Sunday, March 29, 2015

Down the Home Stretch: March 29 Update

Things remain tight in the three-team race for two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference.  The Caps beating the Rangers helped keep it from getting tighter still, but Boston's hot breath can be felt on the necks of the Caps...


A TWO-Point Afternoon -- Game 76: Capitals 5 - Rangers 2


The Washington Capitals scored early, scored late, and weathered a brief flurry from the New York Rangers late in the first period to skate past the Blueshirts, 5-2, at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon.

Washington’s five-goal outburst was their first game with more than three goals in their last nine games, and it started in the game’s fifth minute.  Alex Ovechkin gained the Ranger zone with speed down the left wing wall with Jesper Fast trying to pin him to the boards. Ovechkin eluded that attempt and cut behind Fast to the middle of the ice.  Before either Dan Girardi or  Ryan McDonagh could close the gap on Ovechkin, he snapped a shot that beat goalie Cam Talbot past his blocker, and the Caps had a 1-0 lead 4:32 into the game.

That lead looked safe for the Caps late in the period, but the Ranger scored goals 61 seconds apart to take the lead.  Kevin Hayes took advantage of some misfortune on the part of John Carlson to tie the game.  A pass from Tim Gleason to Carlson in front of goalie Braden Holtby was not handled cleanly by Carlson, and the puck was loose in the high slot.  Hayes collected it and deked Holtby to the ice before using his reach to one-hand the puck past Holtby’s left pad to tie the game with 1:50 left in the first period.

Barely a minute later, the Rangers had a lead.  Matt Niskanen moved up the right wing wall to try and control a loose puck, but he overskated it under pressure from Rick Nash.  It gave the Rangers the opportunity to break out of their end with speed, and it was Derick Brassard taking a pass from Mats Zuccarello and skating the puck down the ice.  Brassard cut to his left as he reached the Caps’ blue line and fed Zuccarello on his left.  Zuccarello returned the puck to Brassard for a one-timer from the left wing faceoff dot that beat Holtby on the long side to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead with 49 seconds left in the period.

After that it was all Capitals.  Mid-way through the second period Alex Ovechkin recorded his 48th goal of the season on a power play to tie the game.  The scoring play started with Matt Niskanen skating the puck down the right wing side of the Rangers’ end, then dropping the puck back to Nicklas Backstrom along the wall.  Backstrom created space and a passing lane along the wall and found Ovechkin across the ice at the left point.  Ovechkin dialed up a slap shot that looked as if it might go wide on the long side but hit Ranger defenseman Dan Boyle and caromed past Cam Talbot for the goal to tie the game.

In the third period it was time for secondary scoring to assume a primary role.  Jason Chimera gave the Caps the lead when he skated down the middle and set up shop in front of Talbot as teammates Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr were getting whacks at a loose puck.  The puck inched its way over to Chimera, and with Carl Hagelin draped all over him at the edge of the paint, Chimera backhanded the puck under Talbot to make it 3-2 just 4:41 into the final frame.

Chimera scored again three minutes later.  Steaming down the middle, he took a nifty pass from Brooks Laich from the right wing wall, skated in and waited for Talbot to go down to defend a shot before snaking a backhand around Talbot’s left pad to make it 4-2 at the 7:40 mark of the period.

With the Rangers pulling Talbot for an extra attacker in the last three minutes, the Caps closed the scoring when Marcus Johansson gloved down a pass from Troy Brouwer at the center red line, faked a shot with Rick Nash trying to defend, and snapped the puck into the empty net with 2:23 left in the game for the final 5-2 margin.

Other stuff…

-- The two-goal game for Ovechkin was his 14th of the season, tops in the league and six more than his closest pursuers, San Jose’s Joe Pavelski and Dallas’ Tyler Seguin (eight apiece).

-- Jason Chimera had his first two-goal game of the season, breaking a 20-game streak without a goal and a ten-game streak without a point.  It was the first time he recorded two goals in a game since he had a pair in a 4-3 Gimmick loss to the New Jersey Devils on December 23, 2011.

-- Secondary scoring means assists too.  Eric Fehr had a pair of helpers, his first two-assist game of the season.  Brooks Laich also had a pair of assists, his first two-assist game of the season as well.

-- When Ovechkin scored on the power play in the second period, it broke a streak of 13 straight power plays without a goal, including the first two in this game.

-- This was the fourth time this season that a pair of Capitals registered two goals in a game.  The others:
  • November 11: Capitals 4 – Blue Jackets 2 (Alex Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson)
  • January 7: Capitals 6 – Maple Leafs 2 (Eric Fehr, Marcus Johansson)
  • February 15: Capitals 5 – Ducks 3 (Alex Ovechkin, Andre Burakovsky)
-- Evgeny Kuznetsov was the only Capital taking more than two faceoffs who finished over 50 percent (8-for-13/61.5 percent)

-- The teams split 50 shot attempts down the middle, 50 apiece, but it was the Caps who won that battle at 5-on-5, out attempting the Rangers, 38-32 (31-23 in close score situations, from war-on-ice.com).

-- Nicklas Backstrom broke a three-game streak without a point when he assisted on the Ovechkin power play goal.  It lifted him into a tie with Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek for the league lead in assists (55).

-- John Carlson was a plus-2 to make him plus-10 for the season.  The Caps now have five players at plus-10 or better.  Last season they had none.  The Caps have eight players with better plus-minus numbers than the team best last season, plus-7 by Joel Ward and Steve Oleksy.

-- Braden Holtby stopped 23 of 25 shots.  In games following a performance in which he stopped fewer than 90 percent of the shots he faced, Holtby is 9-6-2, 2.36, .920, with three shutouts.

In the end…

Just when you think the Caps are about to take a long slow slide into the ooze of the off season, they play a game like this that makes you think they can do some damage in the post season.  Not that it was perfect – two late goals in a period is evidence of a continuing need to tighten things up.  But the Rangers are, at the moment, the class of the Eastern Conference, if not the entire league, and they would be expected to have their moments.

That the Caps could roar back with four unanswered goals after what might have been a dispiriting end to the first period speaks to possibilities for this team, but it also speaks to the confounding nature of this team of which we spoke in the end of week review.  These were two important points to bank, coming as they did on the road against a very good team.  Now they get to follow it up against a lottery team on Tuesday night, the Carolina Hurricanes.  If they play as they did this afternoon against the Rangers, it will not end well for Carolina.  Then again, if the Caps do not play as they did today, then this afternoon’s effort might end up having been wasted.  There just isn’t any time to rest on one’s laurels at this time of year.

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 25

Week 25 was a light work week for the Washington Capitals, and that is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you stand on the whole “half glass full/half glass empty” debate.


Record: 1-1-0

As noted, it was a light work week for the Caps, just two games.  It was their second two-game week in their last three and their first .500 week since Week 17.  It was a test of sorts.  The Caps started the week against a team that is all but out of the post season race, but one – the New Jersey Devils – that posed a systems challenge for the Capitals, being the sort of team that relies on technical execution and goaltending to win games more than skill.  The Nashville Predators posed an entirely different sort of challenge. In the Predators, the Caps faced an elite team capable of beating opponents with overwhelming force (12 wins by three or more goals this season) or with top notch goaltending (Pekka Rinne is a top-five goaltender in most statistical categories).

The results were mixed.  The Caps gave up a shorthanded goal and a goal in the last minute of regulation to be forced into overtime before escaping with a win against New Jersey.  Against the Predators, the Caps fell behind early and often (0-3 before the game was 15 minutes old).  While they did claw within a goal twice, the early deficit was too much to overcome for the Caps.  It left the week a bit of a muddle, record-wise.  A win against a struggling team, a loss that seemed less close than the score indicated against a team that served as a useful measuring stick.


Offense:  3.00/game (season: 2.85/game; rank: 8th)

Six goals in two games is not a bad output.  However, when four of those goals come when the Caps are behind or tied, there is a certain sense of urgency (you might say, “panic”) that leaves one less than impressed with the overall result.  It is of the sort of which one might ask, “where was this when the Caps were falling behind (against Nashville) or letting teams get back into the game (against the Devils)?”

It was an odd week in that Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were held off the score sheet, extending their mutual streak without points to three games, the first time that happened since mid-November.

What the Caps got was secondary scoring (go figure).  Troy Brouwer had a pair of goals against Nashville.  Eric Fehr, Karl Alzner (seriously, go figure), Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Mike Green got the others.  Matt Niskanen and Marcus Johansson each had three assists.  However, eight players sharing points, even in two games, is not the kind of expansive sharing of scoring the Caps want or need this time of year.

Defense: 3.00/game (season: 2.43/game; rank: 7th)

Folks talk about playing 60 minutes, but the flip side of that is avoiding those short stretches of time in a game that can ruin a lot of good works otherwise performed.  That was the case in Week 25.  The Caps put the Devils in a bind with two goals in the first 22 minutes of the game.  A shorthanded goal on a bad line change and a late extra-attacker goal wiped out that good early work on offense.  Then there was the 15 minutes to open the game against the Predators in which the Caps allowed three goals.

It is in that context that the possession numbers for the Caps look so odd.  At 5-on-5 overall, the Caps look pretty good for the two games, or at least not awful – a 51.2 Corsi-for percentage and a 47.5 Fenwick-for percentage.  In close score situations, though, those numbers were 45.1 and 41.1, and that does not include the late antics against the Devils (based on how close score statistics are computed; numbers from war-on-ice.com).

Goaltending: 3.02 / .897 (season: 2.36 / .918 / 8 shutouts)

In a week when Justin Peters was the star in net (this being relative), you can tell it was not the best of weeks in netminding.  Not that Peters was bad, or even mediocre.  He stopped 13 of 14 shots in relief of Braden Holtby against Nashville.  It is part of a rather good stretch of play for Peters.  In his last four appearances he stopped 88 of 96 shots, a .917 save percentage, well above the .864 save percentage he had before these most recent four appearances.

Then there was Holtby.  He had a good game against New Jersey (29 saves on 31 shots), but he was leaky against Nashville (three goals on 13 shots).  It is a further indication of some slippage in his game.  In his last 15 appearances he is 7-7-0 (one no-decision), 2.48, .918.  He has been pulled as many times over those 15 games (twice) as he has shutouts (two).  Seven times in those 15 games he allowed three or more goals.  Here are some odd Holtby numbers: 4-4-2, 2.56, .907.  That is his record with three or more days rest this season.  He had four days off between his game against Winnipeg to close Week 24 and his appearance against New Jersey to open Week 25.  He won that game and stopped 29 of 31 shots in the process, but the lack of rhythm in the schedule (he is 20-6-2, 1.83, .937, with five shutouts when playing on one day’s rest) might have affected him.

Power Play: 0-for-4 / 0.0 percent (season: 24.4 percent; rank: 1st)

No power play goals in Week 25.  That broke a 24-week streak of recording at least one power play goal and a 34-week streak since taking the collar in Week 16 last season.  Part of it was chances; the Caps had only four power play opportunities in the two games.  It was not the quality of opponent that affected the result.  New Jersey went into their game against Washington ranked 20th in penalty killing; Nashville was ranked 14th.  It was not efficiency; the Caps recorded seven shots on goal in 5:25 of power play ice time.  They even had 55 seconds of 5-on-3 power play time against Nashville.  They got the shots from the players, okay..player, they wanted (Ovechkin had four of the seven shots on goal).  Still, it was no goals for and even a shorthanded goal allowed (to New Jersey).  It was just a bad week for what is arguably the best aspect of Capitals play.


Penalty Killing: 4-for-4 / 100.0 percent (season: 81.5 percent; rank: 15th)

On the other side of the special teams divide, the penalty killers had a good week.  It was their third perfect week in their last nine, over which they are a solid 85.1 percent.  They were effective (4-for-4) and efficient (allowing only four shots in 6:20 of shorthanded ice time).  The Caps even threw in a shorthanded goal of their own for good measure.  Part of it might have been quality of opponent – New Jersey had the league’s 12th-ranked power play going into their game against the Caps; Nashville was ranked 24th going into their game.  Still, you take advantage of opportunities where you find them, something the Caps did not do in too many areas in Week 25.


Even Strength Goals for/Goals Against: 5-5 / even (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 1.04; rank: 15th)

It was not a bad week at evens, but neither was it a good week.  The goals were even, the shots relatively so (the Caps had 24 even strength shots to 28 for their two opponents).  You might say that it was merely in a technical sense that the Caps were held even for the week, New Jersey’s late goal to tie the game in regulation coming with an extra attacker but recorded as an even strength goal.  It was that 15 minute burst by the Predators to open the game on Saturday that leaves the bad taste in one’s mouth.  Another example of a just a few minutes or weak play overshadowing a week’s effort.

Faceoffs: 61-123 / 49.6 percent (season: 51.4% / rank: 12th)

It was just about a down-the-middle week for the Caps in the circle.  They all but split 123 total draws, and of the four players taking more than ten draws, two finished the week over 50 percent (Nicklas Backstrom: 52.3 percent; Eric Fehr: 56.0 percent), and two finished below that threshold (Evgeny Kuznetsov: 33.3 percent; Michael Latta: 46.7 percent).

The Caps were fine in the offensive zone (54.0 percent, but were taken to school in the defensive end (41.7 percent), the difference being incidences.  The Caps enjoyed 14 more draws in the offensive zone (50) than they did in the defensive end (36).

Goals by Period:


The early damage and the late damage affected the week for the Caps.  The three first period goals against Nashville being the only first period goals allowed in what would be a loss, a last-minute goal scored by New Jersey being the only third period goal allowed that tied the game and forced the Caps to overtime to secure the win. 

The three first period goals by Nashville was the odd occurrence, given the Caps ability to hold things down in the opening period (sixth fewest first period goals allowed going into the game) and the Predators’ middling ability to score early (only 54 goals scored in the first period).

In the end…

The Caps are, at this point, a most befuddling team.  Consider the 2015 portion of their season.  They are 22-14-3 in those games, almost evenly split between teams that are currently playoff eligible and teams that are not.  You would expect that the Caps would feast on the also-rans and, hopefully, hold their own against the contenders.  What you find, though, it a bit different:


This is what frustrates Caps fans no end, an ability to play good teams tough and an unnerving ability to play down to their opponents if those opponents are of the struggling sort.  It is not the losing to the Nashville’s of the world that will do in the Caps, should they miss the post season, it is letting teams like the Devils hang around and make their lives difficult.  In that sense, Week 25 was a microcosm of the Caps’ season.  If the Caps get into the post season, they can play those teams tough, but if they don’t it will be because they played weak against the weaklings.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Troy Brouwer (2-0-2, plus-2, 11 hits, 5-for-9 on faceoffs)
  • Second Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (1-1-2, plus-2, game-winning goal)
  • Third Star: Matt Niskanen (0-3-3, plus-1, assist on game-winning goal)

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 76: Capitals at Rangers, March 29th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals will be looking to kill two (or more) birds with one stone when they face the New York Rangers on Sunday afternoon.  They will be looking to shake off their 4-3 loss to the Nashville Predators on Saturday afternoon, they will be trying to put some distance between themselves and their closest pursuers for a wild-card playoff berth (Ottawa and Boston), and they will be seeking to end a three-game losing streak to the Rangers dating back to last season.

Despite having the third-best goal differential in the Eastern Conference, the Caps find themselves facing the possibility of missing the playoffs altogether as they head into this contest against the Rangers.  Part of the Caps’ problem in clinching a playoff spot is an inconsistency in their performances on a game-to-game basis, especially recently.  While the Capitals are 4-2-0 in their last six games, they are just 5-5-0 in their last ten and in that time have not been able to put any more distance between themselves and the Boston Bruins (their closest pursuer at the moment in the standings) than the three point difference they had back on March 3rd, before this ten-game stretch started.

On the other side, the Rangers are fine-tuning for the playoffs.  While they lost on Saturday in Boston to the Bruins – a 4-2 loss in goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s return after almost two months since sustaining a neck injury – the Rangers are 9-3-1 in March.  Multiply each of those numbers by three, and you have the Rangers’ record in the 2015 portion of the season to date: 27-9-3.  If there is the slightest crack in their fa├žade, it has appeared in the last two weeks, over which the Rangers are a more mortal 3-3-0.

In those six games, the Rangers outscored their opponents by an 18-14 margin, but two of the three wins were laughers – a 7-2 win over Anaheim a week ago and a 5-1 win over Ottawa on Thursday.  Their power play is just 1-for-7 in those six games and has not been on the ice in either of their last two contests.  The penalty kill is 13-for-14 in those six games.

The Rangers have had the benefit of primary scoring in the 3-3-0 run with Chris Kreider leading the club with three goals and Derek Stepan leading in overall points with six.  But New York has had secondary contributions as well.  Kevin Hayes is tied for the scoring lead over the last six games with six points (1-5-6).  Hayes was a 24th overall pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2010 draft (the Caps took Evgeny Kuznetsov two picks later).  However, the Blackhawks allowed their rights to sign him to expire last August, and the Rangers signed him as a free agent later that month.  He has been quite a find for the Rangers, going 14-24-38 in 71 games.  Those 14 goals are tied for sixth on the club, and his 38 points is seventh in Ranger scoring.  Hayes is 0-2-2, plus-2 in two career games against Washington.

J.T. Miller has provided some secondary scoring, too.  In his last six games he is 2-3-5, and in 50 games has almost twice as many goals (9) as he had in 56 games over the previous two seasons combined (5) and twice as many points (20) as he recorded over the previous two seasons combined (10).  He has points in four of his last five games, matching a four-games-in-five scoring stretch he had from December 29th through January 8th.  In seven career games against the Capitals, Miller is 1-0-1, minus-2, his goal being the game-winner in the Rangers’ 3-1 victory over the Caps on March 11th.

On Saturday, Cam Talbot assumed the backup goaltending role from which he sprung when Henrik Lundqvist suffered a neck injury back on January 31st.  With the Rangers playing a back-to-back set of games, and Lundqvist getting the nod on Saturday, it would seem likely that Talbot will get the call against the Caps on Sunday.  He already has a victory against Washington this season to his credit, a 3-1 win on March 11th.  It was part of an extended run over which he allowed two or fewer goals in nine straight games, a streak that came to an end last Tuesday in a 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings.  He got right back on track, though, with a 23-save effort in a 5-1 win over Ottawa on Thursday.  In spelling Lundqvist as the number one goaltender, Talbot was 16-4-3, 2.16, .929, with two shutouts.  In two career appearances against the Caps, Talbot is 1-1-0, 2.03, .937.

Here is how the teams compare overall:


1.  When the Rangers win, they do not just win, they bury teams.  New York has almost as many wins by three or more goals (18) as they do one-goal wins (21).  Only Montreal and Tampa Bay have more wins by multi-goal margins (29 apiece) than the Rangers (26), and New York’s 18 wins by three or more goals is tied for the league lead (with Chicago and Vancouver).

2.  The Rangers have allowed only one 4-on-4 goal this season, fewest in the league, an interesting counterpoint to the Caps being tied for second in 4-on-4 goals scored (13, with Anaheim).

3.  The Rangers being out-shot is not a good sign for opponents.  New York is tied for the league lead in winning percentage (.667/18-8-1) when being out-shot.

4.  The Rangers are one of only two teams (Nashville is the other) having lost once in regulation when leading after the first period.  And, they have the league’s second best record (32-0-1) when leading at the second intermission (Chicago is 23-0-0).  Those 32 wins when leading after two periods is tied with the Caps for the league lead.

5.  The Rangers have been a dominant team at 5-on-5 in one respect in the 2015 portion of the season.  In 38 games they have outscored their opponents by an 88-58 margin at 5-on-5, a 1.52 goals scored-to-goals allowed ratio.  It is, however, at odds with their possession numbers.  Over the same 38 games the Rangers have Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages at 5-on-5 of 50.1/50.1.  Those numbers are not a lot better in close score situations – 50.2/50.7.  If anything, the Rangers are slightly better in possession on the road.  Their Corsi-for/Fenwick for percentages in close score situations of away games are 51.8/52.1 (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

1.  Over their 5-5-0 ten-game run, the Caps have split 48 goals down the middle with their opponents (24-24).  Their power play is 7-for-24 (29.2 percent), while their penalty kill is 26-for-31 (83.9 percent), a respectable 113.1 on the special teams index.

2.  It is the even strength battle that the Caps are losing.  They have been outscored at 5-on-5 by a 16-11 margin over their last ten games.

3.  The Caps’ leading scorer over their last ten games is not Alex Ovechkin, and it is not Nicklas Backstrom.  It is Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has eight points (4-4-8).  Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, and Curtis Glencross each have four goals to lead the team in their last ten games.

4.  Neither Ovechkin nor Backstrom has a point in their last three games.  It is the first time the duo  went three straight games together without a point since each went without a point in three straight games last November 15-18.

5.  The even strength scoring problems the Caps have had over their last ten games do not align with their possession number over those same ten games.  Their Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 overall is 55.0.  It is not as good in close score situations, however (51.2; numbers from war-on-ice.com).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Rick Nash

Rick Nash scored his 40th goal of the season on Saturday against Boston. It was his first goal in nine games and just his third in his last 16 games after lighting the lamp 37 times in his first 57 games.  His scoring is a critical element in Ranger success, as you might expect.  New York is 24-8-1 in games in which Nash scores at least one goal, 31-8-5 when he records a point.  The Rangers are 23-12-6 when he does not record a goal, 16-12-2 when he does not record a point.  Not that the Rangers’ record without Nash scoring is poor, just not as dominant.  He has had more than his share of success against the Caps, too.  In 17 career games against Washington, Nash is 12-8-20, plus-2.

Washington: Marcus Johansson

On the one hand, Marcus Johansson has been a very consistent player for the Caps.  In his last four seasons he has averaged 0.58, 0.65, 0.55, and this season 0.54 points per game.  On the other hand, that is not the sort of upward arc of production one would like to see in a player still in his early career phase (Johansson is 24 years old).  On the one hand, his goal production is up, having already set a career high of 17 goals in 75 games this season.  On the other hand, he does not have a goal in his last eight games, which is lousy timing for a club suddenly finding itself in a playoff dogfight.  Johansson is not the problem; he is, however, a symptom.  The Caps need more balance than they are getting (half of the 24 goals over the last ten games coming from three players), and Johansson is a part of that solution.  He is 1-5-6, minus-6, in 15 career games against the Rangers.

In the end…

Playing to a .500 record over their last seven games might be good enough for the Caps to slide into the playoffs, but it would not be the way to bet.  Their inconsistency is a bit maddening, to boot.  They dropped their last two decisions to playoff-eligible teams (3-0 to Winnipeg and 4-3 to Nashville) after winning two such decisions over such clubs (3-2 over Minnesota and 2-0 over Boston).  And those two wins came after two losses to…well, you get the point (to the Rangers and the Wild, to complete the point).  From here on out, it is almost all playoff-eligible or near-eligible teams the Caps will face over their last seven games (only Carolina is not contending for such a spot).  They will have to earn their ticket to the post season.

Capitals 3 – Rangers 2