The Winter Classic has arrived. After spending six New Year’s Days in Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Ann Arbor, the crown jewel of the NHL regular season schedule is finally in the most powerful city in the world.
The Washington Capitals will host the Chicago Blackhawks sometime on New Year’s Day at Nationals Park (the state of sun glare perhaps delaying the start) in what will be the second appearance for each team in the Classic. The Blackhawks, who hosted the 2009 game at Wrigley Field, dropped a 6-4 decision to the Detroit Red Wings, while the Capitals, winners of a 3-1 decision in Pittsburgh in 2011, will be looking to become the first team to win two Classics.
It will not be an easy task for the home team. Chicago currently holds the second best record in the league (25-10-2). And, the Blackhawks might be on the most sustained run of success in the league. Since they dropped a second consecutive game – a 1-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on November 2nd to fall to 6-5-1 – Chicago is 19-5-1 and has not lost consecutive games in that span.
Not that there aren’t cracks starting to show in the Blackhawk armor, though. They are 5-2-1 in their last eight games after rolling off an eight-game winning streak. Part of the unsteadiness has been a product of goaltender Corey Crawford’s unsteadiness. He suffered a foot injury when he took a misstep as he was leaving a concert. He missed eight games as a result, and his four appearances since returning to the lineup have not been sharp. In those four appearances he is 2-1-1, 3.22, .887, and he was pulled after allowing three goals on 13 shots in 15:30 of a 5-1 loss to Winnipeg on December 23rd.
Another factor that might have influenced the Blackhawks’ comparatively inconsistent record of late was the tragic passing of 34-year old assistant equipment manager Clint Reif on December 21st, a loss that was keenly felt by the Blackhawk community.
Since the Christmas break the Hawks have won both games played, a 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche and a 5-4 Gimmick win over the Nashville Predators. It suggests a return to the sort of high-powered offense that has Chicago third in the league in scoring per game (3.03). In each of their last four wins they have scored at least four goals, while in their two losses over that span they scored two (against Columbus) and one goal (against Winnipeg). At the moment, this is a team that does it (or doesn’t) with offense.
The Capitals finished a solid December with an 8-2-3 record. It was a solid month in some ways, but they were fortunate in others. The Caps outscored opponents by a 40-28 margin (3.08-2.15). It was even better at even strength, where the Caps doubled up on opponents, 34-17. That’s the good part, especially the even-strength production. Underneath, though, it is not quite as solid.
As far as the production numbers go, the special teams haven’t had a great month. The PDO number overall (103.38; shooting plus save percentages) was very good, but as for the sustainability of it, it was fueled by an overall opponent shooting percentage of 7.1 percent. That speaks to the fine month that Braden Holtby had (8-2-3, 2.13, .929, 2 shutouts). The power play was just 6-for-43 (14.0 percent), and the penalty killers were no better: 36-for-46 (78.3 percent). The special teams index of 92.2 (power play plus penalty killing percentages) was disappointing.
Drilling down even further, the Caps had a rather mediocre month in terms of their possession numbers. At 5-on-5 they had a cumulative Corsi-for percentage of 50.41 and a Fenwick-for percentage of 48.44. They were slightly better in 5-on-5 tied situations (Corsi-for: 51.83; Fenwick-for: 50.35), but not what one might call dominating.
Which brings us to the players. Ten skaters who participated in the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh are likely to be in the lineup on New Year’s Day at Nationals Park (with their performances):
- Alex Ovechkin (0-0-0, minus-1; six shots on goal)
- Eric Fehr (2-0-2, plus-2; 3 SOG)
- Nicklas Backstrom (0-1-1, minus-1; 3 SOG; 10-for-16 on faceoffs)
- Brooks Laich (0-0-0, even, 2 PIMs; 2 SOG)
- Jason Chimera (0-2-2, plus-2, 2 SOG)
- Karl Alzner (0-0-0, even; 24:25 in ice time)
- Mike Green (0-1-1, even, 2 PIMs; five hits)
- John Carlson (0-0-0, even; 26:28 in ice time (led club))
- Jay Beagle (0-0-0, even; four hits)
- Marcus Johansson (0-1-1, plus-2; 6-for-12 on draws)
You look at that lineup and the performances from the 2011 Classic, and you start to think that while the marquee players – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green – will get the attention, it could be a game for the supporting cast. The ice will not likely be as bad at Nats Park as it was in Pittsburgh, where it might have been more the consistency of a sno-cone in a persistent rain, giving an edge to the grinders, but still, sometimes it is the player you do not suspect who will shine, as Eric Fehr did in scoring two goals in the Caps’ 3-1 in Pittsburgh in 2011.
Who might that be coming into this game? Jay Beagle comes to mind. Beagle had a fine December (3-3-6, plus-5, in 13 games while getting as many as 15 minutes of ice time only once). He was quiet in the only meeting with the Blackhawks this season (no points, one blocked shot attempt in 13 minutes), but that was the eighth straight game he had without a point to start the season. Since then he is 5-5-10, plus-2, in 23 games. Not bad for a fourth liner.
What you do not expect is for rookies to make a big impression in this game, at least based on the Caps’ experience. Not that the Caps had a lot of rookies on that 2011 club – Carlson, Johansson, and Beagle. Those three players combined for one assist, and the forwards (Johansson and Beagle) each skated only 13 minutes. It argues against players such as Evgeny Kuznetsov or Andre Burakovsky standing out.
What you might look for is a veteran stepping up. Think of Mike Knuble scoring that greasy power play goal to tie the 2011 contest. Not only was Knuble a player with a fair amount of mileage, he was one quite familiar to the Penguins after several seasons skating for the Philadelphia Flyers. Perhaps Troy Brouwer, a player who skated for the Blackhawks for parts of five seasons and 238 games, plus an additional 43 post-season games with Chicago, will step up. Brouwer has had an uneven December, starting the month without a point in three games, then going 4-0-4 over a five-game stretch, before ending the month with just one assist in his last five games.
1. Only six Blackhawks who played in the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field are likely to dress for the 2015 game: Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Kris Versteeg, and Patrick Kane. As a group they accounted for two of the four goals scored in their 6-4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings (Keith, Versteeg) and combined for four assists (Seabrook, Sharp, Toews, and Versteeg).
2. Patrick Kane comes into this game hot enough to melt the ice. He is 6-8-14, plus-4, over his last nine games, with two game-winning goals and two three point games.
3. Jonathan Toews is not quite as hot as Kane, but he is not far off, either. Over his last seven games he is 2-6-8, plus-4, with three multi-point games. He has not gone more than two consecutive games without a point this season.
4. The Blackhawks have already dressed ten defensemen this season. Nine of them have points. Only Tim Erixon has failed to get his name on the score sheet in five games played.
5. If shots matter in a game like this, the Blackhawks are sitting in a good position. They lead the league in shot differential per game (+6.6).
1. Troy Brouwer played in that 2009 Winter Classic for the Blackhawks, recording one hit and going minus-1 in just under 12 minutes of ice time.
2. The Caps have lost 13 one-goal games this season, six in regulation and seven in extra time. Only four teams have lost more: Colorado (14), Ottawa (15), Edmonton (14), and Carolina (15).
3. Only Montreal has a better winning percentage (1.000/15-0-0) than the Caps when scoring first (.850/17-1-2). Then again, no team has a worse winning percentage (.063/1-10-5) when scored upon first. If you’re not keen on standing in the stands on a cold day for the duration, this might be a fact to remember.
4. The Caps have allowed seven power play chances in two of their last three games. They haven’t allowed seven or more chances over a three-game span since they allowed seven and eight chances (to Tampa Bay and Toronto, respectively) in a three-game span over Games 45-47 of the 2009-2010 season.
5. The Caps have 11 players with power play goals this season. All of last season they had 11 players record power play goals.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Chicago: Corey Crawford
None of the goalies who will dress for this game were even in the NHL when the Blackhawks hosted the Red Wings in the 2009 Winter Classic. That includes Corey Crawford, who played a total of seven games over the 2005-2006 and 2007-2008 seasons, but who spent the entire 2008-2009 season with the Rockford Ice Hogs in the AHL. As we noted, he has not been especially sharp in his return from the injury suffered in his concert adventure, and he has a rather grisly career record against the Caps (2-2-1, 3.62, .875 in five career appearances). Something to watch early – the volume of shots the Caps throw at Crawford. He has faced more than 30 shots only four times in 22 appearances this season. He has done well against high shot volumes (.924 save percwntage), but he has faced more than 30 shots only once since November 14th, and in that one he allowed four goals on 40 shots to Nashville in a 5-4 Gimmick win this past Monday.
Washington: Alex Ovechkin
If the Caps are going to rain shots down on Corey Crawford, chances are that the largest number of them will come from Alex Ovechkin. He has been like a Gatling gun lately, although he has comparatively little to show for it. Since he started a ten-game run of five or more shots per game with two goals on seven shots in a 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on December 9th, he has only three goals on 60 shots (5.0 percent shooting). Even with that two-goal game against Tampa Bay, Ovechkin has only five goals on 79 shots in his last 14 games (6.3 percent). If there is something to the notion of big players playing big on the big stage, perhaps Ovechkin breaks out of his accuracy slump to start the new year. He is 6-3-9, minus-2, in nine career games against Chicago.
In the end…
Here is a disturbing number hanging over this game: 5. The visiting team has won five of six Winter Classics. The Philadelphia Flyers were the only home team to win, a 2-1 overtime win over the Boston Bruins in 2010. And, four of the six games have ended in one-goal decisions, three of them in extra time, another set of circumstances that does not seem to favor the Caps, given their record this season in one-goal games. Yeah, well…I got your numbers right here.
Capitals 5 – Blackhawks 3