Sunday, December 31, 2017

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

With Week 13 for the Washington Capitals in the books, the Caps brought down the curtain on the 2017 portion of their 2017-2018 season.  It was an odd week, an historic week, and ultimately a successful week that left the Caps at the top of the Metropolitan Division as the year comes to a close.

Record: 2-0-1

Say what you will about the Caps’ shortcomings – they have bad possession numbers, they aren’t as deep as last season, etc. – but they grind out points.  Week 13 was their tenth consecutive week at .500 or better in standings points earned of standings points available, and they are 20-9-2 over that span.  It was just the third week in 13 in which they did not lose a game in regulation, but it was the eighth time that they recorded at least two wins in a week. 

The odd part of the week for the Caps was in their first game, a 1-0 Gimmick loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.  The teams played 65 minutes without a goal being scored, leaving things to the Gimmick.  The Rangers won in the freestyle phase, the second time in the Gimmick era that the Caps played to a 0-0 tie after 65 minutes.  They lost their other instance, that to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the season finale of the 2013-2014 season.

The Caps would go to extra time in their following contest, a 4-3 trick shot win over the Boston Bruins that was their fifth extra time game in six contests, an odd occurrence in itself, given that the Caps had played extra time in five of their first 33 games.

Washington would not need extra time to defeat the New Jersey Devils, 5-2, to end the week and tie the Tampa Bay Lightning for the most home wins this season (16).  It also left the Caps with a 6-3-1 record against the Metropolitan Division to end the year. On an individual level, it was Barry Trotz' 737th win as an NHL head coach, breaking a tie with Lindy Ruff for fifth-place on the all-time coaches' win rankings.

Offense: 2.67 /game (season: 3.00 /game, rank: T-11th)

It was not a big week for the Caps on the offensive side of things, but they did spread it around.  Eight goals scored, eight different players scoring them.  And even there it was good balance among centers (Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller), wingers (Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, Brett Connolly), and defensemen (John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Christian Djoos).  Eleven different players finished the week with points, Ovechkin (1-3-4) and Carlson (1-3-4) leading the group with four points apiece.

Djoos’ two-point week lifted him in the scoring rankings among rookie defensemen.  His third goal of the season placed him in a tie for third place in goal scoring among that group, and adding an assist for the week put him in a tie for fifth in points among rookie defenseman (eight).  He shares that ranking with teammate Madison Bowey, making the Caps the only team in the league with two rookie defensemen among the top five in points.  Djoos is also fifth in that group in plus-minus (plus-8).

Tom Wilson’s two-point week (1-1-2) gave him six goals for the season, one within his career high, and left him sixth on the team in points (6-12-18), a reflection of his continued improvement and assumption of more responsibility.  His plus-11 is second-best on the team (Matt Niskanen: plus-15).

Multi-point games were the noteworthy item in the week’s last game, the 5-2 win over the Devils.  Alex Ovechkin (0-3-3), John Carlson (1-2-3), and Nicklas Backstrom (1-2-3) finished with three-points against New Jersey.  It was the second time this season that the Caps had three players with three-point games (Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Tom Wilson in a 6-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on December 6th).  Christian Djoos’ goal and an assist gave the Caps four players with multi-point games against New Jersey, tying their season high in players with two or more points. One of those times was against the Devils, in a 5-2 win on October 13th.

Defense: 1.67 / game (season: 2.80 /game, rank: 13th)

At the end of October, the Caps had allowed the sixth-most number of shot attempts at 5-on-5.  That number has not improved with time, and Week 13 was an example.  The Caps allowed 139 shot attempts at 5-on-5 for the week, third-most in the league, leaving them having allowed the fourth-highest number of 5-on-5 shot attempts this season.  The silver lining here is that the Caps did not deteriorate through the week, allowing 49 5-on-5 shot attempts to the Rangers, 40 to the Boston Bruins, and 50 to the New Jersey Devils, and their SAT percentages improved through the week – 46.74 against New York, 48.72 against Boston, and 52.83 against New Jersey. 

If there was a bright spot it was in finishing the week on a strong note.  In their first seven regulation periods of hockey for the week, the Caps allowed opponents 79 shots, an average of 33.86 shots per 60 minutes.  However, in the last two periods of the week against the Devils, the Caps allowed a total of just 15 shots, closing out a game in a fashion that the Caps need more of as the season enters its second half.

Goaltending: 1.58 / .949 / 1 shutout (season: 2.65 / .915 / 1 shutout)

Last season, Philipp Grubauer was perhaps the best backup goalie in the league.  This season, he might be the league’s most hard luck netminder.  No game reflected his season to date more clearly than the opening game of the week when he stopped all 37 shots he faced in the hockey portion of the contest, many of them of the highlight reel sort, before succumbing in the Gimmick against the Rangers, 1-0.  It was the first shutout by a Capitals goaltender this season.  After a slow start, Grubauer has stopped 220 of the last 235 shots he has faced (.936 save percentage), but he has just a 2-3-2 record (two no-decisions, appearances in which he stopped all 23 shots he faced) to show for it.

Braden Holtby took the ice for the last two games of the week and was solid, stopping 56 of 61 shots (.918 save percentage) and finishing the week second in the league in wins (22; Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy has 24).  That Holtby would allow three goals in one game and two in the other he played is part of an odd pattern he has had for the past five weeks.  In his last 14 appearances dating back to November 22nd he has allowed no fewer than two and no more than three goals in any (that includes three goals on 12 shots in 21 minutes in a loss to the New York Islanders).

Power Play: 2-for-8 / 25.0 percent (season: 19.5 percent, rank: T-13th)

The Caps finished the week with power play goals in consecutive games for the first time since putting together a three-game streak in Games 27-29 in early December.  They ended the week with a power play goal on two opportunities against the Devils.  It marked the fifth straight game in which the Caps had two or fewer power play opportunities that they squeaked out standings points (3-0-2).

The usual subjects had the goals (Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson) and the points (those two plus Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom), and overall the power play was efficient at getting shots to the net.  In 14:40 of power play ice time, the Caps managed 16 shots on goal.  It was a welcome rebound from a weak Week 12 in which the Caps were 0-for-9, their worst week of the season to date.

Penalty Killing: 10-for-10 / 100.0 percent (season: 80.4 percent, rank: T-19th)

The Caps skated off all ten shorthanded situations they faced in Week 13, the most situations disposed of without allowing a goal since they went 11-for-11 in Week 6.  It was a return to form after a pair of weeks in which the PK struggled (16-for-21/76.2 percent).  The Caps were reasonably efficient in killing those penalties overall, allowing just 16 shots on goal in 18:25 of shorthanded ice time, but they did have to withstand 12 power play shots by the Bruins in the middle game of the week in 10 minutes of shorthanded ice time. 

The five power play chances the Bruins had posed a danger.  In 10 previous games in which the Caps allowed five or more power play chances to an opponent, they had a record of 3-6-1, and only one of those wins was in regulation (oddly enough, against the Bruins in a 5-3 win on December 14th).  That the Caps would need the Gimmick to settle things last Thursday against Boston should have been no surprise in this context.

Faceoffs: 80-for-174 / 46.0 percent (season: 51.4 percent, rank: 8th)

It was not a very good week in the circle for the Caps.  They were owned by the Rangers in the first game of the week (19-for-51/37.3 percent) and were not much better against Boston in the middle game of the week (30-for-67/44.8 percent).  It took at 31-for-56 effort against New Jersey (55.4 percent) to get them to something resembling respectability for Week 13.  The Caps did do a credible job in the defensive zone for the week, winning 33 of 62 draws (53.2 percent), but that was offset by a woeful 23-for-60 performance in the offensive zone (38.3 percent).

On an individual level, the frustration was a shared affair.  Three of the four Caps taking at least ten draws were underwater for the week: Nicklas Backstrom (21-for-53/39.6 percent), Lars Eller (15-for-37/40.5 percent), and Evgeny Kuznetsov (14-for-29/48.3 percent).  Jay Beagle was dependable as usual, going 24-for-43 (55.8 percent).

Goals by Period:

Balance was the key for the Caps this week.  Although the volume wasn’t high, and they did get shutout against the Rangers to open the week, scoring two, three, and three goals in the regulation periods over the last two games showed at least a consistency of effort.

The odd part of the week was avoiding being taken advantage in the middle, long-change period.  The Caps did not allow a second period goal over the course of a week for the first time this season.  It allowed the team to climb to “even” in goal differential in the second periods of games this season, giving them even or positive goal differentials in all three regulation periods so far.

In the end…

Sometimes, what one sees on the ice, the numbers, and the results do not seem to be aligned.  Week 13 was one of those weeks.  That the Caps finished the week with a 2-0-1 record was a welcome result, but in the eye-test, they looked out of sync against the Rangers (no doubt a function, at least in part, of playing on what might have been the worst ice surface of the season), couldn’t seem to quite put away the Bruins, but then skated and passed with flair against the Devils to close the week. 

The results and the numbers, at least the possession numbers, hinted that there are things still amiss, but here we invoke the “all other things equal” clause.  All other things equal, shot attempts are a reasonably reliable indicator of success over a series of games.  But all other things are rarely equal, and perhaps superior skill will offset those weak possession numbers, even over a series of games.  That seems to have been the case for the Caps in the 2017 portion of the season, where possession numbers are weak, but they still have Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, among others, who are among the most skilled players in the game.  Whether the Caps can improve their possession numbers in 2018 or keep the dogs at bay with their skill set if they can’t improve those numbers will be one of the story lines to watch in the year about to unfold.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: John Carlson (1-3-4, plus-1, 1 PPG, 1 GWG, 8 shots on goal, 26:37 average ice time)
  • Second Star: Christian Djoos (1-1-2, plus-3, 6 shots on goal, 12:57 average ice time)
  • Third Star: Philipp Grubauer (0-0-1, 0.00, 1.000 save percentage, one shutout, one hard-luck loss)