Friday, January 15, 2016

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 44: Capitals at Sabres, January 16th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals take their show on the road on Saturday night when they visit the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center in Buffalo in what will be the teams’ last meeting of the 2015-2016 season.

This will be the third meeting of the team in the last 23 days, so they should be familiar with one another.  What with the Caps heading to the Snow Belt of upstate New York, our attention turns to thoughts of warmer weather and the fact that pitchers and catchers report to baseball spring training in about a month.  And with that we welcome one of baseball’s most famous fans, who also happens to be quite a hockey fan it turns out – Annie Savoy.  Welcome, Annie.

Annie Savoy: I’m glad to be here.

Peerless: Annie, you obviously have a great love and respect for baseball.  How did you come to be a hockey fan?

AS: “Walt Whitman once said, ‘I see great things in baseball. It's our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.’ You could look it up.  And then I read that Don Cherry said about hockey in Canada, ‘It's a religion here, a way of life. We love the game too much. People were starving for it. When the season starts, they will all be back. They can't help themselves.’  I knew it was a sport for me.”

Peerless: You are a believer in past lives.  You once famously said that another lifetime you were probably Catherine the Great, or Francis of Assisi.  Do you think there might have been a hockey player among your previous incarnations?

AS: Well, I don’t know about that, but if I was a hockey player in a past life, I think it might have been ‘Boom-Boom Geoffrion’…or maybe Georges Vezina.  I just like saying “Chicoutimi Cucumber.’”

Peerless: I don’t know if you’ve seen the Caps very often, but I’d like to get your take on them so far.

AS: “Well, from what I’ve seen, it’s a really special team, 20 guys really playing together every night, the kind of thing that happens, but we just don’t understand.  It’s like I always say, ‘it's all a question of quantum physics, molecular attraction, and timing. Why, there are laws we don't understand that bring us together and tear us apart. Uh, it's like pheromones. You get three ants together, they can't do dick. You get 300 million of them, they can build a cathedral.’  Or maybe 20 of them can win a Stanley Cup.”

Peerless: One last question…It looks as though Michael Latta has recovered from the arm injury he suffered a few games ago.  If he’s ready to go, do you think he deserves a white jersey from Barry Trotz for this game?

AS: “Honey, we all deserve to wear white.”

Well, the Caps will dress 20 in white for this game, and Buffalo will send out 20 in blue.   And blue might be the mood in which Sabres fans might find themselves these days.  Starting with the home and home losses to the Caps in the last week of December, Buffalo is 2-6-0 over their last eight games.  They have won their last two contests, but it is a team that is sliding in the standings, perhaps starting to look a bit toward next season and the promise a young team with talent can hope to fulfill.

In those last eight games, Buffalo has been outscored by a 25-15 margin.  Their power play is 5-for-27 over that span (18.5 percent), and their penalty kill is 9-for-13 (70.7 percent).  Four times in those eight games the Sabres faced a single shorthanded situation.  They were a perfect 4-for-4 in those games, so the key here, apparently, is getting them to go shorthanded more than once.

Sam Reinhart has four of the Sabres’ 15 goals over the last eight games, three of them coming in Buffalo’s 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets on January 10th.  The hat trick was his first in the NHL.  Reinhart, a second overall draft pick in 2014, has had a decent rookie campaign with the Sabres.  He is tied for fifth in goal scoring among rookies, and he is tied for sixth overall with 19 points.  In a season – and a city – in which he is overshadowed by Jack Eichel as a rookie talent, he is having a nice year.  He does not have a point in two career games against Washington.

Speaking of Jack Eichel, he is the leading point-getter in this recent Sabre Slump (2-5-7).  He has been just about what you might expect from a second-overall draft pick (2015 draft) in the offensive end.  He is tied for third among rookies in goals scored (13, with Max Domi), fourth in assists (14), and fourth in total points (27).  He is also tied for first with Chicago’s Artemi Panarin in average ice time among rookie forwards (18:51 per game).  However, he is also third-worst among 144 rookie skaters in plus-minus (minus-11), so there’s that.  He has two assists in the two games he played against the Caps this season and is a minus-2.

The goaltending situation for the Sabres in this game might see the return of Robin Lehner to the ice, depending on who head coach Dan Bylsma picks to start against the Boston Bruins on Friday night.  Lehner, obtained from the Ottawa Senators for a first-round draft pick last summer, was the starter-to-be for the Sabres, but he sprained an ankle in the Sabres’ season opener, and he is just now reporting back for duty after a conditioning stint with the Sabres’ AHL affiliate in Rochester.  Lehner does lead the league in one statistic.  He is the NHL’s heaviest goalie to dress for a game this season at 240 pounds.  He has one career appearance against the Caps, allowing two goals on 29 shots in a 2-1 loss to Washington on February 5, 2015.  The odd part of that game was that all three goals were scored in a span of 2:02 in the second period.

Here is how the teams compare overall:

1.  The goaltending has not been bad in Lehner’s place.  Chad Johnson and Linus Ullmark have combined for a 2.51 goals against average and a .916 save percentage with one shutout (Johnson).

2.  Buffalo is one of those odd teams whose home record has put them in an uncompetitive position in the East.  They are just 8-13-2 at First Niagara Center while going 9-9-2 on the road (pending results on Friday night).

3.  The Sabres have a decent home penalty kill (82.6 percent/14th), but they do not appear to pose much of a threat to score when shorthanded.  They have just one shorthanded goal this season, that by Evander Kane in a 5-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes on December 4th.  Only two NHL teams have yet to score a shorthanded goal, the Detroit Red Wings and the Coyotes.

4.  Buffalo spends a lot of time trying to get their wits about them in the offensive end early in games.  Their 20 first period goals are second fewest in the league to the 18 that the Philadelphia Flyers have scored.

5.  Buffalo does not have an easy time of it at home when it comes to possession numbers.  In overall/score-adjusted/close score Corsi they rank 19th (49.3 percent)/27th (46.2 percent)/26th (47.7 percent; numbers from

1.  In the Caps’ most recent five-game winning streak coming into this contest, they have outscored opponents, 22-8, their last four games with four or more goals scored.  Their power play is 4-for-13 (30.8 percent), while their penalty killers are 14-for-15 (93.3 percent).

2.  The usual suspects lead the Caps in goals and assists in their five-game winning streak.  Alex Ovechkin has five goals, while Nicklas Backstrom has five assists.  Backstrom leads in total scoring with seven points (2-5-7).

3.  Among players appearing in 20 or more games this season, Backstrom is one of seven averaging at least 1.00 points per game (41 points in 40 games).  He ranks fourth overall in that statistic, trailing only Tyler Seguin (1.16), Jamie Benn (1.20), and Patrick Kane (1.37).

4.  The Caps are the only team in the league that ranks in the top five in goals scored by period – 1st period: 39 (3rd); 2nd period: 46 (2nd); and 3rd period: 53 (2nd).

5.  Over their last 17 road games, a span of which the Caps have not been over 50 percent Corsi-for in as many as two consecutive games, the Caps are 46.0 percent overall.  They are better in score-adjusted terms over that span (49.5 percent), but worse in close score situations (45.7 percent; numbers from

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo: Matt Moulson

Once upon a time, when he was with the New York Islanders, Matt Moulson was one of those quietly effective, under-the-radar goal scorers.  From 2009 until 2013, when he was traded to Buffalo (his first your of duty there) with two draft picks for Thomas Vanek, he recorded 118 goals in 304 games, a rate of 32 goals per 82 games.  Since leaving Long Island, Moulson has 34 goals in 183 games with the Sabres and the Minnesota Wild, a rate of 15 goals per 82 games.  That includes just four goals in 42 games this season for the Sabres, none in his last 30 games.  The lack of performance has eaten heavily into his ice time; he was under ten minutes in each of his last three games and in four of his last seven (the only four games he was given less than ten minutes of ice time this season).  Moulson is 5-7-12, plus-2, in 22 career games against the Capitals.

Washington: Taylor Chorney

Taylor Chorney is not going to wow anyone with his offense from the blue line.  When he recorded an assist in the Caps’ 3-2 loss to the Dallas Stars on November 19th, it was the first point he had in an NHL game since he had a goal (the game-winner) and an assist in a 4-1 win over those same Stars on February 15, 2011, when he was skating for the Edmonton Oilers.  In between, he went 25 games over all or part of five seasons with four teams (Edmonton, the St. Louis Blues, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Caps) without recording a point.  This season, however, he has been pressed in to more regular duty with Washington as a result of injuries to defensemen Brooks Orpik and John Carlson.  In 34 games (more than he had in the previous four seasons combined (24) and more than in any season since he appeared in 42 games for the Oilers in 2009-2010) he has four assists and is a plus-13, tied with Nate Schmidt and one behind Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner for the team lead among defensemen.  In three career games against the Sabres, Chorney has not recorded a point, and he is a plus-1.

In the end…

This is one of those “trap games,” the kind in which it might be tempting for the Caps to peek ahead to their contest with the Rangers on Sunday evening.  Given that the Caps are going to be playing back-to-back contests, it might be that Philipp Grubauer gets a start in goal with Braden Holtby held out to face the Rangers in the Sunday matchup. Any way you slice it, this is one of those games that tests the “stick to business” theme for the Caps.  It is something they have done well over the first half of the season, and they certainly did not take the Sabres lightly in their home-and-home set last month, shutting them out in Buffalo (2-0) and beating them handily in Washington (5-2).  The Sabres might make it interesting, but not interesting enough to make it a bad night for the Caps.

Capitals 5 – Sabres 3

Washington Capitals Recap: A TWO-Point Night: Capitals 4 - Canucks 1

In hockey, it is said that the area behind the opponent’s net was “Wayne Gretzky’s Office,” a place from which he took advantage of opponents repeatedly with creative playmaking. These days, Evgeny Kuznetsov has opened a branch office in the same patch of real estate, and his on-time shipment of a pass to Tom Wilson in the third period last night – a backhand pass that Wilson converted into the Caps’ third goal – highlighted a 4-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

After a scoreless first period it was Kuznetsov who got the Caps on the board in the seventh minute of the middle frame. Seconds after a tripping penalty to Vancouver’s Alexander Edler expired, the Canucks tried to spring him on a break as he came out of the box. Edler lost control of the puck at the Capitals’ blue line, and Dmitry Orlov took over. Orlov headed in the other direction with Kuznetsov on a 2-on-1 rush. Gaining the Vancouver blue line, Orlov slid the puck under Yannick Weber’s stick to Kuznetsov cutting down the middle. Kuznetsov faked a forehand, deking goalie Ryan Miller to the ice, then slid the puck around his glove to make it 1-0, 6:12 into the period.

Almost six minutes later Karl Alzner added to the Caps’ lead. During a scrum along the right wing wall, Matt Niskanen flattened Sven Baertschi, and this seemed to provide a bit of a distraction, allowing the Caps to work the puck around to Alzner alone on the left side. Alzner took his time, wound up, and fired a slap shot that appeared to tick off the shaft of Radim Vrbata's stick and sailed past Miller’s blocker, leaving the goalie pounding his stick on the ice in frustration over whiffing on a shot he felt he should have stopped.

Less than two minutes into the third period, Kuznetsov worked his magic. A lot of it was the doing of Andre Burakovsky, who batted an errant pass into the corner to Miller’s left, then darted behind the Vancouver net to out-duel Alex Biega for the puck, pushing it to Kuznetsov in the trapezoid. Kuznetsov, facing the end wall, feinted a move to his right, then backhanded a saucer pass out to Wilson camped out on Miller’s right. Wilson wasted no time putting the puck into the open side of the net, and it was 3-1, Washington.

After Vrbata got the Canucks on the board on a 5-on-3 power play mid-way through the period, Kuznetsov sealed the win with an empty net goal with sixth-tenths of a second left in regulation to give the Caps their final 4-1 margin.

Other stuff…

-- The win was the Caps’ fifth in a row, the fourth time this season that the Caps put together a winning streak of five or more games.

-- Justin Williams took a puck to the side of his face in the last minute of the first period, courtesy of a shot from Andre Burakovsky. He returned to take a regular shift in the second period with the second group of forwards to jump on. He finished the game with an assist on the Karl Alzner goal, his third straight game with a point, and was a plus-3 in 18:26 of ice time.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov recorded his fifth game of the season with three or more points. Only Jamie Benn, Taylor Hall, and Patrick Kane have more, each with six games.

-- The win pushed the Caps’ record to 11-0-1 against Canada this season, the lone blemish a 3-2 overtime loss to the Calgary Flames on November 13th.

-- Tom Wilson recorded a goal in his second consecutive game, his fourth of the season in his 43rd game, tying his total in 67 games last season.

-- Andre Burakovsky recorded a pair of assists, giving him consecutive multi-point games and three for the season.

-- Braden Holtby improved to 20-0-2 in his last 23 appearances with a 1.85 goals against average, a .939 save percentage, and two shutouts. 

-- In the “youth be served” file…Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov led the Caps with six shots on goal.  It was part of a barrage on Canucks’ netminder Ryan Miller, the Caps finishing the game with a 73-58 edge in total shot attempts and a 40-30 edge in shots on goal.

-- The 5-on-3 power play goal the Caps surrendered was the first such goal they allowed this season.  There are nine teams remaining that have not allowed a 5-on-3 power play goal this season.

-- Karl Alzner…a goal, plus-3, six shot attempts, a hit, three blocked shots (led the team).  He deserved that third star.

-- Bonus… We noted in the prognosto that Vancouver was awful on faceoffs.  Well, are they ever. The Caps enjoyed a 34-20 edge in draws (63.0 percent).  When Marcus Johansson (8-for-11) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (10-for-15) combined to win 69 percent of their draws, well…

In the end…

This was one of those “python” games in which the Caps wrapped themselves around their opponent and squeezed (13-8 edge in shots in the first period), and squeezed some more until the opponent yielded (three unanswered goals).  Even though it was Alex Ovechkin getting the award at the start of the evening for reaching the 500 career goal mark, it was a night for the kids to shine – Kuznetsov (2-1-3), Burakovsky (two assists), and Wilson (a goal and more offensive presence than he usually displays).  It was another example of the Caps getting contributions from all over the lineup on a night-to-night basis.  They can beat you a lot of ways, but the common theme is…they beat you.