Sunday, March 27, 2016

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 24

Week 24 was a full week of four contests for the Washington Capitals.  With so much on the plate for the hockey fan, it still seemed unsatisfying as the club continued to display a disturbing lack of consistency and an inability to raise their game against opponents of a caliber they are likely to find in the postseason.

Record: 2-2-0

For the second time in three weeks the Capitals did not have a winning week.  They avoided their first losing week of the season, but barely, making sure about that when they scored the game’s only goal in overtime against the New Jersey Devils on Friday for their second win of the week.  By week’s end the Caps had 53 wins for the season.  That tied the club for the 18th-highest win total in NHL history and tied them for seventh in wins in the post 2004-2005 lockout era.  It also left this team within one of the franchise record for wins (54 in the 2009-2010 season).

What is creeping into the minds of Caps fans, perhaps, is a sliver of doubt about just how good this team is.  Or more to the point, whether they can raise their game to the heights they enjoyed over the first four months of the season when they compiled a 35-8-4 record.  The two losses in Week 24 made it four losses for March, the second consecutive month in which the Caps will have had four or more losses in regulation.  By this team’s standards, that is an avalanche of losses.  But on the other hand, that also means that the Caps’ combined record of 18-8-1 in February and March work out to a 112-point pace per 82 games.  If that’s just a slump, it is one that is certainly bearable.

Offense:  1.75/game (season: 3.08 /game; rank: 2nd)

Seven goals in three games, none in the last six periods of regulation for the week.  The second-ranked scoring offense in the league had a bad week.  It happens.  Alex Ovechkin had one of them, but while he still maintains a lead in the goal-scoring race with 43 goals to 39 for Chicago’s Patrick Kane, he has just three goals in his last 13 contests.  With eight games left and being seven goals short of 50, it seems unlikely that Ovechkin will finish with his seventh 50-goal season, although it seems likely that he will capture his sixth Maurice Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer.

It was a team-wide slump in Week 24, shooting-wise.  It was not enough that the Caps shot just 7-for-98 for the week (7.1 percent) and only 4-for-80 at 5-on-5 (5.0 percent), it was their goal scoring core that had a collective tough time of it.  Look at the four 20-goal scorers.  Ovechkin was 1-for-15 (6.7 percent), Justin Williams was 0-for-9 (seven of those shots on goal recorded against St. Louis), and Evgeny Kuznetsov was 0-for-8.  T.J. Oshie scored on his only shot on goal for the week, but he missed the last two games with flu-like symptoms.  That made the Caps’ four 20-goal scorers 2-for-33 (6.1 percent).  It was a team effort.

If there was a goal-scoring highlight, it was John Carlson scoring in overtime to give the Caps a 1-0 win over the Devils on Friday night.  It was a lot of first wrapped into one.  The goal came in Carlson’s first game back after missing ten games to a lower-body injury and recovery from surgery, it was his first career overtime game-winner, and it was the first time in franchise history that a defenseman scored an overtime game-winning goal in a 1-0 game for the Caps.  Jason Chimera was the only Capital to post as many as three points for the week (1-2-3), while Jay Beagle and Marcus Johansson joined Chimera with a pair of assists apiece.

Defense: 3.00/game (season: 2.34 /game; rank: T-2nd)

This section this week is pretty much all about possession numbers.  One thing that the Caps have been guilty of in recent weeks is getting off to poor starts but winning in spite of it.  Week 24 was very different.  The Caps had a good possession week overall, but it was also very uneven.  A 51.4 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 overall is a good week, but how the Caps got there was unsettling.  In four games they posted a 56.8 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 in the first periods of games.  They also managed to win the scoring chance battle, 33-27, and the high-danger scoring chance battle, 15-10.  All they had to show for it was two goals scored and two allowed.

The second and third periods were a different story.  The Caps were under 50 percent in combined Corsi-for at 5-on-5 in both the second period (48.6 percent) and in the third (47.9 percent).   As one might expect, they lost the scoring chance numbers, too.  For the second periods of games it was a 21-29 difference, while in the third it was 21-23.  The Caps did manage a slight edge in high-danger scoring chances in the second periods of games (9-8), but they lost the third period (7-12).  It should have been no mystery, even with the Caps’ poor shooting percentages for the week, that they ended up with a minus-2 goal differential in the second periods of games (two for, four against), and had a minus-3 differential at 5-on-5 in the third periods of games (none scored, three allowed; all numbers from

Goaltending: 2.97 /.893 / 1 shutout (season: 2.23 / .922 / 3 shutouts)

For Braden Holtby, Week 24 was a case of having a bad game, shaking it off, and putting together a decent week overall under the circumstances.  When he allowed five goals on 26 shots in 47:18 to the Pittsburgh Penguins and yielded to Philipp Grubauer, it was the sixth time this season that he was relieved before finishing a start and the fifth time it happened over 23 appearances up to that game.

Holtby came back to win the middle two games of the week, stopping 50 of 52 shots in 122 minutes in wins over Ottawa and New Jersey.  The win over the Devils gave Holtby 45 wins on the season, making him the sixth goaltender in league history to hit that mark, three short of the league record of 48 wins set by the Devils’ Martin Brodeur in 2006-2007.  Of the other six instances of a goaltender winning at least 45 games (Brodeur did it twice), none of the goaltenders appeared in fewer than 73 games (Bernie Parent, who won 47 games for the 1973-1974 Philadelphia Flyers).  Holtby, who has 45 wins in just 60 games, can appear in a maximum of just 68 games this season.  Parent also happens to be the only one of the other five goaltenders to have won a Stanley Cup in the year he broke the 45-win barrier.

Philipp Grubauer had a relief appearance and a start in Week 24 to put on his record.  It was not exactly a memorable week.  Grubauer faced just five shots in mop-up duty against the Penguins in the 6-2 loss to open the week and allowed the final Pittsburgh goal.  Against the St. Louis Blues to end the week he was occasionally sharp, but he was let down by his defense on a pair of Blues’ goals, leaving shooters alone against him from point-blank range, and he was leaky on what might have been the game’s pivotal goal, the second St. Louis goal scored by Colton Pareyko from long range under his pads.  It was an example of the sort of inconsistency he had not displayed since early in the season.  Slumps happen, even for goaltenders who get infrequent work, and Grubauer’s .853 save percentage for the week reflected that.

Power Play: 1-for-8 / 12.5 percent (season: 22.8 percent; rank: 2nd)

Four games, four instances of two power play opportunities.  And the Caps did not do much with the few opportunities they had, getting a power play goal from Alex Ovechkin against the Ottawa Senators in the Caps’ 4-2 win last Tuesday.  The power play has been quite streaky over the last nine weeks, very much in a feast (four weeks over 23 percent) or famine (four weeks under ten percent).  Over those nine weeks the Caps are just 14-for-88 (15.9 percent).

In addition to the less-than-noteworthy performance level of the power play in Week 24, it was not especially productive, either.  Ten shots on goal in 15:00 of power play time.  Ovechkin had half of those power play shots on goal (five) and scored his first power play in almost a month, going 11 games without a power play strike since recording a man advantage goal against the Minnesota Wild in a 3-2 win in February 26th.

Penalty Killing: 13-for-14 / 92.9 percent (season: 84.6 percent; rank: 4th)

The Caps had one of their best weeks of the season in killing penalties.  It was the first week in which the Caps faced ten or more shorthanded situations that they killed more than 90 percent of the situations they faced.  The thing of it, though, was that it was not pretty.  The Caps allowed 22 power play shots on goal in 24:32 of shorthanded ice time, a good (but not great) shots-per-minute rate (0.90 shots per minute). 

The Caps did face two top-ten teams in power play efficiency in the New Jersey Devils (ninth-ranked) and the St. Louis Blues (sixth), shutting them out on three power plays, and shutting out the Blues entirely from any opportunities (the first time this season the Caps did not face an opponent’s power play).  Against two bottom-half power plays, the Caps did allow a power play goal to the Penguins (19th-ranked), although the Pens also had seven opportunities.  The Caps shut out the 28th-ranked Ottawa Senator power play on four chances.  In a week that had its ups and downs, the penalty killing might have been the best part of the week.

Faceoffs: 115-for-219 / 52.5 percent (season: 49.9% / rank: 18th)

Up-down-up-down.  That was Week 24 in the faceoff circle, alternating games of more than 50 percent winning performance with games under 50 percent.  And, as if to complete the roller-coaster nature of the week, the Caps were over 50 percent in the defensive zone (58.1 percent), under 50 percent in the offensive zone (49.3 percent), and right at 50 percent in the neutral zone.  It made for a good week overall – 52.5 percent for the week.

On an individual level, Mike Richards (63.0 percent of 46 draws)) and Jay Beagle (56.8 percent of 37 faceoffs) ruled all they surveyed within the confines of the circle.  Evgeny Kuznetsov also finished over 50 percent among Caps taking at least ten draws (21-for-40), but he really shined in, of all places, the defensive zone, going 10-for-12 for the week. 

Goals by Period:

The Caps displayed an inability to close teams down as games wore on.  The five goals allowed in the second periods of games represented more than ten percent of the total they had allowed over the first 23 weeks of the season (10.2 percent).  The five goals allowed in the third periods of games was almost ten percent of the total coming into the week (9.3 percent).  It was a result of letting close games get away from them, allowing the Penguins three third period goals in the space of 9:19 to allow a 3-2 deficit balloon to 6-2, then allowing three second period goals in 8:00 to the St. Louis Blues to allow a scoreless game go to 3-0 and essentially end the competitive portion of that contest.

Even the 3-2 edge in first period goals was deceptive.  The Caps scored all of them in a 12-minute span against the Ottawa Senators, then held on as the Senators went on to make a game of it before the Caps scored an empty-netter in the last minute of a 4-2 win.

In the end…

Week 24 was not a good week, but neither was it a bad one.  There is the gnawing question of whether the Caps can “flip the switch” and raise the level of their game to that which they displayed over the first four months of the season.  Even with an 18-8-1 over the past two months, the Caps are good, but they have been less than extraordinary.  Of greater concern, the Caps are now 1-3-1 in their last five games against playoff-eligible teams, getting outscored by a 19-11 margin over those contests. 

The Caps enter the last three weeks of the regular season with eight games to find their rhythm and get everyone back to good health, or as good as a team can expect at this time of year.  The team has been in something of a broad-based sleepwalk over the past several weeks, the top scorers not scoring, the best defenders not defending, and the goalies not…ok, “goalie-ing” isn’t a word, but you get the point.  Week 25 is another four-game week, one that provides a different sort of opportunity for the Caps to raise their game.  A Columbus team that is difficult to play against, a Philadelphia  team fighting for their playoff lives, and a final road swing out west to Colorado and Arizona.  It never stops.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Jason Chimera (1-2-3, plus-1, 4 shots on goal)
  • Second Star: Nicklas Backstrom (1-1-2, minus-1, 4 shots on goal, 49.2 percent on faceoffs)
  • Third Star: Braden Holtby (2-1-0, 2.48, .910, 1 shutout)

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