The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals end their three-game road trip on Monday night with their second meeting of the season against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Caps, who lost the first meeting of the clubs by a 3-1 margin at Verizon Center on October 28th, visit Consol Energy Arena in the Steel City for the first time this season.
The Capitals come into this contest with the best ten-game record in the league at 8-1-1 over their last ten contests. And to the point of this contest, the Caps will visit Pittsburgh tied with the Montreal Canadiens for the second most standings points earned on the road so far this season (19 points).
On the other side of the contest, the Penguins will debut Mike Sullivan as their new head coach. Mike Johnston was relieved of his head coaching duties on Saturday along with assistant Gary Agnew. Sullivan has 170 games of regular season coaching experience at the NHL level with the Boston Bruins (70-56-23 with 15 ties) and the Vancouver Canucks (2-4-0). He was 18-5-0 with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL before his promotion.
Sullivan inherits a challenge and an enigma. The Penguins came into this season with the highest of expectations following a summer in which they obtained Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs in one of the more complicated deals in recent NHL history. The thinking was that Kessel, as natural a goal scorer as there is in the NHL (not named “Ovechkin” or “Stamkos”), paired with Sidney Crosby, the premier playmaker of his generation, would create an offensive juggernaut that nothing outside of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army would be able to neutralize.
It has not happened. Crosby, Kessel, and Evgeni Malkin, who among them averaged 0.43 goals per game over the course of their careers before this season, averaged ust 0.33 goals per game among them through 28 games before the firing of Johnston. Crosby had been especially mysterious in his performance. In ten seasons before this one he never averaged less than 1.09 points per game (last season, which was still good enough to lead the league). Through 28 games this season he has just 19 points in 28 games (0.68 points per game), his point total tied for 79th in the league (through Saturday’s games). It is not a bad group with which he finds himself tied, a group that includes Corey Perry, Filip Forsberg, and Thomas Vanek, among others, but it is not a neighborhood with which he is too familiar over the course of his career. Crosby is 18-33-51, plus-2, in 34 career games against Washington.
Kessel simply has not been the difference maker he was expected to be when he was obtained last summer. His nine goals have come in eight games, and the Penguins have a record of 5-3-0 in those contests. Of note with regard to this contest, Kessel is 2-6-8, minus-1, in 14 home games this season and his long goal in a win came back on October 20th against the Florida Panthers. He has only two points (both goals, both coming in a 5-1 win over the San Jose Sharks on December 1st) in his last seven games. Kessel is 7-14-21, minus-2, in 31 career games against the Capitals.
Malkin is the only one of the trio within a time zone of his expected level of play to date. He is on a pace to finish the season with 38 goals, which if achieved would be his third-highest goal total in ten seasons. He is also on a pace to finish with 76 points , which would be his highest point total since winning the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer with 109 points in 2011-2012. With Malkin, the issue is his ability to stay in the lineup. He has not yet missed a game this season, but he has not played an 82-game season since 2008-2009, and he missed 52 games over the last three seasons entering this one. He can score points in bunches – he had a stretch of seven games at the end of November and starting December in which he had four multi-point games and went 8-5-13 – but he can go absent for stretches, too. He has one point and is a minus-5 over his last four games. Malkin is 9-34-43, plus-2, in 30 career games against Washington.
Here is how the teams compare overall:
1. Kris Letang and Olli Maatta are the two defensemen expected to carry the mail in the offensive end for the Penguins. They are one-two, respectively, in points from the blue line this season. They have also missed nine games between them this season. Over the last season-plus Maatta has missed 68 of 110 games. Letang has missed 139 of 319 games over the last four-plus seasons. Maatta is expected to play in this contest, while Letang is expected to miss up to two weeks with an upper-body injury.
2. Special teams success could be an important factor in this game for the Caps. Pittsburgh is 9-2-2 in games in which they recorded one or more power play goals, 6-8-1 in games in which they were shut out with the man advantage. On the other side, the Penguins are 10-3-2 in games in which their penalty killers were perfect, 5-7-1 when they were not. The Penguins have not won a game in regulation this season when they were blanked on the power play and gave up at least one to the opposition (1-6-0, the win coming in a Gimmick).
3. Total shots allowed do not seem to be much of a factor in Penguin wins and losses. When allowing 30 or more shots they are 8-5-3, and they are 7-5-0 when allowing fewer than 30 shots. Shots taken is another matter. Pittsburgh is 9-4-2 when recording 30 or more shots, 6-6-1 when they do not.
4. The Penguins have not won consecutive games in almost a month (November 17th against Minnesota and November 19th against Colorado). Since then they are 3-3-3. Over those nine games, Malkin (6-3-0) and Crosby (3-6-9) lead the team in points, so they might be emerging from their slumber. The surprise there is that it is Chris Kunitz who leads the club in assists over those nine games (seven).
5. For their considerable offensive talent, Pittsburgh has struggled with possession this season. They rank 22nd in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 overall (48.4). They are not much better in other variations of the metric – 20th in score-adjusted Corsi (48.3) and 19th in close score situations (48.3; numbers from war-on-ice.com).
1. Five of the last seven Capitals wins in this series have come via shutout:
- February 6, 2011: 3-0, Michal Neuvirth (22 saves at Washington)
- February 21, 2011: 1-0, Michal Neuvirth (39 saves at Pittsburgh)
- January 11, 2012: 1-0, Tomas Vokoun (30 saves at Washington)
- December 27, 2014: 3-0, Braden Holtby (31 saves at Pittsburgh)
- January 28, 2015: 4-0, Braden Holtby (27 saves at Washington)
2. Washington leads the league in winning percentage when scoring first in games (.933/14-1-0). They are fourth in winning percentage when opponents score first (.462/6-5-2).
3. Only two teams have allowed fewer power play goals on the road than the Capitals (7). Pittsburgh and the Anaheim Ducks have allowed six power play goals apiece on the road.
4. The multi-goal game watch continues for Alex Ovechkin. He has one goal in 14 games this season, over which the Caps have an 11-3-0 record. What might be more surprising is the 9-3-2 record the Caps have in games in which he does not score a goal (including a loss in the only game he missed this season).
5. The Caps might have the best ten-game record in the league at the moment (8-1-1), but they are not doing it the “right” way. Their possession numbers continue to lag – 47.0 percent Corsi-for overall, 48.9 in score-adjusted Corsi-for, and 46.9 in close score situations (war-on-ice.com).
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Pittsburgh: Marc-Andre Fleury
Marc-Andre Fleury has had two different seasons in goal for the Penguins thus far. In the first, covering his first 11 appearances, he went 7-4-0, 1.74, .939, with two shutouts. Then, beginning with a four-goals-allowed performance against Calgary on November 7th, he has gone 6-5-2, 2.61, .919 over his last 13 appearances. In those first 11 appearances he allowed more than two goals just three times. He has done so seven times in his last 13 appearances. He does, however, seem to be coming out of that funk. Fleury allowed two goals in each of his last three appearances (with just a 1-1-1 record), stopping 85 of 91 shots (.934 save percentage). Fleury is 18-10-2, 2.45, .917, with three shutouts in 31 career appearances against Washington.
Washington: Nate Schmidt
Nate Schmidt logged his first fight in the NHL in the Caps’ 2-1 win over Tampa Bay on Saturday. More important, he has been logging heavy minutes since Brooks Orpik went down to an injury November 10th. In 14 games since then, Schmidt averaged a shade over 20 minutes a game. Compare that to last season when Schmidt averaged 13:53 over 39 games. This game could be a special challenge for Schmidt give the depth of skill the Penguins have at forward. In those 14 games since Orpik went down, Schmidt has maintained a ability to log good possession numbers (50.6 percent Corsi-for overall, 51.9 percent in score-adjusted Corsi-for). He has grown into his expanded responsibilities. He has appeared only once against the Penguins without recording a point.
In the end…
This game provides a trifecta of challenges for the Caps. First, Washington is likely to get the Penguins’ undivided attention in a way perhaps the Arizona Coyotes, for example, might not. The effort should be there for the home team. Then there is the fact that this is the last road game of the three-game road trip, coming as it does after the dads and mentors have gone their separate ways. The Caps will have to maintain their focus. Then there is the wild-card of the new coach taking over in his first game with the new club. That might inspire his players to impress.
Whatever the challenges, though, the Caps have played with what appears as a less emotional, more clinical consistency of play. They have not allowed distractions to be distractions. There is little reason to think that will change in this game.
Capitals 3 – Penguins 1