The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals return home from their 2-1-0 road trip to host the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night at Verizon Center. The Caps were outscored on their trip, 7-6, a product of the 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues to open the trip. The Caps won a pair of one-goal games to close the trip, the game-winning goals coming in overtime against the Arizona Coyotes, and late in the third period against the Colorado Avalanche.
The Caps spread their scoring around on the trip, meager as it was. The six goals were scored by six different players, and nine different players recorded a single assist apiece. Five players had one of each – Alex Ovechkin, Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, and Nicklas Backstrom. Special teams were an odd lot on both sides. The common thread was the rare occurrence of a power play. The Caps managed to limit their shorthanded situations to a total of six, none in their win over Colorado, skating off each one without damage. For their own power play, there were only four opportunities, none against the Blues. They were blanked on all four chances.
As for the Sabres, they have shown recent signs of life after opening the season 3-13-2. This past week they recorded wins over Toronto, 6-2, and san Jose by a a 4-1 margin. They represent the first consecutive wins for the Sabres this season. They missed a chance to make it three in a row when their game against the New York Rangers scheduled for Friday night was postponed due to the heavy snowfall in the Buffalo region this week.
Brian Gionta led the Sabres with two goals and an assist in their two wins. Those two goals, both scored in the 4-1 win over San Jose were his first goals of the season, breaking a 19-game streak without one to open the campaign. Gionta has not averaged less than 0.20 goals per game since his rookie season with the New Jersey Devils in 2001-2002. Having lifted his scoring average to 0.10 goals per game with his two-goal effort against the Sharks, one might be concerned that he is starting on a correction. In 35 career games against the Caps he is 10-13-23, plus-8.
The Sabres also got two goals from Zemgus Girgensons this past week, both in the 6-1 win over Toronto. Girgensons, a 2012 14th overall draft pick now in his second NHL season, is tied for the Sabres’ team lead in goals (6). He, like Gionta, seems to have emerged from a long slumber. He had four goals in four games before he was held off the score sheet against San Jose. It broke what had been a 13-game streak without a goal after opening the season with goals in each of his first two games. In three career games against Washington he has not registered a point.
The Caps are not likely to see their former teammate Michal Neuvirth in goal. Neuvirth was injured in a pile-up in goal in first period of the Sabres’ 4-1 win over San Jose and could not answer the bell for the second period. He has been described as being “a little bit more than day to day” with his injury. That led to a call-up of Nathan Lieuwen from Buffalo’s AHL affiliate in Rochester, but it would seem likely that the Sabres will call on Jhonas Enroth to tend goal against the Caps.
Enroth has had a tough go of it so far this season. He has a record of 2-8-1. His 3.63 goals against average ranks tied for 43rd of 46 qualifying goalies, and his .900 save percentage ranks tied for 35th (oddly enough, with former teammate and current Vancouver netminder Ryan Miller). The problem, though, is not his. He is facing a whopping 36.3 shots per 60 minutes. To let you know how big a number that is, Enroth has faced the same number of shots as Miller and Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen, but Enroth has faced that volume in more than 200 fewer minutes than either Miller or Andersen.
Here is how the teams compare in their numbers so far this season…
1. Buffalo is so far behind the eight ball to start games as to be in the parking lot outside the pool hall. The Sabres have only seven first period goals this season; two of them coming in their win over Toronto last week. On the other side of the ledger they have allowed 16 first period goals. It actually gets worse from there on a goal-differential basis. Buffalo is minus-11 in the second periods of games and minus-15 in the third period of games.
2. Buffalo has nine losses by three or more goals. Only two of the other 29 teams have more than nine three-plus goal decisions.
3. Buffalo is one of four NHL teams that have yet to pitch a shutout. On the other hand, they have been shut out five times, most in the league.
4. Buffalo has to score first to have a chance. They have a respectable 5-2-1 record when doing so, the 19th best winning percentage in the league. When they fall behind first, forget it. They are 0-11-1, the only team in the league yet to win a game when allowing the first goal, and their 11 losses in regulation lead the league.
5. With a record as bad as that of the Sabres, they play a frustrated sort of game. They are tied for the league lead in fights (12) with Anaheim and San Jose.
1. The Caps have a chance in this game to win their third game in a row, which would tie a season-high winning streak. They have only three instances this season in which they won two or more games in a row. That said, the real hole in their record is that five-game losing streak from October 26 – November 4. Take that away, and the Caps are 9-3-2. You can’t just “take that away,” of course, but perhaps that was the aberration in play.
2. The Caps still have work to do in that third period of games. They have a plus-5 goal differential in each of the first and second periods of games. They are minus-7 in the third period.
3. The four power play opportunities on their road trip made it 18 in nine road games this season, the least frequently called upon road power play in the league. At home it is a different story. With 40 power plays at home the Caps are ninth in the league with 4.0 power plays per game at home.
4. Scoring first matter to the Caps, too. Not quite as much as Buffalo, but it matters. Washington is 8-1-1 when scoring first, tied with Minnesota for the league’s fourth best winning percentage. On the other hand, they are 1-6-2 when allowing the first goal, the third worst winning percentage in the league.
5. The Caps have a bit of an odd dichotomy when it comes to scoring. They have what amounts to a strong “top six” group of forwards (even if they are not, strictly speaking, deployed that way). Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, Joel Ward, and Troy Brouwer all have double-digit point totals. After that there is a considerable drop off to Evgeny Kuznetsov with six points and lower totals thereafter among the forwards. On the defense the odd split is handedness. The righties – Mike Green, John Carlson, and Matt Niskanen – are a combined 5-24-29. The lefties – Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik, and Nate Schmidt – are 0-11-11.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Buffalo: Matt Moulson
Matt Moulson is another of those Sabre who had a slow start. He went his first 14 games this season without a goal. This from a player who in six full seasons never averaged less than 0.23 goals per game, who is a three-time 30-goal scorer. He, like a few other Sabres, seems to be waking up lately. Moulson is 2-4-6 in his last six games. In addition to scoring his first two goals of the season, he is up to six assists for the year, which is tied for second on the club. Against Washington he is 4-6-10 in 18 career games.
Washington: Braden Holtby
This is what folks might have had in mind when Braden Holtby was placed under the tutelage of the goalie whisperer, Mitch Korn. Holtby is 4-1-0, 1.59, .947 in his last five appearances. He has allowed two or fewer goals in each of those games, his longest such streak since he had a six-game streak in his first season in 2010-2011. The schedule sets up well for Holtby this coming week with no back-to-backs until the Caps face the Islanders and Maple Leafs on consecutive nights next weekend. However, one can’t look ahead of the Sabres. Holtby’s record against them is something less than stellar. His 3.53 goals against average against Buffalo is his worst among the 12 teams he has faced at least five times, as is his .872 save percentage.
In the end…
Their two wins in their last two games notwithstanding, Buffalo is having an awful time of it. They are last in scoring offense, next to last in scoring defense. They are last in 5-on-5 goal ratio, last on the power play. They have a shot differential of minus-13.5 shots per game. There is no way… no way… that the Sabres should win this game. What that means is that after passing a test of sorts on the road by scoring late goals to win one-goal decisions on the road, the Caps have to avoid a tendency of playing down to the level of their opponents. The trouble with playing down to the level of the Sabres is that the dive will be so steep and so quick that they are likely to crash and burn. Better to fly high and take care of business.
Capitals 6 – Sabres 2