The Peerless Prognosticator is BACK ON THE AIR!!!
“Hope is a waking dream.”
Thirty teams head into the 2015-2016 season this week with eyes wide open in a waking dream of clutching the Stanley Cup next June. For the Washington Capitals and their fans it has been a dream unfulfilled for 42 years, but with Thursday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins to open their 2015-2016 season, the dream is renewed once more.
The Caps will have a painfully close look at what fulfillment of that dream looks like when the Penguins raise the banner in celebration of winning the fourth Stanley Cup in their history last spring. That Cup came at the expense of the Capitals, who the Penguins defeated in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals on the same ice sheet on which this season will begin.
The Capitals are largely, but not entirely, unchanged from the team that lost to the Penguins in overtime of Game 6 of their playoff series last spring. Gone from the roster for that game are forwards Jason Chimera (to the New York Islanders), Michael Latta (to the Los Angeles Kings), and Mike Richards (currently an unsigned, unrestricted free agent); and defenseman Mike Weber (a late-season acquisition who failed to stick with the St. Louis Blues after being offered a professional try out). Those losses represent 25 of the 248 goals scored by the Caps in the regular season last year, but only one of the 29 goals scored by the Caps in the playoffs (that by Chimera).
Newcomers include forwards Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, and rookie Zach Sanford. Eller is the key acquisition filling the third line center hole that was a source of occupant turnover and inconsistency last season. Eller was 13-13-26, minus-13 for the Montreal Canadiens and brings with him a career per-82 game average of 14-15-29, minus-6. There is no mystery to hisrole. Eller is to fill on a steady and consistent basis that third line center position. He had a fine preseason for the Caps, going 2-2-4, plus-1 in five games.
Brett Connolly’s role is less well defined, but perhaps no less important. He could play on the right side on any of the four forward lines if called upon, although it would appear likely that he would open the season on the third or fourth line. He is coming off a season in which he appeared in more games (71) than any of his other four NHL seasons and one in which he posted a career high in points (25). Connolly did not record a point in five preseason games for the Caps.
Sanford is the second rookie in the last three seasons to make the Cap’s Opening Night roster straight out of amateur hockey. Andre Burakovsky graduated from the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League to the Caps in 2014-2015, and Sanford make the jump from the Boston College Eagles of the NCAA for the last two seasons to the Caps to start this season. Sanford had two goals and an assist in five preseason games.
1. Pittsburgh is has never lost a home opener in a season following a Stanley Cup win. They opened their 1991-1992 and 1992-1993 seasons with ties, both against the Philadelphia Flyers, and won their 2009-2010 home opener against the New York Rangers.
2. The Penguins lost only one player who appeared in at least 40 games for the club last season. Defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who appeared in 66 regular season and 24 postseason games, signed as an unrestricted free agent with the New Jersey Devils last July.
3. Pittsburgh did not lose consecutive games in the regular season after January 15th. After that point, the Penguins went 28-10-1. They were 14-2-0 in their last 16 regular season games.
4. It would not surprise you to know that Sidney Crosby led the Penguins in regular season scoring against the Caps last season (1-3-4 in five games). However, you might be surprised to know that the two Penguins tying Crosby for the team lead in points against the Caps were Matt Cullen (3-1-4 in five games) and Tom Kuhnhackl (1-3-4 in three games). Cullen led the team in goals against the Caps.
5. Pittsburgh enters the season having finished second in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 last season (52.72 percent to Los Angeles’ 56.37; numbers from Corsica.hockey). Only five of 24 skaters with at least 250 5-on-5 minutes finished under 50 percent for the regular season; one of them (Kevin Porter) did not skate in the postseason, and another (Rob Scuderi) did not finish the season with the team).
1. This will be the first time that the Caps opened a season against the Penguins since they dropped a 7-4 decision at home to the Pens to open the 1990-1991 season. It has been 30 years since the Caps opened a season in Pittsburgh, losing to the Penguins by a 5-4 margin to open the 1986-1987 season.
2. When Braden Holtby appeared in 66 games last season he became just the second goalie in Caps history to appear in 65 or more games in two or more seasons (Olaf Kolzig did it four times). He is the first to do it in consecutive seasons for the Caps since Kolzig appeared in 71 games in 2001-2002 and 66 games in 2002-2003.
3. The Caps did not win consecutive games in regulation time after March 2nd. They went 9-6-4 over that final stretch.
4. Washington had balanced scoring against the Penguins last season. Four Caps had four points: T.J. Oshie (3-1-4), Andre Burakovsky (2-2-4), John Carlson (1-3-4), and Nicklas Backstrom (1-3-4). Alex Ovechkin did not have a point against Pittsburgh in five games, the first time in his career he failed to record a point against Pittsburgh in a season. It was the first time he did not record a goal against the Penguins since 2006-2007.
5. The Caps finished the season in the middle of the pack, possession-wise. Their 51.04 Corsi-for at 5-on-5 was 14th in the league, a hair lower than their 51.36 Corsi-for in 2014-2015 (numbers from Corsica.hockey). It still represents quite an improvement from the Dale Hunter/Adam Oates era in which the Caps failed to clear the 50 percent bar in three straight years.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Pittsburgh: Nick Bonino
When last we saw Nick Bonino, he was sticking the dagger in the Caps’ 2015-2016 season, scoring the game-winning, series-clinching, vomit-in-the-mouth-inducting goal to wrap up a series in which he went 2-3-5, plus-5 in six games. It really wasn’t much of a fluke, at least in the context of the 2016 playoffs. His four goals for the tournament tied a career best (four in 2014 with the Anaheim Ducks), while his 18 points in 24 games more than doubled his career best (eight points in that same 2014 postseason with the Ducks). For the moment, it is his versatility and the ability to use him in a variety of roles that will be tested, depending on whether Sidney Crosby will be available for the opener against the Caps. Bonino is 2-2-4, minus-5 in 11 career regular season games against Washington.
Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov
When last we saw Evgeny Kuznetsov, he was having a nightmare of a postseason and a series against the Penguins. He finished the 2016 postseason with just one goal and one assist in 12 games, with a minus-4 for good measure. He was 0-for-19 shooting in six games against Pittsburgh (1-for-39 for the playoffs). It was quite a turnaround from his star-turn in his first exposure to playoff hockey in 2015, when scored five goals and had seven points in 14 games, one of the goals being the series-clincher against the New York Islanders in the first round. Getting off to a good start would help dilute the bad taste of last spring. Kuznetsov is 2-3-5, minus 2 in 11 career games against Pittsburgh.
In the end…
Pittsburgh will not be immune to the distractions and hoopla that goes with raising the Stanley Cup banner. But neither is it likely to be a significant distraction; they are a tested, veteran team. The Caps will not be immune to thinking about “what if” as that banner goes up and highlights of last season are played on the video screen. But neither is it likely to be a significant disruption to the business at hand. In a rivalry that has had a lot of twists and turns over the years, this will be one more in that history.
Capitals 4 – Penguins 2