Sunday, January 21, 2018

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 16

For the Washington Capitals, it was going to happen sooner or later.  And frankly, one could see this coming, since we saw this movie at about this time last season.  It was not a romantic comedy, nor was it a thriller.  It was not a buddy movie, nor was it a sci-fi drama.  It was…well, we’re not quite sure.  Well, maybe we’re sure we do not want to see any further sequel.

Record: 0-1-1

It was the first losing week for the Caps since Week 3 and their first winless week this season.  It was only two games, which mitigates the result to a degree, but the part that causes discomfort is that it is precisely the result the Caps had coming out of the break last season – an extra time loss in their first game back and a close, if somewhat listless, loss the following night.  Last season it was a 3-2 Gimmick loss to the Detroit Red Wings followed by a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers.  This time it was a 4-3 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils and a 3-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.  The good part of that, for you silver lining, glass-half-full crowd, is that the Caps followed up last year’s two-game losing streak coming out of the break with five wins in their next six games.

Better still is that despite the two losses in Week 16, the Caps finished the week at the top of the Metropolitan Division.  They did slip below the streaking Boston Bruins who, on a 12-0-4 streak, have inched ahead of the Caps in the Eastern Conference standings by two points.

Offense: 2.50 /game (season: 3.02 /game, rank: 11th)

Alex Ovechkin finished tied for fourth on the team in shots on goal (three, with Jay Beagle…yeah, Jay Beagle), which says as much as anything about the week the Caps had on offense.  John Carlson (ten shots) had as many as the next two Caps combined (Brett Connolly and Matt Niskanen with five apiece). Oh, and none of Ovechkin’s shots on goal came at even strength.  Tough week.

As for the actual scoring, Connolly had a pair of goals against the Devils, that pair leading the team for the week.  Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Lars Eller had the other three of the five the Caps had.  Eller has become quite the goal scorer of late.  He had a four-game goal scoring streak stopped in the overtime loss to the Devils to open the week, but his last minute goal to get the Caps close against Montreal was his fifth goal in six games, his sixth in nine contests.

Connolly was one of three Caps with two-point weeks, Orlov (1-1-2) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (0-2-2) being the others.  They were among 12 Caps with at least one point for the week.  It was only two games, but four defensemen had points for the Caps: Orlov, Niskanen, Carlson, and Brook Orpik).  Only the rookies – Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos – were blueliners held off the score sheet.

What the Caps did not get much of, and it was reflected in the scoring, was shots.  They managed just 45 shots in the two games.  They did rebound from a sluggish performance in New Jersey – 19 shots and 44 shot attempts – to a more robust one against the Canadiens (26 shots, 61 shot attempts), but it was not a strong week overall.

Defense: 3.50 / game (season: 2.83 /game, rank: 16th)

Well, the Caps were consistent in the defensive end.  They allowed New Jersey 66 shot attempts in the 4-3 overtime loss to start the week, and they allowed the Montreal Canadiens 67 shot attempts in the 3-2 loss to close it.  What they could not do consistently was keep the big guys on the other side from doing the most damage.  Taylor Hall had a goal (the game-winning overtime goal) and an assist among the four goals the Devils scored in the first game this week, and then Max Pacioretty had a pair of goals (including, as it turned out, the game-winning empty net goal) and an assist to figure in all of the Montreal scoring in the second game of the week.  That Pacioretty performance was noteworthy for two things.  First, it was the first time this season he recorded a multi-goal game. Second, he became the 15th player this season to record multiple-goal games against the Caps.

Individually, one wonders what is up with Nicklas Backstrom.  He was minus-3 for the week, worst on the club, and he is minus-4 over his last four games, three of them ending on the minus-side of the ledger.  One might wonder if this is guilt by association, since Alex Ovechkin and Devante Smith-Pelly, with whom Backstrom has spent much time on the first line lately, were each minus-2 for the week.  But then again, Tom Wilson (not Smith-Pelly) was on the right side of the top line against the Canadiens, and Backstrom was still minus-2.  The best that might be said here is that something just isn’t working quite the way it should on the top line in terms of keeping opponents silent.  And, even the best defensive forwards (a group that would include Backstrom) get scored on.

Goaltending: 3.05 / .895 (season: 2.66 / .916 / 1 shutout)

If Week 14 was saved by goaltending, Week 15 was not.  On the other hand, the goaltending was called upon to do a lot of saving, at least in terms of trying to deny opponents rushing in on breakaways.  The first New Jersey goal…long pass to Drew Stafford for a breakaway.  Third Devils goal…long floater pass to Miles Wood for a breakaway.  Game-winning goal…Taylor Hall chips the puck past Evgeny Kuznetsov at the players bench…skates in on a, yup, breakaway.  That’s half of the goals scored against a goaltender this week, Braden Holtby being the victim of all of them.  That is in no small part why Holtby finished the week with a .875 save percentage.

Philipp Grubauer wasn’t victimized as much by leaky defense, but his 32-save effort didn’t get enough goal support to give him a win.  It was the latest in a running dark comedy that is his season.  In seven games he started, finished, and allowed two or fewer goals, his record is now 3-3-1.  He has a save percentage of .959 in those seven games, not to mention his only shutout…in a loss (by Gimmick).  He deserves better.

Power Play: 1-for-8 / 12.5 percent (season: 19.2 percent, rank: 16th)

The Caps did get a power play goal this week, but it was the lack of one in five chances against New Jersey that might have kept the Caps from avoiding a losing week.  It was the eighth time this season that the Caps had five or more power plays in a game and the first time that they failed to convert on any of their frequent chances. It also happened to be just their second loss in such instances (6-1-1).

The Devils are a decent, but not elite penalty killing team (ranked 12th when they played the Caps), and the Caps aspire to elite power play status.  Going 0-for-5 with just five shots on goal in ten minutes of power play time, even with the rust that might have accumulated with six days off, was disappointing. 

Overall, the Caps went 1-for-11 shooting on the man advantage, John Carlson (four) and Ovechkin (three) leading the team in shots.  That is an indicator of the Caps getting little in the way of rebounds or chances in tight with T.J. Oshie getting just one shot on goal and Evgeny Kuznetsov two (Dmitry Orlov had the other).

Penalty Killing: 6-for-7 / 85.7 percent (season: 79.4 percent, rank: 19th)

If the Caps kill six of every seven shorthanded situations they face, they will do well.  So in that sense it was a good week for the penalty killers.  And, the Caps allowed the Devils and Canadiens only ten shots on goal in 12:16 of shorthanded ice time.  Few opportunities, a diminished number of shots, efficient goaltending (.900 save percentage).  The trouble is, the Caps were 23-8-2 this season coming into Week 16 when allowing an opponent four or fewer power play chances.  They lost in overtime to New Jersey (three chances) and Montreal (four). The penalty killers had a decent week with little to show for it.

Faceoffs: 58-for-118 / 49.2 percent (season: 51.0 percent, rank: 12th)

The usual suspects did the usual things in the faceoff circle.  But perhaps not in the usual ways, or at least in consistent ways.  Nicklas Backstrom (51.4 percent), Lars Eller (56.3 percent), and Jay Beagle (52.4 percent) had good weeks; Evgeny Kuznetsov (42.1 percent) had a challenging week.  Those four players, who each had ten or more draws taken for the week, were a combined 51.4 percent (56-for-109). 

But things were not quite as good as all that.  They were 25-for-43 on neutral zone faceoffs (58.1 percent), but in the ends they were less efficient.  The foursome was 17-for-34 in the offensive zone (50.0 percent), a number depressed by Lars Eller going 0-for-6 in the offensive zone against New Jersey.  It was worse in the defensive zone, where the quartet was just 14-for-32 (43.8 percent).  Nicklas Backstrom had the difficulties here, going just 2-for-9 (22.2 percent).

Goals by Period:

Second periods have been the Caps’ problem all season, and it was the case in Week 16.  It is not that the Caps were dominated in the middle period of Week 16, allowing three goals while scoring a pair over the two games.  But the order matters.  The Caps allowed a pair of second period goals to New Jersey after going to the first intermission tied, falling behind by a 3-1 margin and forcing them to scramble to secure a single standings point.  They allowed Montreal to open the scoring in the second game of the week with a power play goal seven minutes into the second period of a scoreless game.

In both instances the Caps came back, but the NHL is a league in which teams win from being ahead much more often than from catching up. 

In the end…

Earlier in the week, we wrote about the need to “beware the bye” as the Caps were coming out of their six-day hiatus.  And sure enough, just enough rust had accumulated to slow the club coming out of the break.  They now have 35 games remaining in the regular season.  Last year they went 23-10-2 in their last 35 games.  Few would predict that this club repeats that run.  In fact, just going “.500” in standings points (35 points in 35 games) would give the Caps 95 points, a number that was enough for the Toronto Maple Leafs to capture the second wild-card spot in the postseason last year. 

Something in-between the 48 points the Caps earned last season and the 35 that could be enough to make the postseason appears where the Caps are headed.  But to get there they need to change direction.  They need put the break behind them, quickly.  They need to win.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Philipp Grubauer (0-1-0, 2.08, .920)
  • Second Star: Brett Connolly (2-0-2, even, five shots on goal)
  • Third Star: Lars Eller (1-0-1, plus-1, 56.3 percent on faceoffs)

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