Last week we said, “hockey is a funny game. Not often funny, ‘ha-ha,’ but funny, ‘strange.’ Week 20 was no exception. Although the Caps earned points in three of four games and ended the week still in first place in the Metropolitan Division, one had a sense of foreboding. In the Era of Bettman, a .500 week in standings points earned can be accompanied with three losses in four games. And that is the week the Caps had, seeing their division lead dwindle to a single thin point. Worse, the week ended with what was arguably the worst game they played this season and the worst performance in goal perhaps in the career of their number one netminder since he took over that position, not that he had any support – any support this week – in front of him.
Technically, in the way the league keeps score of such things (standings points), it was not a losing week. The Caps did earn four points in four games, three of them in three road games. Under normal circumstances, three-in-three would not be a bad week on the road. This wasn’t normal. The Caps sandwiched ghastly, in different ways, performances around a very good one.
What might be most noteworthy about the week, record-wise, is the realization that there just might be something to this whole concept of “regression to the mean.” Washington lost two games in overtime this week, bringing their streak of overtime losses to four, dating back to January 18th. This after starting the season 6-2 in extra time games.
The strange part about the two overtime losses was that they came in consecutive games. It has not been unusual for the Caps. It was the fourth time this season that the Caps played at least two consecutive games into extra time (they had a three-game streak of such games in December).
The loss in regulation to the Chicago Blackhawks to end the week brought the Caps’ total of regulation losses to 18, tying their total of two years ago and closing to within one of their total of last season.
Offense: 3.25 /game (season: 3.09 /game, rank: 9th)
The Caps did not lack for offense, at least early in the week. And overall, an average of 3.25 goals per game, their second straight week at or over that average, is top-five level performance in the league this season (Boston was fifth at 3.27 goals per game at week’s end). They did it efficiently, scoring 13 goals on just 101 shots (12.9 percent shooting).
There was the good and the bad individually, though. On the good side, four Capitals registered multi-goal weeks. Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson led the team with three goals apiece. Backstrom seems to have settled into a decent goal scoring rhythm after struggling over much of the early part of the season. He has goals in five of his last seven games, four of them at even strength and one of them a game-winner. Finally getting to the 200-goal career mark seems to have taken the shackles off.
Wilson’s achievement was more a marker in his developmental arc. When he scored in the first period against Chicago in the last game of the week, it was his tenth of the season, the first time in his five-year career that he reached double-digits in goals scored.
It was good to see Andre Burakovsky awaken, too. He has a pair of goals in the four games, the pair coming in consecutive games against Winnipeg and Minnesota, the first time this season he scored goals in consecutive games.
Alex Ovechkin had a strange week. On the one hand, he was the fourth Capital with a multi-goal week, and he had the 24th game of his career with four or more points when he recorded a goal and three assists in the 5-2 win over Minnesota on Thursday. But in the 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks to end the week, he failed to record so much as a single shot attempt, the first time in his 13-year career.
Defense: 4.50 / game (season: 2.98 /game, rank: 20th)
Shots allowed is going to sink this team. Twice in Week 20 the Caps allowed 44 shots on goal – in the 4-3 overtime loss to Winnipeg and the 7-1 loss to Chicago. Those two games are the highest in shots on goal allowed against the Caps this season, bringing the total to four the number of games the Caps allowed 40 or more shots. They have a 1-1-2 record in those games, all of them on the road. At weeks’ end, the Caps allowed teams 35 or more shots 21 times. Only five teams have had more instances, and of that group only the Toronto Maple Leafs is playoff-eligible at the moment. This week, each game feature a single period in which the opponent recorded at least 15 shots, the high of 21 coming in the first period against Chicago to end the week. In only four of 12 regulation periods did the Caps allow fewer than ten shots.
Overall, the Caps were out-shot for the week, 151-101. How bad is that? The Arizona Coyotes, 31st in the league standings, were out-shot by a 155-101 margin. Arizona is not a club the Caps want or can afford to emulatre. It was almost as bad in the shot attempts, where the Caps were out-attempted at 5-on-5 by a 206-149 margin, their minus-57 being the fifth worst number for the week, as was their shot attempts-for percentage at fives (41.97 percent).
Goaltending: 4.44 / .881 (season: 2.84 / .912 / 1 shutout)
You could call this the worst week of the season for the Caps in net, and you would not be far wrong, if you were wrong at all. Braden Holtby had what might have been his worst week as a number one netminder in his career. Not that he had much support in front of him (see the shot differential discussion above), but he was not above .900 in save percentage in any of the regulation periods overall for the week (he played two third periods and was .900 overall in those). You could say he is, if not in a serious slump, then stuck in an inconsistent pattern. In his last six appearances he is 2-2-2, 4.53, .884, and he allowed five or more goals in three of those appearances.
Holtby’s struggles have inspired a new wave of the fans’ biggest pastime, calling for the backup to get more time or take over the number one spot (with the number one guy getting traded). This is a staple of football fans and quarterbacks, and it rears it head from time to time in hockey. The other side of this occasional distress is the play of the backup, which has to be good to complete the thought. And Philipp Grubauer has been playing well. In Week 20 he stopped 42 of 45 shots in limited duty (.933) earning the Caps’ only win of the week in the 5-2 victory in Minnesota. In his last dozen appearances, Grubauer is 5-2-2 (three no-decisions), 1.86, .940, with one shutout.
Power Play: 2-for-9 / 22.2 percent (season: 20.9 percent, rank: 13th)
Another week, another plus-20 percent effort with the man advantage. Over the last four week, the Caps have been better than 20 percent in each week and are 9-for-31 overall (29.0 percent). This was where the top guys were the top guys, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin getting the two power play goals for the week and earning three of the six points awarded. Ovechkin (1-1-2) and John Carlson (0-2-2) were the multi-point players for the week. The hard part of this is the opportunities. Nine power play chances in four games put the Caps in the bottom third in the rankings overall for the week. Only once in the last ten weeks have the Caps finished a week with ten or more power play chances (13 in Week 15). While they rank in the middle third of the league in power play chances overall this season (177/19th), the lack of chances seems to be wasting one of, if not the most dangerous offensive weapons that the Caps have.
Things were not quite as good as they seemed, though, and there is an ominous quality to how the week progressed on the power play. The Caps were 2-for-3 in 3:57 of power play time against Detroit to open the week, but they were 0-for-6 in 9:59 in power play time over the last three games of the week, and they were held without so much as a power play shot on goal in 2:44 with the man advantage in the 7-1 loss to Chicago to end the week.
Penalty Killing: 13-for-15 / 86.7 percent (season: 79.9 percent, rank: 18th)
The Caps did not lack for opportunities to practice their penalty killing. The 15 shorthanded situations they faced were more than the combined total of the previous two weeks (12 in five games). It was the most opportunities faced since Week 2, when they were shorthanded 17 times (the Caps also were shorthanded 15 times in Week 7.
But here, too, things might not have been quite as good as they seem. The Caps blanked Detroit and Winnipeg on six chances over 12 minutes, allowing only ten shots on goal. Then, they stopped the first three power play chances the Minnesota Wild had in the third game of the week. But the Caps allowed power play goals on two of the last six shorthanded situations they faced for the week (one in the last two the Wild had and one in four chances Chicago had). And, the Caps were shorthanded nine times in the last two games, compared to six in the first two games.
Faceoffs: 118-for-244 / 48.4 percent (season: 50.3 percent, rank: 16th)
This is an area in which the Caps have been slipping in recent weeks. This week was an instance in which the Caps were very good in one end and not so good in the other, almost mirror images of one another. They managed to win less than 40 percent of their offensive zone draws for the week (27-for-71/38.0 percent), and no Capital taking more than one draw finished as well as 50 percent. In the defensive end, things were much better, the Caps finishing 58-for-96 (60.4 percent).
Individually, the big four (those taking at least ten draws for the week) followed a similar profile – good in the defensive end, poor in the offensive end. Jay Beagle was the only one of that group to finish the week over 50 percent (57.9), perhaps a function of taking 40 defensive end draws (winning 25) versus taking only nine faceoffs in the offensive end (winning four). That offensive zone-defensive zone split for Beagle was certainly evident in the game against Winnipeg when Beagle took 18 defensive zone faceoffs (winning 12) and only one in the offensive zone (winning that one).
Goals by Period:
Third periods were the story in Week 20, and it was not a good one overall. Yes, the Caps did score three third period goals to salvage a point in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings in the first game of the week. However, the Caps gave up a pair of goals in the last 10 minutes of the third period to give back that standings point in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets, they gave up a pair of third period goals to the Minnesota Wild, and they played a lifeless third period after falling behind the Chicago Blackhawks, 6-1, after two periods of what would be a 7-1 loss to end the week.
It falls into a patter with this team, one of allowing more goals as games go on. They have allowed 49 first period goals this season, 56 in the second period, and 62 third period goals. And there are those two overtime goals allowed this week that left the Caps with six overtime goals allowed this season, tied for fifth-most in the league.
In the end…
One wonders, is this club in a slump, or is it expressing its expected performance after overachieving for much of the season? Consider that the Caps won their first three games of the new year, part of what would be a five-game winning streak. Since then, though, they are 6-5-4. There are 22 teams in the league with better records over that span. If this is the team the Caps really are, and their possession numbers certainly suggest they might be (24th in the league in 5-on-5 shot attempts-for percentage), it could be time for a reality check, that this team might be what we thought it was when the season started, and not in a good way.
- First Star: Tom Wilson (3-2-5, plus-2, nine shots on goal, 15 hits, five block shots)
- Second Star: Alex Ovechkin (2-5-7, minus-1, 15 shots on goal)
- Third Star: Nicklas Backstrom (3-1-4, minus-1)