A dozen weeks are in the books for the Washington Capitals, and Week 12 was among the strangest. Despite scoring, stingy defense, and a lock-down penalty kill, the Caps managed only a .500 result in Week 12.
Despite finishing the week with the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference, the Caps remained in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and lost another point in ground to the division-leading Columbus Blue Jackets, who finished their week on a 15-game winning streak of their own. What is worse, the Caps completed that 1-1-1 record for the week against three teams in their own division. Well, two teams, since they split a home-and-home set with the New Jersey Devils, the division’s last-place team at week’s end. The Caps finished Week 12 with a division record of 5-5-4. The 6-2 win over New Jersey to close the week broke a three-game division losing streak for the Caps (0-1-2).
Offense: 3.33/game (season: 2.74 /game; rank: 13th)
A week averaging 3.33 goals per game usually ends better than a 1-1-1 record, but when six of those goals come in one game, the lack of consistency shows up in the record. They scored those six goals against a backup goaltender – New Jersey’s Keith Kinkaid – who stymied them with 43 saves on 44 shots and another two saves in the Gimmick in the first of the two meetings with the Devils this week, and they were held to three goals on 34 shots against a goalie who was waived later in the week and sent to the AHL when he cleared the waiver wire. True, Jaroslav Halak is something of a demon in Capitals lore, but still.
Alex Ovechkin and Justin Williams each had a pair of goals and a pair of assists to lead the Caps in goals and points for the week. Eight different Caps recorded goals, including a shorthanded goal by Daniel Winnik for the only goal in Thursday night’s game against the Devils. There were 14 different skaters recording points for the week, Matt Niskanen leading the team in assists with three.
On the milestone watch…
- Nicklas Backstrom inched closer to 500 career assists with his 498th helper, recorded on Saturday afternoon in the 6-2 win over New Jersey. He also was a plus-1 in that game, allowing him to return to a career plus-100, only the second Capital in team history to record a career plus-minus of plus-100 or better (Rod Langway was plus-117).
- Alex Ovechkin closed to within six points of 1,000 for his career with his four-point week.
- John Carlson’s assist for the week drew him to within four points of 250 for his career.
- Matt Niskanen passed the 200 assist mark for his career (201) with three assists for the week.
Defense: 2.33/game (season: 2.09 /game; rank: 3rd)
The Caps tightened the screws on defense as the week wore on, shots-wise. After allowing the New York Islanders 31 shots on goal in the first game of the week, the Caps held the Devils to 27, then 23 shots to close the week. When the Caps ended the week with a 6-2 win over New Jersey, they finished December not having allowed more than three goals in regulation time in any of the 14 games played for the month. The two games holding opponents to fewer than 30 shots were the seventh and eighth times they accomplished that feat in December, and the 22nd and 23rd times in 35 games they have done it this season. Only five teams have done it more times through the end of Week 12.
The Caps held opponents to 110 shot attempts at 5-on-5 for the week, which contributed to a 54.7 percent Corsi-for at fives for the week (numbers from Corsica.hockey). It was a frustrating result, in particular because the Caps held the Devils to 34 shot attempts at 5-on-5 in the first meeting of the clubs for the week while recording 54 of their own, then losing in the freestyle competition. The Caps were just as stingy, in fact more so, in the second meeting of the clubs for the week, allowing just 31 shot attempts at 5-on-5 and recording only 34 of their own. But, 6-2. Hockey…go figure.
Goaltending: 2.30 / .914 (season: 2.02 / .927 / 4 SO)
It is a measure of just how good the goaltending has been for the Capitals this season when a week with a 2.30 goals against average might be considered sub-par. If there was a problem, it was in decreasing save percentages across the periods for the week. Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer posted a combined sterling save percentage of .957 in the first periods of games for the week (22-for-23). The second periods were a more pedestrian .900 (27-for-30), and the third periods were a rather poor .857 (21 for 24), although one of those goals came with the Caps holding a 5-1 third period lead over the Devils in the last game of the week.
As it is, however, among 54 goaltenders having played in at least 400 minutes this season, the Caps are the only club in the league with two – Holtby and Grubauer – in the top ten in save percentage (.928 and .932, respectively).
Power Play: 0-for-12 / 0.0 percent (season: 17.0 percent; rank: 18th)
The ineffective Capitals power play is one of the persistent mysteries of this NHL season. For a time, it looked as if the Caps were coming out of their stupor, going 8-for-21 (38.1 percent) in Weeks 9 and 10. The 0-for-12 finish in Week 12 makes the Caps 0-for-15 over their last two weeks. Compounding the problem is the relative infrequency with which the Caps find themselves on the man advantage. The 12 chances in three games tied for the most chances per game in any week this season (they had 12 chances in two games in Week 8).
It was not an especially efficient power play, either, with a caveat. The Caps managed just 14 shots on goal in 16:51 of power play ice time, including a no-shots performance against the Devils on Saturday to close the week. However, while the Caps went 0-for-4 on the power play in that game and recorded no shots on goal, they had only 1:42 in total power play ice time, the longest power play lasting 1:01 and two “power plays” lasting less than ten seconds. It only makes it a less bad week on the power play, not a good one.
Penalty Killing: 17-for-17 / 100.0 percent (season: 86.9 percent; rank: 3rd)
“Good” doesn’t really described the Caps’ penalty kill at the moment. Adjectives such as “excellent” or “superb” would be more fitting, with another caveat. In pitching three shutouts on the penalty kill for the week, the Caps extended their string of games not allowing a power play goal to six and the consecutive power plays killed off to 25, going back to the third period of a 4-3 trick shot win over the Carolina Hurricanes on December 16th. The Caps had a very efficient penalty kill, holding opponents to 14 shots on goal for the week. It was so good that in the middle game of the week, the 2-1 Gimmick loss to New Jersey, the Caps had as many shots shorthanded as the Devils had on their own power play (four), and the Caps had the only special teams goal of that game, a shorthanded tally by Daniel Winnik.
There was a blemish, though. Those 14 shots on goal came in 27:12 of shorthanded ice time, which is entirely too much, even if it is a perverse indicator of the penalty-killing success. It might have been worse, given that the Caps were shorthanded 17 times in three games, tying Week 7 for most shorthanded situations faced. But unlike Week 7, when the Caps faced those 17 situations in four games, the Caps did it in just three games in Week 12.
Faceoffs: 90-for-185 / 49.1 percent (season: 50.3% / rank: 11th)
It was not a good week in the circle for the Caps, but neither was it a terrible one. They beat the Islanders in the first game of the week, but then lost both games within the games to the Devils on Thursday and Saturday. There was a distinct display of opposites in the offensive and defensive zones where the Caps finished the week at 53.8 percent in the former and 43.8 percent in the latter.
A different set of opposites were on display at an individual level. The usual suspects did well and did poorly. Among skaters taking at least ten draws, there were Nicklas Backstrom (54.9 percent) and Jay Beagle (59.1 percent) well over 50 percent for the week. On the other hand, there were Lars Eller (41.5 percent) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (43.9 percent) well under 50 percent for the week. That is pretty much how the season has unfolded for these four players, who are the top four Capitals in faceoffs taken. There are Backstrom (52.9 percent) and Beagle (59.7 percent; fourth in the league among players taking at least 350 draws) comfortably over 50 percent, and then there are Eller (47.0 percent) and Kuznetsov (41.6 percent, 83rd of 84 players taking at least 350 draws) well under that mark.
Goals by Period:
Two things jump out from the week in goals scored by period – consistency on offense and stinginess in the first period on defense. Some of that is tempered by scoring all three of their second period goals for the week in the last game, the 6-2 win over the Devils. On the other hand, the Caps scored goals in all three third periods for the week, including that shorthanded goal that forced overtime and kept the Caps from a losing week overall. The three goals allowed in the third periods of games is tempered as well by allowing one in what was to be a blowout win; the Caps held a 5-1 lead on the Devils on Saturday when they allowed a goal. But the two allowed to the New York Islanders to start the week were troublesome, especially since they were scored less than a minute apart to break a 2-2 tie and give the Islanders a 4-2 lead in what would be a 4-3 loss for the Caps. The Capitals finished the week tied with Los Angeles for the eighth-fewest third period goals allowed, but it is the highest volume period for the Caps so far this season, constituting 41 percent of the 73 total goals allowed by the club.
In the end…
The 2016 portion of the season ended with the Caps having 21 wins. It is the eight club in team history to post more than 20 wins before New Year’s Day, and of those teams it is the one with the second-fewest losses in regulation time (nine), finishing with more such losses than only last year’s club that was 28-7-2 before New Year’s Day 2016.
Nevertheless, the club stumbled a bit into the new year, winning only two of five games over the last two weeks of the 2016 portion of the season. The Caps are in no immediate danger of falling out of the playoff mix; they are five points ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning with three games in hand. However, Tampa Bay and the Florida Panthers (two points behind the Lightning) – two playoff teams from last season – are lurking out there, as are the rejuvenated Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes (each one point behind Florida). Nothing is certain, and the schedule, which has been kind to the Caps in the frequency of games this season (the Caps are tied with Toronto and the Columbus Blue Jackets for fewest games played (35)), begins to stack up after the first of the season when the Caps have only two instances in the first six weeks of the new calendar year when they have as many as two days off between games, not including the All-Star game break.
That is what makes Week 12 a bit disappointing. The Caps had a chance to take advantage of the lower dwellers of the Metropolitan Division and build momentum heading into the new year. Instead, they managed just three of a possible six standings points and lost a bit more ground to teams in front of them in the division standings. Keep in mind that the three teams in front of the Caps – Columbus, Pittsburgh, and the Rangers – went a combined 36-6-2 in the month of December, while the Caps went a respectable 8-3-3 (that is a 111-point pace over a full season). It just serves to show how hard it is to succeed over an 82-game regular season and points out that the regular season is not a meaningless exercise. That might be the lesson of Week 12.
- First Star: Justin Williams (2-2-4, plus-2, 11 shots on goal, 14 shot attempts, three blocked shots)
- Second Star: Jay Beagle (1-2-3, plus-3, points in all three games, “plus” in all three games, 26-for-44 on faceoffs (59.1 percent), two hits, two blocked shots)
- Third Star: Alex Ovechkin (2-2-4, even, 15 shots on goal, 27 shot attempts, four hits, two blocked shots)