Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Games 21/22: Capitals vs. Islanders, November 26/28

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals celebrate Thanksgiving this week with a home-and-home set against a team that is hardly a “turkey.”  It is a team capable of “stuffing” the puck down their throats like your crazy uncle stuffing yams down his throat at holiday dinner, of "mashing" your hopes like a boiled potato. 

That team is the New York Islanders.  Yes, the New York Islanders.  A once proud franchise that has reached the playoffs only six times in the last 20 seasons before this one, one that has not won a playoff series in that span of years.  It is a team that has a win-loss record of 624-762 over those 20 years with 106 ties and 103 extra time losses.

This year, things are different.  The Isles are 15-6-0, their 30 points tied for third in the league through Monday’s games.  One wonders, though, what to make of their achievement to date.  On the one hand, the Isles are on a 9-1-0 run after a 6-5-0 start to the season, but six of the wins were by one-goal, and four of them came in the Gimmick, three in their last five wins (New York is 5-0 in the trick shot competition).

On the other hand, the Isles are a good possession team, fifth in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 at 52.86 (war-on-ice.com goals scored-to-goals allowed ratio of 1.15 that puts them in the top ten in the league.  And, with a PDO of 100.14 at 5-on-5 (14th in the league), the Isles might be underperforming against their possession statistics.

Then again (on the third hand?), there is the goaltending half of the PDO number, and for the Islanders it has been inconsistent, or at least different.  Over the summer the Isles swapped out Evgeni Nabokov (40 appearances; 15-14-8, 2.74, .905) and Anders Nilsson (19 appearances; 8-7-2, 3.11, .896) in favor of Jaroslav Halak, obtained for a 2014 fourth round draft pick from the Capitals, and Chad Johnson, signed as a free agent from the Boston Bruins.

Halak has been what the Islanders hoped for, sporting a 10-4-0 record with a 2.23 goals against average (11th in the league) and a .922 save percentage (tied for 12th).  He enters this home-and-home set against the Caps on a personal seven-game winning streak over which his GAA is 1.11, his save percentage is .957, and he has three shutouts.  If he is not the league’s hottest goaltender, he can still flash-boil an ice rink.  Halak is 4-4-0, 2.76, .893 in eight career regular season appearances against Washington.

Johnson, on the other hand (lots of hands in today’s post, eh?), has not been able to replicate the numbers he posted in Boston last season to justify his two-year/$2.6 million contract.  While he has a 5-2-0 win-loss record, his GAA of 3.33 ranks 43rd of 48 qualifying goaltenders, and his save percentage of .876 ranks dead last.  In his last five appearances he has allowed four or more goals four times, has a GAA of 3.87 and a save percentage of .858.  He still has a 3-2-0 win loss record in those games.  Johnson has one career appearance against the Caps, a 4-2 Boston Bruins win over the Caps last March 29 in which he stopped 31 of 33 shots.

Now, about that 9-1-0 record in New York’s last ten games.  They have outscored their opponents by a 29-18 margin.  Five of the goals allowed came in their lone loss, a 5-2 loss to Tampa Bay on November 15th.  In seven of the wins they allowed two or fewer goals, three of them those shutouts by Halak.  Their special teams have a certain asynchronous look to them, the power play converting a middling 16.7 percent of its opportunities, while the penalty killers have been very good, killing off 89.7 percent of their shorthanded situations.  The difference lies in the opportunities.  New York has enjoyed 36 power play chances over the ten games while facing only 29 shorthanded situations, only a total of three over their last three games.  That, and two shorthanded goals scored, go a long way toward accounting for the plus-5 in goals for/goals against on special teams.

Here is how the teams compare in their numbers through Monday’s games…

1.  In their 9-1-0 run the Islanders have had balanced scoring.  Fourteen different players share the 29 goals with John Tavares, Ryan Strome, and Brock Nelson each with four to lead the team.  Nineteen different players have points, Tavares and Strome each with eight (both 4-4-8).

2.  What the Islanders have not had in their 9-1-0 run is much by way of goal scoring from their defense.  Three of the 29 goals have come from blueliners, Travis Hamonic with one and Nick Leddy with a pair.  The group does have 17 assists, though, with all six defensemen playing over the ten games recording at least one helper.

3.  The Islanders have hardly been front-runners in their 9-1-0 run.  They scored first in only four of the games and took a lead into the first intermission on three times.  What they have done is win the late stages of games.  They have outscored opponents 10-5 in the third period and overtime of the ten games, and they have won five of the third periods outright (outscored in three games and held even in two).  New York has the best record in the league when trailing first (7-1-0).

4.  No team has won more games when outshooting the opposition than the Islanders.  Their 11-2-0 record is the third-best winning percentage in such games.  They are 7-0-0 in their current 9-1-0 run when outshooting their opponent.

5.  Back to the hands thing.  On the one hand, the Islanders are 9-1-0 in one-goal games, the best record in the league.  On the other, they are 6-5 in games decided by more than one goal.  Keeping in mind that through Monday there are 12 teams in the NHL who are between one game over and one game under .500 in winning percentage in one-goal games, the Islanders look like a club that, at least so far, has won more than their share of coin flips.

1.  The Caps continue to struggle with good fortune of their own making.  Despite outshooting opponents in 14 of 20 games, they have only a 5-6-3 record in those games.  What is almost worse, the Caps are just 3-2-3 in games in which they hold opponents to fewer than 25 shots on goal.  Five of those eight games have gone into extra time, the Caps having a 1-1 record in overtime decisions and a 1-2 record in trick shot competitions.

2.  The Caps have lost only one game this season when scoring first.  Only five teams have not lost such a game.  On the other hand (still with the hands?), the Caps have won just one game when allowing the first goal.  Only Buffalo has yet to win such a game.

3.   98.22.  That is Washington’s PDO at 5-on-5 through 20 games, 26th in the league.  Meanwhile, they have a Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 51.90, ranked 10th.  The rankings suggest that one or the other is, as they say, “out of whack,” “whack” being a technical term in data analysis meaning, “balance.”  Let’s look at the 15 games since the Caps started 3-0-2.  In those games, the Caps are 6-8-1.  As you might expect, the Caps did better in games with a high PDO than a low one.  In games where the PDO was 100.0 or higher they were 5-1-0; they were 1-7-1 in games where the PDO was below 100. Now here is the bizarre part.  When the Caps had a game Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 50 percent or better, they were 3-4-1.  In games in which their game Corsi-for percentage was less than 50 percent, they had a record of 3-4-0.  There was no “Corsi-for percentage” effect over this group of games.  In fact, nothing at 5-on-5 as far as shot attempts appear to have made much of a difference.  Total Corsi events?  When the “Corsi Pace/60” was 100.0 or better, the Caps were 2-4-1; they were 4-4-0 when it was below 100.  When their own Corsi-for/60 was 50 percent or better, they were 4-5-1; when below 50 they were 2-3-0.  On the other side, when Corsi-against/60 was 50 percent of lower the Caps were 4-4-1; when above 50 they were 2-4-0.  You would think that something has to give here (all numbers from war-on-ice.com).

4.  If you think perhaps the Caps are drifting into old bad habits, look again at those last 15 games.  Taken in five-game chunks the Caps were over over 50 percent in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 in three of five games in the first five-game piece, over 50 percent in four of five games in the middle five-game piece, and over 50 percent in three of the five games in the last five-game piece.  Yeah, something just has to give here (all numbers from war-on-ice.com).

5.  Perhaps the strange part of all the decent possession numbers is looking at the relationship of those numbers to the plus-minus numbers at an individual player level for the Caps.  There isn’t one.  There have been 22 skaters dressing for the Caps so far this season.  Of that group, 10 have “plus” numbers, and two of them (Chris Brown and Jack Hillen, both at plus-1) have appeared in five or fewer games.  Meanwhile, there are 11 skaters with “minus” numbers (Marcus Johansson is “even”).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Mikhail Grabovski

The last in the revolving door of contestants to fill the Caps second line center position from outside the organization was Mikhail Grabovski, signed as a free agent by Washington in the summer of 2013.  In one season with the Caps he had a respectable 13 goals and 35 points in 58 games.  Then he moved on, signing a four-year/$20 million deal with the Islanders last July.  Grabovski has once more put up decent numbers, averaging a half-point a game in the 18 games in which he has appeared and marrying that to a plus-5 rating that is top-five on the team.  He has been a picture of consistency with four points in eight home games and five points in ten road games.  He is plus-2 at home, plus-3 on the road.  What he has not been lately is hot.  He was 3-3-6 in six games to open the season, but he is just 1-2-3 in his last 12 games.  In 17 career games against Washington he is 3-8-11, plus-8.

Washington: Barry Trotz

OK, so he’s not a player, but he has an interesting decision to make insofar as Wednesday’s game (at least) is concerned.  Alex Ovechkin left Tuesday’s practice early with an “upper-body tweak,” raising the question of his availability for Wedneday night’s opener of this home-and-home set.  If Ovechkin cannot go, Barry Trotz has to fill in that top line left wing, and he has a number of options.  He could move Marcus Johansson from the left side on the second line to the top line.  The charm of this is that the second line has been in a funk lately, and the change might do some good for its own sake.  Trotz could move Andre Burakovsky to that line to change things up on the second line (Burakovsky was on the top line after Ovechkin’s departure in practice), but he would have a second move to ponder, that of who to slide into the second line center spot (Evgeny Kuznetsov moved into that spot in practice).  He could move Kuznetsov into the left wing spot on the top line.  This might have less disruption than the Burakovsky move, with having to fill the fourth line center spot the other move.  With Mike Green and Brooks Laich out for at least the first of the two games against the Islanders, Trotz didn’t need another ball to juggle.  However, he has a lot of experience at this level.  This will provide an interesting in-game management test for Trotz if Ovechkin can’t go. 

In the end…

Folks seem to think of this home-and-home as a benchmarking exercise for the Caps, evaluating how they perform against a stout opponent.  That might be true, but it might be equally true that this is a benchmark set of games for the Islanders.  While the Islanders have a fine record, much of it has been earned playing on thin margins.  Only six of the Islanders 15 win are by two or more goals, and five of their nine one-goal wins are in the freestyle competition.  For the Caps, having perhaps 12 of their 55 goals scored out of the lineup for these games (Ovechkin with nine; Mike Green with three), this will be a stiff test.  The Caps will need all “hands” on deck for these games if they are to pull out a pair of wins.

Wednesday: Capitals 3 – Islanders 2

Friday: Capitals 5 – Islanders 3

Programming note: We will be dark until Sunday.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.