Sunday, January 19, 2014

Washington Capitals: A NO point night -- Game 49: Rangers 4 - Capitals 1

It is all becoming a blur.  The Washington Capitals lost to Colum… no, wait a minute… Pittsbu… no, that’s not it.  The Washington Capitals lost to the San Jo… no, that’s not it, either. 

I got it, the Washington Capitals lost to the New York Rangers tonight, 4-1, in what is becoming the ninth circle of Groundhog Day, where Dante Alighieri meets Bill Murray.  Tonight’s embarrassment was enforced early and emphatically when Rick Nash scored 70 seconds into the game, then scored again at the 16:06 mark of the first period.  The Rangers added a goal by Derek Stepan before the horn sounded at the end of the first period, and after Alex Ovechkin one-timed a pass past Henrik Lundqvist early in the second period to give the club a glimmer of hope, it was snuffed out 1:26 later when Ryan Callahan scored a shorthanded goal to end the scoring.

The rest was embroidery.

Other stuff…

-- 22 times this season the Caps have allowed a goal within two minutes of scoring one themselves.

-- The Caps scored their first 5-on-3 goal of the season on Ovechkin’s blast.  Yeah, the one that the Rangers answered less than two minutes later.  Figures.

-- Martin Erat had three penalties.  Three penalties in the offensive zone.  Three penalties in the offensive zone, one of which ended up washing out a goal that might have made things interesting in the second period (then again, it might not have).  The six minutes in penalties was as many as he accumulated in his previous 19 games.  It was the first time he accumulated that many penalty minutes since he recorded eight penalty minutes in a 1-0 Nashville Predators win over the San Jose Sharks on February 12, 2013.

-- The Caps had 64 shot attempts for the game.  Only 25 of them were on goal.  In a trip down memory lane with the Rangers, the Blueshirts blocked 23 of those attempts.

-- You folks like three-way chili?  The Caps had their own version served up in this game.  The allowed a power play goal, a shorthanded goal, and two even strength goals.  Alas, no penalty shot or empty net goal, so the Rangers could not “Lemieux” the Caps.

-- It was an especially tough game for the Mike Green-Dmitry Orlov defensive pair, who were on ice for three of the four Ranger goals.  Orlov had the harder night.  It was his soft pass to Nicklas Backstrom early in the first period that Rick Nash intercepted and converted into the Rangers’ first goal.  It was Orlov who could not quite get back fast enough to tie up Ryan Callahan from converting a rebound into a shorthanded goal.

-- The defensive faceoff performance…ugh.  3-for-13.  Brooks Laich was 1-for-8 all by himself.

-- Speaking of Laich, it is one thing for a defenseman (or two or three) to record no shots on goal, but the Caps had Laich, Joel Ward, Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle, and Mikhail Grabovski fail to record a shot in this game.  Five of the 12 forwards.  Some of those guys are expected to provide some secondary offensive support.

-- For Henrik Lundqvist, his 24 saves on 25 shots (a .960 save percentage) was his ninth time in his last ten games with a save percentage over .920.  In 17 decisions this season when he has a save percentage over .920, he is 14-2-1.  By the end of this one, he looked bored.

-- Ovechkin’s power play goal was not only the Caps’ first 5-on-3 power play goal of the season, it broke a personal 14-game streak without a power play goal.

--In his last eight appearances, Philipp Grubauer is 2.60, .912, including tonight.  Not great, but respectable.  His win-loss record is 1-3-4 in those games.

-- On the other hand, Braden Holtby, who came into the game in relief of Grubauer after the third goal on eight shots, stopped 17 of 18 shots.  That performance needs to be tempered by the fact that the game was pretty much over when Holtby arrived.

In the end…

It’s still all a blur.  Three road games, three losses.  Five losses in a row (0-3-2), nine losses in their last 11 games (2-5-4), 11 losses in their last 14 games (3-6-5), 13 losses in their last 18 games (5-7-6) since losing in a 10-round shootout to… Florida.

Maybe the blur is the tears.

A few games back we opined that the Caps were a mess.  Oh, they’re way beyond that.  You know the road kill that has been on the highway for a couple of days and has had trucks and vans and cars driving over it?  The Caps aspire to that at the moment.  They can’t score, they can’t defend, their lines seem to be put together with the purpose and the moving around that you might see from a toddler playing with letter blocks, and the goaltending... the Caps do not have a number one goalie at the moment.  They have three number threes. Or maybe a two and two number threes.  Or three playing like number two.

No, it’s not really the goaltenders’ fault, although none is making a case to be named to the NHL all-star team.  There is a lot of blame to go around, but at this point it is like beating a beaten horse. 

Long past the point of road kill.

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 16

Last week, we opened with this…

"When wounded, stop the bleeding.  The Washington Capitals did just that in Week 15.  It was not the prettiest, nor was it the most dominating of weeks, but wins are wins.  All of them are worth two points.  And the Caps took all the points available to them in Week 15."

This week, the Caps did not fare so well.  It was, arguably, their worst week of the season, perhaps their worst since Week 2.  And with it, there were consequences in the standings.

Record: 0-2-2

It was the Caps’ second 0-2-2 week in their last three, their second four game losing streak in the space of ten games.  The consequences of the winless week were that the Caps dropped from second place in the Metropolitan Division to fifth, just one point ahead of sixth-place New Jersey, three ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes in seventh, and six ahead of the last-place New York Islanders.  It left the Caps on the outside looking in at playoff eligibility.  In fact, the week left the Caps lower in the Eastern Conference standings than any time since Hallowe’en, when the Caps were 5-7-0 and tied for ninth in points but in 12th in the standings with tie-breakers.

Offense:  1.50/game (season: 2.77 / rank: T-12th)

Four games, three one-goal efforts on offense.  The “multi-vitamin” offense (“One-a-Day”) finished the week with five one-goal games in their last ten, 12 games of one or no goals in 48 games this season.  With only six goals scored for the week, there was not much to go around.  Alex Ovechkin and Jason Chimera each had a pair of goals, Brooks Laich and John Carlson the others.  Six goals on 120 shots (5.0 percent) was an especially weak performance, efficiency-wise.

Once again there was churning in the forward lines. The week started like this:
  • Fehr-Grabovski-Ovechkin
  • Laich-Backstrom-Brouwer
  • Chimera-Johansson-Ward
  • Volpatti-Beagle-Wilson

It ended like this (sort of)…
  • Johansson-Backstrom-Ovechkin
  • Erat-Grabovski-Brouwer
  • Chimera-Fehr-Ward
  • Laich-Beagle-Wilson

…although even this was a loose structure in the waning minutes of the week-ending game against Columbus.

Defense: 2.75/game (season: 2.92 / rank: 20th)

The most disappointing part of the week might have been letting three leads get away against Pittsburgh in a 4-3 loss to the Penguins.  Twice those leads were lost in three minutes or less after a Capitals goal.  Both of those times a weakness was exploited.  The defensive pairs in those instances were Connor Carrick and John Erskine, and Carrick and Dmitry Orlov.  The Penguins, a deep offensive team, could take advantage of a lack of depth on the Washington blue line.  That it was two support players scoring the goals – Taylor Pyatt and Jussi Jokinen – made the problem appear more stark.

The goals and shots against increased in tandem over the week.  In the first two games of Week 16 the Caps held opponents to 31 and 29 shots, respectively.  Coincidentally, Buffalo and San Jose each managed only a single goal in 65 minutes.  In the third and fourth games of the week, Pittsburgh and Columbus recorded 37 and 36 shots on goal, respectively.  Those totals were accompanied by four goals for the Penguins, five for the Blue Jackets.

As possession goes, it was not a bad week for Washington.  In the first three games of the week the Caps were over 50 percent in both Corsi-for and Fenwick-for in 5-on-5 close score situations.  It extended to nine the streak of games the Caps had with their Corsi-for percentage over 50 percent.  It came tumbling down in the last game of the week, the Capitals managing only a 43.8 percent Corsi-for and 44.8 percent Fenwick in 5-on-5 close score situations.

Goaltending: 2.66 GAA / .917 save percentage (season: 2.80 / .916 / 1 shutout)

It was another “three goalie week.”  Hey, if you have ‘em, use ‘em.  Philipp Grubauer once more got the lion’s share of the work with three starts and 151 minutes for the week.  Not that it ended well, although it was hardly his problem.  In those 151 minutes he had a goals against average of 1.98 and a save percentage of .932.  For that, Grubauer ended up charged with three losses (0-1-2).  Tough luck, kid.

Michal Neuvirth got the other start and was respectable in a 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh.  He stopped 33 of 37 shots and deserved better in front of him.  A goal off a 4-on-2 rush, a goal off a player left alone from point-blank range in the slot, a goal-mouth tip-in, and a shot through a maze of bodies in front of him.  If he’d been sharper as the product of having more playing time over the past couple of months, perhaps one or two of those goals don’t happen, but things are unsettled with the Caps’ goaltending these days, and, to a degree, so was Neuvirth’s lone appearance.

That left the odd 37-38 minutes for the week.  Those belonged to Braden Holtby in his first appearance in almost two weeks and second in almost a month.  He stopped 20 of 22 shots (.909) in relief of Grubauer in the last game of the week, the 5-1 loss to Columbus.  As mop-up duties are concerned, it was an adequate performance, but perhaps more notably, it was the first time in five appearances in which Holtby finished an appearance with a save percentage over .900, dating back to a December 7 win over Nashville, Holtby’s last win on his record.

Power Play: 0-9 / 0.0 percent (season: 24.1 percent / rank: 3rd)

When a team depends on the power play as much as the Caps, and it dries up, bad things happen.  That was the case this week, the first time since Week 7 that the Caps took an oh-fer for the week.  Overall the Caps were 0-for-14 shooting in 15:59 of power play ice time.  Of those 14 power play shots on goal, Alex Ovechkin had eight of them, only Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson the other Capitals with more than one power play shot on goal (two apiece).  John Carlson was the only defenseman with a shot on goal.  Mike Green did not record a shot on goal in 8:46 of power play time for the week.

For the Caps, the 0-for-9 week extended their longest streak of frustration of the season with the man advantage.  They have not recorded a power play goal in five straight games (on 13 chances), the longest such streak in head coach Adam Oates’ tenure.

Penalty Killing: 10-13 / 76.9 percent (season: 80.1 percent /rank: 19th)

One gets the feeling that the Capitals penalty kill has found their norm, and it is not a pleasant thing to contemplate.  Week 16 was the eighth time in the last 11 weeks that the Caps had a sub-80 percent week.  Overall, the Caps allowed three goals on 21 power play shots in 21:20 of shorthanded ice time.  It might have been a much better week had the Caps not traveled to Columbus.  The Blue Jackets had two power play goals on eight shots in 6:18 of power play time in their 5-1 win.  If there was a plus, and we might be reaching here, the Caps did have consecutive games in the middle two games of the week against San Jose and Pittsburgh in which they did not allow a power play goal.  It was the first time the Caps blanked opponents on the power play in consecutive games in which they faced shorthanded situations since stopping Florida and Philadelphia on December 13-15.

Even Strength Goals For/Against: 5-9 (season 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.90 / rank: T-21st)

When the power play draws a blank, and the penalty kill has an uneven week, the 5-on-5 game has to be there for there to be any success.  It was not, and the Caps had little success (two standings points being the take in four games). 

The Caps allowed the first even strength goal in three of the four games and allowed the last even strength goal in the three games in which they allowed one.  It really was a tale of two weeks within the week.  The shot spread was rather tight, ranging from 25-29 shots against at even strength in the four games.  In the first two, the Caps held opponents to no goals on 25 shots (Buffalo) and one goal on 27 shots (San Jose).  In the last half of the week, it was four goals on 29 shots (Pittsburgh) and three on 28 shots (Columbus).

Faceoffs: 114-238 / 47.9 percent (season: 49.5 percent / rank: 18th)

It was a week that looked better than it was for the Caps, and it did not look all that great.  The Caps were above 50 percent in the neutral zone (54.1 percent), but well under 50 percent in the ends, 44.4 percent in the offensive end, 45.9 percent in the defensive end.  As to the latter, Nicklas Backstrom held his own with 11 wins in 20 draws (most draws taken in the defensive end for the week), but those who had high volumes otherwise – Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich, Mikhail Grabovski, Jay Beagle – all were under 50 percent and were a combined 14-for-39 (35.9 percent).  In the offensive end, no one with any significant volumes of draws taken reached 50 percent for the week.

Goals For/Against by Period:

When a team loses all four games for the week, it is not likely they do much by way of winning periods.  The Caps didn’t, only breaking even in the second period, scoring and allowing three goals overall.  Of the 12 regulation time periods for the week, the Caps won two of them, the second period of their contest against San Jose (one goal to none), and the first period against Pittsburgh (again, one goal to none).  The Caps lost five periods and tied in five others.  Even in the period they won, they could not build momentum.  In neither case would the Caps score the next goal.

In the end…

It is hard to find any gold dust amid the sludge that was Week 16.  And the problem is growing.  Two 0-2-2 weeks in the last three, a 3-5-5 record over their last 13 games.  The things that the Caps have depended on to win games this season – power plays and shootouts – failed them.  Two Gimmick losses, drawing a blank on the power play for the week.  Both are part of longer trends, the five-game streak without a power play goal and four straight losses in the freestyle competition.

What we saw with this week is that the things the Caps depend on for wins this season are fickle.  The meat of a successful team – possession and winning 5-on-5 battles – is lacking with this team.  The Caps are tied with the Islanders for last in the Metro Division in wins in regulation and overtime, only four teams in the league have fewer.  They did not add to that total (14) this week.  As a result, they have been caught and passed by several teams in the playoff race – Columbus and Philadelphia in the Metro being the immediate examples.

If things do not start improving, and soon, the Olympic break might be a time to start thinking about where to be spending early golf vacations instead of imagining playoff matchups.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 49: Capitals at Rangers, January 19th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wind up their three-game road trip on Sunday night with a visit to the Big Apple to take on the New York Rangers.

“What kind of apple?”

Excuse me?

“You said ‘the Big Apple.’  What kind of apple is it?  Red Delicious?  Macintosh?  Winesap?  Belle de Boskoop?” 

Belle de what?  Cheerless, what are you talking about?

“Hey, when you spend lotsa time makin’ cider, you get to know your apples.  So what is it?  What kind of apple is ‘the Big Apple?’”

It’s just a name, Cheerless, not an apple, per se.

“I never heard of no ‘per se’ variety of apple.  Do you mean ‘Melrose?’” 

Now you’re just being silly.  No, the “Big Apple” was a name coined by a journalist back in the 1920’s, a guy by the name of John J. FitzGerald.  He wrote sports for the old New York Morning Telegraph and started using the phrase “big apple” to refer to horse racing in New York.  It caught on with other writers of the day, but sort of fell out of use by the 1960’s.  Then some marketing whiz in the Convention and Visitors Bureau dug it out and started a campaign around New York as the “Big Apple.”  It stuck ever since.

“Bet they can’t make cider out of it.”

That’s probably a safe bet.  But they do play hockey up there, and it is there, at Madison Square Garden, where the Caps will find themselves on Sunday night.  The team they will face seems to be getting into a groove.  The Rangers spent almost the entire month of October on the road while the Garden was having some upgrades completed. 

The long stretch away from home did not agree with the Rangers, as they went 3-6-0 in nine straight road games to open the season.  The Rangers sought to right themselves, but did little more than tread water over the next two months.  However, starting with a 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild back on December 22nd, the Rangers are 10-3-1 in their last 14 games.

In those last 14 games the Rangers have outscored their opponents by a 36-25 margin.  What the Rangers have discovered, or perhaps re-discovered – was defense and goaltending.  Six times in those 14 contests the Rangers allowed fewer than two goals to their opponent. 

It is not as if the Rangers are holding opponents to an inordinately low number of shots; they have allowed 31 shots on goal per game in their 10-3-1 run.  What they are getting is superb goaltending.  Henrik Lundqvist is back on track after a shaky start.  After going 10-15-2, 2.77, .905, unusually poor numbers for Lundqvist, he is 6-2-1, 2.08, .935 during the Rangers’ 10-3-1 run.  If anything, backup Cam Talbot, who took over the duties when Martin Biron retired in October, has been better.  Overall, the rookie is 10-3-0, 1.62, .940 in 15 appearances.  In five appearances in this recent run by the Rangers he is 4-1-0, 1.39, .950.  Only twice in his 15 appearances to date has Talbot allowed more than two goals.

Fifteen different players have shared in the goal-scoring in the Rangers’ 10-3-1 run, none of them with more than Mats Zuccarello, who has six.  Zuccarello has five assists to go along with the goals to lead the Rangers in points over those 14 games with 11.  In three games against the Caps so far this season he has not recorded a point, and he has but one assist in five career games against Washington.

Rick Nash also has six goals over this 14-game stretch, doubling his season total to date in 33 games.  He has three game-winning goals in his last five games, four of them Ranger wins.  He does not have a point against Washington in either of the two games in which he has appeared, but he does have seven goals and eight assists in 14 career contests against the Caps.

Here is how the teams compare in their overall numbers:

1.  The Rangers’ special teams have been an important element of their recent success.  Their power play is 12-for-45 in their last 14 games (26.7 percent), and while their penalty kill is not extraordinarily efficient (29-for-35; 82.9 percent), it benefits from not being tested too often, just 2.5 times per game over this stretch.

2.  One of the things the Rangers have done very well in this 14-game run is outshoot their opponents.  In the 10-3-1 run they have outshot their opponents on a per-game basis, 47.2 to 31.0, and have outshot their opponents in 11 of the 14 games.

3.  Of the nine defensemen to dress for the Rangers this season, only one – Ryan McDonagh – is on the plus side of the plus-minus ledger (plus-1).

4.  This being the back half of a back-to-back set of games for the Rangers, keep in mind that they are 5-3-0 in the back-half of back-to-back games so far this season.  One of the losses was in the last meeting of these clubs, back on December 8th following a 4-3 overtime loss to New Jersey the previous night.  The Rangers lost to the Caps the next night, 4-1.

5.  The Rangers are among the better possession teams in the league.  They are eighth in Corsi-for percentage in 5-n-5 close situations (52.3 percent) and seventh in Fenwick for percentage (52.5 percent).  They are even better in their 10-3-1 run: a Corsi-for percentage of 55.2, a Fenwick-for percentage of 55.9.

1.  When the Caps lost to Columbus by a 5-1 score on Friday, it broke a string of five straight one-goal decisions.  It was the first time the Caps lost by three or more goals since dropping a 5-2 decision to Philadelphia on December 17th, and it was their most lopsided loss since Pittsburgh shutout the Caps, 4-0, on November 20th.

2.  The Caps have struggled of late, posting a 3-5-5 record over their last 13 games.  Part of it is special teams.  The power play is 5-for-33 in those 13 games (15.2 percent), while the penalty kill is 28-for-39 (71.8 percent).

3.  The two-goal lead is said to be the most dangerous in hockey.  Folks might be facetious about that, but two-goal wins have been hard to come by for the Caps.  Only three teams have fewer two-goal wins than the Caps (2).

4.  The Caps won the last two meetings between these clubs.  It is the first time the Caps recorded consecutive wins against the Rangers in the regular season since they won their last three meetings in the 2009-2010 season, two of them at Madison Square Garden.

5.  The loss to Columbus ended a streak of nine straight games in which the Caps recorded a Corsi-for percentage in 5-on-5 close situations over 50 percent.  They are still 21st in the league in that statistic, a ranking that might not sound impressive but is a considerable improvement from their mid-20’s ranking where they spent much of December.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Derick Brassard

Until the Rangers started this 10-3-1 run over their last 14 games, Derick Brassard was idling along with a 6-10-16 scoring line in 35 games.  In those last 14 games, however, Brassard has been making plays by playmaking.  He has eight assists in those 14 contests to lead the club over that stretch and has improved his scoring line to 8-18-26 games.  He has a pair of assists in three games against the Capitals this season, his career scoring line against Washington being 0-3-3 in nine games.

Washington: Martin Erat

There are 190 players having dressed for NHL games this season who have yet to score a goal.  Only 22 of them have had such futility with more shots on goal than Martin Erat, who is tied with Pittsburgh’s Robert Bortuzzo at 29 shots apiece without lighting the lamp.  He has not recorded a shot on goal in his last five games and has only seven shots on goal over his last 12 contests.  Only once this season has Erat recorded as many as three shots on goal in a game, that coming back on November 15th in a 4-3 Gimmick win in Detroit.  He has only eight shots on goal in 17 divisional games so far.  It says here, he breaks the string on Sunday night.


1.  Hard first 20 minutes.  Only one team in the league (Nashville) has fewer wins than the Rangers when trailing at the first intermission.  One win in 19 tries when trailing after 20 minutes.  It can’t hurt, the Caps have the fourth-worst record in the league when leading after 20 minutes (7-5-0).

2.  No No-Names.  The Rangers don’t have a lot of “names” – Rick Nash, Brad Richards.  But it is guys like Brian Boyle or John Moore who seem to do damage to the Caps in these meetings.  The Caps have to make sure to pay attention to the bottom half of the forward lines.

3.  Dispossessed.  The Rangers are on a seven game streak in which their Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 close score situations is above 50 percent.  In six of those games it was over 55 percent.  The Rangers have been setting pace and controlling territory, just what you would expect from a team on a 10-3-1 run, and the kind of thing the Caps need to address early in this game.

In the end…

The Rangers have a fine record outside the Metropolitan Division: 20-13-0.  Within the division, their record is much weaker.  New York’s 6-8-3 record is the second worst intra-divisional record in the Metro.  Only the New York Islanders’ 3-11-3 record in-division is worse.  Even in their recent 10-3-1 run, they are only 1-2-1 against Metropolitan Division foes.  The Caps can take advantage of this.  It would be something to salvage the road trip and get back on a winning track.

Capitals 3 – Rangers 2