Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 41: Penguins at Capitals, January 11th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Two of the hottest teams in the league – well, the league’s two hottest teams – renew an old and bitter rivalry on Wednesday night when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit Verizon Center to meet the Washington Capitals.  Pittsburgh will bring the league’s second-longest active winning streak to the contest – five games, trailing only the Caps, who have wins in their last six contests and points in their last seven.

As you might expect, Sidney Crosby leads the Penguins in both goals and total points in the five-game streak (3-4-7).  In one of the odd circumstances of his season so far, his league-leading 26 goals in 33 games is a 65-goal pace per 82 games (the number of goals Alex Ovechkin scored for a career-best in 2007-2008 in one of those Kennedy-Lincoln/Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences, in a manner of speaking).  Crosby has also shown a certain “Ovechkinian” consistency in his goal scoring, too.  He played his first 23 games this season without suffering consecutive games without a goal, and his season high streak without one is three games, a number he could tie if the Caps can keep him from finding the back of the net on Wednesday night.  Crosby is 19-36-55, plus-1, in 39 career games against the Caps.

Defenseman Kris Letang has points in seven of his last nine games (1-9-10).  Trouble for the Penguins is that he has only played in nine games since December 1st, missing seven games with a lower body injury.  It is his second bout with injuries this season, having missed five games to an upper body injury in late October.  And now, he is listed as "day-to-day" with what appears to be the flu.  His availability will be a game-time decision.  It is not as if the Penguins have suffered much in his absence, though.  The Penguins are 18-6-3 with Letang in the lineup; 8-2-2 when he is out of the lineup.  What might be of some concern to the club is the dropoff in his goal scoring from the blue line.  After posting double-digit goal totals or on a pace to do so (as in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season) in each of the last five seasons, he is on a pace to finish with eight goals this season.  He has one goal in his last 15 games.  Letang is 4-9-13, minus-15, in 29 career games against Washington.

With Matt Murray injured and in “day-to-day” status (he has not played since December 28th), the goaltending duties are squarely on the shoulders of Marc-Andre Fleury again.  He is riding a personal five-game winning streak into this contest with a 1.84 goals against average and a save percentage of .941.  He has been streaky this season, though.  Over his last 19 games, Fleury has a three-game winning streak followed by a six-game losing streak, then another three-game winning streak followed by a two-game losing streak before embarking on his current winning streak.  One thing that hasn’t been streaky, at least not in a good way for the Penguins, is his road record.  He is 2-3-3, 3.83, .886 in ten road appearances this season.  Against the Caps, Fleury has a career record of 20-11-2, 2.56, .914, with three shutouts in 35 appearances.

1.  Pittsburgh it taking a page from the Caps’ 2015-2016 notebook.  They have yet to lose consecutive games in regulation time this season.  Last season the Caps went the entire 82-game schedule without losing consecutive games in regulation. 

2.  Over their last 11 games, Penguin penalty killers are 31-for-34 in killing penalties (91.2 percent).

3.  Pittsburgh will pose a special challenge to the league’s top scoring defense.  The Penguins are averaging 4.38 goals per game over their last 16 contests and have scored more than five goals five times.

4.  Who scores first hardly seems to matter to the Pens.  When scoring first, they are 13-4-3 (.650 winning percentage).  When opponents score first, they are 13-4-2 (.684 winning percentage).

5.  For their sterling record, the Penguins are not an especially dominant possession team.  Overall, they rank tenth in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (51.40 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey), but they do seem to tighten up when on the road (52.50 percent/4th).

1.  On Thanksgiving, the Metropolitan Division standings looked like this:

After Monday’s games, the standings looked like this:

The records of the teams between Thanksgiving and Tuesday morning looked like this (ranked in order of points earned):

The Caps, playing at a slightly better pace (121 points) than they played over 82 games last season (120 points), lost ground to Columbus and barely tread water against Pittsburgh and the Rangers.  Is the Metro bonkers, or what?  You could have a Stanley Cup final four of these teams, at least the way they’ve played over the last six weeks, and not be cheated in terms of worthiness or talent.

2.  In the six-game winning streak, the Caps have outscored opponents by a 20-9 margin, are 2-for-14 on power plays (14.3 percent), and are 28-for-31 killing penalties (91.2 percent).  That minus-17 differential in power plays-to-shorthanded situations is a problem.

3.  The Caps are tied for first in the league in wins when outshooting their opponents (18, with Pittsburgh).  Both teams also happen to have seven wins and four losses in regulation when out-shot by opponents.

4.  For all the shorthanded situations faced, the Caps still have the sixth-fewest penalty minutes per game in the league (8:37), largely a product of there being only two teams having taken more major penalties than the Caps’ five such infractions (Chicago and Carolina with four apiece).

5.  Odd fact…only one team in the league (Colorado) has skated fewer 5-on-5 minutes than the Caps this season (1,800; numbers from Corsica.hockey).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh: Chris Kunitz

Time doesn’t wait for anyone, and it doesn’t seem to be inclined to wait much longer for the end of Chris Kunitz’ career.  After scoring a career-high of 35 goals in 2013-2014 (nine more than his next highest season and only 30-plus goal campaign), the 37-year old veteran of 13 seasons and almost a thousand regular and post-season NHL games has a total of 38 goals in 187 games since.  Once a very efficient shooter (he had only one season in his first nine full seasons below 10 percent shooting and that, in in 2009-2010, was 9.9 percent), he is down to 10.0 percent in his last two-plus seasons and currently at a career-low (for a full NHL seasons) 6.7 percent.  He has shown signs of life recently, recording goals in two of his last three games.  On the other hand, he hasn’t scored a goal on the road in more than two months (in a 5-0 win over the Sharks in San Jose on November 5th, his only road goal this season).  Kunitz is 10-8-18, plus-7, in 31 career games against the Capitals.

Washington: John Carlson

John Carlson’s mystery season continues.  It is not his worst scoring season, but it has so far interrupted the incremental progress he made in goal scoring and points on a per-game basis over the previous six seasons.  He is not having his worst plus-minus season, but it is a drop-off (plus-7) from what he posted last year (plus-16 in just 56 games).  It is not his worst possession season, but he is under 50 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (49.45) after a pair of seasons over 50 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey).  He is not logging an inordinate amount of ice time, his 23:23 in average ice time exceeded by last year’s average (23:42) and that of 2013-2014 (24:31), and is about one shift per game more than his career average (22:47).

But something seems, well…off with Carlson.  Perhaps it is his suffering in comparison to Mike Green as a power play quarterback, at least in fans’ eyes.  Perhaps it is unfortunate timing, his being on ice for critical goals (the Caps are 4-6-2 when he records a “minus” game).  Perhaps it is a lingering hangover (or injury) from his World Cup participation.  His ice time has been reined in a bit; he has had more than 24 minutes only twice in his last ten contests.  But that ice time does seem to matter somewhat, if only coincidentally.  The Caps are 12-3-1 in games in which he skated 23 minutes or less; 14-6-4 in games in which he skated more than 23 minutes.  In two games against the Penguins this season he skated more than 24 minutes in each, the Caps winning one and dropping the other in a Gimmick.  Go figure.  Carlson is 4-8-12, plus-7, in 26 career games against Pittsburgh.

In the end…

When the Penguins take the ice on Wednesday night, they will have played one game of hockey over the first ten days of January (a 6-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning last Sunday).  Rest or rust?  No matter.  The Caps need to jump on this team early, just as they did with a three-goal first period on their way to a 7-1 victory over the Penguins on November 16th.  And as for that five-game winning streak the Penguins are bringing into this game, they beat New Jersey in both ends of a home-and-home, Carolina, Montreal (in overtime), and Tampa Bay, Montreal the only one of those teams currently playoff-eligible.  They haven’t beaten a playoff-eligible club on the road since before Thanksgiving, when they beat the New York Rangers, 6-1, at Madison Square Garden on November 23rd.

The difficulty for the Caps, as it always is against this team in particular, is that they don’t know the difference between embracing the moment and getting lost in it.  Add in the attention being paid to Alex Ovechkin’s pursuit of his 1,000th NHL point in front of a national television audience, and being able to distinguish between the two and playing appropriately matters even more.  Lately, the Caps are a team that plays with focus and resolve, going 13-2-3 since they lost to the New York Islanders, 3-0, back on December 1st, the last time the Caps lost a game by more than one goal.  This could be a nail biter of a game.  Then again, it might not.  We’ll go with the latter.

Capitals 4 – Penguins 2

A TWO-Point Night -- Game 40: Washington Capitals 4 - Montreal Canadiens 1

The Washington Capitals went to Montreal with the mission of extending their winning streak to six games, tying their longest of the season.  Mission: accomplished.  The Caps scored three third period goals to break a 1-1 tie and defeat the Canadiens, 4-1, on Monday night at Bell Centre.

Nicklas Backstrom opened the scoring mid-way through the first period.  He started the play by digging out a loose puck in the corner to the right of goalie Carey Price and sliding it out to Alex Ovechkin at the left point.  Ovechkin leaned into a shot that Price stopped.  The rebound leaked out into the top of the crease where Backstrom was arriving.  He took the puck on his backhand and wrapped it around Price’s left pad to make it 1-0, 11:03 into the period.

That was where the score stood until the third period when the Canadiens tied the game on a power play, Tomas Plekanec solving the chaos in front of goalie Braden Holtby to stuff in a loose puck at 7:18 of the period.

Less than a minute later, the Caps had the lead for good on a sparkling play by Evgeny Kuznetsov.  Working his way around Max Pacioretty to collect a loose puck just outside the Montreal blue line, he then dangled around defenseman Jeff Petry to break in on Price.  He lifted a shot past Price’s blocker, and the Caps had a 2-1 lead 8:12 into the third period.

Brett Connolly increased the lead less than three minutes later.  Carey Price was a bit too lackadaisical in leaving the puck for Petry at the goal line to his right.  It was just the opportunity Kuznetsov took advantage of, darting in front of Petry to collect the puck and circle around the Canadiens’ net.  Coming out the other side, he spied Connolly coming into the offensive zone.  Connolly took Kuznetsov’s pass and snapped a shot past Price to make it 3-1 at the 11-minute mark.

The Caps closed the scoring late in the third on a power play.  NIcklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson exchanged passes on the right side before Backstrom stepped out and sent a pass across to Alex Ovechkin at the top of the left wing circle.  Ovechkin settled the puck and in one motion snapped a shot that snuck through and eluded Price’s glove on the far side to give the Caps a 4-1 win.

Other stuff…

-- The win allowed the Caps to jump over the New York Rangers into third place in the Metropolitan Division and tie the Pittsburgh Penguins in points (57).  Metropolitan Division teams now occupy the top four spots in the Eastern Conference standings.

-- Alex Ovechkin had a three point night (1-2-3) to bring him to within one point of 1,000 for his career.  It was Ovechkin’s first two-assist game of the season.  His goal was the 544th of his career, lifting him into a tie with the legendary Maurice “Rocket” Richard for 29th place all-time in NHL goal scoring.  Next in Ovechkin’s sights in the all-time rankings is Michel Goulet with 548 goals.

-- Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had two-point games.  For Backstrom it was his eighth multi-point game of the season, tying Marcus Johansson for the team lead.  It was Kuznetsov’s seventh such game.

-- Liam O’Brien saw his first action of the season after his recent call-up from Hershey.  He skated eight shifts and was the only Capital without a shot on goal (he did not have a shot attempt in 6:08 of ice time).

-- Brett Connolly’s fifth goal of the season came in another win.  That’s 5-for-5 for Connolly in terms of goals and wins, and the Caps are 19-5-2 with him in the lineup.

-- The Caps enjoyed a 39-23 edge in shots on goal, their biggest shot differential on the road this season.

-- Karl Alzner had a good night in the underlying numbers, finishing a team-best plus-3 and blocking six of the 24 shots the Caps blocked on the evening.

-- The Caps were 4-for-4 on the penalty kill, extending their recent run of success to 56-for-59 in their last 14 games (94.9 percent).

-- Braden Holtby’s shutout streak ended at 167:18 when Tomas Plekanec scored in the third period.  Nevertheless, he is 5-0-1, 1.11, .957, with two shutouts in his last six games.

-- The Caps enjoyed a 68-62 overall shot attempt advantage over Montreal, 56-47 at 5-on-5 (CF% of 54.37 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey).

In the end…

Even with T.J. Oshie out with an injury, the Caps kept humming along in one of the less friendly venues for road teams in the NHL.  If anything, the Caps got stronger as the game went on, dominating the shot attempts from the 30-minute mark on.  If there was a dark spot in that regard, it was that the fourth line of Jay Beagle, Daniel Winnik, and Tom Wilson, along with the defensive pair of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, were all under 50 percent CF at fives, the only Caps to do so.

Nevertheless, the Caps took advantage of a depleted team and abused goalie Carey Price far more than they did in their previous meeting, when the Caps managed only 21 shots in a 2-1 loss.  The four goals allowed by Price tied his season high, while the 39 shots the Caps fired at him was the fourth-highest total he has faced (it might be worth noting that in the three games with higher shot totals, Price was 2-0-1). 

It was a good start to the week, but now things get harder with the Pittsburgh Penguins coming to town on Thursday night.  It will present an opportunity – two in fact.  Alex Ovechkin could reach the 1,000 point mark in his career, and more important, the Caps could jump over the Penguins into second place in the Metropolitan Division with the Columbus Blue Jackets the only team remaining between them and the best record in the league.