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.
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.
- 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)