The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
More than 150 years ago, America went through a bit of nastiness that is often referred to in places below the Mason-Dixon Line as “The War of Northern Aggression.” It seems fitting that a hockey team representing a city in which many of the “blue jackets” worn by the northern aggressors were manufactured should be invading Verizon Center on Thursday night in what will be a pivotal battle in the war to finish atop the Metropolitan Division standings and perhaps in the war to capture the Presidents Trophy as the team that finishes at the top of the NHL league standings for the season.
And so it is that the Columbus Blue Jackets will face the Washington Capitals on Thursday night in what could be a game that will leave one or the other on top of the division and league standings at the final horn. Columbus will have played the previous night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a win in that game would tie them with the Caps in standings points going into the Thursday night matchup (edit: Columbus was defeated by the Maple Leafs, 5-2).
The Blue Jackets are the team that just won’t go away. One might have written off their 16-game winning streak that ended in Washington on January 5th as one of those things that happens, that the team would then fall back to earth. But Columbus is 20-13-2 since their big winning streak (still a 98-point pace). They come into this game winners of seven of their last eight games and have not lost consecutive games in six weeks (an overtime loss to Pittsburgh and a loss to New Jersey on February 3rd and 4th).
Over those 35 games since their big winning streak, the Blue Jackets have taken a collegial approach to scoring. Five players – Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, and Alexander Wennberg – all have 20 or more points in that span. Three – Atkinson, Nick Foligno, and Boone Jenner – have ten or more goals.
Cam Atkinson, the only player who shows up on both lists, is the team’s leading goal scorer over the last 35 games with 15. Three of them are game-winners, two of them in overtime. It is part of what has become a career year all around for the six-year veteran. Atkinson already has career highs in goals (33), assists (27), and points (60); and he is at the moment a career-best plus 14. His ten power play goals on the season almost equal his total in 159 games over the preceding two seasons (11). His 15.6 shooting percentage is another career high at the moment, and he is averaging more ice time than in any of his previous five seasons (18:10). He is that rare player who has been more dangerous on the road than at home, at least when it comes to goal scoring. Of his 33 goals this season, 19 have come on the road (in 35 games) to 14 at home (in 36 contests). Atkinson is 8-5-13, plus-3, in 16 career games against Washington.
Brandon Dubinsky, who hardly needs an introduction to Caps fans from his years with the New York Rangers, leads the team in points over this 35-game stretch (8-15-23). It has been quite a change from his first 34 games of the season, over which he was just 3-12-15. Long known as an ornery player with a talent for getting under the skin of more talented players, Dubinsky seems to be returning to those roots. He is on a pace to finish with more penalty minutes than he has had in any of the last two seasons, and with a big night or two could finish with his first 100-minute season of penalties since 2011-2012 (110 in 77 games with the Rangers). When Dubinsky does get on the score sheet he, like good secondary scorers, makes it count. Columbus is 25-3-3 in games in which he recorded a point so far this season. He is also equally efficient on the road as at home, going 6-13-19 in 34 road games and 5-14-19 in 35 home games. Dubinsky is 6-13-19, plus-2 in 32 career games against the Caps.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has come back to earth…well, closer to earth…since he went 15-0-1, 1.68, .939 from November 25th through January 3rd. Starting with his loss to the Caps on January 5th, he is 14-8-2, 2.20, .927 with three shutouts in 24 games. It is not bad, by any means, but that GAA is 10th among 50 goalies playing at least 500 minutes in that span, and his save percentage is sixth. Those numbers are more in line with his season numbers on the road (16-5-4, 2.26, .920, three shutouts), which are quite different than those he has at home (23-8-0, 1.88, .939, three shutouts). He is on another lengthy success streak, going 9-1-1, 1.45, .954, with three shutouts in his last 11 appearances. Bobrovsky is 6-6-3, 3.16, .899 against the Caps in 16 career appearances.
1. Since their 16-game winning streak ended, Columbus is 12th in the league in goal differential (plus-12), fourth-best among Eastern Conference teams currently qualifying for the playoffs, behind the Caps (plus-50), Pittsburgh (plus-28), and Boston (plus-17).
2. One noticeable problem area for Columbus since the winning streak ended is their power play. During the streak, their 28.2 percent power play was second in the league (Calgary was 33.3 percent over that same period). Since then, it is just 12.9 percent, third worst in the league over that span.
3. The Blue Jacket penalty kill, on the other hand, has actually improved since the streak. After going 79.6 percent in 16 straight wins (19th in the league during that period), Columbus is at 84.3 percent in the 35 games since (fourth).
4. The before and after with respect to the end of the streak has one entirely expected component. During the streak the Blue Jackets shot 12.1 percent as a team, second-best in the league (Minnesota was 12.3 percent over the same period). Since the streak, Columbus is shooting 9.2 percent, 15th in the league over that span.
5. Columbus is not an especially effective possession team at a high level. They rank just 14th overall in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 this season (50.26 percent). But adjusted for score, zone and venue, they rank fifth overall (51.34 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey).
1. California looms large in the recent fortunes of the Caps, but if you hold that trip harmless as another in a long history of unproductive trips to California, the Caps aren’t doing badly. If you take that three-game road trip out of their last 11 games overall, the Caps are 6-2-0, averaging 2.88 goals per game, allowing 1.88 goals per game, and have a special teams index of a whopping 119.2 (26.9 percent power play, 92.3 percent penalty kill). Moral?...no more games in California.
2. In those eight games, the Caps have had a dominating 268-214 edge in shots on goal overall (SF% of 55.6) and have recorded shots in three of their last five games not played in California (okay, all of them were at Verizon Center).
3. The Caps have allowed opponents a single power play opportunity in each of their last three games.
4. Washington is tied for the league lead in first period goals scored this season through Tuesday’s games (74)…with Columbus. The edge the Caps have is that they have allowed the fewest goals in the league in the first period (34), six fewer than the second-place team…Columbus.
5. The Capitals have the third-best adjusted Corsi-for (score, zone, and venue) in the league at 52.66 percent, behind only Boston (55.07 percent) and Los Angeles (53.66 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey).
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Columbus: Seth Jones
Since November 29th, when the Columbus Blue Jackets started their 16-game winning streak, Seth Jones is tied for tenth in the league among defensemen in scoring (7-26-33, the same scoring line as Kevin Shattenkirk it turns out). He is one of five defensemen over that span to record two overtime game-winning goals. Over those 51 games he is the team’s leader among defensemen in goals (seven), assists (26), points (33), and ice time (23:14 per game). He is the only Blue Jacket defenseman this season to average more than a minute per game on both the power play and the penalty kill. Jones, who was taken with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 entry draft by the Nashville Predators, is fifth among all players taken in that draft in scoring (122 career points) and well ahead of the second leading scorer from that draft among defensemen (Rasmus Ristolainen with 109 points). Even though he has played just 106 games for Columbus in his career, he is tied for ninth in career goals by a defenseman (12, with Nikita Nikitin), 11th in assists (47), and 11th in points (59). Among Blue Jacket defensemen having played at least 100 games for the franchise, Jones ranks third in plus-minus (plus-7). He is 1-3-4, even, in six career games against the Caps.
Washington: Justin Williams
Although the Caps seem to be righting themselves after that sluggish return from the February break, one player seems to have been left behind a bit. In 16 games since returning from that break, Justin Williams is 2-5-7, minus-1. Those two goals are as many as Tom Wilson and Daniel Winnik have (a pair of fourth liners), and as many as Jakub Vrana has (in just nine games). It is not that Williams has been gun-shy; he is averaging a little over two shots on goal per game. But he is shooting just 5.9 percent in those 16 games compared to 13.4 percent for the season. For the Caps, his production matters. Washington is 16-1-1 in games this season in which Williams scored a goal and have not lost any of the ten games on home ice in which he scored a goal. Williams is 9-13-22, plus-12, in 31 career games against Columbus.
In the end…
To continue the Civil War analogy, think of this game as the equivalent of the Second Battle of Manassas. In the First Battle of Manassas, early in the conflict, the Union thought the Confederates would be easy pickings. They were wrong, as the Confederates dominated the battle and sent the Union forces into a disorganized retreat. Columbus came to the First Battle of Verizon Center on a 16-game winning streak last January and was feeling pretty good about themselves. That ended smartly, the Caps posting a pair of first period goals and winning, going away, by a 5-0 margin to end the streak.
Given the way these teams have dominated first periods this season, the Second Battle of Verizon Center will be one to watch early. Which team do we think will dominate? Well, at the Second Battle of Manassas, the Union didn’t fare any better than in the first battle. Back to the north where you came from, damn Yankees…
Capitals 5 – Blue Jackets 2