The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
For the 43rd time in the Alex Ovechkin/Sidney Crosby era, the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins will go head-to-head in the regular season, meeting Sunday evening at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. The Caps have a 19-18-5 record against the Pens, 2-1-0 this season.
The Caps are looking to add to that win total, coming off a 4-1-1 record over their last six games. Over those six games the Caps have rediscovered defense and goaltending, holding opponents to a single goal in each of the four wins and allowing 13 goals overall while scoring 14 of their own.
The Penguins are, if anything, hotter than the Caps, bringing a five-game winning streak into this contest. The Penguins are doing it with defense as well, holding opponents to two or fewer goals in four of the five games in their winning streak and limiting opponents to just 21 goals over their last 12 games.
Pittsburgh has outscored their opponents, 17-9, over their five straight wins, led in goal scoring by Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby with three apiece. Kunitz is enjoying a bit of good fortune after some struggles putting the puck in the net. Before he potted three goals in the Pens’ last five games, he had gone five games without one and had only two over an 11-game stretch. As it is, he still is not the goal-scorer he was two seasons ago when he had 35 goals in 78 games. Over the past two seasons he has a total of 32 goals in 143 games, 15 of them coming in 69 games this season. In 27 career games against Washington, Kunitz is 9-8-17, plus-7.
Crosby does not only have points in each of the five games of the Penguins’ current winning streak, he has points in 11 straight contests (6-12-18, plus-11). In 33 games of the 2016 portion of the season, Crosby is 22-25-47, plus-17. He has reasserted himself as the most dangerous offensive force in the league, and it matters to the Penguins that he maintains that position. Pittsburgh is just 10-14-2 in 26 games in which Crosby did not record a point. When he scores a goal, though, the Pens are 18-3-2. He has had his struggles lately against Washington, though, and it is consistent with the change behind the Washington bench. In seven games over two seasons against the Adam Oates-led Caps, Crosby was 4-11-15, plus-7, in seven games. Over the last two seasons, facing a Caps team led by Barry Trotz, Crosby is 1-1-2, minus-5, in seven games. In 36 career games against Washington, Crosby is 18-34-52, plus-2.
Marc-Andre Fleury got the win in goal in Philadelphia on Saturday, so it is uncertain if he will get the call against Washington on Sunday night. If he does, the Caps will be facing a goalie that is having an impressive stretch run. In his last 16 games, Fleury is 11-4-1, 1.98, .929, with one shutout. It is one of his best seasons in one respect. His .935 save percentage at 5-on-5 is the second-best of his career, topped only by his .939 save percentage at 5-on-5 in 2007-2008. What he has not done this season, oddly enough, is impress at 5-on-5 on home ice. Among 31 goalies with at least 750 minutes at 5-on-5, Fleury has a save percentage of .932, which ranks 14th in that group (numbers from war-on-ice.com). He is 18-11-2, 2.50, .929, with three shutouts in 32 career appearances against the Caps.
Here is how the teams compare overall:
1. One of the persistent mysteries in the NHL is how a team with as many gifted offensive players as the Penguins has such unimpressive power play numbers. The Penguins rank 19th overall in power play efficiency, which is the obvious way of looking at the problem. Another is their ability to dominate games with their power play. They have power play goals in 33 games this season, tied for 13th most in the league and only three fewer than the Caps. But they have just seven multiple power play goal games, tied for 17th in the league and six fewer than the Caps, who are tied for first with 13 such games.
2. On the other side of the special teams coin, the Penguins are quite effective. They rank fifth overall in penalty killing and have allowed a power play goal in just 28 games this season, tied for fourth-fewest in the league. If the Caps can pierce the Penguins here, it would be important. Pittsburgh has the 19th-ranked winning percentage in the league when allowing a power play goal (.393/11-14-3).
3. If the Penguins take a lead into the second intermission, it is the surest predictor of a Pittsburgh win. The Penguins are the only team in the league with a perfect record when leading after 40 minutes (32-0-0).
4. Pittsburgh has a very good scoring defense, seventh in the league overall at 2.44 goals per game. It is their consistency by period that stands out – 57 goals allowed in the first period of games, 56 in the second, and 56 in the third.
5. Pittsburgh has been a good, if not quite dominating possession team on home ice. At 5-on-5 they rank ninth overall in Corsi-for (53.3 percent), eighth in score-adjusted Corsi-for (52.5 percent). If there is something odd in their numbers, given their reputation for offensive depth, it is in the total number of events per 60 minutes on home ice. Pittsburgh ranks 16th in shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 for both teams (110.0). They are especially adept at limiting opponents’ chances, allowing the ninth fewest shot attempts per 60 minutes on home ice (51.4; numbers from war-on-ice.com).
1. The Capitals penalty kill has been very good all season, ranking fourth in the league overall (84.1 percent). They have been able to do this, in part, by preventing teams from piling up power play goals within games. Only twice this season have the Caps allowed more than one power play goal in a game, fewest in the league. It happened against Columbus in a 5-4 Gimmick loss on January 2nd and again against Florida in a 5-2 loss on February 2nd.
2. The Caps appear to be in another power play slump. After starting March with power play goals in each of their first three games to extend a streak of game with power play goals to five, they are just 2-for-17 in their last six games (11.8 percent).
3. This is going to be a battle between teams that do not score first in games. Only seven teams have opened the scoring fewer times than the Caps (32). One of those teams is Pittsburgh (31).
4. Two is the magic number for the Caps, as in goals allowed. In games in which the Caps allow two or fewer goals they are 40-1-1, the best record in the league in such games.
5. The Caps do a good job limiting opponents’ shooting on the road, allowing the tenth-fewest shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (54.1). What they do not do is generate a lot of activity of their own, ranking 17th in shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 on the road (52.1; numbers from war-on-ice.com).
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Pittsburgh: Kris Letang
Since the 2007-2008 season, his first full season in the NHL, Kris Letang is one of five defensemen who has appeared in at least 500 games, posted 75 or more goals, recorded 300 or more points, and is plus-40 or better. The others in that group are Zdeno Chara, Brent Seabrook, Mike Green, and Drew Doughty. Since missing ten weeks of the 2013-2014 season after suffering a stroke, Letang has rebuilt his game to resume his position as one of the best offensive defensemen in the game. Last season he recorded 54 points in 69 games, the best points-per-game mark he had (0.78) since he had 0.82 points per game in the 2011-2012 season. This season he has been even better with 53 points in 60 games, third in the league among defensemen in points per game (0.88) and the second best mark of his career, topped only by his 1.09 points per game in 35 games of the abbreviated 2012-2013 season. He is 4-9-13, plus-6, over his last 15 games. Against the Capitals over his career, Letang is 4-6-10, minus-14, in 25 games.
Washington: Nicklas Backstrom
Nicklas Backstrom wears the number “19” for the Capitals, but “18” has been a number featured prominently in his career. Backstrom has 18 goals this season. He had 18 goals last season. He had 18 goals the season before that. He has had 18 goals in four of his last five full season (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season), and the one season he did not, in 2011-2012, he missed 40 games to injury. Getting to 18 was a chore this season. He went 18 games (there is that number again) without a goal after he hit 17 before he got to 18 against the Los Angeles Kings on March 9th. If there is an odd thing about Backstrom’s goal scoring lately it is that each of his last three goals came in Capitals losses, overtime losses to Philadelphia and the Kings, and a loss to Florida. The last time he scored a goal in a Caps win was January 19th in a 6-3 win over Columbus. In 32 career games against Pittsburgh, Backstrom is 3-30-33, plus-2.
In the end…
Since Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench as head coach for the Penguins, the club is 24-14-5. Over that same span, the Caps are 31-8-3. In March, the Caps are 6-2-1 while the Pens are 7-3-0. These are teams on similar trajectories, but not necessarily on similar levels. The Penguins have done well since Evgeni Malkin left the lineup with an upper-body injury that will keep him out until late-April, winning four in a row in his absence. But is it a team that can succeed with Sidney Crosby figuring in half of the team’s scoring (eight of 17 goals in their five-game winning streak), or will the lack of scoring diversity present a problem?
On the other hand, the Caps are getting contributions from up and down the lineup. It was three assists from Evgeny Kuznetsov and a pair of goals from Daniel Winnik against Nashville, Justin Williams and Alex Ovechkin getting goals in an overtime win over Carolina, three different players getting goals and six different players getting assists when the Caps erased a three-goal deficit in the third period against Los Angeles to grab a standings point.
Pittsburgh is hot, but the Caps are deeper and more consistent. They have not lost consecutive road games in regulation since early November. They won’t break that string in Pittsburgh.
Capitals 2 – Penguins 1