Saturday, January 10, 2015

A TWO-point night -- Game 41: Capitals 3 - Red Wings 1

The Washington Capitals made it standings points earned in 16 of their last 17 games with a 3-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings at Verizon Center on Saturday night.  The win gave the Caps a 12-1-4 record since December 4th and allowed them to once more leap-frog the New York Rangers into third place in the Metropolitan Division (pending the Rangers’ late game against the San Jose Sharks).  The win also allowed the Caps to inch within two points of the Red Wings for fifth place in the Eastern Conference.

The Caps got on the board early, taking advantage of Detroit’s Tomas Tatar sending the puck off the rink in the first minute of play.  On the ensuing power play, the Red Wings committed a rare error in their own end that the Caps converted.  When Mike Green backhanded the puck in deep from the Red Wings’ blue line, both defenders back for Detroit – Riley Sheahan and Danny DeKeyser – went to opposite corners as goalie Jimmy Howard circled his net to leave the puck for one of them.  Troy Brouwer jumped up to grab the puck, circled in front, and tucked the puck inside the post before Howard could scramble back.

On the play, Howard tried to extend backward with his left leg to cover the post and crumpled to the ice in serious distress.  Unable to get back to his feet, he was taken from the ice on a stretcher, the late report being that he suffered a groin injury and would be evaluated for the seriousness of the injury.

Petr Mrazek took over in goal for the Wings following the Brouwer goal 1:53 into the game and played admirably.  He did, however, allow another early period goal in the second when John Carlson stepped into a pass left for him as the third man into the Red Wing zone by Andre Burakovsky and blasted a shot past a sliding Mrazek’s glove to make it 2-0, Caps, just 1:35 into the second period.

Joel Ward made it 3-0 mid-way through the period.  Eric Fehr skated into the Detroit zone and laid the puck out for Ward on the left side.  The puck would not settle for Ward, and his first whack at it was a whiff.  He got another whack at it, though, and this time the puck found its way past Mrazek’s blocker to give the Caps a 3-0 lead at the 11:39 mark.

Detroit tried to make a game of it when Jonathan Ericsson scored his first goal of the season with just 11.9 seconds left in the period.  That would be as close as Detroit could get, however, as goalie Braden Holtby made the lead stand up by stopping all 15 shots he faced in the third period for the 3-1 win.

Other stuff…

-- Odd game, to say the least.  Looking at it from a possession standpoint, Detroit won the Corsi battle at even strength.  Trailing by a goal they led in Corsi, 19-6.  Trailing by two goals they led, 23-14.  Trailing by three goals they led, 10-3 (all numbers from 

-- Alex Ovechkin had six shot attempts.  Detroit’s Tomas Tatar had six of his attempts blocked.  It was evidence of a night when the Caps went all “Hollywood Squares” on the Red Wings (“I’ll take Brooks Orpik to block, Peter”).  The Caps had 24 blocked shots, 17 of them credited to the defense.  Orpik had six blocks, and John Carlson had five to lead the club.

-- The Caps had only 17 shots on goal, a season low.  It was their lowest shot total in a win since beating the New York Rangers on 17 shots, 4-1, in the last game of the 2011-2012 regular season.  The last time the Caps won with fewer shots on goal was on January 18, 2012, a 3-0 win over Montreal on 16 shots.

-- The streak of games to start the season without a penalty ended for Marcus Johansson at 40.  In this, his 41st game of the season, Johansson was sent off for delay of game at 2:09 of the second period. For his first penalty of the season.  It was his first penalty since February 4th of last season when he took a high sticking penalty in the third period of a 1-0 loss to the New York Islanders.  It broke a streak of 1,042:04 of ice time for Johansson without serving a penalty.

-- Ovechkin’s goals-scored streak ended at five games.  Meanwhile, with an assist, Eric Fehr made it points in six of seven games (6-3-9).

-- Fehr is not going to want his performance in the faceoff circle to go in the scrapbook.  He was just 2-for-15 on draws.

-- Nicklas Backstrom had an assist.  By itself, that might not seem like much.  However, it is just one more example of Backstrom being among the most consistent players of his era.  In 536 career games he now has 535 career points.  And, as for this season, you can see graphically just how he has settled into that point-per-game consistency in 41 games played over the course of the season…

-- The Caps allowed the Red Wings only two power plays and did not allow a shot on goal on either of them.  That’s how to kill penalties.  Don’t take too many, and shut teams down on the few you do take.

-- At evens, though… The Caps had only 12 shots on goal – three in the first period, four in the second, and five in the third.

-- Andre Burakovsky earned the primary assist on the John Carlson goal with a nice assist, finding the trailer as Nicklas Backstrom was charging to the net.  It was Burakovsky’s first assist in almost two months.  His last helper came on November 11th as part of a two-assist effort in a 4-2 win over Columbus.  The assist broke a 16-game streak without one for the rookie.

In the end…

There is a difference between the commonplace and the expected.  Winning is never the former, but the Caps are playing now as if winning is the latter each time they take the ice.  Even on those nights when they are not sharp, and they were not especially sharp on Saturday night against a team forced to use its backup goaltender as an in-game replacement, they can grind out wins.  The formula is becoming familiar.  Get a lead (the Caps are now 21-1-3 when scoring first), and choke off teams late (they are now 19-1-2 when leading after two periods). 

The Caps are also getting good efforts from a variety of players.  Look at it this way.  In the Caps last seven wins, the game winning goal was scored by seven different players, none of them Alex Ovechkin (Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Eric Fehr, Troy Brouwer, Andre Burakovsky, Brooks Laich, and John Carlson).  It is the kind of consistency and variety that can make for an extended run of success, as opponents of the Caps are finding out these days.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 41: Red Wings at Capitals, January 10th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals bring the first half of the 2014-2015 season to a close on Saturday night when they host the Detroit Red Wings at Verizon Center.

The three-game home stand that starts with Saturday’s contest against the Red Wings is something of transitional phase of the schedule.  Having concluded a successful run against primarily Eastern Conference teams on their way to an 11-1-4 record since December 4th, the Caps face Detroit, Colorado, and Philadelphia – three capable teams that will provide a test for the Caps – before Washington embarks on a treacherous part of their schedule that will see them facing Nashville, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Montreal before the end of the month, all of those games on the road except that against the Penguins.  Throw in the fact that the Caps will play five back-to-back sets of games over the next month, and it is apparent that this three-game home stand represents a chance for the Caps to make hay while the sun shines, or to take advantage of home cooking, or [insert appropriate metaphor here].

The first task at hand is to subdue the Red Wings. For a while in mid-December it looked as if the Red Wings’ season was unraveling a bit.  From December 10th through December 21st Detroit lost six in a row (0-2-4, all of the extra-time losses coming in the Gimmick) much of it a product of doing without goalie Jimmy Howard, who was out of action with a lower-body injury.  Since then, however, they are 5-2-0 and have climbed within three points of Atlantic Division-leading Tampa Bay with a game in hand.

Over their recent 5-2-0 run, the Red Wings are led in points by Gustav Nyquist.  Thought of primarily as a goal scorer (43 goals in 98 games over this season and last), he has been showing off his helper chops with eight assists to go with one goal.  He has points in five of those seven games, including a three-assist game in a 6-3 win over Buffalo that started the Red Wings’ recent good fortune.  The odd thing about his point production over these seven games?  He is a minus-1, having been on ice for six of the 19 goals allowed by the Red Wings over those seven games (two of them were empty netters).  In four career games against the Caps, Nyquist has five goals and two assists.

Five years ago, it was Nicklas Lidstrom as the dean of Detroit defensemen, one of four natives of Sweden finding playing time on the Red Wings’ blue line.  Today, Niklas Kronwall, one of that group of Swedes, has assumed the role of dean of the Detroit defense.  The 33-year old native of Stockholm, now in his 11th season in Detroit, has been a very consistent defenseman in terms of his production, much like Lidstrom.  He has averaged half a point per game over his career, and this year he is a bit better, averaging 0.56 points per game (5-18-23 in 41 games to date).  He comes into this game with points in four of his last six contests (0-6-6), but he has not recorded a goal in his last ten games, one in his last 17 contests.  What he has not done recently is get pucks all the way to the net.  Kronwall has five shots on goal in his last nine games after recording 15 over a five-game span ending December 16th.  In 11 career games against the Caps, Kronwall is 1-4-5, minus-5.

Jimmy Howard has 16 of Detroit’s 22 wins, and his absence after he left the ice after the first period of a December 19th game against the New York Islanders threw sand into the gears of the Red Wing machine.  Petr Mrazek performed well in Howard’s absence in that game and the two that followed, but the fact remains that it is Howard who dominates the team's statistics at the position and who ranks highly in the league rankings – 4th in goals against average (2.08) and tenth in save percentage (.921).  His 1,846 minutes ranks tenth among goalies in ice time.  One thing that has eluded him is success against Washington.  He is 3-1-2, 3.23, .880 in six career appearances against the Capitals.

Here is how the teams compare overall:

1.  The Red Wings are a team that seems to get better as games go on.  They are tied for 17th in first period goals (32), but rank 7th in third period goals (42).

2.  Scoring first  seems not to be a very good predictor of Red Wings’ success.  Twenty times in 41 games this season Detroit has scored first.  Their .500 winning percentage (10-4-6) ranks 27th in the league.  On the other hand, their .571 winning percentage when scored upon first (12-6-3) is second in the league.

3.  Detroit plays well in comfort.  In game decided by more than one goal, the Red Wings are 13-7.  However, in one-goal games, their winning percentage of .429 (9-3-9) ranks 22nd.

4.  The Red Wings have long had a reputation of getting it done without having to resort to the dark arts.  Things have not changed.  Detroit ranks last in the league in fighting majors.  Only two Red Wings have engaged in fisticuffs this season, Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith, the latter being sent off twice for fighting.

5.  Detroit has the best special teams index in the league.  Their 24.5 percent power play (second in the league) and 86.8 percent penalty kill (fourth) combine for an index of 111.3, almost two full points better than Pittsburgh (109.4).

1.  The Caps have had trouble finding that elusive fourth straight win this season (they have four three-game winning streaks).  They do, however, have a four-game winning streak at home, their longest such streak of the season.  After going 4-4-3 in their first 13 home games, the Caps are 5-1-1 in their last seven home contests.

2.  Intermissions are a good indicator of what Capital outcomes might be. Their 11-1-1 record when leading after one period is the sixth-best winning percentage in the league (.846), while their 18-1-2 record reflects the second highest win total.

3.  That one-goal game record for Detroit of which we spoke?  Yes, the Red Wings rank 22nd in one-goal game winning percentage.  The team right behind them in the rankings is Washington (10-6-8/.417).

4.  Of the 22 skaters appearing for the Caps this season, only two are in “minus” territory (Jason Chimera: minus-1, and Tom Wilson: minus-2).  Last season, 19 of 35 skaters finished underwater in plus-minus.  At the other end, three Caps have a plus-minus of plus-10 or better this season: John Carlson (plus-14), Eric Fehr (plus-12), and Alex Ovechkin (plus-10).

5.  Three players in the NHL have played in at least 40 games and have yet to record a penalty minute: Anaheim’s Cam Fowler (in 41 games), Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau (in 41 games), and Washington’s Marcus Johansson (in 40 games).  Since the 2010-2011 season, no player appearing in more than 200 games has fewer penalty minutes than Johansson (26 PIMs in 303 games).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Detroit: Pavel Datsyuk

Pavel Datsyuk just does not seem to age.  Perhaps the only concession he has made to the advance of time is a susceptibility to injury (he has played in only 75 of the Wings’ 123 games over the past two seasons).  However, Datsyuk, with a career points-per-game average of 0.98, is averaging a point a game this season (30 in 30 contests).  What is standing out is his goal-scoring.  His 14 goals in 30 games is, so far, his best goals-per-game production (0.47) in his 13-year career.  It is a product of his shooting percentage (17.5) that is his third best in his career and his best since converting on 19.3 percent of his shots in 2005-2006.  He comes into this game with points in six of his last eight games (2-5-7).  In 14 career games against Washington, Datsyuk is 5-13-18, plus-4.

Washington: Joel Ward

Joel Ward started the season with a hot streak – seven goals in his first 13 games.  Then he went three games before scoring again, four games without one, eight games without one, then nine games, a  streak he would like not to reach ten as the Caps take on the Red Wings.  It has not been for lack of shooting.  Ward has one goal in his last 18 games, but on a total of 30 shots, a 3.3 percent shooting percentage.  Last season Ward finished seventh in the league in shooting percentage (18.0), and even with his recent slump is shooting 14.1 percent overall this season. In three-plus seasons with the Caps, Ward’s overall shooting percentage is 14.3 percent.  Perhaps he’s just shooting in bad luck at the moment.  In 24 games against the Red Wings, Ward has a career scoring line of 10-7-17, plus-7.

In the end…

Playing Detroit is like playing the Yankees in baseball.  They are a standard against which every team measures themselves.  This will be no different for the Caps.  Making it a more important game is that a win in regulation time moves the Caps within a point of the Red Wings for fifth in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand.  This will be the fourth of a six-game road trip on which the Red Wings find themselves, and they come into this contest having won their last two games, the Alberta portion of the journey (4-2 over Edmonton, 3-2 over Calgary).  This is something of a trap game for the Red Wings, it being the only contest Detroit will play over a six-day period. 

The Caps have done well against the Red Wings recently.  Coming into this season Washington had not lost in regulation time to Detroit since dropping a 3-2 decision at Joe Louis Arena in March 2011.  They had not lost at home to the Red Wings in any fashion since losing a 4-3 decision in December 2005.  However, the Red Wings did win the first meeting of these clubs this season, a 4-2 decision at Verizon Center on October 29th.  It is time the Caps returned the favor.

Capitals 4 – Red Wings 2