Sunday, March 30, 2014

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 24

For the Washington Capitals Week 24 was the calm before the storm, serving as prelude for eight games over the final two weeks to close the regular season.  There were only two games on the schedule, both against elite teams who are on the short list of contenders for the Stanley Cup.  There were not many games on the docket this week, but both were a yardstick with which to measure whether this Capitals team is playoff ready.

Record: 0-1-1

The Capitals are picking a really bad time to hang up weekly records under .500.  Week 24 was their third such week in their last four over which they have put together a cumulative record of 5-5-3.  Fortunately, if you are rooting for the Caps to make the post-season, Washington lost just one-point in standings ground this week to the teams in the wild card slots. Going into the week the Caps had 79 points, one behind both Toronto and Detroit.  At week’s end the Caps had 80 points, two points behind the two teams in front of them for a wild card spot, Columbus and Detroit.

The difficulty in Week 24 for the Caps was going winless at home.  Where the Caps were next to invincible at Verizon Center once upon a time, they have struggled lately and especially against those teams that can rightly be called “benchmarks.”  The Caps have now lost to Los Angeles and Boston (in Week 24), to Pittsburgh, and to Philadelphia at home since the Olympic break.  They have taken care of business against teams that are struggling, as the Caps are – Phoenix, Vancouver, Toronto.  However, the Caps have home contests against Chicago and Tampa Bay to close the season.  Those teams are not "struggling."  Based on recent history, made worse with the Week 24 results, home cooking might not have the taste it once did for this team.

Offense: 3.00/game (season: 2.77 / rank: 13th)

The offense had a distinct Russian cast to it in Week 24.  Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov each recorded a pair of goals, those for Kuznetsov being both last-minute-in-regulation goals and his first goals in the NHL.  On the other hand, Ovechkin’s pair inched him closer to 50 this season, which might end up being the biggest milestone the Caps as a whole or in their individual parts might reach this season.  Ovechkin (2-1-3) and Troy Brouwer (0-3-3) led the team in points.

In one sense the Caps overachieved in this area.  Los Angeles (2.07 goals against/game) and Boston (2.04) rank second and first, respectively, in scoring defense.  The Caps outscored the Kings’ average and matched that of Boston.  On the other side of the coin, the Caps got out to a two-goal lead against the Kings – twice – and could not add to it.  They fell behind the Bruins by a pair of goals and could not make up the difference.  Two goal leads seem especially dangerous to the Caps, at least in Week 24.

Defense: 4.00/game (season: 2.88 / rank: 22nd)

Los Angeles and Boston are among the league leaders in shots on goal per game, ranked seventh and fifth, respectively.  It showed this week.  Both recorded 36 shots on goal, oddly enough the second and third straight games in which the Caps allowed precisely 36 shots on goal.  It was the latest in a drift toward an old problem – shots on goal allowed.  Since holding Pittsburgh to 20 shots on goal on March 10th (and losing anyway, 3-2) the Caps have allowed an average of 35.6 shots per game.  That the Caps are 4-2-2 in those eight games (and 0-1-1 in Week 24, for that matter) is not a product of the defense.

There was a considerable unevenness among those Caps who happened to be on ice when goals were scored. Jason Chimera and Patrick Wey had difficult weeks.  They were on ice for five goals against of the eight scored.  Four other Caps were on ice for three goals scored against and six others for two goals against.  Four Caps missed out on the fun.  Dustin Penner, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Chris Brown were not on ice for any of the eight goals scored against the Caps this week.

The possession numbers paint a bleak picture at 5-on-5 tied.  First, the Caps spent not a lot of time in that situation, less than 23 minutes for the week.  That was a reflection of getting out to two two-goal leads against the Kings (ultimately blowing that advantage in what would be a Gimmick loss) and falling behind by three goals twice against Boston.  In those few minutes when tied at 5-on-5 the Caps Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages were 28.6 and 27.3, respectively.  It was only two games worth of data, but it did not look good, anyway.

Goaltending: 3.88 / .889 (season: 2.77 / .917 / 3 SO)

Goaltending was not particularly sharp this week, especially as games went on.  On the other hand, from the “glass half full” perspective, goaltending kept the Caps in games early.  Jaroslav Halak and Braden Holtby split the duties and each was perfect in the first period of their respective games, Halak stopping all seven shots he faced against Los Angeles, Holtby stopping all 15 shots he saw from the Bruins.  Neither could sustain that level of effort, though.  Halak allowed four goals on 26 shots over the last two regulation periods against Los Angeles, while Holtby allowed four goals on 22 shots in the last two periods against Boston.

In that sense it was a step back for the Caps.  In the six games following that 20 shots against, 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh on March 11, Caps goalies had a save percentage of .947.  In Week 24 it was .889.  Shot volumes might be dealt with for a while, but against teams like Los Angeles or Boston it can come back to bite them, too.

Power Play: 2-7 / 28.6 percent (season: 23.8 percent / rank: 1st)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for the power play this week. Okay, that’s a bit over the top, but when the Caps go 2-for-4 in one game and 0-for-3 in the other, it is not too far off.  What makes such things so confounding is that Boston and Los Angeles were roughly equivalent in their penalty killing going into their respective games, the Kings at 83.3 percent, the Bruins at 83.8 percent.  The Caps had approximately the same shots per minute on the power plays for the week, 1.13 against Los Angeles, 1.33 against Boston.  The difference was not the what, or even the how many, but the who.  Against Los Angeles, Alex Ovechkin scored two power play goals on four of the six shots recorded by the Caps on the man advantage.  Against Boston he was 0-for-2 on the eight shots the Caps directed at goalie Chad Johnson. 

Penalty Killing: 4-7 / 57.1 percent (season: 81.0 percent / rank: 20th)

The problem with a team that has been rather mediocre on the penalty kill all season, yet has a stretch of success is that it comes back to earth, sometimes with a thud.  The Caps came into the week having killed off all 19 shorthanded situations they faced over their previous six games.  That came to an end three minutes into the second period of their 5-4 shootout loss to Los Angeles.  The Caps allowed power play goals on three of their last six shorthanded situations faced for the week.  It was a case of either an inability to prevent sustained pressure or too much passivity.  The Kings and Bruins combined for three power play goals on 18 shots in 12:22 of power play time.  That kind of high shot volume makes it unsurprising that the Caps struggled on the penalty kill in Week 24.

Even Strength Goals Scored For/Against: 3-5 (season 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.88 / rank:T-23nd)

Washington has the lowest ratio of even-strength goals to total goals in the league, so it is not that surprising that the Caps would record only three even strength goals for the week.  Then again, that might be the biggest problem this team has, competing at evens.  Week 24 was the fourth straight week in which the Caps finished on the minus side at even strength.  It hardly seems like coincidence that the Caps also have losing records in three of those four weeks.  Making it worse on the scoring side can be summed up with three names: Dustin Penner, Jason Chimera, and Evgeny Kuznetsov.  Two grinders and a rookie scored the even strength goals for the week.  No Ovechkin, no Backstrom, no Johansson, no Green, no Carlson, no Brouwer.  Not good.

Faceoffs: 59-for-128 / 46.1 percent (season: 48.7 percent / rank: 23rd)

Once more the overall numbers do not tell the complete story in the circles.  The Caps had a fine week in the neutral zone, going 24-for-43 (55.8 percent), but they were just 16-for-41 in the offensive end (39.0 percent) and 19-for-44 in the defensive end (43.2 percent).  It is the fifth straight week in which the Caps finished the week below 50 percent overall.

One thing about the first line experiment with Jay Beagle at center was impacted by performance here.  Beagle was 0-for-5 on offensive zone draws, part of a 4-for-21 week (19.0 percent).  On the good side, Eric Fehr and Nicklas Backstrom took the highest volume of draws and did well.  Fehr was 18-for-31 overall (58.1 percent), including 8-for-12 in the defensive zone (66.7 percent).  Backstrom was 16-for-27 overall (59.3 percent), including 7-for-9 in the offensive end (77.8 percent).

Goals Scored For/Against by Period:

The Kings and Bruins are similar teams, the sort that use depth and a physical edge to grind teams down.  The goals by period certainly reflect that.  The Caps did not allow a first period goal this week, but they were whacked for four goals in each of the last two periods, and the Caps had a three goals allowed period in each game.  Los Angeles scored three goals in the third period to force extra time before winning in the freestyle competition, while Boston scored three in the second period of Saturday’s game to all but end the competitive portion of the afternoon.

In the End…

The Caps have not been in the top-eight in the Eastern Conference since January 17th when they were in eighth place at 22-18-8.  Since then the Caps are 12-10-4 and have generally hung around ninth or tenth place.  Close enough to be teasing, but never quite getting over the hump.  The Caps had an opportunity in Week 24 to jump over a couple of teams to take one of those coveted wild card spots, but the combination of few games and tough opponents left them with one standings point and still in ninth place when eight teams get to dance in the post season.  In that sense, Week 24 was a disappointment, both for a cold slap in the face of the reality of their standing compared to teams such as Los Angeles and Boston, and again for lingering on the edge of the playoffs without the ability to take that last step.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 75: Capitals at Predators, March 30th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals, fresh off their 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Saturday afternoon, take to the road on Sunday and hop right back on the horse with a Sunday contest in Nashville against the Predators. 

Nashville has, for all intents and purposes, slipped out of the Western Conference playoff race, trailing Phoenix for the second wild card spot by nine points and with four teams to climb over (including the Coyotes) to reach the post-season.  What the Predators have not been is consistent about the nature of their slide.  At the beginning of March the Preds were a team skating in bad luck.  They held opponents to nine goals in four games and won none of them.   They found their offense briefly for a three-game stretch, scoring 11 goals over three games and winning all of them.  Just as quickly as the offense appeared, it vanished again.  Two goals in three games resulted in three straight losses.  Nashville has been better of late, going 3-1-1 in their last five games, but it looks to be too little, too late.

Nashville’s problem has been in no small part due to their inability to win at home.  The Predators are one of six teams in the league with a sub-.500 record at home this season (based on standings points), and since March 1st are 1-5-1, their only win coming against the Buffalo Sabres.  It is at home where the Predators have found lighting the lamp especially difficult.  In those last seven games at home Nashville has only 14 goals, and things are not even that good.  Six of the goals came in their win over the Sabres, and five times the Preds scored a single goal or were shut out.

Nashville has had balance in their scoring, just not a lot of it.  Ten players share in the 14 goals over those seven home games, four players – Eric Nystrom, Matt Cullen, Roman Josi, and Shea Weber each with a pair.  There are 18 players sharing in the points, but only Mike Fisher (0-5-5), Patric Hornqvist (1-3-4), and Nick Spaling (1-3-4) have more than three points.

Notable in the absence of mentions is rookie defenseman Seth Jones.  The fourth overall pick in last June’s entry draft was hit along the boards in the first period of the Predators’ 2-0 win in Chicago last Sunday and missed the second and third periods with concussion symptoms.  Jones was in the top ten among rookie defensemen in total points and power play scoring, and he was one of five rookie defensemen with two game winning goals this season.

Nashville has a lot of names that Caps fans might not recognize.  One they should be familiar with is defenseman Shea Weber.  His name is sprinkled all through the league statistical rankings.  Weber is tied for the league lead in goals among defensemen (20, with Erik Karlsson and Dustin Byfuglien), he is seventh in total points (48), first in power play goals (11), third in power play points (25), tied for fourth in game-winning goals, second in shooting percentage, and fourth in ice time.  He is 5-3-8 over his last ten games and sports a 2-5-7 scoring line in eight career games against Washington.

One of the problems the Predators have had in getting any traction this season has been the absence of goaltender Pekka Rinne.  After missing 51 games following hip surgery, Rinne returned to the Nashville lineup on March 4th.  The return has not gone as well as any Predators fan would hope.  In 11 appearances in March, Rinne is 3-6-1 (one no decision), 3.34, .884.  He was lit up for seven goals on 29 shots in his last appearance, a 7-3 loss to Dallas on Friday.  He has only one career appearance against the Caps, allowing one goal on 40 shots in a 3-1 win over the Caps on November 15, 2011.

1.  Nashville does not generate much in the way of power play opportunities at home.  Only four teams have had fewer power play opportunities on home ice than the Predators (116).  They don’t spend so much time killing penalties, either.  Nashville has the seventh fewest instances of shorthanded situations in the league.

2.  One un-Predator number that has plagued Nashville this season is “164.”  That is the number of 5-on-5 goals allowed so far, second only to Edmonton (165) for the highest total in the league. 

3.  Only two teams in the league have fewer losses in regulation when scoring first than the Predators.  With three such losses this season they trail only St. Louis (2) and Chicago (1) for fewest in the league.  Their problem is getting there.  Nashville has taken first leads only 33 times in 75 games.

4.  Only San Jose (226) has been charged with fewer minor penalties than the Predators (239).  On the other hand, only five teams have more fighting majors than Nashville.

5.  As is befitting a middle of the road team, that is where the Predators reside in the possession statistics.  Nashville is 17th in Corsi-for percentage in 5-on-5 close score situation (49.4), 14th in Fenwick-for percentage (50.5).  They have been better, especially at home of late.  In March the Preds are at 55.6 percent Corsi-for and 55.3 percent Fenwick-for in 5-on-5 close score situations.

1.  Yesterday, the Caps allowed the first goal for the 37th time this season.  Only five teams have fewer wins when allowing the first goal than the Caps (9).  Fortunately for them, Nashville happens to be one of them (8).  In one of the stranger statistics in this area, only Ottawa has more extra time losses (9) than the Caps (8) when trailing first.

2.  Washington has the lowest percentage in the league of even-strength goals to total goals.  Of the Caps’ 205 goals, 130 have been scored at even strength (63.4 percent).  By way of comparison, Chicago is first at 80.1 percent).

3.  Since the Olympic break the Caps are 9-for-23 on their road games power play (39.1 percent).  The penalty killers are 23-for-26 (88.5 percent).

4.  Nicklas Backstrom is tied for second for most successful trick shots in the Gimmick (7), trailing only T.J. Oshie (8).  His four game-deciding goals in the skill phase trails only Anze Kopitar (5).

5.  The Caps have now gone five straight games on the wrong side of 50 percent in Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentage in 5-on-5 close score situations.  Their cumulative numbers over those five games are 43.4 percent and 42.9 percent, respectively.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Nashville: Patric Hornqvist

In his first full season in the NHL in 2009-2010 Patric Hornqvist displayed talent that would tantalize Nashville fans, finishing the season with 30 goals and 51 points in 80 games.  Unfortunately for those Nashville fans, that remains his career season.  He has not fallen off dramatically, but in four full seasons he went from 51 to 48 to 43, and now 41 points (he had 14 in 24 games last season).  He is third on the team in total scoring this season, though, and he is coming into this game on a hot streak, four straight games with points (2-4-6).  He is 0-2-2 in six career games against the Capitals.

Washington:  Jaroslav Halak

Chances are that Jaroslav Halak will get most, if not all of the remaining starts for the Capitals in goal (the Caps have two more back-to-back sets).  He took a seat against Boston on Saturday, perhaps with this game in mind.  Halak has done quite well against Nashville with a 10-3-3, 1.71, .931 line that includes four shutouts in 17 appearances.  The Caps will need him to return to this level of play.  After not allowing more than three goals in any of his first seven appearances with Washington, he gave up four goals on 36 shots in a 5-4 Gimmick loss to Los Angeles last Tuesday.


1.  Slow and steady wins the race.  Nashville is a creature of style.  They have not practiced it as well this year as in past years, perhaps, but they tend to slow the game down and adopt a deliberate, station-to-station sort of game.  This will test the Caps’ patience. 

2.  Top Six Production.  It is getting late in the game for the Caps to be getting as little production as they are getting from their top six at even strength.  The Caps’ top six forwards should get their chances against this team.  Nashville has allowed five or more goals four times in their last seven games.

3.  Possession.  The Caps have been on the wrong side of 50 percent in Corsi-for in 5-on-5 close score situations for five straight games.  It is their longest such streak since going eight straight games in late December.  It is something the Caps need to turn around in the stretch.

In the end…

The Caps are running out of room for error.  They now trail both Columbus and Detroit by two points for a wild-card berth in the playoffs.  And, that two-point deficit is really three, since the Caps will almost certainly lose tie breakers with both teams.  Their 25 wins in regulation and overtime (the first tie breaker at the end of the season) is four fewer than the Red Wings, eight fewer than the Blue Jackets.  Getting a win here is as close to “have to have” as it gets at this time of year.

Capitals 4 – Predators 2