Sunday, January 08, 2017

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 13

Record-wise, the 4-0-0 record in Week 13 for the Washington Capitals was as good as it gets.  Add to that the fact that in doing so they beat the league’s hottest team and had a player make some history, and it was an even better week.  But that number 13 – the unlucky number – had its influence as well as a lingering problem continues to do so, and a key element suffered a re-injury of one he had a couple of months ago. 

Record: 4-0-0

The Caps posted their second four-win week of the season, their first since Week 4, adding to a winning streak that reached five games by week’s end.  That streak is now the longest active winning streak in the league.  For all the offensive sluggishness that settled on the Caps in the first part of the season – Alex Ovechkin’s lackluster (for him) production, the curious ineffectiveness of the power play – they are only six standings points 55 points/25-9-5) off the torrid pace they set last season through 39 games (61 points/29-7-3).  And only last year’s team got to 25 wins faster (in 33 games on a 25-6-2 record) than this team in 39 games (three other Caps teams reached 25 wins in 39 games: 1985-1986, 1991-1992, and 2008-2009).

Offense:  3.50/game (season: 2.82 /game; rank: 9th)

Scoring 14 goals in four games is not a bad thing, but it might have been better had the Caps not played the Ottawa Senators to begin and end the week.  The Caps scored a total of three goals in those two games, a 2-1 win to start the week and a 1-0 win to finish it.  In between, the Caps lit up the Toronto Maple Leafs for six goals in a come-from-behind 6-5 win in overtime, then they torched the Columbus Blue Jackets for five in a 5-0 win to break the Blue Jackets’ winning streak at 16 games, second longest in-season streak in NHL history.  It was only the third time this season that Columbus allowed five or more goals in a game.

There was balance in the Caps’ offense for the week.  Eleven different players scored goals, and 18 different skaters recorded points.  What was particularly noteworthy about the scoring was that defensemen accounted for six goals and seven assists.  Three Caps finished the week with a pair of goals – Justin Williams, John Carlson, and T.J. Oshie.  Evgeny Kuznetsov led in points overall (1-5-6).

On the downside, the Caps suffered what could be an important blow to their lineup.  In the last game of the week, T.J. Oshie took a big hit on his shoulder from Ottawa defenseman Dion Phaneuf, then took some more abuse from Phaneuf later in the second period that put him on the shelf for the rest of the contest.  It looked to be the same shoulder he injured against Detroit earlier this season.  That, and the flu that appears to be going through the Caps’ locker room, pose just more challenges to fight through. 

The highlight of the week was in the first period of the last game of the week.  Just 98 seconds into the game, Nicklas Backstrom wrote himself into the Capitals’ and the NHL’s history books with his 500th career assist:

As we pointed out in the recap of the game, “Backstrom reached that mark in his 691st game with the club.  As Craig Laughlin noted in the Caps telecast, only Peter Forsberg among players born in Sweden reached the 500-assist mark in fewer games than Nicklas Backstrom.  Forsberg did it is 551 games.  And, as Laughlin pointed out, only two active players – Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby – got to 500 sooner than Backstrom.  Jagr did it in 642 games, while Crosby did it in 554 games.  It's a lot of apples.”

Defense: 1.50/game (season: 2.03 /game; rank: 1st)

When the Capitals shutout the Ottawa Senators, 1-0, to end Week 13, it was the tenth time in the post-2004-2005 lockout era that the team won a 1-0 game, the second time they did it against the Senators (they did it on April 1, 2006).  It ended a week in which the Caps played three games in which they limited opponents to one or fewer goals.  That brings the total this season to 12 such games, wins in all of them.  The effort reduced the Caps’ scoring defense to 2.03 goals per game, best in the league and, at the moment, the third lowest for a season since that same 2004-2005 lockout season (St. Louis had a 1.89 goals/game against in 2011-2012, and Chicago had a 2.02 mark in 2012-2013).

The blemish on the record, though, was that the Caps barely won the week in possession, and that was entirely a product of the overwhelming shot attempt advantage they had over Toronto in the second game of the week.  The Caps finished the week with a 50.7 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, but they had a 46-31 in shot attempts at fives against the Maple Leafs (59.7%).  The Caps were underwater in the other three games (numbers from

The presence for goals against was spread around rather liberally.  Fifteen different skaters were on ice for goals against, the fourth line of Daniel Winnik, Tom Wilson, and Jay Beagle on ice for three apiece, and the defensive pair of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik doing the same.

Goaltending:  1.50 / .944 / 2 shutouts (season: 1.93 / .930 / 6 SO)

By the end of Week 13, the Capitals have the best goaltending overall in the NHL.  With apologies to Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk, who leads the NHL in goals against average (1.82) and save percentage (.939) among 50 goalies with at least 500 minutes of ice time, Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have established themselves as the premier tandem in the league.   Even with what might be characterized as a bad game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second game of the week, one in which Holtby was relieved after 20 minutes and the two goalies combined for just 20 saves on 25 shots faced, a 1.50 goals against average and .944 save percentage is exceptional.

Most of that is due to Holtby, who in the three complete games he played stopped 82 of 83 shots.   The three games in which Holtby allowed one or fewer goals brought his total for the season to 11 (complete games only).  Only four goalies in the league have more.  The best part of all, overall, might have been how the Caps's save percentage improved on a period-to-period basis for the week.  They finished with a .919 save percentage in the first periods of games, .949 in the second periods, and .969 in the third periods (Grubauer faced no shots in overtime in the win over Toronto).

Power Play: 1-for-10 / 10.0 percent (season: 16.4 percent; rank: 21st)

How bad is the Caps’ power play?  Last season they did not finish a single one of 26 weeks with a season power play below 20.0 percent.  Through 13 weeks this season, the Caps power play has yet to finish a week at or above 20 percent for the season, and their season number has dropped in each of the last three weeks (overall going 1-for-25/4.0 percent).

Week 13 was little better.  Washington did break a five-game streak without a power play goal when they opened the scoring against Toronto with a Justin Williams power play strike.  But that was a brief respite from the gloomy results, finishing the week with a pair of games without a power play goal.

Going 1-for-10 for the week left the Caps just 1-for-25 over their last nine games, and in Week 13 they were woefully inefficient.  On ten power plays they managed only eight shots in 16:28 of power play ice time.  What is remarkable about the shots is not the distribution – six different Caps recorded power play shots on goal – but that Alex Ovechkin had just two power play shots in 11:48 of ice time.

Penalty Killing: 16-for-18 / 88.9 percent (season: 87.1 percent; rank: 3rd)

As bad as the power play has been, the penalty kill has been good.  Even the hiccup shined a light on how good the penalty killers have been.  The two power play goals allowed to the Maple Leafs was the first time the Caps allowed more than one power play goal in a game since November 20th, when the Columbus Blue Jackets touched the Caps for a pair in a 3-2 win over the Caps (a span of 18 straight games allowing just one or fewer power play goals, over which time they went 65-for-71 (91.5 percent)).

And it has all been about denying shots.  In the four games, the Caps allowed opponents just 21 shots in 30:38 of shorthanded ice time.  And that shorthanded ice time included having to kill a full two-minute 3-on-5 shorthanded situation against Ottawa in the third period of the first game of the week, then a 3-on-5 situation against the Columbus Blue Jackets lasting 1:03.  In both instances, the Caps killed off the disadvantage. From a team perspective, this is arguably the best and most consistent part of the Caps’ game at the moment.

Faceoffs: 111-for-233 / 47.6 percent (season: 50.1% / rank: 13th)

It was not an especially good week for the Caps in the faceoff circle, although it was not quite as bad as it looked.  The Caps did well in the second and fourth games of the week, posting 50-plus percent marks against Toronto (56.3 percent) and Ottawa (52.6 percent), but falling under that bar in the first and third games of the week against the Senators (38.9 percent) and Columbus (41.4 percent. 

The problem was winning draws in the offensive zone, where the Caps finished the week 29-for-74 (39.2 percent).  Only in the second game against Ottawa of the week did the Caps reach 50 percent in the offensive zone (10-for-20).  They finished above 50 percent in the defensive zone for the week (51.1 percent) and in the neutral zone (52.1 percent). 

The “big four” in terms of draws taken – Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller, Jay Beagle, and Evgeny Kuznetsov – split their ways in who was over or under 50 percent, but not in the usual distribution.  Backstrom (46.3 percent) and Eller (38.1 percent) were short of 50 percent for the week, while Jay Beagle (56.5 percent) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (58.5 percent) won more than half their draws.  Kuznetsov’s week was especially surprising, in a pleasant way, since even at the end of the week he ranked 106th of 110 players taking at least 250 draws in winning percentage (42.9 percent).

Goals by Period:

First periods continue to be good for the Caps.  Even with allowing three goals to the Maple Leafs in the first period of the 6-5 overtime win, part of a 5-3 advantage in first period goals scored for the week, the Caps finished the week with the fewest first period goals allowed in the league (17) and the second-best first period goal differential (plus-19’; Columbus is plus-20). 

However, don’t underestimate the late-game effectiveness of the Caps.  In the third period and overtime, the Caps won the week, 6-1.  The one goal allowed in the third period and overtime over the four games left the Caps with 32 goals allowed in the third period and overtime of games this season.  Only the Pittsburgh Penguins have allowed fewer (28).

In the end…

It was by no means an easy week.  Games every other day is a nice rhythm to have, but four-game weeks can be a burden.  Add to that the fact that the week presented such variety in the nature of opponents.  Twice the Caps had to face a team (Ottawa) that plays a very deliberate, grinding style. On the other hand, they also faced one of those young, frisky teams with skill, speed, and a desire to make a reputation (Toronto) that can be a real pain in the neck for a veteran team. So much skating and shooting and celebrating.  Then there were the Columbus Blue Jackets, looking to make some history in tying the longest in-season winning streak in NHL history (17 games, set by the 1991-1992 Pittsburgh Penguins).  For the Caps, it was a statement game against a team at the top of its game and that already beat the Caps twice this season. 

It won’t get any easier, though.  The Caps have a three-game week ahead of them in which they face the Montreal Canadiens, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Chicago Blackhawks, each of which has 25 wins and carry a combined record of 75-29-16.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Braden Holtby (3-0-0, 1.20, .956, two shutouts)
  • Second Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (1-5-6, plus-5, 10 shots on goal, 14 shot attempts, 24-for-41 on faceoffs/58.5 percent)
  • Third Star: Justin Williams (2-3-5, plus-6, eight shots on goal, 16 shot attempts)

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