Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A NO-Point Night: Washington Capitals -- Game 63: Blue Jackets 5 - Capitals 1

The Washington Capitals set forth on the unofficial stretch run – the schedule following trading deadline day – when they visited the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night.  It did not go well.  Like too many games lately, the Caps got behind early and often, gave up too many dangerous scoring chances, pulled their goalie, and went quietly, this time in a 5-1 loss to the Blue Jackets.

First Period

The teams traded goals in quick fashion early in the period, starting with Artemi Panarin converting a behind the back feed from Seth Jones from the left wing circle to give Columbus a power play goal at the 5:31 mark on a goal that goalie Braden Holtby seemed not to find off Panarin’s stick.

Washington tied the game less than 90 seconds later on their own power play goal, Alex Ovechkin one-timing a pass from John Carlson past goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s blocker on the short side 6:57 into the period.

Columbus restored their lead less than a minute after the Ovechkin goal when Sonny Milano fought off defenseman Dmitry Orlov between the hash marks in front of Holtby to spin and fire a backhand shot into the back of the net at the 7:53 mark.

The Blue Jackets made it 3-1 when Mark Letestu converted a feed from behind the Caps’ net by Matt Calvert – a pass Nicklas Backstrom got just enough of to put it right on Letestu’s stick – at 14:32 of the period.

Columbus added a late goal on a Seth Jones blast from long distance that somehow eluded the population of Akron on its way through to beating Holtby on the glove side at 18:17.

Second Period

Washington started the period with an opportunity, courtesy of a galactically stupid cross-checking match penalty assessed to Matt Calvert at the horn ending the first period when he clocked Alex Ovechkin in the face.  They did it with Philipp Grubauer relieving Braden Holtby in goal to start the period.  Alas, the Caps could do nothing with the opportunity of a full three-minute power play (not five owing to Tom Wilson taking a penalty in the same end-of-period scrum).  And with that, the teams skated with considerable urgency back and forth, but no net twine was rustled, and the teams went the second intermission as then returned from the first, Columbus up, 4-1.

Third Period

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz... empty net goal ... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...

Other stuff…

-- We keep coming back to this…shots matter.  Columbus out-shot the Caps, 16-7, and out-attempted them, 24-13, in the first period.  The Caps did not have a shot attempt in the last 5:00 of the first period.

-- Alex Ovechkin had eight of the Caps’ 26 shots on goal for the evening and 12 of the team’s 43 shot attempts.

-- Another game, another 35 or more shots allowed.  Columbus had 35 shots on goal last night, and that makes 23 such games for the Caps this season, tied with Chicago for seventh-most in the league.

-- On the other side, the Caps had 26 shots on goal.  That makes 39 games this season in which they recorded fewer than 30 shots, most in the league.

-- Braden Holtby lost his sixth straight game last night.  His record in those six appearances: 0-4-2, 5.20, .851, and he was pulled twice.

-- Eight Capitals did not record a shot on goal; four did not have a shot attempt (Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly, Chandler Stephenson, and Brooks Orpik).

-- This was the tenth game this season in which the Caps allowed two or more power play goals (Columbus was 2-for-4).  The Caps are 3-7-0 in those games.

-- The loss was only the sixth this season in regulation in which the Caps recorded a power play goal of their own (21-6-3).

-- Opportunities with the man advantage seem to matter more.  The Caps had three chances, their record falling to 20-17-5 when getting three or fewer power play chances.

-- Nicklas Backstrom was minus-2.  He is now minus-13 in his last 20 games.

In the end…

The last line in the Grinch theme song goes, “The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote, ‘Stink, stank, stunk’!”  The Caps played rather “grinchly” last night, looking thoroughly unprepared to play the game, giving up far too many juicy chances in front of Braden Holtby, who certainly did not acquit himself well, either, and then pretty much went through the motions over the last 40 minutes.  It is tempting to say, “Give Phillipp a Chance” with respect to the number one goaltender spot, but the Blue Jackets took their foot off the pedal as the game wore on, and he was not so severely challenged as Holtby. 

Like the rest of the team at the moment, the goaltending is a mess.  But the defense, the shots allowed, the scoring balance, the consistency of effort from night to night, the optics that suggest the questions, “what is this team trying to do out there?” All of that is part of a mess, too.  And the Caps do not have many games left to sort it out.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 64: Senators at Capitals, February 27th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

And…exhale.  NHL Trading Deadline Day 2018 has passed and the Washington Capitals, quiet on Deadline Day, head back to the rink to skate the second of a back-to-back set of games.  Tuesday’s opponent, the Ottawa Senators, will be bringing defenseman Erik Karlsson with them after he was the subject of several rumored destinations – including Washington – on Monday.

Once upon a time this season, the Senators were 8-3-5, third in the Atlantic Division, fourth in the Eastern Conference.  That was on November 11th.  Then, the bottom dropped out of the Senators’ season.  Since then they are 13-27-5 and have not won more than two games in a row over that stretch, dating back to November 11th.  It is the worst record in the league over that span of time.   Only the New York Islanders have allowed more goals (169) than the Senators since then (161), and only two teams have scored fewer goals than Ottawa (106) – Columbus (104) and Arizona (103).  They have the second-worst power play since that promising start (14.6 percent), better only than Edmonton (13.5 percent), and only three teams have a worse penalty kill than the Senators since then (74.0 percent).

With offense being sparse, it should be no surprise that the Senators do not have a 20-goal scorer.  Mark Stone could get there with a goal against the Caps, though.  Stone has become a reliable 20-goal scorer in the league, poised to make it four straight seasons with at least 20 goals in what is his fourth full season in the NHL.  Where he is not keeping pace with previous seasons, though, is in power play scoring.  In each of the last three seasons, Stone recorded at least five power play goals.  This season, he has only one power play marker coming into this game, although his power play assist total (nine) is consistent with each of his last three seasons (26 assists with a high of ten in 2015-2016).  Stone is among the most efficient shooters in the league.  Over the past four seasons, including this one, only Evgeni Malkin among 192 players with at least 500 shots on goal has a better shooting percentage (16.6) than Stone (16.0).  He comes into this game on a long hot streak.  Over his last 24 games, Stone is 5-26-31, plus-5, and has been held without a point just five times in that span.  He is 3-2-5, plus-4, in 11 career games against the Caps.

Mike Hoffman is the Senators’ top goal scorer and point producer on the power play this season (6-11-17).  It is not out of the ordinary for Hoffman, who had 22 power play goals over the previous two seasons, including 13 last season, tied for sixth-most in the league.   Those power play goals would seem to mark the good and bad of the Senators’ season.  Three of Hoffman’s first six goals this season came on power plays, including both that he scored in a 4-3 win over the Colorado Avalanche on November 11th in his 16th game of the year that might have been the high point of the Ottawa season.  Since then, though, he is 11-14-25, minus-14, in 45 games, and he has three power play goals.  He is a player, though, who does not seem to take well to heavy minutes.  The Senators are just 3-6-3 when he logged more than 20 minutes of ice time.  In ten career games against the Caps, Hoffman is 2-3-5, minus-2.

Dion Phaneuf was traded to the Los Angeles Kings on February 13th. Erik Karlsson was almost traded on Deadline Day and, with one year remaining on his current contract, seems certain to be moved in the off-season at this point.  Going forward, the Senators might be left to rely on Thomas Chabot as an anchor on the blue line.  In this, his rookie season, Chabot is tied for second among Senator defensemen in points (16, with Codi Ceci, in 19 fewer games), and he is tied for fifth among all rookie defensemen in points (with Samuel Girard).  He has been as close to a good luck charm as the Senators have had this season, the team with an 8-5-0 record when he recorded at least one point.  Chabot has an assist in his only career game against the Caps.

1.  The Senators have already dressed 36 skaters this season, nine of them rookies.  Five of those rookies have appeared in at least ten games.

2.  Bench management has been a challenge for the Senators this season.  No team has more bench minor penalties than the Senators (14, three more than Toronto and Colorado).

3.  Does scoring first matter?  For most team, yes, but not as much for Ottawa.  No team has fewer wins when scoring first this season (14, tied with Arizona and Montreal), and Ottawa has points in just 18 games when scoring first this season, points in 13 games when allowing the first goal.

4.  Second periods are hurting the Senators in a big way.  They have allowed 81 periods in the middle frame of games this season, tied with the Islanders for most in the league, and they have a minus-27 goal differential in second periods.  Only Arizona’s second period goal differential is worse (minus-29).

5.  Predictably, Ottawa has poor possession numbers.  Their overall shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 is 28th in the league (47.04), and the only situation in which they are over 50 percent this season is when behind…barely (50.45).

1.  If the Caps are to match last year’s total of 19 skaters with double digits in points, it is going to be Brooks Orpik that gets them there.  He has eight points through Sunday’s games, all assists.  No other Capital currently in the organization has more than one point with the team this season (Nathan Walker, Aaron Ness).

2.  Speaking of Orpik… going into Monday night’s game against Columbus, 162 games and counting since his last goal…a whole baseball season.

3.  The Caps are still looking for a 5-on-3 power play goal this season.  They are one of seven teams without one, one of only two in the east (Columbus is the other, at least before Monday night’s game).  That’s ok…Vegas doesn’t have one, either.

4.  The Caps finally lost a game in regulation that they led after two periods last week, but they are still one of only four teams yet to lose a game in regulation when leading after one period, and they have the best winning percentage in those games through Sunday (20-0-1/.952).

5.  The Caps are 14-17-4 when the opponent scores first.  Only two teams in the league have points in more games in those situations – Vegas (19 games/15-13-4) and Philadelphia (22 games/16-14-6).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Ottawa: Craig Anderson

It might surprise you to know that Craig Anderson is the third-oldest goaltender to dress in the NHL this season.  Only Roberto Luongo and Ryan Miller are older, and Anderson is ten months older than the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist.  He is fifth on the all-time list of games played by a goaltender born in the United States (Park Ridge, IL), and he is sixth on that list in career wins (255).  Approaching his 37th birthday (in May), his numbers are off this year compared to last.  His goals against average (3.27) is almost a full goal per game worse than last year (2.28), and his save percentage has dipped 27 points (from .926 to .901).  He has been very streaky this season so far, at least as far as wins and losses are concerned.  Anderson had a nine-game stretch earlier this season, from November 16th through December 9th, in which he went winless, posting a record of 0-7-0, 3.29, .896, and two no-decisions.  He also has two other streaks this season of four or more losses.  That could become a third if he loses to the Caps on Tuesday night.  In 21 career appearances against the Caps, Anderson is 11-8-2, 2.47, .918, with two shutouts.

Washington: Jay Beagle

Last season, Jay Beagle had a career year, and Caps fans might have been spoiled by it.  After a 13-17-30, plus-20 year, six goals and 19 points looks pretty thin in comparison.  However, that scoring line is not out of character for Beagle, once the career year is set aside.  He is 6-13-19, plus-5 going into Monday night’s game against Columbus, which puts him on a pace to finish 8-17-25, plus-7.  Compare that to his per-82 game numbers over his first eight seasons (i.e., before his career year): 8-9-17, minus-3.  What he has done less of this season compared to last is get pucks to the net.  He had an even 100 shots on goal last year, another career high, as was his shooting percentage of 13.0.  This year he has just 54 shots on goal, and even with his fourth straight year shooting better than ten percent (11.1), his goal total is depressed compared to last season.  Beagle is 2-3-5, minus-2, in 17 career games against Ottawa.

In the end…

The Caps added a couple of defensemen that might be considered third pair types, which is not to say that neither Michal Kempny nor Jakub Jerabek are improvements.  But this is the team that the Caps will take to the postseason.  If there is a silver lining in looking at this roster, compared to the Penguins, Bruins, and Lightning as possible opponents in the playoffs, this team really has not yet put together a sustained stretch of games in some time when they were all pulling in the same direction.  Andre Burakovsky is showing signs of coming out of a season-long funk.  T.J. Oshie has had a devil of a time trying to find the back of the net, but he is coming off a 30-plus goal season.  Evgeny Kuznetsov seems to be a bit more consistent these days.  Caps fans get glimpses of what this team can be, but not enough to be comfortable thinking they can go deep in the postseason.  Perhaps if they can get more, and more extensive stretches of good play from a bigger population of players, the flicker of hope might become a steady flame.  But part of that is dismissing an opponent clearly skating out the string this season.  A loss just isn’t on the to-do list on Tuesday night.

Capitals 5 – Senators 2

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 63: Capitals at Blue Jackets, February 26th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

If familiarity breeds contempt, then the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets will be oozing contempt for one another when they face off for the third time in three weeks on Monday night at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.  Washington won the home-and-home series with the Blue Jackets earlier this month, a 3-2 win in Columbus on February 6th and a 4-2 win in Washington on February 9th.  Neither team has been very effective since, the Caps going 3-3-2 in eight games since the home-and-home and Columbus going 4-3-1.

Those two wins over Columbus are the last time the Caps won consecutive games.  In eight games since they have been outscored, 28-25.  Columbus won consecutive games coming out of that home-and-home series against Washington, but they are losers of four of their last six (one in overtime).  They do have a 22-20 edge in goals scored over those four games and have out-shot their opponents by a whopping 299-225 margin.

That many shots and so few goals are indicative of a team with offensive challenges.   And so it is with Columbus, which ranks 29th of 31 teams in scoring offense (2.53 goals per game).  They are one of just three teams without a 20-goal scorer this season (Arizona and Ottawa are the others).  Josh Anderson leads the group with 18 goals, five of them game winners to also lead the club.  The 18 goals are a career high for the four-year veteran, topping the 17 he had in 78 games last season.    His season cleaves into two pieces, though, as far as his goal scoring is concerned.  He had 13 goals in his first 32 games, but he has just five goals in his last 28 games.  The problem might lie in his shooting volume and shooting efficiency, or his lack of either, in this 28-game block.  Those five goals come on just 76 shots on goal (6.6 percent) after he recorded 13 goals on 104 shots (12.5 percent) in his first 32 games.  Anderson has yet to record a point against the Capitals in ten games against Washington, and he is a minus-5.

Columbus has seven players with at least ten goals, and Oliver Bjorkstrand (10) might be the most surprising among them.  A third round (89th overall) draft pick of the Blue Jackets in 2013, his ten goals match the career total he posted over his first two seasons with the Blue Jackets.  His 22 assists so far this season double his career total coming into this year (11).  The odd part of his statistical profile though, is how his goal scoring bears no relationship – at least no positive one – with his ice time.  Bjorgstrand has just one goal in 17 games in which he skated more than 16 minutes.  Like Anderson, he is looking for his first career point against the Caps in what will be his fifth game against Washington.  He is minus-2 in his four career games against the Caps to date.

In the history of the Columbus franchise, 23 goaltenders have dressed for the club in the regular season.  Sergei Bobrovsky is at the top of the list in games played (298), wins (165), shots faced (8,871), save percentage (.922; minimum: 20 games), goals against average (2.37; minimum: 20 games), and shutouts (23).  He has three of the four seasons in team history in which a goalie won 30 or more games (Steve Mason has the other).  And while he appears unlikely to match last year’s total of 41 wins and a league leading goals against average (2.06) and save percentage (.931), last year was a Vezina Trophy winning season, his second in five years.  Still, he is on pace to finish with his fourth 30-win season (he has 26 wins) and his fourth season with a save percentage of .920 or better (currently at .920).  He has had a rough time of it lately, though, or perhaps a bit unlucky.  In his last 15 appearances he is 5-8-2, 2.54, .914.  Bobrovsky is 6-10-4, 3.12, .897 in 21 career appearances against Washington.

1.  For such an offense-challenged team, this team gets shots to the net.  They rank third in shots on goal per game (34.4).

2.  Columbus does spread their power play scoring around.  Three different players have at least ten power play points this season – Seth Jones (13), Artemi Panarin (13), and Pierre-Luc Dubois (11).  If Zach Werenski gets one, it would make four.

3.  Columbus is 22nd in the league in wins in regulation and overtime this season (25), but they have 13 different players with game-winning goals.

4.  John Tortorella-coached teams are usually a hard-nosed bunch, but Columbus has been whistled for fewer penalties this season (189) than all but one team – the Carolina Hurricanes (176).

5.  First periods are generally an uneventful thing in Blue Jacket games.  Their 43 first period goals rank tied for 25th in the league (with Montreal and Colorado), while their 39 goals allowed in the first period are the third-fewest in the league (Nashville has 38 and Colorado has 36).

1.  The eight games the Caps have played open a window into their recent troubles.  They have been outscored by a 28-25 margin. The odd thing is that both the Caps and their opponents shot 10.5 percent in those eight games.  The difference is that the Caps were also out-shot, 266-239 in that span.

2.  The scoring might not be as close as it seems, either.  The Caps have three empty net goals in those last eight games.  Opponents have none.

3.  Special teams have been amazing, efficiency-wise, in the eight games since facing Columbus.  Their 31.3 percent power play and 84.6 percent penalty kill make for a special teams index of 115.9, an outstanding number.  The trouble is, the Caps are merely even in special teams goals scored and goals allowed (five power play goals scored to four power play goals and a shorthanded goal allowed).  Why?  The Caps have 16 power play chances in those eight games (24:51 in power play ice time) to 26 shorthanded situations faced (43:01 in shorthanded ice time).  The Caps have a power play goal in each of the three games against Columbus (3-for-7/42.9 percent), while the Blue Jackets have been blanked (0-for-6).

4.  In three games against Columbus this season the Caps have yet to hold the Blue Jackets under 35 shots (35, 37, and 39 in the three games) while failing to record more than 25 of their own in any game (23, 25, and 17).  Despite the 111-65 edge the Blue Jackets have in shots on goal in the three games, the Caps were winners in each of them.

5.  In a small number of games, official scoring idiosyncrasies pop up in some categories, but the Caps have been credited with 50 takeaways in this eight-game run, while they have been charged with 83 giveaways.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Columbus: Zach Werenski

Zach Werenski had a very nice rookie season for Columbus last year.  He received votes for the Norris Trophy (top defenseman), Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play) and All-Star votes (finishing 19th among 28 defensemen receiving votes).  He finished third overall in Calder Trophy voting for the league’s top rookie, trailing only Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine.  The 11 goals he scored last season tied for seventh-most most among rookie defensemen since the 2004-2005 cancelled season.  Werenski has already matched last season’s 11 goal total in 20 fewer games, but he has fewer than half of the 36 assists he posted last year.  His 15 helpers this season have tended to come in bunches.  He has three multi-assist games that account for seven of his total of 15.  His scoring has been infrequent lately.  He has four assists in his last 14 games, but three of them (a season high) came in a 4-1 win over the New York Islanders on February 13th.  On odd part of his season is the fact that he is 7-10-17, plus-7 on the road, but only 4-5-9, minus-6 on home ice.  Werenski is 2-1-3, minus-1, in eight career games against the Caps.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

It would not be a home-biased opinion to offer that Nicklas Backstrom is among the most accomplished playmakers of this era.  Since he came into the league in the 2007-2008 season, he ranks third among 727 players appearing in at least 250 games in assists (570, trailing only Henrik Sedin (590) and Joe Thornton (581)), and his 0.72 assists per game trails only Sidney Crosby (0.80) in that group.  So what gives lately?  Backstrom has one assist in his last nine games, two in his last 17 contests.  He has taken to calling his own number lately, five of his ten highest game shot totals coming in the 21 games since January 7th, and he has seven of his 13 goals this season from that date.  One thing that hasn’t changed this season is Backstrom’s consistency, at least insofar as his home-road scoring splits are concerned.  He is 7-15-22 in 32 home games and 8-15-23 in 29 road games.  Back to shooting, he might want to do more of it against Columbus.  He has a goal on his only shot on goal in three games against the Blue Jackets this season.  In 28 career games against Columbus, Backstrom is 7-17-24, minus-7.  That minus-7 is his worst career plus minus against any Eastern Conference team (he is minus-8 in 13 career games against San Jose).

In the end…

Columbus started the 2018 portion of their schedule in third-place in the Metropolitan Division.  Now, they are fighting for their playoff lives, two points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes for the second wild card spot in the East as they enter the last 20-game stretch on their schedule.  Combine that with the fact that Monday is trade deadline day – always a day of turmoil for clubs – and this could be a challenge for the Caps.  Not that it wouldn’t under other circumstances, six of the last eight meetings of these teams decided by one goal (two in extra time), but the circumstances make it important for the Caps to find a reservoir of focus and consistency to enable them to win a second consecutive game for the first time since they swept the home-and-home set with this team earlier this month.

Capitals 3 – Blue Jackets 2

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 21

Week 21 for the Washington Capitals was a sandwich.  Not a particularly appetizing one, as it turned out.  Top and bottom were slices of stale bread in the form of the struggling Buffalo Sabres.  Edible, in that both games against the Sabres were wins, and four points are four points, but not fulfilling.  In between, a couple of slices of rancid meat – losses to the Florida teams, the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.  It made for a break-even week that left the Caps clinging to a one-point lead in the Metropolitan Division.

Record: 2-2-0

Week 21 was the second straight break-even week for the Caps, standings points-wise.  It is the first time that the Caps failed to post winning records in consecutive weeks since Weeks 2 -4, when they posted an aggregate record of 3-5-1.

The win against Buffalo to close the week was particularly welcome.  After posting ten straight wins on home ice from the beginning of December through January 9th, the Caps went into their game on Saturday against the Sabres with a 2-4-2 record in eight games at Capital One Arena.

It is part of a difficult February for the Caps in which they are just 5-5-2 going into the last week of the month.  Compare that to last season when the Caps were 9-2-1 in February, and it appears that last year’s team that was starting its finishing kick to the end of a superb season is struggling this month with focus, fatigue, and the ability to finish.

Offense: 3.00 /game (season: 3.08 /game, rank: 9th)

Three goals per game is a pretty good week, but it was eight goals in two games against the struggling Sabres and four in the two games against the Florida teams.  It is one thing to be held to two goals by the Tampa Bay Lightning, who feature a likely Vezina Trophy finalist in Andrei Vasilevkiy in goal, but even with Roberto Luongo in net for the Panthers – a long-time Capitals nemesis – Florida is the 25th-ranked team in the league in scoring defense that doesn’t make it easy on their goaltenders, allowing the second highest average of shots against per game in the league.  If you are going to use one word to describe the week on offense at the team level, it might be “mixed.”

At the individual level, the descriptive term might be “concentrated.”  Only five Capitals recorded goals.  Alex Ovechkin had four of them to lead the club for the week.  It is part of a longer run for the league leader in which he has six goals in his last eight games.  Lars Eller was next in line with three goals for the week, finishing the week with goals in each of the last three games.  It is the second time in the 2018 portion of the season that Eller has compiled a goal-scoring streak of at least three games (he had a four-game streak from January 7th through January 12th).

Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a pair of goals in Week 21, and each of them scored a game-winner among those goals.  Burakovsky seems to be working his way out of a season-long funk.  He is 5-4-9 over his last 13 games.  Kuznetsov ended the week with a bang, going 1-3-4 against Buffalo to finish the week tied with Ovechkin as the points leader (five).  It was Kuznetsov’s fifth career game with four or more points and his second this season.

Defense: 2.50 / game (season: 2.95 /game, rank: 18th)

Strange week on defense.  The shots-allowed problem was reflected in the week’s road games, the Caps allowing the Sabres 34 shots on goal in the 3-2 win to open the week and the Florida Panthers 33 shots in the 3-2 loss on Thursday.  However, they did hold the Sabres under 30 to end the week (29), and they held the Tampa Bay Lighting to just 19 shots on goal – a season-low in shots allowed – in a 4-2 loss.  It was only the fourth time since the 2004-2005 dark season that the Caps held a team to fewer than 20 shots but allowed four or more goals in a game on home ice.

What made is a bit more strange was how the shots allowed broke down by opponent and period.  In two games against the Sabres, the Caps allowed a total of 63 shots on goal.  Almost half of those (28) were allowed in the third periods of the two games.  A more effective offense than that of the Sabres (last in the league in scoring offense) might have made things a bit more difficult for the Capitals.

Of 16 teams that played four games this week, the Caps had the sixth-fewest shot attempts against at 5-on-5.  This led to a shot attempts-for percentage of 54.21 at 5-on-5, the fifth-best mark of the week.  The Caps were especially effective in tied (62.30 percent/third) and close (58.02 percent/second) situations.

Goaltending: 2.53 / .913 (season: 2.82 / .912 / 1 shutout)

Overall it was an average sort of week.  Overall.  By the end of it, the favorite bar discussion, “winter version,” was underway.  In Washington, like a lot of towns, there is often a fan debate over whether the backup quarterback should be starting for the local NFL franchise.  In hockey, that discussion is reserved for goaltenders, and the performances of Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer in Week 21 provided ammunition for those thinking Grubauer should be getting more time, if not replace Holtby at the top of the depth chart.

But before we get too carried away here, yes, Grubauer had a good week – the better week of the two, in fact.  He stopped 60 of 63 shots he faced (.952 save percentage), all of the goals he allowed coming in the third periods of games when he faced 28 of the 63-shot total.  The flip side of that is he faced the worst team in the league in scoring offense – twice.  And that team, the Buffalo Sabres, was missing its top goal scorer in Jack Eichel – twice.  This is not to demean Grubauer’s performance.  No NHL team can be taken lightly, Grubauer gave the Sabres little reason to believe they could take any advantage.  But it should temper, a bit, the conversation about who should be the number one goaltender.

As for the number one contender, it is rather clear at this point that Braden Holtby is in a slump.  His 3.58 goals against average for the week and .865 save percentage is part of a longer slump in which he is 2-4-2, 4.28, .880 in his last eight appearances, two of which he was relieved by Grubauer.  His two losses in Week 21 brought his personal losing streak to five games (0-3-2), and in four of them he allowed four or more goals.  Even in the one game in which he did not, allowing three goals to the Florida Panthers, he allowed two goals in the last 3:52 of regulation (one on a power play) to turn a 2-1 lead to protect into a 3-2 loss.  Fair or not, and Holtby has been a victim of iffy support in front of him this season, he is the goalie of record in that streak, and it is not a good record.

Power Play: 3-for-7 / 42.9 percent (season: 21.7 percent, rank: 7th)

It was a good week with the man advantage.  Pity there weren’t more opportunities to flaunt it.  Seven chances in a week with four games is the fewest in a four-game week since Week 11 when the Caps also had seven power play opportunities.  Nevertheless, the last time the Caps had more than three power plays in a week was in Week 7, when they went 4-for-16 in four games.

Alex Ovechkin, Lars Eller, and Andre Burakovsky had the goals, and seven different Caps had power play points, Ovechkin the only player with two power play points for the week. 

This was the fifth straight week in which the Caps finished over 20 percent on the power play (12-for-38/31.6 percent).  The power play was quite efficient in Week 21, scoring those three goals on 12 shots in 10:55 of power play time and allowing only one shorthanded shot on goal, that to the Panthers in the 3-2 loss on Thursday.

Penalty Killing: 9-for-11 / 81.8 percent (season: 80.0 percent, rank: 17th)

A good, if not great week killing penalties that was a little off from the previous two weeks.   And here, too, the split was between Buffalo (5-for-5 in the two games) and the Florida teams (4-for-6, one goal allowed to each team).  It wasn’t a very surprising result, given that the Sabres finished the week ranked 25th on the power play.

The timing of the power play goals allowing was crushing, though.  One was given up in the third minute of the Caps’ game against Tampa Bay, putting them in a hole that only got deeper when the Lightning sped out to a 3-0 first period lead in a 4-2 win over the Caps.  The other was even more of a gut-punch, coming with less than 30 seconds left in a 2-2 game and barely three minutes after the Florida Panthers tied the Caps, using that late power play goal to sneak out with a 3-2 win.

It was a better week in terms of efficiency.  The Caps allowed their four opponents those two goals on just nine shots allowed in 19:19 of shorthanded ice time.

Faceoffs: 117-for-242 / 48.3 percent (season: 50.1 percent, rank: 17th)

Week 21 was almost an exact replica of Week 20 overall (one fewer win, two fewer losses).  Things were not quite as good, though, looking at zone efficiency.  The Caps were under 50 percent in both the offensive (46.5 percent) and defensive (47.9 percent) zones for the week.  That outcome was the product of one poor performance in one game, albeit in different games.  The Caps were just 9-for-23 in the offensive zone in the 5-1 win over Buffalo to end the week, and they were 3-for-10 in the 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay in the second game of the week.

On an individual level, five players finished the week with at least ten draws taken, four of them – Nicklas Backstrom (52.7), Lars Eller (52.1), Jay Beagle (50.0), and T.J. Oshie (60.0) finishing at 50 percent or better.  Evgeny Kuznetsov managed to win barely 40 percent of his draws for the week (40.5).

Goals by Period:

One first period and one third period.  That was the story for the week in goals by period.  Three first period goals allowed against Tampa Bay and two late third period goals allowed against the Florida Panthers, and there you have the two losses for the week.

It certainly fit a pattern, the Caps allowing goals in only the first or third period in Week 21.  The Caps dominated the second periods of play, outscoring opponents by a 5-0 margin over the four games.  Washington has seen their third period scoring defense deteriorate to the point where they now have a minus goal differential in third periods this season and are tied with the Blues for 23rd in fewest third period goals allowed (68).

In the end…

Perhaps it was a bit much to expect the Caps to have a big middle portion of the season.  Last year they went 30-6-4 over a 40-game stretch from December 5th through March 4th.  The previous season they went 32-5-3 in a 40-game stretch from November 21st through February 22nd.  Right now, the Caps are 13-8-6 in 27 games since December 22nd.  If you are looking for a silver lining, the Penguins were 12-8-3 over a 23-game stretch from January 11th through March 1st before going on to win the Stanley Cup.  The Caps are in a mid-season fog, but there is nothing to say it cannot clear in time for a successful stretch run and postseason.  Then again, it could linger if the Caps can’t find a way to solve lingering defensive problems and/or have trouble negotiating a difficult schedule over the remainder of the season.

The week ahead will have its challenges – a back-to-back set of games against Columbus and Ottawa, followed by the outdoor game against Toronto at the Naval Academy on Saturday.  And, there is the trading deadline on Monday.  Eastern competition is already stacking up there, with the Penguins obtaining Derick Brassard and the Bruins picking up Rick Nash.  The Caps have added a pair of defensemen who might best be described as third-pair types, and whether that will be enough to plug holes on the back end will be something to watch going forward.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Alex Ovechkin (4-1-5, minus-1, 1 PPG, 28 shots on goal, 53 shot attempts, six hits)
  • Second Star: Philipp Grubauer (2-0-0, 1.50, .952)
  • Third Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (2-3-5, plus-5, 1 GWG, 13 shots on goal, 16 shot attempts)

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 62: Sabres at Capitals, February 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals return home on Saturday to host the Buffalo Sabres and hope to stop skidding through their schedule like a car with bald tires in an ice storm.  The Caps are 4-5-2 in the month of February and just 2-4-2 in their last eight home games as they prepare for Buffalo.

It has been just five days since the Caps last faced this team, the last team they defeated.  And it is a team that struggles scoring goals on the road.  Despite playing the seventh-highest number of road games this season (31), the Sabres rank 21st in goals scored (79/2.55 per game).  Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly lead the team in road goals with 10 apiece, a number that has them tied for 40th in the league in goals scored on the road this season.

We focused on Kane in the prognosto for the last meeting, but O’Reilly deserves some attention.  O’Reilly has been a reliable scorer over the last six seasons coming into this one.  In the five full seasons preceding this one (not including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season), he topped the 50-point mark in each one with a high of 64 points with the Colorado Avalanche in 2013-2014.  He seems a good bet to do that again this season, having posted 44 points in 60 games.  He also is one of the most “gentlemanly” players in the league.  In 630 NHL games he has a total of just 84 penalty minutes, only two in 60 games so far this season.  If he finishes with fewer than ten penalty minutes this season it would make four seasons in the last six in which he did so.  O’Reilly has received votes for the Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play) in five of the last six seasons, winning the award in the 2013-2014 season.  He combines this with a reputation for defense, despite an odd progression of numbers.  O’Reilly has been a “minus” player in each of the last seven seasons coming into this one and seems assured of an eighth (he is currently minus-12).  However, he has received votes for the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in each of those seven seasons, finishing as high as sixth in 2013-2014.  He is 0-5-5, minus-2, in 15 career games against Washington.

It was Rasmus Ristolainen who got our attention for his offensive contributions in the prognosto for the most recent game against the Caps, but among Sabre defensemen Marco Scandella deserves some attention, too.  Scandella is in his first season in Buffalo after spending seven seasons with the Minnesota Wild.  If there is a rough comparison with whom Caps fans might be familiar, it might be former Caps defensemen Karl Alzner.  Take away Scandella’s 11-goal season in 2014-2015, and his seasons look a lot like Alzners – a low single-digit goal scorer and in the low- to mid-teens in assists.  At the moment he is second among Sabre defensemen in road goal scored (2), assists (7),and points (9), his plus-4 being best of those defensemen on the road.  And, he has logged 24:05 in 31 road games, second to Ristolainen on the team.  Scandella is without a point in nine career games against the Caps.

Victor Antipin is not your usual rookie.  First, he turned 25 years old in December, a bit on the older side for an NHL rookie.  Second, he came to the NHL after spending six seasons skating for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL (he was not drafted by an NHL club when coming eligible).  Two of those clubs won the Gagarin Cup as KHL champion, so he does come from a winning tradition that the Sabres haven’t been able to match in quite some time.  He left Metallurg for the purpose of moving to the NHL, signing a one-year contract last May with the Sabres.  He has been in and out of the lineup for health (missed six games in January to illness) and being worked gently into the roster – he has dressed for 36 games this season.  However, he seems to have earned a spot on the big club, skating in 12 of the team’s last 14 games (one of those missed was against Washington last Sunday).  His opportunity is a product of injuries suffered by the blue line, but he does have six assists in those 36 games for which he has dressed.  He did skate against the Caps in the November 7th meeting won by the Sabres, 3-1, and did not register a point, although he was plus-2 for the game.

1.  Buffalo’s defense has been a medical staff’s nightmare.  Only one defenseman has appeared in all 61 games for the Sabres this season (Marco Scandella), and only two others have appeared in at least 45 games (Jake McCabe, who is currently injured, with 53 games, and Rasmus Ristolainen with 52 games).  The club has dressed 13 defensemen overall.

2.  You would think a team struggling as are the Sabres would be integrating a lot of rookies, or at least giving rookies a long look.  Not so.  As noted, Victor Antipin has 36 games played, but only three other rookies have dressed – Nicolas Baptiste, Brendan Guhle, and Kyle Crisciolo – and only for a total of 22 games among them.

3.  The Sabres are the only team in the NHL not to participate in the Gimmick on the road this season. 

4.  One thing the Sabres are adept at – shorthanded goal scoring on the road.  They have five, tied for second-most in the league (Colorado: 7).

5.  If the Caps are going to get well, shots-wise, it is going to be against this team.  Buffalo is minus-218 in the shot attempt differential at 5-on-5 on the road.  That is the third-worst differential in the league (Ottawa: minus-224; Minnesota: minus-247).

1.  The Caps had better watch out for Buffalo’s shorthanded goal scoring ability on the road.  Only three teams have allowed more shorthanded goals on home ice than Washington (4).  On the other side of the ledger, only three teams have scored fewer shorthanded goals on home ice than the Caps (1).

2. Alex Ovechkin might lead the league in goals overall (36), but he is just tied for sixth in goal scoring at home (17) and tied for 18th in even strength goals on home ice (10).

3.  Ovechkin leading the club in home goals is not a surprise, but Lars Eller second with ten?  That qualifies.

4.  Only the New York Rangers (minus-87) have a worse shot attempt differential at 5-on-5 than the Caps (minus-81) when the game is tied.

5.  Six different Capitals have empty-net goals on home ice, none of them with more than one: Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, Alex Chiasson, Jakub Vrana, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Nicklas Backstrom.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo: Kyle Okposo

When the Buffalo Sabres signed forward Kyle Okposo away from the New York Islanders to a seven-year/$42 million contract in July 2016, they were probably expecting a player who could score 29 goals a season, not 29 goals in 124 games over two seasons with the club.  And this season has the makings of a less productive one than last year, when Okposo recorded 19 goals in 65 games.  So far this season he has 10 goals in 59 games, putting him on a pace to finish this season with 14 goals.  He has just one goal in his last dozen games, although he does have six assists in that span.  One other problem has crept into his game, that being even strength performance.  He is minus-8 in his last seven games and has not been a plus player for 13 straight contests, not since he had a pair of assists and was plus-1 in a 5-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers on January 23rd.  The production has resulted in his ice time being pared back.  He has not skated as much as 20 minutes in his last nine games, and he hit the 15-minute mark only once in his last four contests.  Okposo is 11-11-22, plus-4,in 30 career games against the Caps.  The goals scored against Washington is the second most he has in his career against a single club (he has 14 in 43 games against Pittsburgh).

Washington: Christian Djoos/Madison Bowey

When the Washington Capitals acquired Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek in separate deals with Chicago and Montreal, respectively, perhaps Caps fans could be forgiven for thinking the rookie experiment on the blue line was coming to an end.  Never mind that both are among the top scorers among rookie defensemen in the league, Djoos ranked eighth (3-11-14) and Bowey ranked ninth (0-12-12).  It left the Caps with the only team in the league with two rookies among the top-ten scorers among rookie defensemen.  Both, however, have seen scoring dry up a bit of late.  Djoos has only one assist in his last eight games after posting a four-game points streak.  Bowey is without a point in his last nine games after consecutive games with points.  While both have had low minute burdens, one has done reasonably well in possession numbers, given the team context, while the other has struggled.  In February, Djoos is second on the club in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (47.83 percent), while Bowey is last in that category for the month (38.46 percent).  But here’s the thing.  Djoos and Bowey have combined for 103 games played in these, their respective rookie seasons.  Kempny and Jerabek have combined to appear in 107 games in their respective NHL careers to date.

In the end…

Caps fans are watching the team’s seeding, if not their playoff hopes, slip away in slow motion.  The Caps have not been awful of late, but they are just a single point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers at the top of the Metropolitan Division, and they are only ten points ahead of the ninth-place New York Islanders.  A losing streak of any length would drop the club off the division pace and place their playoff position in jeopardy.  When one considers that the Caps still have their three-game California trip ahead of them and 11 of their last 20 games on the road, the schedule does become challenging down the stretch.  They simple have to win games they should win.  They did not do it against Florida on Thursday – their second late-game collapse in barely a week – but they need to do it against the Sabres.

Capitals 4 – Sabres 2

Washington Capitals: How a One-Point Lead Stayed a One-Point Lead in 2018

 Some things change over the course of a season, and some things don’t.  And sometimes they don’t, but they do.  That is how an 82-game season evolves.  An example of the latter can be found in the change in Metropolitan Division standings in games played since New Year’s Day:

The Washington Capitals held a one-point lead in the division when the sun came up on January 1st, but that lead was over the New Jersey Devils.  The teams representing Pennsylvania were last and next to last in the division.  Fast forward to Friday morning, and the Pennsylvania teams have replaced the Devils one-point behind the Caps.  It has not been an accident.  How it happened is in the details.  We can look at them from a high perch, descending into the nitty-gritty.

The Basics: Wins and Losses

The standings from January 1st show clearly that the Pennsylvania teams – the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins – have been the class of the division. 

In fact, as the standings indicate, it is not that the Caps have been awful.  Their 10-7-4 in the 2018 portion of the season is still third-best in the division.  And it is 94-point pace over a full season, so even with a “slump,” it is a playoff pace, but we will get back to this in a moment.

The Pennsylvania teams have been just so much more successful in the new year, the Flyers and Penguins well clear of the rest of the division with 127- and 129-point paces, respectively.  Only Flyer and Penguin fans would consider either number sustainable, and they wouldn’t think so for the other of the two clubs.

But back to the Caps on this point.  The 10-7-4 record includes a three-game winning streak to start the new year, the trailing portion of what was a five-game winning streak.  The 7-7-4 record since then should be of some concern as the Caps head into the home stretch.

The Nuts and Bolts: Scoring

What seems clear from the scoring in the division in the new year is that with the exception of the Pennsylvania teams, the rest of the division (with the notable exception of Columbus) has forgotten how to play defense, how to tend goal, or both, five of the clubs (including the Caps) allowing three or more goals per game since January 1st.

The poor defense (again, Columbus being a special case because they can’t hit the lake off their own dock shooting the puck) is the fault line in scoring, the two teams that can actually balance good scoring defense with good scoring offense being the only teams with a positive goal differential in the new year.  However, is Pittsburgh really that good to average beating opponents by almost a goal and a half per game?  Is Philadelphia really good enough up and down the roster to score almost three and a third goals per game over the rest of the season?

But back to the Caps.  Their scoring defense is the concern here.  Giving up 3.33 goals per game since January 1st is actually a little better than it is upon closer inspection.  Take away the three-game winning streak to start the year, and that average goes up to 3.44 per game.

The Flair: Special Teams

Looking at the Metro special teams performance in the new year, it just doesn’t seem to matter on a fundamental level in win-loss success.  Sure, there are those Penguins, with the best special teams index (STI: power play plus penalty kill percentages), but given their record and the scoring differential dominance overall, it is either a luxury or overkill, depending on where you sit in terms of rooting interest in that team.  Being a product of having both the best power play and the best penalty kill in the division since January 1st just makes one love/hate them even more, again, depending on your rooting interest.

With respect to the Caps, their STI is over 100, the standard of performance for this measure, a good thing.  But what tempers this is the fact that the Caps have the second-worst differential in power play opportunities and shorthanded situations, having five more of the latter (65) than the former (60), although in what might be the oddest fact here, the Penguins have the worst differential (minus-6).  What it means is that while the Caps have a positive special teams goal differential (plus-3, the last column in the table), that is a product of the two shorthanded goals they scored in 2018 as of Friday morning.

The Last Line of Defense: Goaltending

Pittsburgh is on top of this area, too, having both the best save percentage and goals against average.  What makes it a bit odd is that the numbers improve as one goes down the depth chart in this span of time – Matt Murray (2.52/.922 in 11 games), Tristan Jarry (2.43/.923 in seven games), and Casey DeSmith (2.03/.939 in five games).  And not only has Pittsburgh’s goaltending overall been the best, at least among the usual top-end numbers, it has been substantially so.  On the other hand, given the scoring defense of the rest of the division, it might be that the division is experiencing a wide-spread goaltending slump.

As for the Caps, only the New York teams – the Rangers and Islanders – have worse overall goals against averages, although the Caps are in the middle of the save percentage pack.  What Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have faced is as high volume of shots, the 33.71 per 60 minutes being the third-highest of the division.  Still, expectations are higher than a .904 save percentage and a 3.24 goals against average at this point of the season. 

The teams in the division one has to shake their head at, though, are Philadelphia and the Islanders.  In the Flyers’ case, can they keep holding teams to 27.84 shots per 60 minutes, best in the division?  Given their .904 collective save percentage, higher shot volumes could burst the balloon than has lifted them to within a point of the Capitals.  With the Islanders it is a case of non-support.  They are allowing 40.11 shots on goal per 60 minutes in 2018, almost six more shots per 60 minutes than the Rangers (34.55).  It is a team that has already allowed teams 50 or more shots on goal four times since January 1st.

The Fancy: Five-on-Five Shot Attempts

If there is a pattern or a relationship to be found here, they are hiding themselves rather well.  The best that might be said here is that over a sufficiently large population of events, shot attempt percentages will align with success.  Here, we apparently have an insufficiently large population of events for that relationship to express itself.  How else are we to account for Carolina leading the division in overall 5-on-5 shot attempts-for (SAT) percentage and the Flyers a shade under 50 percent?   Not to mention they are at the top of this category when ahead, tied, or close.  And in the strange, there is Columbus being awful when ahead and very good (perhaps in the desperate sense) when behind.

What should concern Caps fans is how the team is overperforming (in terms of wins and losses) their numbers in this category.  The number that stands out is the shot attempts for at 5-on-5 – dead last in the division in total and next to last per game (ahead of only the Rangers) since the first of the new year.  The Caps have had an issue with these numbers for most, if not all of this season, and it has yet to bite them.  However, given the Caps 10-7-4 record (and 7-7-4 in their last 18 games), perhaps the reckoning is at hand.

In the end…

The Flyers and Penguins have done well to drag themselves out of the basement to challenge for the division lead.  However, given the number of games played in 2018 so far and those that remain until the end of the regular season, the question for them is whether their performance is sustainable.  Scoring almost four goals a game, especially when it is fueled by a better-than-30-percent power play and a shooting percentage north of 12 percent as a team (12.1, tops in the division over this period) seems rather extraordinary, not to mention difficult to sustain over a half-season, from January into April. 

For the Flyers, the secrets of their success are not obvious.  Both their scoring offense and scoring defense have been good, but not so good to dismiss either as being impossible to sustain.  Their special team index is unimpressive, and it is unbalanced – a good power play (25.4 percent power play, 71.7 percent penalty kill).  Their goaltenders are, as a group, middle of the road in this division, and they are breaking in a new one (Petr Mrazek) due to injuries.  Their 5-on-5 numbers do not excite.  One wonders if the Flyers not having to depend on an outlying number makes their performance easier to sustain over games to come. 

For the Capitals, the situation is a strange one.  They are actually shooting more efficiently since January 1st (11.2 percent overall) than they did in the season to that point (10.4 percent).  Their power play has been good (25.0 percent).  Then again, offense is not their problem.  Only the New York teams – the Rangers and Islanders – have allowed more goals per game than the Caps.  Only those teams have allowed their goaltenders to face more shots per 60 minutes, and only those teams have allowed more shot attempts against at 5-on-5 per game than the Caps. 

Defense was always going to be the big issue with this team this season, despite losing a couple of top six forwards and their offensive contributions.  It remains the big issue.  The Caps simply have allowed too many shot attempts, too many shots, and too many prime scoring opportunities to be able to keep their distance from the Penguins and Flyers.  If the Capitals cannot correct this problem, at least in part, then Capitals Nation had better hope that what the Flyers and Penguins have done in the new year is not sustainable.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 61: Capitals at Panthers, February 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals head back on the road and hope to find some spark there as they visit south Florida and the Florida Panthers on Thursday night.  The Caps actually have a better record on the road in their last five out-of-town games (3-1-1) than they do at home over their last five contests at Capital One Arena (2-2-1).

The Panthers are making a late run, but it might be a bit too late to challenge for a playoff spot.  Florida is 7-3-0 over their last ten games, and they might be slipping back into mediocrity with losses in each of their last two contests going into this game.  It is no mystery regarding the recent overall success.  The Panthers scored at least three goals in each of the seven wins and did not reach three goals in any of the three losses.

Evgenii Dadonov and Aleksander Barkov have combined to record almost a third of the 34 goals the Panthers scored over their last ten games, five apiece.  This is Dadonov’s second tour with the franchise.  He was taken by the Panthers in the third round (71st overall) of the 1007 entry draft.  After three seasons with only intermittent play with the big club, but after two more seasons in Russia and a year and a half in the AHL, with some intermittent action with the Panthers, he was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes with A.J. Jenks for Jon Matsumoto and Mattias Lindstrom in January 2012.  At the end of the 2011-2012 season he headed back to Russia, signing with Donetsk in the KHL.  It was not until last July that he returned to the team that drafted him, signing as a free agent with the Panthers.  In his second tour with the club he is having a career year.  His 49 games almost matches his total in his first tour (55 games over three seasons), and his 15 goals is more than his total in his first tour with the club (ten).  He comes into this game with points in four of his last five games and 8-8-16 in his last 18 games.  Dadonov is 2-1-3, minus-4, in eight career games against Washington.

Barkov is not just scoring on his own, he is involved with Panther scoring generally over their last ten games.  With a 5-6-11 scoring line, he has been involved in almost a third of the Panthers’ goal scored by himself.  The five goals scored has allowed him to hit the 20-goal mark for the third consecutive season, and his 54 points overall put him close to his career best of 59 points in 66 games of the 2015-2016 season.  The odd part of his goal scoring to date is the drop in efficiency from his previous two seasons.  In 2015-2016 Barkov had 28 goals on 171 shots (16.4 percent shooting), and last season he had 21 goals on 142 shots (14.8 percent).  Going into this game, he has 20 goals on a career high 185 shots (10.8 percent).  Five of those goals are shorthanded, most in the league.  Barkov is 3-4-7, plus-3, in 11 career games against the Caps.

That Keith Yandle would lead the team’s defensemen in scoring over the 7-3-0 run (2-8-10) is not a surprise.  The Mike Matheson would be second – and the leader in goals – might be (4-4-8).  Matheson was a first round pick of the Panthers (23rd overall in 2012) and appeared in 81 of 82 games last season, his rookie year (second in the NHL).  He has already surpassed last year’s goals, assists, and points (7-1-0-17) in just 56 games this season (8-14-22).  The Panthers depend on his production for success, going 14-5-0 in the 19 games in which he registered a point this season and going 5-2-0 in those games in which he scored a goal.  And, his being on the ice is generally a good luck charm, the Panthers with a 12-4-1 record in games in which he skated more than 22 minutes.  In five career games against the Capitals, Matheson is 1-0-1, even.

1.  In their 7-3-0 run, Florida has out-shot opponents by a 352-313 margin (plus-3.9 shots per game).

2.  Over that same ten-game span, the Panthers have the best power play in the league at 12-for-34 (35.3 percent), those 12 power play goals also being most in the league over that span (tied with Tampa Bay).

3.  Florida is tied for the league lead this season in shorthanded goals scored (nine, with Buffalo…go figure).

4.  No team in the league has more penalty minutes per game than Florida (11:41), largely a product of their leading the league in fighting majors, and by a wide margin.  They have 34 fighting majors to 23 for the Anaheim Ducks.

5.  Florida might be doing better if their possession numbers were better when they were ahead.  In the rankings at NHL.com, the Panthers rank 14th in shot attempts-for percentage when behind (53.69), 18th when tied (49.47), and 17th in close situations (50.29).  But when ahead, they rank only 27th (44.14).

1.  When the Caps recorded 37 shots on goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night, it broke an eight game streak in which they did not record more than 30 shots on goal in a game (they had 30 in the 3-2 win over Buffalo on Sunday).

2.  The Caps allowed just 19 shots to the Lightning on Tuesday, a season low in shots on goal allowed.  The previous low was 23, accomplished three times.

3.  Jay Beagle’s individual shot attempts-for percentage on ice (38.84) is second worst in the league among 617 skaters appearing in at least 25 games (Buffalo’s Jacob Josefson has a 37.91 percent in 29 games).

4.  Alex Ovechkin is tied with four other players for the league lead in overtime goals with three (David Perron, Sean Monahan, Nathan MacKinnon, and Brayden Point).

5.  Ovechkin leads in shots on goal, but Dmitry Orlov has been on ice for the most shot attempts by the club at 5-on-5 (1075, 37 more than John Carlson).  Ovechkin ranks third with 907.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Florida: Roberto Luongo

It has been a hard year on goalie Roberto Luongo.  He missed 33 games over two tours on the injury list, missing six games to a broken thumb in October, and then missing 27 games after suffering a groin injury on December 4th.  He could end this season appearing in fewer games over a full season than any in his 18-year career in the NHL (he appeared in 24 games in his rookie season with the New York Islanders in 1999-2000.  Luongo, the oldest goalie in the league to dress this season (he will be 39 years old in April), is the only goaltender active in the league to have dressed for an NHL game before the calendar rolled over to the year 2000.

This will be Luongo’s first home game (assuming he starts) since his return.  He split two road decisions, stopping 30 of 33 shots in a 6-3 win over the Calgary Flames on February 17, and stopping all but one of 31 shots in a 1-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday.  In his limited duty this season he has faced a lot of rubber.  In nine of his 17 appearances he faced 35 or more shots on goal, although he does have a .934 save percentage in those games to go with a 4-3-1 record (one no-decision).  Luongo is 20-12-3, 2.39, .924, with two shutouts in 38 career appearances against the Caps.  Those 38 appearances are tied for second-most among active goaltenders, with Marc-Andre Fleury.  Cam Ward has 41 career appearances against the Caps.

Washington: Andre Burakovsky

It has been a rough season for Andre Burakovsky, too.  Limited to 34 games due to injury (23 games to illness and a broken thumb) and inconsistent play, he has just 14 points this season (six goals, eight assists) and is a minus-9, second worst on the team (Brooks Orpik: minus-11).  He was showing signs of coming out of his season-long funk with six points over an eight-game stretch from January 25th through February 15th.  However, he is without a point in his last three games and is a minus-4 over that stretch. 

Not only has Burakovsky’s production overall been disappointing, it has been inconsistent.  He has points in just ten of those 34 games, although if you are looking for a silver lining, he has three multi-point games, all of them in wins and all of them on the road.  And, he has to do more with the ice time he gets.  Burakovsky has logged 13 or more minutes 20 times this season.  In those 20 games he is 4-5-9, minus-3, and the Caps are 6-10-4 in those games.  Not the profile one might want in a top-six forward, the expectation for Burakovsky.  He is 2-2-4, minus-5, in nine games against Florida in his career.

In the end…

The Caps have alternated wins and losses on the road since sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes ten days apart in early January (4-2-2).  Continuing the pattern would mean a loss in this game, the Caps having taken advantage of the Sabres in Buffalo last Sunday.  Patterns aside, this is a game the Caps could, should, and must win, if they are to continue to be a credible contender for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.  Yes, they currently occupy that spot and would occupy it even with a loss (Pittsburgh, one point back, does not play again until Friday).  But the Caps are entering what should be a soft spot in their schedule – Florida, Buffalo, Columbus, and Ottawa, only Columbus playoff eligible and occupying the second wild card spot at that.  If the Caps don’t make hay here, the sun might not shine so brightly after it with a game against the spunky Toronto Maple Leafs and then the three-game California trip following.  It makes beating the Panthers a priority.

Capitals 3 – Panthers 2