

The power play continued to impress in Week 23.  The 4-for-13 effort in four games made it four straight weeks that the Caps’ power play finished at 25 percent or better.  Over the last four weeks it is 14-for-41 (34.2 percent).  Almost as impressive was that eight players shared in the power play point scoring ledger.  Troy Brouwer had two goals, Nicklas Backstrom has three assists.  Alex Ovechkin managed just one goal on the man advantage (his only point of the week).

The power play was efficient as well as effective, converting four of 19 shots (21.1 percent) in 19:21 of power play time.  Ovechkin was shut out on shots on goal in two of the three games, but he did go 1-for-3 against Anaheim.  His power play goal was the game winner against the Ducks and was his 20th power play goal of the season.  It is the second time in his career Ovechkin hit the 20-power play goal mark the first coming when he had 22 in 2007-2008.

Penalty Killing: 14-for-14 / 100.0 percent (season: 81.6 percent / rank: 18th)

The penalty killers shut out their opponents on 14 tries in Week 23, the third time the Caps were perfect for a week this season and first since Week 4.  That three of the teams (those would be the ones in California) were in the bottom ten in power play efficiency overall, and two of them (San Jose and Los Angeles) were bottom ten in home power play should not detract from the effort.

It was a case, though, of the goalie being the best penalty killer.  The Caps stopped all 14 power plays but yielded 36 shots on goal in 26:10 of power play time.  Jaroslav Halak was a perfect 25-for-25 in three games, while Braden Holtby stopped all 11 shots he saw from the San Jose man advantage.

The Caps are continuing to do a decent job in minimizing chances.  They did face five shorthanded situations against Anaheim, but it was only time in their last ten games that they faced more than three.  Washington faced three opponent power plays in the other three games for the week.  Not bad for a team that had at week’s end the sixth most shorthanded situations faced in the league.

Even Strength Goals Scored For/Against: 6-7 (season 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.89 / rank:T-22nd)

Facing a three of the top six teams in the league in 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio and holding them almost to a draw (four scored, five allowed) was something of a victory for the Caps, especially on the road.  It was more a case of goaltending keeping the even strength score close, though.  Opponents outshot the Caps by a 102-90 margin at even strength, Halak and Holtby stopping 95 of those shots (.931 save percentage).  At the other end, it was the third line of Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera accounting for four of the six even strength goals for the week, Ward getting two of them, with Fehr and Chimera getting one apiece.

Faceoffs:  117-267 / 43.8 percent (season: 48.7 percent / rank: 23rd)

It was not a good week for the Caps, which is something we have been saying a lot lately.  The Caps have not been over 50 percent since Week 19 and are winning just 43.9 percent of their draws over the past four weeks.  That includes a 43.8 percent performance in Week 23.   It was especially frustrating in the offensive end where the Caps won 42.5 percent of their faceoffs.  Being just one draw under 50 percent in the defensive zone (44-for-90) helped the week, but it was a consistently poor week overall.

This is one area in which the third line did not stand out in a good way.  More to the point, Eric Fehr was below 40 percent in all three zones for the week, 38.5 percent on 13 offensive zone draws, 38.9 percent on 18 defensive zone faceoffs, and 38.9 percent on 18 neutral zone draws.  Jason Chimera and Joel Ward were a combined 3-for-14 for the week (21.4 percent), making the line 34.9 percent for the week overall.

Nicklas Backstrom took the highest share of total draws for the week and won half of them (46-for-92), but he was just 14-for-33 in the offensive zone (42.4 percent).

Goals For/Against by Period:

It was an inside out week for the Caps on the road.  Six first period goals, four in the third period, none in the second.  Perhaps a bit odd for a club that is tied for fifth in second period goals scored.  The good starts served the Caps well.  They scored first in three of the games and won all of them.  It was the third period performance that was more consequential.  Three of the four goals scored in the third period of games either tied the game (in both cases being the goal that sent the game to overtime) or was the game-winner (Ovechkin’s power play goal against Anaheim).  Even Troy Brouwer’s third period goal against Toronto was an empty-net game clincher.

In the End…

It was a fine week for the Caps, even historic in a sense with those five standings points earned in California.  It sets the Caps up as well – better in fact – as can be expected as they head into their last ten games of the regular season.  Unfortunately, that kind of noble performance comes after a lot of iffy ones in their previous 22 weeks.  One hopes that in the end fans will not look back on Week 23 and sigh, thinking that if more of those previous 22 weeks had been played with the level of effort shown in Week 23, even to the point of just one standings point every other week, they would have been making playoff plans over these last ten games.

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