Sunday, January 03, 2016

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 12

Week 12 for the Washington Capitals was an example of the old notion of “what have you done for me lately?”  The Caps had their 11th winning week in 12, widened the lead in their division (from 10 to 12 points) and the Eastern Confernce (from 10 to 11 points), and yet by week’s end they looked like a tired, depleted, leaky group more than they did the team with the second best record in the league. 

Record: 2-1-1

The Caps came into Week 12 with a seven-game winning streak and a schedule of four games against teams that were a combined 42-53-12, none of the three teams they would face having winning records.  On paper, it looked like a good bet that the Caps would extend their streak to 11 games and establish an all but insurmountable distance between themselves and their closest division and conference pursuers in the standings.

A couple of solid wins over the Buffalo Sabres in a home-and-home series to open the week only fueled the sense that Week 12 would be a happy one, but the Caps lost two centers in the second contest against the Sabres.  Nicklas Backstrom sat out the third period after absorbing a bit hit on his last shift of the second period, and Jay Beagle sustained a hand injury that required surgery and will keep him out of the lineup for six weeks.  Backstrom came back to play in the last two games of the week, but for a team already missing both defensemen on its top pair – John Carlson and Brooks Orpik – and now a center who could play decent defense and win a lot of faceoffs, the four game week took its toll in the end.

Offense:  3.25/game (season: 3.13 /game; rank: 2nd)

The Caps had a good week in the offensive end of the rink, but it could have been better.  Washington faced four goaltenders (three of them backups) who started their games against the Caps with a combined record of 21-28-8, 2.74, .905.  Then they faced a third-string goalie – Columbus’ Anton Forsberg – making his first appearance of the season in overtime of a 4-4 game, and they failed to score on him despite the benefit of a 4-on-3 power play.

Overall, there was a lack of balance in the week as well.  Of the 13 goals scored, Alex Ovechkin had four of them, bringing his season total to 21, lifting him into fifth place in the league in goals, just a hat trick behind the Dallas Stars’ Jamie Benn.  Eight other Caps shared in the other nine goals, Marcus Johansson the only Cap of that group with two goals for the week.

If there were surprises in Week 12 for the Caps on offense, they came in the collection of players who had assists.  Tom Wilson tied for the team lead in that area with three helpers in four games, giving him 11 on the year (his career high is 13, set last season).  Matt Niskanen tied Wilson for the team lead with three assists for the week, bringing his total for the season to 14.  Of note is the fact that Niskanen recorded assists in each of the last three games of the week, and two of those assists came on the power play as he took over responsibility on the top power play unit for the injured John Carlson.

Defense: 2.50/game (season: 2.16 /game; rank:1st)

It was not a bad week for the Caps in terms of shots against, the team holding opponents to fewer than 30 shots in two of the four games.  It was not as if the Caps faced stiffs in that department as the Buffalo Sabres, who the Caps faced twice, and the Carolina Hurricanes ranked 13th and 14th in shots per game at week’s end (the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were held to 29 shots, rank 21st) .

Then there was the subtle problem. With John Carlson and Brook Orpik on the shelf with injuries, Niskanen and Karl Alzner were moved up a rung to the top pair this week.  By the end of the week they had performed relatively well, Alzner being the only one of that pair to have been on ice for a goal against at 5-on-5 (and it was just one).  But it was Niskanen and Alzner on the ice with the clock approaching one minute in regulation and the Columbus net empty when Brandon Saad got behind them both to score the game-tying goal in the Caps’ 5-4 Gimmick loss to end the week.  Niskanen averaged more than 28 minutes of ice time for the week, Alzner almost 24 minutes, and they looked to be dragging a bit at the end.

Possession was an issue for the Caps in Week 12, again.  This week’s profile looked different though.  Overall, the Caps out-attempted opponents at 5-on-5 to a Corsi-for percentage of 52.3.  However, they were plus-22 in 5-on-5 attempts in the second Buffalo game of the week, minus-4 over the other three games.  And, their close score Corsi was a poorer 48.2 percent, plus-14 against Buffalo in that second of the home-and-home games and minus-23 otherwise.

Goaltending: 2.22 /.929 / 1 shutout (season: 2.02 / .927 / 2 shutouts)

Goaltending was another case of what looked like a good week overall until one got down to the particulars, especially at the end of the week.  Braden Holtby took the first two games of the week, the home-and-home set against Buffalo, and allowed just two goals on 58 shots (a .966 save percentage), winning both games and pitching a shutout in the first of the two games.

Holtby and Philipp Grubauer split the last two games of the week, going 0-1-1, 3.39, .892.  What was more disturbing was the save percentage in the third period of those last two games: .778 (14-for-18).  Was this a case of opponents getting better opportunities against a depleted and fatigued defense, was it a blip on an otherwise fine goaltending ledger for the season, or was it evidence of an emerging slump that might be a case of poor possession chickens coming home to roost?

Power Play: 3-for-10 / 30.0 percent (season: 25.6 percent; rank: 2nd)

The Caps had a good week on the man advantage for the most part, part of a run that has them converting 33.3 percent of their opportunities (9-for-27) over the last three weeks.  But not everything was unicorns and accordions here, either.  The Caps played four games and had just ten power play opportunities.  They had none against Carolina in a 4-2 loss, the second time this season they were not awarded a power play opportunity.  They had only one chance in the game in Buffalo to start the week.  More than half of their opportunities (six) and two of their power play goals for the week came against Columbus.  Overall, the Caps finished the week tied for the tenth-fewest power play opportunities per game (3.08).

What chances the Caps had, they fared well., to a point  They finished the week with three goals on 23 shots (13.0 percent shooting) in 17:01 of power play time (1.35 shots per minute).  More than a third of the shots came from Alex Ovechkin (8), but he did not record any of the three power play goals.  Marcus Johansson, Jason Chimera, and T.J. Oshie recorded the goals for the Caps.  The blot on the record was the power play in overtime against Columbus to end the week in which they shot 0-for-6 against a third string goalie (Anton Forsberg) on their way to a 5-4 freestyle loss.

Penalty Killing: 11-for-13 / 84.6 percent (season: 84.7 percent; rank: 5th)

Week 12 was a solid week for the penalty killers, part of another good three week run (27-for-31/87.1 percent).  That the Caps finished the week a plus-one in special teams despite a special teams index (power play plus penalty killing percentages) of 114.6 was not a problem of the men manning the shorthanded responsibility.  One might have liked finishing the week with less time spent killing penalties, the Caps skating 18:20 in shorthanded situations, 6:49 more than they spent on the power play.  But they made up for it with killing off penalties in an efficient manner, allowing only 17 shots on goal in that 18:20 of shorthanded ice time (0.93 shots per minute).

It would have been a lot better week without the last game of the week.  In their first three games of Week 12, the Caps killed all 10 shorthanded situations they faced and held opponents to 15 shots in 18 minutes of shorthanded ice time (0.83 shots per minute).  In that last game of the week, against Columbus, the Blue Jackets scored on both of their power play shots on goal and went 2-for-3 in 1:10 of power play ice time.

Even Strength 5-on-5 Goals for/Goals Against: 9-7 / plus-2 (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 1.43; rank: 1st)

It was a good week overall, but it was better early than it was late at 5-on-5.  The Caps opened the week scoring both of their goals at evens in the shutout of Buffalo. After that it was break-even, splitting four 5-on-5 goals with the Sabres in their second game, going minus-1 in the 4-2 loss to Carolina, and going plus-1 in the 5-4 trick shot loss to Columbus.

It says something that a week in which the Caps had a 1.29 goals-for/goals-against ratio at 5-on-5 results in a drop in that number for the season.  It also hints at what might be a regression in that number if it starts to align more closely with possession numbers that are still an issue, an issue made more important by the injuries the team is dealing with at the moment.

Faceoffs: 111-for-241 / 46.1 percent (season: 49.5% / rank: 21st)

It was a bad week in the circle for the Caps.  They were under 50 percent in all four games and in all three zones for the week.  It was worse for missing Jay Beagle for the last two-plus games of the week after he suffered a hand injury.  Beagle was his typical efficient self, going 14-for-21 before he was sidelined.  The rest of the club was 44.1 percent, worse in the offensive end (42.3 percent) and the defensive end (43.3 percent).  Michael Latta was the only Cap taking more than ten draws for the week who finished over 50 percent (13-for-23/56.5 percent).

Goals by Period:

Third periods were not kind to the Caps in Week 12. The five goals allowed over the last three games after the shutout of Buffalo were double the goals allowed over the first two periods of games for the week and constitute 20 percent of the total goals allowed by the club in the third period of games this season before Week 12 (25).  As it is, the Caps are still the only club in the league to allow 30 or fewer goals in all three regulation periods this season.  Only four other teams have allowed 30 or fewer goals in two of the regulation periods this season.

In the end…

A 2-1-1 week looks better when the “2” comes at the end of the week and is something to build on.  When the week ends with a pair of losses, ending the Caps’ consecutive games streak without suffering back-to-back losses at 37 games, and to a pair of struggling teams, no less, it is cause for some concern. 

As the Caps embark on Week 13 and the last three games of their five-game road trip, they are facing their biggest challenge of the season – fight through the injuries that have depleted their defense and shortened the depth chart at center, and solve the persistent possession numbers problem they have had for more than a month.  If they do neither, the burden on goaltending becomes more acute and the likelihood of continued success diminished.

Three Stars:

  • First Star: Alex Ovechkin (4-0-4, plus-1, 26 shots on goal, 53 shot attempts; 10 shots on goal against Buffalo; 22 shot attempts against Columbus)
  • Second Star: Braden Holtby (2-0-1, 1.95, .931, one shutout)
  • Third Star: Marcus Johansson (2-2-4, plus-1, power play/game-winning goal, personal season high seven shots on goal against Buffalo).

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