The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The perpetrator returns to the scene of the crime. On Wednesday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins return to Capital One Arena, where five months and a day ago, they demolished the Stanley Cup dreams of Capitals Nation with a 2-0 Game 7 win over the Caps in their Eastern Conference semi-final series.
A win for the Capitals in this mid-week intradivisional scrap would do little to assuage the bitterness of that postseason defeat, but a win over the Penguins is never a bad thing. And the Caps, despite giving up a 3-1 lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning before losing a 4-3 overtime decision, catch the Penguins in something of a nether space between Cup hangover and righting their ship (or, given the Penguins, ice floe).
The Caps lead the Metropolitan Division at this early juncture with a 2-0-1 record, while the Penguins waddle into Capital One Arena fresh off a 4-0 gobsmacking of the Nashville Predators in a reprise of last spring’s Stanley Cup final. The shutout was certainly welcome for the Pens, who allowed 15 goals in their first two contests, including a 10-1 shellacking by the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center last Thursday.
As it is, the Penguins still come into this game with the worst scoring defense in the league (5.00 goals allowed per game, tied with the Winnipeg Jets through Monday's games). And as one might expect, goaltending is a bit of an issue. With the departure of Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights, the keys to the car have been put in the hands of Matt Murray, who certainly has demonstrated his playoff mettle, going 22-9, 1.95, .928, with four shutouts in 32 postseason appearances over the last two seasons. He has found the early going this season a bit rougher, posting a 1-0-1, 3.84, .879 record in three appearances. It isn’t as rough as his regular season record against the Caps: 2-2-0, 4.43, .862 in four appearances.
What it is, is considerably better than his backup. Antti Niemi was signed to assume Murray’s spot as the backup after the latter’s elevation to the number one spot. So far, he has logged a little over nine minutes of play and allowed four goals on 13 shots (.692 save percentage). It is not the start one might have desired for a player who last season with the Dallas Stars went 12-12-4, 3.30, .892. It signals a disturbing trend toward mediocrity...or worse. His goals-against average and save percentage were the worst of any of his eight full seasons in the NHL, and for the first time in those eight seasons he failed to post a single shutout. If there is one thing arguing for Niemi getting the call against the Caps, it is that he has never lost to the Caps in regulation in eight appearances, posting a 5-0-3, 2.52, .912 record with one shutout.
1. It’s three games in, but who had “Olli Maatta” as the Penguins’ leading goal scorer? He has two; seven other players have one apiece.
2. None of those other players happens to be defenseman and perennial Norris candidate Kris Letang, who has yet to record a point in three games, despite averaging more than 25 minutes in ice time and being second on the team in shots on goal with 12 (Phil Kessel has 13). He is also a team-worst minus-5.
3. The Penguins have had a hard time playing well with others. Their 15 shorthanded situations faced through Monday’s games is topped only by the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 17 such situations. They have not yet allowed a road power play goal though, going 6-for-6. Oddly enough, they did that in the 10-1 pasting the Blackhawks put on them last week.
4. Not known as an especially physical team, the Penguins are nevertheless ranked second in credited hits through Monday’s games (90). Only the St. Louis Blues have been credited with more (97). Pair that with the fact that the Pens have the third-highest total of blocked shots (48), and it appears they are chasing the puck more than carrying the puck.
5. Odd Power Play Fact… The Penguins are the only team in the league thus far with two goals scored at 5-on-3. They do not have a 5-on-4 power play goal.
1. Last season, the Caps lost just two of 43 games in which they led after two periods, one in regulation and one in overtime. They are half-way there with their overtime loss to Tampa Bay on Monday night.
2. Washington has the second-worst shots on goal differential in the league through Monday’s games. Their minus-11.3 shot differential per game is ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes (minus-12.5).
3. The Caps are winning 57.3 percent of their even strength draws. Think that leads the league? Nope, not close. Boston is an insane 63-for-90 (70.0 percent).
4. That the Caps have a talented top six is pretty much a given. Need further proof? Their top five point-getters are in the forward top six (Evgeny Kuznetsov – 8; Alex Ovechkin – 7; Nicklas Backstrom – 5; T.J. Oshie – 4; Jakub Vrana – 3).
5. The Caps are one of three teams in the early going with at least 10 even strength goals. They are third with ten, with Toronto (12) and Chicago (16) ahead of them.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Pittsburgh: Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin, a gifted player with a hall of fame pedigree, has always occupied an odd place in the NHL and with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The word association exercise is not hard. Malkin is to Sidney Crosby as... Scottie Pippen is to Michael Jordan, or as Don Drysdale is to Sandy Koufax, or as Billy Kilmer is to Sonny Jurgensen. He has been a necessary, even essential ingredient to the Penguins’ success since he came into the league in the 2006-2007 season, but he has played that role as the “other guy” to a degree. And now, in his 12th NHL season, all with the Pens, he finds himself almost an oddly anonymous resident among the franchise’s all-time rankings:
- Games played: 709 (6th)
- Goals: 329 (4th)
- Assists: 507 (4th)
- Points: 836 (4th)
- Plus-Minus: plus-73 (10th)
- Game-winning goals: 57 (3rd)
- Power play goals: 119 (2nd)
Even as injuries have kept him under 70 games in a season five times in 11 full seasons (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season), he is among the most prolific offensive players of his era. Only once in 12 seasons has he averaged less than a point a game (37 points in 43 games of the 2010-2011 season). But, he has had something of a shadow cast upon him by Alex Ovechkin, drafted ahead of him in 2004, and by the white-hot light of Sidney Crosby, who has been the face of the franchise since he was drafted in 2005. It seems unlikely his lot in life in the NHL will change, just as it seems unlikely his march up the franchise’s all-time rankings will be halted. Malkin is 16-35-51, even, in 36 career games against Washington.
Washington: Andre Burakovsky
We noted above that the Caps’ top five point getters so far this season are among the team’s top-six forwards. The odd man out so far is Andre Burakovsky, who is 0-2-2 so far (ok, he is tied with John Carlson for sixth in points so far). Part of the problem could be that he is part of an entirely reworked second line. Last year’s line of Marcus Johansson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Justin Williams has been replaced with Burakovsky, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie. At least through three games, the chemistry on that line has not come as easily as it has for the top line, although all three members of that line recorded points against Tampa Bay in the 4-3 overtime loss on Monday night. Burakovsky, though, is being counted on to fill some of the goal scoring production lost with the departures of Williams and Johansson, but as yet he has just three shots on goal in three games without lighting the red light. Burakovsky is 5-4-9, plus-1, in 12 career games against Pittsburgh.
In the end…
The Penguins and Capitals is billed as a “rivalry” game, but this has become a rivalry in a somewhat perfunctory sense. The Caps have enjoyed a measure of success against the Pens in the regular season, going 19-11-6 against the Penguins since the 2008-2009 season. But then they go toes up in the playoffs, eliminated three times in three series against the Pens over that span, postseasons that ended in Penguin Stanley Cups.
In that sense, there might be a certain ambivalence attached to this contest. Sure, it is never a bad thing to beat the Penguins, but let’s not make too much of it, either. The way the NHL chose to organize itself means that for the Caps, the road to a Stanley Cup almost certainly goes through Pittsburgh, and crossing that bridge (it’s a Three Rivers thing) is not something they will get to for months. Still…
Capitals 3 – Penguins 2