The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals return to the ice after a four-day hiatus when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins before a national television audience on Wednesday night. The Caps will be returning to the kindly confines of Verizon Center having yielded the top spot in the Metropolitan Division during their time off that they captured off their 3-0-0 road trip.
For the Penguins, the season’s opening weeks have been a challenge. When Pittsburgh sent Kasperi Kapanen, Nick Spaling, Scott Harrington, and two conditional draft picks to Toronto for Phil Kessel, Tim Erixon, Tyler Biggs, and a draft pick, many prognosticators felt that the addition of the high-scoring Kessel to a lineup that included Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would give the Penguins a needed goal-scoring injection on the wing to play alongside the talented centers. People were speculating about penciling in Kessel for 30 goals… 40 goals... even 50 goals playing alongside Crosby.
Things have not turned out so well, at least early. Kessel is tied for the team lead in goals (three, with Malkin), but it is the team lead on a club on which no other skater than Kessel or Malkin has more than one goal, and only one of Kessel’s goals to date featured an assist from Crosby (a secondary assist on a goal in a 3-2 overtime win over the Florida Panthers on October 20th). By the time the Penguins visited the Nashville Predators last Saturday, Crosby and Kessel were split up, Kessel put on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Plotnikov, and Crosby centering Pascal Dupuis and Patric Hornqvist. Kessel scored the game-winner in 3-on-3 overtime on a singular effort, with a of subtle trips from Malkin on Filip Forsberg at the Predator blue line:
While Kessel is still settling in, Crosby and Malkin have gone in different directions on the score sheet. Malkin leads the team in total scoring (3-4-7) in addition to being tied with Kessel in goals. However, even the seven points in eight games is below Malkin’s career points-per-game average (1.19). The ray of sunshine there is that all of Malkin’s seven points to date have come in his last six games. Scoring has not been much of a problem for Malkin over his career against Washington. He is 9-33-42, plus-1, in 29 career games.
On the other hand, Crosby has struggled in the early going. With one goal and three points, Crsoby is off to the slowest eight-game start of his career. Only once in his ten previous seasons did he fail to reach double digits in points over his first eight games, going 4-3-7 in 2009-2010. He never recorded fewer than two goals in his first eight games of the season until this season. More disturbing, all of Crosby’s scoring to date came in putting up a goal and two assists in that 3-2 overtime win over Florida on October 20th. He does not yet have a point on the road (three games). The ominous part of this for Caps fans is that Washington is likely to have his full attention on Wednesday. He is 18-33-51, plus-2 in 33 career games against the Capitals.
Marc-Andre Fleury is now in his 12th season for the Penguins in goal. The former first overall draft pick (2003) is the franchise leader in games played (603), wins (326), goals against average (2.58), save percentage (.912), and shutouts (39) among goalies appearing in at least 100 games for the Penguins. He is arguably the Penguins’ most valuable player in the early going with a 2.02 goals against average and a .932 save percentage with one shutout in dressing for all eight games so far. After dropping his first three decisions, Fleury is 4-1-0, 1.60, .944, with one shutout. In 30 career games against the Caps, Fleury is 17-10-2, 2.50, .915, with three shutouts.
Here is how the teams compare so far (through Monday’s games)…
1. The Penguins have only six players with more than one point, and that group includes the 38-year old Matt Cullen (two assists) and defenseman Rob Scuderi (two assists). It does not include Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Patric Hornqvist, Olli Maatta, or Sergei Plotnikov.
2. Pittsburgh and Vancouver are the only two clubs for whom the backup goaltender (Jeff Zatkoff for the Penguins, Richard Bachman for the Canucks) has not yet appeared.
3. Pittsburgh has scored first in game four times and won each time. They have trailed first in four games and lost each time. Pretty simple math there.
4. The Penguins’ special teams are struggling. Their special teams index number, the combined success rate of their power play and penalty kill (91.7) ranks 23rd after Monday’s games, right between the Detroit Red Wings (93.9) and the Columbus Blue Jackets (91.2). The difficulty lies in the power play, which is 2-for-28 (7.1 percent), 29th in the league, ahead of only the Anaheim Ducks (5.3 percent).
5. It is not as if there is a disconnection between Pittsburgh’s possession numbers and their performance numbers. They rank 22nd in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (48.4) and rank 23rd in Corsi-for in close score situations (48.2) after Monday’s games. Their Fenwick numbers are hardly different – 22nd overall (49.4) and 23rd in close score situations (48.7; numbers from war-on-ice.com). Their 4-4-0 record and 29th-ranked scoring offense (1.63) are not out of line.
2. Only Montreal has more players with at least three goals (6) than do the Caps (5). Montreal has also played nine games.
3. Intermissions are kind to the Capitals, as long as they are winning. Four times they carried a lead into the first intermission, four times they won. Four times they carried a lead into the second intermission, four times they won. Simple math here, too.
4. One would like to see the Caps improve on draws when shorthanded. They rank 24th in the league at 40.4 percent wins. Compare that to their faceoff winning percentage when on the power play (52.4 percent/15th).
5. The Caps have the fourth best Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 in the Eastern Conference (52.9; numbers from war-on-ice.com). Oddly enough, the three teams ahead of them – the Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Columbus Blue Jackets – are all under .500 and have a combined record of 4-19-2. It’s early.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Pittsburgh: Sergei Plotnikov
The Kontinental Hockey League is not generally thought of as a development league for the NHL, but for Sergei Plotnikov, it provided some valuable experience before he embarked on an NHL career. Plotnikov did show up on the North American radar as an amateur – he was drafted 53rd overall by the Chicoutimi Saguenéens in the 2008 CHL Import Draft. However, he was not drafted by any NHL club. It left him to learn his craft in the KHL, where he played for six seasons. After six seasons and 300 games in the KHL, the 25-year old signed an entry-level free agent contract with Pittsburgh last summer. The thinking was having Plotnikov partnered with Evgeni Malkin. That chemistry has yet to find itself, Plotkinov with one point in seven games, even though by last Saturday he was on a line with Malkin and Phil Kessel. This will be his first game against the Capitals.
Washington: Matt Niskanen
In eight seasons before this one, defenseman Matt Niskanen had one better scoring start than his 2-3-5 start after seven games with the Caps. That was in 2013-2014, when he got off to a 1-5-6 start after his first seven games with the Pittsburgh Penguins. You might remember that season as the one in which Niskanen finished 10-36-46, plus-33 in 81 games, his career year in the NHL and the one that earned him a seven-year/$40.25 million contract with the Caps in the summer of 2014. The odd thing about Niskanen’s scoring profile to date is that he has recorded points in every other game, starting with Opening Night. That pattern would suggest he comes up empty against his former team on Wednesday. On top of that, Niskanen has not recorded a single point in eight career games against the Penguins. It is the only NHL team against which he has not recorded a career point. The phrase, "he's due," comes to mind.
In the end…
It has been an odd start to the 2015-2016 season. Out west, a team on the short list of potential Stanley Cup finalists – the Anaheim Ducks – are inspiring more conversation about who their next coach will be after their 1-5-2 start and their curious inability to score goals. The Montreal Canadiens are perfect through nine games despite rather pedestrian possession numbers. The Chicago Blackhawks appear to finally be suffering that post-championship hangover after three Cups in six seasons, holding a record of 6-3-0 at the moment but including wins against struggling Florida and Columbus and escaping with a pair of 1-0 overtime wins at home this week. And there are the Pittsburgh Penguins, one party to perhaps the biggest deal of last summer, sitting at .500 and that more a product of superb goaltending than anything they are doing in the offensive end of the ice.
Meanwhile, there are the Washington Capitals humming along at 6-1-0. While you can go up and down the television dial in search of reality shows like “Duck Dynasty (not)” or “The Phil Whisperer” or "At Home with the Blackhawkians," the Capitals are like that dependable procedural. You know what you are going to get from episode to episode, from game to game. The script might be predictable, but it works so far.
Capitals 3 – Penguins 2