The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
January is generally the start of the long hard grind of the NHL season, the days and weeks of games that look very much the same as teams position themselves for the final stretch run after the trading deadline. Rare at this time of the year would a game have playoff implications, and rarer still would a game be thought of as potentially “playoff” in intensity.
But when the Washington Capitals host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night at Verizon Center, it will be a game of playoff implications and playoff intensity. It is all brought on by the fact that the Jackets, as any hockey fan not spending the last week under a rock would know, can tie a record that has stood for almost 24 years, consecutive in-season wins. Columbus brings a 16-game winning streak to Washington, looking to tie the record of 17 straight set by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992-1993 (the Penguins tied the New Jersey Devils to end the streak in the last game of the regular season).
The Caps’ recent achievements are a bit more modest, but only in comparison to the historic nature of the Blue Jackets’ pursuit. The Caps will enter this game winners of three in a row, points in four straight, and with a 10-2-2 record in their last 14 games. All four of their losses in that span were by a single goal, two of them in the Gimmick.
The playoff implications are these. Columbus has a seven-point lead in the Metropolitan Division on Washington and a game in hand. Making that nine points with 44 games to play would make it difficult to near impossible for the Caps to repeat as division champions. The Caps would be in no immediate danger of missing the playoffs with a loss, but putting two more points between themselves and the teams closest to reaching the playoff eight – Toronto and Tampa Bay (both nine points behind the Caps) – would not hurt. A Columbus win could put them five points clear of second-place Pittsburgh in the division and conference standings with a game in hand.
On the other hand, a Caps win could draw them even in standings points with the New York Rangers for third-place in the Metropolitan Division, but ahead of the Rangers in the standings by virtue of holding a game in hand (depending on what New York does against Philadelphia on Wednesday night). The Caps also could draw to within two points of the Penguins for second-place in the division/conference with a win.
As for the playoff intensity, the Caps are facing a team with 16 consecutive wins, to whom they have already lost twice this season, and against whom they have a record of 3-4-2 in their last nine meetings. If the Jackets can’t get the Caps’ full and undivided attention, it might not be possible for anything to do so.
The Blue Jackets certainly have not done it by accident. Here is now some of their numbers fall out:
- Scoring Offense: 3.88 goals/game
- Scoring Defense: 1.69 goals/game
- Shots for/against: 32.1 – 29.5
- Power Play: 28.3 percent
- One-goal wins (including Gimmicks): six
- Two-goal wins: four
- Three+ goal wins: six
If there is a crack in the armor in this 16-game winning streak for Columbus, it is the penalty kill, which is a very mediocre 79.6 percent. Columbus has allowed at least one power play goal in nine of the 16 games in the streak.
Through Tuesday’s games there were 31 players with more than 30 points recorded. Columbus has four of them, tied for most in the league (Winnipeg is the other team…go figure). The quartet is Nick Foligno (13-20-33), Brandon Saad (14-19-33), Cam Atkinson (18-20-38), and Alexander Wennberg (8-26-34). It is a group that has been heard from – frequently and loudly – during the 16-game winning streak. As a group they account for 27 of the 64 goals scored, while their points range from 14 (Foligno) to 18 (Atkinson).
Among the four, only twice have any of them going as many as two consecutive games without a point (Wennberg and Foligno, each having done it once). As a group they have had more modest success against the Caps. Wennberg is 1-4-5, minus-7, in nine career games against the Washington; Foligno is 7-13-20, plus-1, in 28 career games; Saad is 5-3-8, even, in nine career games against the Caps; and Atkinson is 8-5-13, plus-6, in 15 games against Washington.
1. It’s not hard to see how the Blue Jackets have the best record in the league, being second in scoring offense (3.44 goals/game) and first in scoring defense (2.03 goals/game). What is staggering, though, is the fact their their goal differential is more than a third of a goal better than second-place Minnesota (1.41 to 1.05) and more than double that of the Caps, in fifth place at 0.67 goals/game. Even more impressive, it is more than a third of a goal per game better than the Caps’ differential in their President’s Trophy winning years of 2009-2010 (1.05 goals per game) and last season (0.69 goals/game).
2. OK, so they don’t do everything well. Columbus is 29th of 30 teams in team faceoff percentage (47.5 percent). Only Winnipeg is worse (47.3 percent). Then again, they don’t take many draws, either. They have the third-fewest faceoffs taken this season (2,162).
3. As lethal as the Columbus power play is, they do not get to unleash it that often, especially on the road. The Blue Jackets are 26th in the league in total power play chances on the road (49), although their power play ranks fifth in efficiency (24.5 percent)
4. Columbus has a similar ability to avoid shorthanded situations. With 53 man-disadvantages faced this season on the road, they are tied for the third-fewest number in the league (with St. Louis and Chicago).
5. Columbus is a decent, though not extraordinary possession team overall, ranking 13th in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (50.20 percent). On the road they are somewhat better in rankings at ninth with a Corsi-for of 51.10 (numbers from Corsica.hockey).
1. The Caps allowed three first period goals to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, but with a total of 17 goals allowed in the first periods of games this season, they still have the fewest first period goals allowed in the league. This will be one of those flash points to watch for. Columbus is second in first period goals scored this season (38).
2. The converse also applies. There is Columbus, tied for second in fewest first period goals allowed this season, but the Caps are tied for fourth with 33 first period goals scored.
3. Related to all this is the whole scoring first thing. Columbus and the Caps rank one-two in number of times scoring first, 25 times for the Blue Jackets and 24 for the Caps. They also happen to rank two-three in winning percentage in such games, Columbus at .800 (20-2-3) and the Caps at .750 (18-3-3).
4. If the Caps can keep the Blue Jackets and their comparatively weak penalty killing unit busy, things might go much easier. The Caps rank 10th in most power play chances on home ice this season (71 in 20 home games played).
5. The Caps continue to be a fine possession team on home ice, with a 52.97 Corsi-for at 5-on-5. Even adjusted for score, zone, and venue, the Caps rank fourth (52.07 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey).
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Columbus: Sergei Bobrovsky
Sergei Bobrovsky was named NHL Player of the Month of December on the basis of a 12-0-0 record, 1.75 goals against average, .939 save percentage. Among 35 goalies this season with at least 1,000 minutes played, he is first in wins (25), second in goals against average (1.92), second in save percentage (.934), and tied for fourth in shutouts (3). And even if he “regresses” to his level of play before the winning streak, it is not as if he was a slug. Through games of November 26th, he appeared in 18 games, had a record of 11-5-2, a 2.15 goals against average, a save percentage of .929, and had three shutouts. He’s been consistent, too. He gave up five goals on 36 shots in his first appearance this season, but he allowed more than three goals just twice in 31 appearances after that and has allowed one or fewer goals 13 times, including eight times in this winning streak. Right now, if you score on him, make sure you get it on video. Folks might not believe it. In 15 career appearances against Washington, Bobrovsky is 6-5-3, 2.98, .905.
Washington: Braden Holtby
Braden Holtby was relieved after one period after giving up three goals on eight shots on Tuesday night in the Caps’ 6-5 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the first time this season a Capitals goaltender was relieved in-game. It was the first time Holtby was pulled from the Verizon Center ice in a game since giving up three goals on 18 shots in 21:54 of playing time in a 4-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens last February 24th. But even with that hiccup on his season record, Holtby is still sixth among 35 goalies with at least 1,000 minutes of ice time in goals against (2.06), sixth in save percentage (.926), and tied for third in shutouts. Among 33 goalies playing n at least 20 games this season, Holtby is fifth in even strength save percentage (.935). If there is a concern, especially against an opponent that leads the league in power play efficiency, it is that Holtby’s save percentage in shorthanded situations (.856) ranks 23rd among that same group of 33 netminders. He is 8-3-2, 2.83, .900 in 14 career appearances against Columbus.
In the end…
This is the “irresistible force meets impenetrable object” game. Columbus has scored four or more goals 15 times this season in 36 games (with a ten-goal and an eight-goal game on their record), while Washington has allowed two or fewer goals in 22 of 37 games. There is also the league’s best power play against a team that has allowed just three goals in 47 shorthanded situations over their last 11 games (93.6 percent). The key here, though, might be an intangible, the degree to which the Blue Jackets have the Capitals’ attention to provide the home team with the incentive to play with passion and purpose from the opening puck drop. These are not your older brother’s Blue Jackets. If this is kept in mind, it will be a hard slog, but the Caps are more familiar with games like this against good opponents.
Capitals 2 – Blue Jackets 1