Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 78: Hurricanes at Capitals, March 30th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wrap up the March portion of their schedule looking to extend their winning streak to what would be a season-long six games when they host the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night at Capital One Arena.  With ten wins in March and a 10-3-0 record, the Caps have already tied their highest monthly win total of the season, having gone 10-2-2 in December.

On the other side, the Hurricanes are hanging on to hope by the most slender of threads.  As of Thursday morning they trail the New Jersey Devils for the second wild card spot by nine points with ten points still available (five games) on their schedule.  Since the Devils play the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night, the ‘Canes might be eliminated by the time the puck drops on 7th Street on Friday.

If Carolina is eliminated, they have the 2018 portion of the schedule to blame.  They completed the 2017 portion of their schedule with an 18-13-7 record, one point behind the New York Islanders for the second wild card spot.  Since then, however, Carolina is 16-19-4, the tenth-best record in the Eastern Conference since January 1st.

But there is some cause for hope, if only for the two players who lead the team in goal scoring in the new year.  Sebastian Aho, a 21-year old with 27 goals in his sophomore NHL season, has already surpassed the 24 goals he had last season for Carolina as a rookie.  Of that total, 16 of them have been scored in 35 games since January 1st.  He has ramped up the pace of his goal scoring as a product of more efficient shooting.  He is one of 11 players in the league who, among players with at least 25 shots on goal, has a shooting percentage better than 20 percent (16-for-78/20.5 percent).  Five of those 16 goals since January 1st were on power plays, the highest total on the team in that span.  Looking back on his entire season to date, he has been quite consistent on a month-to-month basis.  From November through the March schedule to date, Aho has recorded either five or six goals in each month (this after going without one in ten games in October).  The problem he has, which is not so much his as the problem with a young team without enough developed assets, is that his goal scoring doesn’t yet matter quite enough.  Carolina is just 14-8-2 in the 24 games in which he scored a goal this season.  He is 4-6-10, minus-1, in seven career games against Washington.

Teuvo Teravainen. only 23 years old, is right behind Aho in goal scoring in the new year with 14 in 39 games.  The production propelled him to the highest goal total of his five-year career (23), extending his uninterrupted year-to-year progress in raising his goal-scoring totals (none in three games in his rookie season, followed by four in 34 games, 13 in 78 games, 15 in 81 games, and the 23 in 77 games this season).  He weathered a dry spell in which he had just two goals over a 19-game span from early-January to mid-February (he did have 11 assists) only to follow that up with ten goals in his last 18 games, even though he averaged just 16:39 in ice time over that stretch.  There is a distinct difference in his home and road performances this season, though.  At its root, there is a marked difference between home and road in his getting shots to the net.  He has 103 shots on goal in 39 home games, but he has only 71 shots on goal in 38 road games.  It explains, for the most part his having 14 of his 23 goals this season scored on home ice and only nine when away from his home rink, but it is not unusual in that over his career, Teravainen has 309 shots on goal in 137 home games and 240 shots on goal in 136 road contests.  He is 3-5-8, even, in nine career games against the Caps.

Carolina is very green on the blue line.  Of the six defensemen to appear in at least 50 games this season, four of them are under the age of 25.  Trevor van Riemsdyk is the oldest at age 26.  None is younger than Noah Hanifin, who turned 21 in January.  The fifth-overall pick of the 2015 entry draft jumped right to the big club on Opening Night of the 2015-2016 season and has been a fixture ever since.  No Hurricane defenseman has appeared in more games over the past three seasons than Hanifin (234), and although he would not be considered an unusually productive “offensive” defenseman (second in goals and third in points among that group over the last three seasons), he has four game-winning goals in that span, second only to Justin Faulk (eight) among defensemen, and he has 25 power play points, second only to Faulk (49).  This season, Hanafin appears to be coming out as a bigger offensive producer.  He leads all Carolina defensemen in goals (10) and points (31), and he has done it while averaging fewer minutes per game (18:48) than Faulk (22:15), Jaccob Slavin (22:31), or Brett Pesce (20:54).  The trouble is, though, Carolina is only 9-9-1 when he recorded a point.  Hanifin does not have a point against the Caps in 11 career games played against them, and he is a minus-4.

1.  A loss in this game for Carolina (or if the Devils beat Pittsburgh on Thursday night) would cement their ninth consecutive season without reaching the postseason, the longest dry spell in the history of the franchise dating back to when they were the Hartford Whalers.

2.  The Hurricanes might be the team to points to when arguing “faceoffs don’t matter.”  They have won a league-best 53.9 percent of draws taken.

3.  No team has been penalized less (6:13 minutes per game) or fewer times (216 penalties called) than Carolina.  They are the only team in the league having been charged with fewer than 200 minor penalties (199).

4.  If faceoffs don’t matter, than what are you going to say about shot attempts?  Carolina leads the league in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (54.32).  They are third when ahead (51.39), second when behind (57.29), first when tied (54.19), and first in close situations (55.09, all numbers from  Small wonder that Carolina enjoys the best positive overall shot-differential in the league at plus-5.1 shots per game.

5.  On the other hand, the Hurricanes’ special teams need work, both of them being in the bottom half of the league.  They are 20th in power play (19.0 percent) and 25th in penalty killing (77.3 percent), one of seven teams with a power play under 20 percent and a penalty kill under 80 percent).

1.  Don’t count on this game going to a Gimmick.  Washington and Carolina are the only teams in the NHL not to have gone to the freestyle competition since January 1st.  The last time the Caps did it was December 28th (a 4-3 win over Boston that, curiously, was the second of a back-to-back set of games that ended in a Gimmick; the Caps lost to the New York Rangers, 1-0, the previous night), and the last time Carolina did it was December 12th (a 3-2 win over Vegas).

2.  The Caps have a very efficient power play in one respect.  They score one power play goal for each 7:09 of power play ice time they get.  That is fifth-best in the league (Tampa Bay is best at one goal per 6:32).

3.  Colorado (49.6 percent), Arizona (47.9 percent), and Columbus (47.5 percent) are the only teams other than the Caps with a power play faceoff winning percentage under 50 percent.  The Caps are at 49.4 percent).  Contrast that with the Caps and defensive zone faceoffs, where they are second-best in the league at 54.5 percent (Carolina, who seems to be at or near the top of all these sorts of lists, are at 54.7 percent).  Perhaps “The Beagle Effect.”

4.  Whatever you think of the arbitrariness of giveaways and takeaways, here is a club you don’t want to be in.  Montreal, the New York Islanders, Detroit, and the Caps.  These four teams are the only ones in the league charged with more than 800 giveaways and credited with fewer than 600 takeaways.

5.  What is it with the Caps and playing 4-on-4?  Last year, they were one of two teams not to score a 4-on-4 goal all season (Carolina was the other…go figure).  This year, they have two.  Only five teams have fewer.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Carolina: Jeff Skinner

Remember when Jeff Skinner was that fresh-faced, seventh-overall draft pick of the Hurricanes back in 2010?  Well, now he has played more games (574) than all but seven players in franchise history.  He is one of five players to reach the 200-goal mark in club history (he has 203).  He is 14th in assists (174) and tied with Blaine Stoughton for seventh place in points (377) for the franchise.  There are also a couple of odd facts attached to his history with the club.  He one of only three players in franchise history with at least 45 power play goals scored for the club, but no shorthanded goals (Sylvain Turgeon and Ray Ferraro are the others).  And, he tied for having the third-worst plus-minus in the history of the club (minus-93, with Ray Neufeld).

After posting a career best 37 goals last season, he has fallen off that pace with only 23 so far this season, which is what happens when you follow a season of having more than 13 percent of your shots find the back of the net (13.2) with one in which less than nine percent of your shots light the lamp (8.7).  He started well this season with nine goals in his first 16 games, but he fell off that pace rapidly thereafter and has only 14 goals in his last 61 games (a 19-goal pace over 82 games).  But, as it seems with a number of other Hurricane skaters, the goal scoring isn’t accompanied by wins.  In the 20 games in which Skinner has goals this season, Carolina is just 9-6-5.  Skinner is 12-12-24, minus-1, in 36 career games against the Capitals.

Washington: Tom Wilson

Don’t bother holding the vote.  Tom Wilson is the most improved player on this team.  There isn’t really even a second place to be had in that race.  Wilson has almost doubled his previous best in goal scoring (from seven, twice, to 13 this season), has a career best in assists (20), a career best in points (33), a career best in plus-minus (plus-10), a career best in shooting percentage (11.6), a career high in shots on goal (112) and shot attempts (216), a career high in blocked shots (49), and a career high in ice time (15:56).  If you think of an Alex Ovechkin/Evgeny Kuznetsov/Tom Wilson top line as a bloody mary cocktail, Ovechkin is the “vodka” to give it spirit, Kuznetsov is the “celery stick” to blend it, and Wilson is the horseradish and Tabasco sauce to give it a spicy kick. 

His contributions matter.  The Caps are 8-1-0 in games this season when he scored a goal, 19-4-2 in the 25 games in which he registered a point.  And he has not been a liability with more ice time.  Washington is 10-2-2 in the 14 games in which he logged more than 18 minutes of ice time.  His emergence as a force for good within the rules has not reduced his propensity for taking penalties.  He is second in the league with 183 penalty minutes, having drawn penalties in 36 of 73 games played this season (he had penalties in 32 of 82 games last season).  But among 351 forwards skating at least 500 5-on-5 minutes this season, Wilson ranks third in penalties drawn overall (87) and 12th in penalties drawn per 60 minutes (5.26; numbers from  Wilson has some catching up to do against Carolina.  He is 0-1-1, minus-8, in 20 career games against the Hurricanes.

In the end…

See that long thin pedal on the right?  That’s the gas…keep your foot on it.  The Caps, barring a total collapse, are almost certainly going to win the Metropolitan Division and play the first wild card to open the postseason (as of Thursday afternoon, that team would be the Columbus Blue Jackets).  In fact, a win over Carolina (should New Jersey beat Pittsburgh on Thursday night) would clinch the division for the Caps before they face the Hurricanes.  But the point is that this is no time to cut corners, take shortcuts, or coast into the playoffs.  Winning is always the object of the exercise, but doing things the right way, consistently and reliably, is what allows winning to take care of itself.  Facing a weaker opponent with little to play for tests that kind of discipline.  Taking care of business, from puck drop to final horn…that will be what to look for from this team on Friday night.

Capitals 5 – Hurricanes 2

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 76/77: Capitals vs. Rangers, March 26th/28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Washington Capitals wrap up their three-game road trip on Monday night with a visit to the world’s most famous arena and a contest with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.  It is the first of the last home-and home series in the regular season for the Caps that will conclude in Washington on Wednesday.

Washington cannot eliminate the Rangers outright in the first game of the home-and-home, but they could push them to the brink.  It would be possible for the Rangers to tie the eighth-place New Jersey Devils with a 39-35-8 record (the Rangers having to sweep their last six games after a loss Monday night against the Caps and the Devils losing all of their remaining games in regulation), but could squeak past with more wins in regulation and overtime.

The Rangers just have not been able to get any traction to advance in the standings of late.  Just when they appear to be putting things in a better state, they slide right back.  They had an horrific stretch to open the new year going 12-20-3 after they beat the Buffalo Sabres on New Year’s Day in the annual Winter Classic.  They started to turn things around at the end of February, or so it seemed, with a three-game winning streak.  They followed that up with a three-game skid (0-2-1).  Then, wins in consecutive games were followed by another three-game losing streak (0-2-1) before they beat the Sabres on Saturday night, 5-1, leaving the Rangers 6-4-2 in their last 12 games and unable to close any distance on a playoff spot.

The Rangers have not had much of a problem scoring over those dozen games, recording 42 goals in all (seventh-most overall in that span).  Mika Zibanejad leads the team in goals (10) and points (15) over that period.  In fact, since February 28th, when the Rangers started on this meandering 6-4-2 run, only Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine has more goals than Zibenejad (12), and only nine players have more points through Saturday’s games.  Those ten goals propelled Zibanejad to a career best 27 goals through 65 games this season, surpassing the 21 he had for the Ottawa Senators in 2015-2016.  With 46 points, he tied his second-highest career point total (2014-2015) and is within striking distance of his career best (51 in 2015-2016).  Sadly for the Rangers, his production just has not mattered a lot. Zibanejad has goals in 24 games this season, and the Rangers are just 9-13-2 in those games.  He does, however, have goals in five of the Rangers’ last eight wins in which he participated.  In 17 career games against Washington, Zibanejad is 4-4-8, even.

You might be forgiven for not recognizing the name “Neal Pionk.”  Undrafted by any NHL team, the defenseman played for two seasons with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in the NCAA, upon which he signed a two-year/$3.55 million contract with the Rangers as a free agent.  He spent 48 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack in the AHL before being promoted to the Rangers in early-February.  He struggled a bit to get his footing in the NHL, recording only one point (an assist) in his first nine games and going minus-4.  He was getting a long look, though, averaging 20:57 in ice time over those games.  Since then, over this 6-4-2 run, Pionk leads Ranger defensemen in points (1-12-13) and is logging even more time – 22:45 per game, highest ice time average on the club.  There does seem to be a price paid in giving him so much ice time.  The Rangers are 4-6-0 in the games in which Pionk skated more than 23 minutes, although he does have points in six of those games (1-8-9) and are 4-2-0 in those high ice time games in which he did have a point.  This will be his first appearance against the Capitals.

If this is a Rangers game, this would be where we would talk about goalie Henrik Lundqvist.  However, he appeared only once in the last two weeks, giving up four goals on 30 shots in a 5-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 20th.  And now, there is talk of his being shut down for the rest of the season with a wonky back.  Not that Lundqvist seems inclined to listen to it.  If Lundqvist is held out of one or both of this home-and-home set, the goaltending duties would normally fall to Ondrej Pavelec, but he hasn’t seen action since February 9th, out of the lineup with a knee injury.  That leaves the bulk of the goaltending duties these days to Alexandar Georgiev.  Undrafted, he was invited to the Rangers’ development camp in the summer of 2017.  He made enough of an impression to get a three-year contract with the club.  He appeared in 31 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack, going 12-11-2, 2.97, .908 with two shutouts before getting his second call-up of the season in February.   He started slowly in terms of wins and losses, going 1-2-0 in his first four appearances (one no-decision).  But his goals against average of 2.65 was good, and his save percentage of .930 was very good.  Over his last five appearances, Georgiev is 3-1-1, 2.98, .924.  This would be his first career action against the Caps.

1.  The Caps might want to avoid the Rangers’ power play.  Over their last dozen games, the Rangers are 9-for-30, their 30.0 percent efficiency being fourth-best in the league over that span.  Those 30 opportunities are more than just six other teams in that span, and three of them played fewer games – St. Louis (25 chances in 11 games), Toronto (24 times in nine games), and Anaheim (24 times in 11 games).

2.  Defense?   Must be a four-letter word in Manhattan.  Only the Montreal Canadiens have allowed more shots on goal (507) than have the Rangers (485) over the Rangers’ last dozen games, and the 40.4 shots per game allowed is by far the most in the league over that time. And it isn’t as if the Rangers are engaging in up-and-down, firewagon hockey.  Their 353 shots on goal is sixth-fewest in that span, a shot differential of minus-132, worst in the league over those dozen games.

3.  Differences in official scoring aside, the Rangers are not very tidy with the puck.  Their 953 charged giveaways this season are second-most in the league, only three fewer than the Florida Panthers.  But on the other side, their 665 credited takeaways are third-most in the league, trailing only Carolina (831) and Vegas (781).

4.  The Rangers aren’t likely to blow anyone out.  They have nine wins this season by three or more goals, a total exceeding that of just four other teams: Carolina (8), Ottawa (7), Arizona (7), and Buffalo (3).

5.  If the Caps have an incentive to get pucks on net, it is that only one team in the league has more losses in regulation when out-shot than the Ranger (21 losses)). Ottawa has 25 losses when out-shot.

1.  Only three teams have more wins than the Caps when out-shot by opponents.  Their 25 wins in those situations is exceeded only by Nashville (26), Toronto (28), and Colorado (30).  On the other side of that, the Caps don’t lose much when they do manage to out-shoot opponents.  Their seven regulation losses are bested only by Nashville (five), and their eight total losses is fewest in the league.

2.  This will be the fourth home-and-home series for the Caps this season.  The Caps split the first, losing at home before winning in Carolina against the Hurricanes in mid-January.  In the other two series, the Caps opened each on the road – at Columbus and at the New York Islanders – winning in each instance before completing the sweep on home ice.

3.  Washington has the second-best shooting percentage in the league (10.8 percent), trailing only Tampa Bay (10.9 percent).

4.  No team has enjoyed fewer 5-on-3 power play chances than the Caps this season.  They have four, the same number as that of Edmonton, Los Angeles, Carolina, and Philadelphia.  They were successful on two of those four chances.

5.  The Caps have the second-highest number of penalties in the Eastern Conference (307) to Florida’s 314. And, no team in the East has spent more time killing penalties than the Caps this season (406:30).  They rank ninth overall in the league, but each of the eight teams ahead of them are in the Western Conference.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Jimmy Vesey

For the longest time, or so it might have seemed to him, offense was in short supply in Jimmy Vesey’s game.  Over a 30-game span from December 27th through March 10th, he was 4-1-5, minus-16.  But then he had his first career hat trick in a 6-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on March 12th.  Starting with that game, Vesey has five goals in six games on just 13 shots (38.5 percent shooting).  That goal scoring matters to the Rangers, who are 10-2-1 in the 13 games in which Vesey has at least one goal this season.  But while Vesey now has a career best 17 goals in 72 games this season, he is also a career-worst minus-20 (yes, it is only a two-year career so far, but still).  That minus-20 is tied for second-worst on the club with Brady Skjei, better than only David Desharnais (minus-23).  He has been on ice for 59 goals against, fourth-most among forwards, but then again among the forwards who have spent all season with the club, he is seventh in average ice time.  A lot happens when he is on the ice, some of it good and some of it not so good.  Vesey is 2-0-2, even, in six career games against the Capitals.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

There is the flashy for its own sake, and there is the necessary that only looks flashy.  The difference was on display against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.  With the first period winding down and the Caps holding a 2-1 lead, Nicklas Backstrom found some open ice to receive a pass from Andre Burakovsky at the right wing wall.  From just inside the dot in the right wing circle, Backstrom, facing the corner, spied Tom Wilson circling behind him.  Backstrom gave defenseman Jeff Petry a shimmy to get Petry to bite and step up, and it was just enough for Backstrom to backhand a no-look pass to Wilson in space for a one-timer that beat goalie Carey Price on the blocker side for a 3-1 lead.  If a no-look backhand pass could be considered subtle, that was it, Backstrom employing an economy of movement and an ability to think ahead a couple of moves to create space for the shooter and lay a pass right on his stick for a scoring chance.

It was Backstrom’s third assist of the period on the way to a four-assist night, his first of the season and the 11th of his career, most in franchise history.  The four points was his second four-point game of the season (October 13th against New Jersey being the other), the 20th of his career, second to Alex Ovechkin (24) in club history.  That moment was Backstrom’s career in a five-second burst, thinking the game better than his opponent, putting himself and a teammate in a position to make a play, and then executing it with calm and precision by taking the necessary action, not the “flashy” one for its own sake.  He will be coming into the home-and-home against the Rangers a hot player, 4-12-16, plus-3, in his last 12 games with four multi-point games among them.  Backstrom is 9-24-33, minus-5, in 41 career games against the Rangers.

In the end…

Going into Madison Square Garden and getting out with a win is never easy, although this year seems to be a little easier on opponents, the Rangers with only 21 home wins, 17th-most in the league with two home games yet to play.  On the other hand, only five teams have more home wins than the Caps’ 26 wins at Capital One Arena.  Add to that the fact that the Caps are the team with a future to play for this season, and the Rangers are a club looking more at what they might have for next season and beyond.  It is a formula for what would be a successful final home-and-home set of games of the regular season for the Caps.

Monday: Capitals 4 – Rangers 3
Wednesday: Capitals 4 – Rangers 2

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 25

The penultimate week of March was a good one for the Washington Capitals.  It started poorly, with a loss on the road to a bitter divisional rival, but it ended with a rush and allowed the team to put a bit of distance between itself and its Metropolitan Division competition.

Record: 3-1-0

Capitals Nation might have been in a foul mood following the 6-3 stomping the Caps took at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers to open the week, but three wins to follow made for smiles by week’s end.  What made it a particularly satisfying week was that the Caps ended a long streak of frustration at the hands of the Dallas Stars on home ice.  Washington’s 4-3 win over the Stars in the second game of the week ended a six-game losing streak on home ice against that team (0-5-1).

After that the Caps became “The Eliminator.”  They went on the road and officially ended the Detroit Red Wings’ chances to reach the postseason, fighting off their own sense of the “blahs” to escape with a 1-0 decision.  Then, they headed to Montreal and, in an unexpected free-for-all, ended the competitive portion of the Canadiens’ season with a 6-4 win.

As a result, the 3-1-0 week put the Caps in a five-point lead in the Metropolitan Division, their biggest division lead since they held a five-point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins (69 to 64) on February 10th.  And, they ended the week on a three-game winning streak that, modest as it might sound, is at the moment the longest in the Eastern Conference.

Offense: 3.25 /game (season: 3.11 /game, rank: 10th)

Deuces were wild for the Caps in Week 25.  Five different players recorded a pair of goals – Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Alex Ovechkin, and John Carlson.  Kuznetsov, Carlson, and Brett Connolly had the game-winners for the week.  Matt Niskanen, Chandler Stephenson, and Jay Beagle wrapped up the goal scoring.  For Beagle, his goal continued one of the more bizarre histories in the NHL.  He scored his 51st career goal against the Canadiens in the last game of the week.  It was the 47 game of his career in which he recorded a goal.  In those 47 games the Caps have a record of 41-1-5.  And it is not a whole lot different when he records a point.  In 103 career games in which he recorded at least one point, the Caps are 84-11-8.

Speaking of points, it was John Carlson leading the team in Week 25 with six points (2-4-6).  With those six points, Carlson finished the week leading all NHL defensemen in points (63), and the two goals he recorded pulled him to within one of Calgary’s Dougie Hamilton for the league lead among blueliners.  Carlson also led the club in shots on goal for the week (18).

It was a long week in terms of games (four being the usual maximum a team will have), but the Caps still spread things around points-wise.  There were 17 different skaters recording at least one point.  Devante Smith-Pelly was the only forward not to put a crooked number on the score sheet, and three defensemen were shut out – Michal Kempny, Christian Djoos, and Brooks Orpik.  Djoos did, however, post the team’s best plus-minus of the week (plus-3).

Defense: 3.25 / game (season: 2.93 /game, rank: 16th)

At a high level, it was a very uneven week for the Caps.  The team alternated allowing high and low volumes of shots on goal, giving up 35 to the Flyers in the first game of the week and 39 to the Red Wings in Game 3, while they allowed just 27 to the Stars and 21 to the Canadiens in the second and fourth games of the week.  The Caps did not do a bad job of denying shots in the first periods of games, allowing 35 in all and fewer than ten in three of the four games.  Only against Detroit in the third game of the week did the Caps allow more than ten, 13 in all.  The second period was a different story where 13 shots on goal was the lower bound in the first three games of the week.  The Flyers had 14 second period shots, and Detroit had 15.  They “held” the Stars to 13 shots in the second game of the week.  The Caps found their defensive edge in the last game of the week, allowing only five second period shots to Montreal and holding them to nine in the first and seven in the third for a total of 21 shots on goal.  As uneven as it was, there were still 12 teams in the league that allowed more shots on goal than the Caps, and they had the same number (122) as the Los Angeles Kings.  Only four teams having played in four games for the week allowed fewer.  In that context, the Caps were a bit stingier than one might have thought otherwise.

Still, this is a club that struggles holding their own in terms of shot attempts at 5-on-5.  They had the sixth-worst shot attempts-for percentage for the week (46.47) and they had the tenth-highest number of shot attempts against (182).  Worse, their shot attempts-for in close situations was grim, ranking fourth-worst for the week (40.97 percent, numbers from

Goaltending: 3.04 / .901 / 1 shutout (season: 2.78 / .912 / 3 shutouts)

In the goaltending area, Week 25 started with a goalie controversy, and then it ended on a cautionary note.  The recent troubles of Braden Holtby and the emergence of Philipp Grubauer led to the latter being given the keys to the car to start the week.  Things went well...for 20 minutes.  Grubauer stopped all nine shots he faced in the first period against the Flyers, but then he allowed five goals on 25 shots over the last two periods before the Flyers scored an empty netter in their 6-3 win over the Caps.

Holtby got the call in the second game of the week against Dallas, and his performance reflected his infrequency of work over the last couple of weeks.  He allowed a goal on four shots in the first period, and then he let two get past him on 13 shots in the second period.  He stood tall in the third period, though, stopping all ten shots he faced to earn his second win in as many appearances, the first time he won consecutive appearances since early February when he won both ends of a home-and-home against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The win came at a price, though.  Holtby tweaked something in the Dallas game, perhaps from a collision with the Stars’ Remi Elie.  The team took a cautious path with Holtby, and Grubauer got the last two starts of the week.  His performances were at opposite ends of the spectrum.  He pitched a brilliant 39-save shutout of the Red Wings in Detroit on Thursday night, his second shutout in five games and his third of the season.  In the last game of the week, though, he allowed four goals on just 21 shots by the Montreal Canadiens.  Although two of those goals came in the last 11 minutes after the Caps built a 6-2 lead, it was not the best performance by Grubauer this week by a long shot.

Overall, Grubauer and Holtby combined for a superb .943 save percentage in the first periods of games, but their combined .872 in the second periods of games and a .897 third period save percentage made for a less-than-thrilling week.

Power Play: 3-for-12 / 25.0 percent (season: 23.0 percent, rank: 5th)

Week 25 was the 11th time this season that the Caps finished a week with a power play efficiency of 25 percent or better and the fourth time in the last five weeks.  Over those five weeks they hummed along at 14-for-45 (31.1 percent).

John Carlson was the set-up man for the power play, recording assists on each of the three man advantage goals of the week to lead the Caps in power play points.  Two of those goals were scored by Evgeny Kuznetsov, both of them coming in the Caps’ 6-4 win over Montreal to end the week.  It was the first time this season that Kuznetsov recorded two or more power play goals in a game.  He joinied T.J. Oshie as the only Caps to do it this season (Oshie had a pair of power play goals in a 4-3 overtime loss to Tampa Bay on October 9th).  It was a nice return for Kuznetsov, who missed the first three games of the week with an upper-body injury.

Generally, it was more an effective than an efficient power play in Week 25. It started poorly, with the Caps unable to muster a power play shot on goal in 2:55 of power play time against the Flyers.  They picked things up after that, though, going 3-for-9 in the last three games of the week and scoring those three goals on 15 shots in 13:03 of power play ice time.

Penalty Killing: 12-for-14/ 85.7 percent (season: 79.8 percent, rank: 18th)

The good news of Week 25 on the penalty kill was its efficiency, the first time since Week 20 that the Caps skated off more than 85 percent of the shorthanded situations they faced and the tenth time this season.  The bad news was spending too much time killing penalties (20:45) and allowing too many shots (25).

The Caps caught a bit of a break in the shots allowed area.  Of the 25 shots on goal allowed for the week, 17 of them were recorded by Dallas (eight) and Detroit (nine).  Those teams finished the week 18th and 24th, respectively, in power play efficiency.  That they were a combined 1-for-8 on their power play was not a surprising result.

Faceoffs: 138-for-250 / 55.2 percent (season: 50.5 percent, rank: 12th)

It was a solid week in the circle for the Caps, winning over 50 percent of their faceoffs in three of the four games and winning all three zones for the week. And it was the players taking the highest volume of draws who did well, generally speaking.  A four-game week meant that there were five Caps taking at least ten draws for the week.  Of that group, Nicklas Backstrom (40-for-75/53.3 percent), Jay Beagle (45-for-64/70.3 percent),and Evgeny Kuznetsov (11-for-18/61.1 percent) had especially good weeks.  Of 161 players taking at least ten draws for the week in the NHL, only San Jose’s Barclay Goodrow (16-for-21/76.2 percent) had a better week than Beagle.

It was something of an interesting week in terms of the competition.  The Caps went 66-for-124 (53.2 percent) against Philadelphia and Dallas, teams that finished the week ranked second and fourth in the league in faceoff winning percentage. At the other end of the spectrum, the Caps went 77-for-126 (61.1 percent) against Detroit and Montreal, who finished the week 23rd and 29th, respectively, in faceoff winning percentage.  At the end of the week, the Caps were 12th overall.

Goals by Period:

Overall, it was a closely fought week by period for the Caps and their opponents.  Most of the fireworks came late in games but not quite in the same way.  The Caps allowed five third period goals, the Flyers scoring three to pull away for a comfortable win, and the Canadiens making things a bit more interesting than the Caps might have liked with a pair of goals that narrowed a 6-2 lead to what would become a 6-4 win.  What might have been the most noteworthy fact of the week in this area, though, was the Caps inability to score in the first period.  They went three games without a first period goal before exploding for three in the first 20 minutes against Montreal after spotting the Canadiens a 1-0 lead.

Those five third period goals allowed might be an area of concern as the Caps head into the last two weeks of the season.  The 81 third period goals allowed is the tenth-most number of goals allowed in the final 20 regulation minutes of games this season.  Of the nine teams having allowed more third period goals this season, only Minnesota (the most allowed with 91) is currently playoff-eligible.

In the end…

At this point for the Capitals, there are three matters to address.  First, and perhaps least important (fans might disagree) is seeding.  High seeding has hardly been an advantage for the Caps in recent years, and there is little reason to suggest that high seeding would, in and of itself, provide the Caps with an advantage.  In this respect, matchups might matter more.  But, for purposes of this item, Week 25 was a good week to secure a high seed, stretching their Metropolitan Division lead.

Second, there is fine tuning their game to eliminate the rough edges and inconsistencies in their game so that they can avoid the errors that are magnified in the postseason and that can mean an early exit.  It was a mixed week in that area, the Caps allowing too many man advantages and allowing too many shots on goal in those situations.  They were also a bit too leaky late in games for comfort as well.

Third, they need to get healthy.  It was a good sign that Evgeny Kuznetsov returned for the last game of the week and posted a pair of goals.  Having him in fine fettle and at the top of his game, production-wise, will be an essential element for any postseason success the Caps might enjoy.  That the team would exercise caution on the matter of Braden Holtby would seem to reflect the attitude that health is more important than seeding.  Having Philipp Grubauer playing well didn’t hurt in making that decision, either.

It would be hard to think of Week 25 as being anything other than preparation, getting things right for what is coming in April, and that will be the theme as the team heads into the last two weeks of the regular season.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: John Carlson (2-4-6, plus-1, 0-3-3 on power play, 1 game-winning goal, 18 shots on goal, 23:04 in ice time per game)
  • Second Star: Nicklas Backstrom (0-5-5, even, 0-2-2 on power play, 20:38 in ice time per game, 53.3 percent faceoff wins)
  • Third Star: Alex Ovechkin (2-3-5, even), 1-0-1 on power play, 16 shots on goal, 33 shot attempts, 20:55 in average ice time)

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 75: Capitals at Canadiens, March 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals. Fresh off a somewhat lackluster 1-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night, head off for their last visit to Canada for the regular season when they make their only visit to Bell Centre this season on Saturday night to face the Montreal Canadiens.

Washington is looking to complete its seven-game schedule of games in Canada on an up-note, facing the Canadiens with a 3-2-1 record in games played in Canadian cities so far this season.  On the other side, Montreal might be quietly hoping the clock would tick faster on this season.  The Canadiens have lost four in a row (0-4-0) going into Friday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres and are just 1-7-2 in their last ten contests going into Friday night’s game.  It is the worst record in the league since March 3rd, when the Canadiens embarked on that slide, except for the Detroit Red Wings (1-8-1).

Seems the Habs have had two general problems in that ten-game span.  First, they can’t score (18 goals scored).  Second, they can’t keep the other guys from scoring (38 goals allowed).

With respect to the former, Montreal really misses Max Pacioretty, who suffered a knee injury in what was the last Canadien win before the ten-game slump, a 6-3 win over the New York Islanders on March 2nd.  That injury was expected to keep Pacioretty out 4-6 weeks.  Since then, the goal scoring has come from few sources and fewer with any consistency.  Brendan Gallagher and Artturi Lehkonen lead the club with four goals apiece over that span, going into Friday’s game against Buffalo. 

Gallagher is one of those annoying players, always stirring things up and getting in opponents’ faces, that 30 other fan bases hate but would love to have on their team.  He has already surpassed his career high in goals, the 26 he has at the moment two more than the 24 he recorded in the 2014-2015 season and a far cry better than the ten he had in 64 games last season, a season cut down by 18 games when he broke a finger blocking a shot of teammate Shea Weber.  But his contributions almost highlight how thin Montreal's scoring is this season.  Gallagher has scored goals in 24 games this season (he has two two-goal games), but Montreal is just 11-11-2 in those games.  That the Habs are 19-15-3 in games in which Gallagher has a point this season speaks to the virtues of spreading things around.  He is 4-2-6, minus-3, in the ten-game skid, and he is 2-1-3, minus-6, in 13 career games against the Capitals.

Lehkonen is a less-known commodity to Caps fans.  A second-round pick of the Canadiens in the 2013 entry draft, he is in his sophomore season with Montreal.  He had a respectable rookie campaign last season, going 18-10-28, minus-1, in 73 games.  Those 18 goals tied for ninth place in last year’s rookie class (with Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point), and his 27 career goals rank 17th in his 2013 draft class (by way of comparison, the Caps’ Andre Burakovsky ranks sixth in that class with 47 goals).  His production is off quite a bit this season, having recorded only half as many goals (nine) as last season.  That is a product of a drop in shooting efficiency.  His shots on goal, last year to this, are roughly equivalent (158 last season, 149 so far this season), but his shooting percentage has dropped from 11.4 percent to 6.0 percent.  It is the thing that has come back in his last ten games, though, his four goals scored on just 27 shots (14.8 percent).  Lehkonen is 1-1-2, minus-2, in five career games against Washington.

Karl Alzner was never a prolific contributor on offense when he was manning the blue line for nine years as a Washington Capital.  But even by his standards he is in a slump.  He does not have a point in the 1-7-2 slump in which his team finds itself.  In fact, he is without a point in his last 15 contests (before Friday’s game against Buffalo), two – both assists – in his last 26 games.  He has one goal this season, that on January 7th in a 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks, leaving him without one in his last 32 games.  Still, he averaging 20:07 of ice time a game (fourth among defensemen on the club).  The ice time is interesting in that in games in which he skated more than 22 minutes this season, Montreal is 7-3-3, hardly a surprising outcome for a defensive defenseman who might be on ice more in the later stages of games to protect a lead.  The flip side of that is the Canadiens being 6-17-2 in the 25 games he skated less than 19 minutes.  Alzner is without a point and is minus-1 in the two games he faced his old team this season.

1.  Think the Canadiens don’t miss Shea Weber on the back line?  His season ended on December 16th.  He suffered a tendon injury in his foot requiring surgery and will not return until next season.  In this 1-7-2 slide, no Canadien defenseman has scored a goal.  That’s no goals on 85 shots as a group.  They have ten assists among eight defensemen to dress in that span.

2.  Small wonder that Montreal is 1-7-2 over their last ten games.  Only the Dallas Stars have been shorthanded more frequently (36 times to 35 for the Canadiens), and Montreal has the worst penalty kill in that span (21-for-35/60.0 percent).  The 14 power play goals allowed over that span is more than the Caps (not the best penalty killing team themselves) have allowed over their last 23 games (13).

3.  It probably says something that Montreal has 20 more hits (309) than any other team over this ten-game span.  They’re frustrated, they spend too much time without the puck, they get generous scoring.  They spread it around, too.  There are 12 skaters with at least ten hits over that span. This is not a happy group that plays well with others.

4.  You get the feeling they just might wish the season was over.  In this ten-game stretch, only the Calgary Flames are shooting to a lower percentage of success (5.4 to 6.2 for Montreal), and the Habs’ 45.8 percent winning percentage on draws is fourth-worst in that span.

5.  And if the Canadiens get behind, their possession numbers slump.  Over these last ten games, their 47.25 percent shot attempts-for when trailing is third-worst in the league (Edmonton: 47.21; Columbus: 41.18)

1.  The Caps have a shot attempt differential on the road at 5-on-5 of minus-225, the worst in the league (New York Islanders are minus-210).

2.  Washington has won three of their last four road games after a four-game road losing streak.  The run pulled them up in the road points rankings, now one of 14 teams averaging more than one standings point per game on the road.

3.  The Caps will try to take advantage of that weak Montreal penalty kill to improve relatively weak road power play numbers.  The Caps are just 1-for-13 (7.7 percent) over their last six road games and 3-for-26 (11.5 percent) over their last 12 games away from Washington.

4.  Alex Ovechkin has 21 goals on the road this season, more than the next two Caps combined (T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom with ten apiece).

5.  The Caps are one of four teams with more than 400 penalty minutes on the road this season.  Their 424 PIMs is exceeded only by Florida (453), Nashville (458), and Calgary (475).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Montreal: Carey Price

The last three seasons have not been kind to goaltender Carey Price.  Two seasons ago, he appeared in only 12 games, missing the Canadiens’ last 59 games of the season with a knee injury.  After appearing in 62 games last season and posting respectable numbers (2.23 goals against average, .923 save percentage), he has appeared in 44 games this season and posted the worst numbers of his career – a 3.03 goals against average (previous worst: 2.83 in 2008-2009) and a .903 save percentage (previous worst: .905 in 2008-2009).  And most recently, he missed 13 games with a concussion, returning just last Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, allowing five goals on 39 shots in a 5-3 loss.  His absence for 13 games was merely a hiccup in what has been a thoroughly forgettable 2018 portion of the season.  He did win two of his first three games of the new year, but since then is a ghastly (for him) 2-9-4, 3.28, .887 in 15 appearances.  And, high shot volumes have not agreed with him, at least in terms of outcomes.  When facing 30 or more shots this season, Price has a 2.70 goals against average and a .922 save percentage, both respectable numbers in that high-volume environment.  But his win-loss record in those games is 8-13-4.  He has not been able to steal many games backstopping a struggling offense.  In 22 career appearances against the Caps, Price is 6-12-4, 3.17, .895, with one shutout.

Washington: Brett Connolly

That Brett Connolly scored the only goal against the Red Wings in the Caps’ 1-0 win in Detroit on Thursday should not be surprising (although if he missed the net on a 2-on-0 break with Jakub Vrana on his wing, he could have just kept skating all the way to Zug Island).  Connolly has eight goals on the road in just 31 road games, the fourth highest total on the team (trailing Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie with ten apiece, and Alex Ovechkin with 21).  His shooting percentage on the road is of the “c’mon, you’re putting me on” category (8-for-27/29.6 percent, the best road shooting percentage of any player in the league with at least 20 shots on goal).  If anything, he’s been even pickier this year over last overall in terms of shots, but with similar results.  Last year he played in 66 games, and this year he has appeared in 63 games so far.  Both years – 15 goals.  But whereas he recorded 15 goals last year on 81 shots (18.5 percent shooting, then a career best), so far this season he has 15 goals on just 64 shots (23.4 percent, a new career best).  If the Caps really do have a “quality over quantity” philosophy about shooting, Connolly is the poster boy.  He is 2-1-3, minus-1, in 15 career games against Montreal.

In the end…

The Caps have made Bell Centre their own in recent years.  Washington has earned standings points in 14 straight games in Montreal, dating back to November 2009, posting a record of 12-0-2, and they have won their last four visits to Montreal.  One would have to think that if Montreal is going to scare up any inspiration to maximize their effort, it would be to end that streak.  But this is a team that has found it hard to win on home ice against anyone lately.  The Canadiens are just 3-2-3 in their last eight games at home and have been shut out twice.  This is precisely the sort of team that the Caps need to grind on early to take the fight out of them and the crowd out of the game. 

Capitals 4 – Canadiens 2

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 74: Capitals at Red Wings, March 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals embark on their longest remaining road trip of the season over the next five days, and that starts with a visit to Little Caesars Arena in Detroit to face the Red Wings on Thursday night.

The Caps stretched their lead in the Metropolitan Division to four points on Tuesday night with a 4-3 win over the Dallas Stars, although that margin could be halved again pending the results of the Pittsburgh Penguins game against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night.  It makes every game and every point important as the Caps head into these last few weeks of the regular season.

For the Red Wings, the competitive portion of the season ended some time ago.  They staved off elimination from the postseason when they beat the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night, 5-4, in a Gimmick.  But the Caps could formally eliminate Detroit from the postseason with a win of any kind on Thursday.

The Red Wings have struggled all season, or at least since mid-December, when they won consecutive games in regulation for the last time through Tuesday.  When they beat the New York Islanders in Brooklyn, 6-3, on December 19th for a second consecutive win in regulation, they had a record of 13-13-7, they were fifth in the Atlantic Division and six points behind the New York Islanders for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.  Since then, the Wings are 13-22-4 and are on the brink of elimination.  Worse, after clawing their way back to .500 in standings points (26-26-10) on February 25th, they lost ten in a row (0-9-1) before beating the Flyers in their most recent game.

Scoring has been a season-long issue for the Red Wings, who finished action on Tuesday with the 28th-ranked scoring offense in the league (2.52 goals per game).  Which brings us to Dylan Larkin.  Here we have a player who is an embodiment of the Wings’ problems this season.  With 53 points to lead the club, he has had a hand in almost 30 percent of all the goals scored by Detroit this season.  But until he went 2-1-3 against the Flyers on Tuesday night, he went 17 games without a goal and had just seven points in all (all assists), a period over which the Red Wings went 3-12-2.  That long goal streak might be looked at in the context of this being a disappointing year, goal scoring-wise, continuing a trend in dropping year-to-year production.  After recording 23 goals in 80 games in his 2015-2016 rookie season, Larkin had 17 in 80 games last season, and his 11 goals in 73 games so far this season puts him on a pace to finish with 12 this season.  This has been a brutal season for Larkin in terms of shooting efficiency, his 11 goals on 207 shots translating to a career-low 5.3 shooting percentage.  He is 1-4-5, plus-3, in eight career games against Washington.

Anthony Mantha leads the club in goals so far this season (23) and serves as something of a counterpoint to Larkin.  Both were first round draft picks, Mantha taken with the 20th overall pick in 2013, a year before Larkin was taken with the 15th overall pick in 2014.  However, in the context of their respective development, where Larkin has displayed something of a regression from his rookie season, Mantha has shown steady improvement over the same three seasons.  After hist first season in 2015-2016 in which he played in only ten games with two goals and three points, he skated in 60 games last season to a 17-19-36 scoring line.  Through 71 games this season, he has career highs in goals (23), assists (19, tied with last season’s total), and points (42).  But it is another indicator of how thin the Red Wings’ scoring is that in the 20 games in which Mantha has goals this season, Detroit is just 9-8-3.  He has been in a scoring slump of late, going without a goal in his last seven games and just one assist in that span.  He is 1-2-3, even, in five career games against the Capitals.

Jimmy Howard is now, well…for the moment, the man between the pipes for the Red Wings.  Since Petr Mrazek was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers on February 19th, Howard has 12 appearances over the last 15 games, 11 of them starts.  He has not been especially impressive, though, going 3-7-2, 3.08, .903.  He has faced 31.85 shots per 60 minutes in that span, though, a considerable but not unduly heavy volume.  Still, Howard is a Red Wing who is managing to inch his way up the all-time franchise statistical ladder – third all-time in games played among goalies (455), 3rd in wins (218), fourth in shutouts (23), second in save percentage (.915; minimum 100 games played), seventh in goals against average (2.49).  However, he will also turn 34 years old next week, and this raises an issue with respect to this club.  Howard was drafted in 2003.  In all the time since, the only other goalie drafted by the Wings to appear in more than three NHL games for the club is Petr Mrazek, who is now in Philadelphia.  Howard does have one more year on his contract (with a $5,291,667cap hit), so the club might be interested in these last few games of this season to see what they have in current backup Jared Coreau.

1.  This might end up being a game of two teams who don’t get shots to the net.  While the Caps are last in the league in shots on goal per game (28.9), the Red Wings are not much better, their 30.2 shots per game ranking 27th.

2.  Only Edmonton has had fewer power play chances on home ice this season (95) than Detroit (104).

3.  Detroit can hold a lead.  The Red Wings are 20-0-4/.833 when leading after two periods, one of eight teams in the league without a loss in regulation when leading after 40 minutes.  However, they can’t make up ground.  When trailing after 40 minutes they have one win, fewest in the league, and their 1-30-5 record in such instances is the worst winning percentage in the league (.028).

4.  Only two teams have fewer wins when out-shooting opponents than Detroit (10): the Islanders (eight) and Vancouver (seven).  Then again, they don’t out-shoot opponents often, just 29 times in 73 games.

5.  The Red Wings don’t win close games.  Their record of 10-10-12 in such games is tied for worst winning percentage in the league (.313, with Buffalo).

1.  The Caps have struggled on the road of late, going 4-6-1 in their last 11 games away from Capital One Arena.  One reason is an anemic power play that is 3-for-23 (13.0 percent) over those 11 games.

2.  The Caps have been “out-opportunitied” on the power play 24 times in 36 road games this season. Has it mattered?  To a point.  The Caps are 12-9-3 when opponents have more power play chances in Caps road games, 4-6-2 when opponents don’t have the opportunity advantage.

3.  No player in the league has more shorthanded faceoff wins this season than Jay Beagle (121).  How’s that for finding a fact in the back of the closet?

4.  Plus-minus might not be the best measure of, well, anything anymore, but it can’t be good for a playoff contender that the best plus-minus player on the road this season for the Caps now plays in Columbus (Taylor Chorney, plus-5).  OK, so Alex Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen are tied with him but that means they are tied for 100th in the league in that measure.

5.  When John Carlson takes the ice against Detroit, he will become the 19th Capital (and eighth defenseman) to appear in 600 games for the team, tying Bobby Gould for 18th place and one behind Scott Stevens for 17th place in franchise history.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Detroit: Niklas Kronwall

In a franchise history of defensemen that includes Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Kelly, and Chris Chelios, it might be easy to overlook a Niklas Kronwall.  However, Kronwall is among the longest-serving defensemen in Red Wings history and among their most productive.  Now in his 14th season, all with Detroit after being taken by the Wings in the first round (29th overall) in the 2000 entry draft, only Lidstrom and Marcel Pronovost have played more seasons in Detroit and more games for the Red Wings (1,564 and 983, respectively) than Kronwall (865).  He occupies similarly high rankings in other statistical categories among franchise defensemen: goals (79/6th), assists (319/3rd), points (398/4th), game-winning goals (14/T-2nd), power play goals (33/3rd), shooting percentage (6.7/6th among defensemen with at least 250 games played).  Kronwall is the old man on the blue line squad now, although he is still skating more than 18 minutes a game, is tied with Mike Green for the power play scoring lead among defensemen (13 points), second to Green in overall scoring 17 points), and has two of the three power play goals scored by Detroit defensemen this season.  His production has been sporadic of late, though.  Kronwall is 1-4-5, minus-11, in his last 20 games, and he does not have an even strength goal since November 22nd, his only one of the season.  He is 1-6-7, minus-7, in 20 career games against the Caps.

Washington: Barry Trotz

Now, it’s a matter of tuning and preparing.  The Caps are in the last sprint to the finish, and there might be a temptation to look ahead or cut corners in eager anticipation of the playoffs that begin next month.  But success in the second season might be as much making sure things are done the right way and that corners are not cut.  And that is up to head coach Barry Trotz and his staff.  Complicating the matter is the goaltending situation and how that is to be handled.  Braden Holtby’s struggles and Philipp Grubauer’s consistency in the last couple of months has raised the question of whether a change in number one netminder might be warranted.  After all, the story goes, a tandem didn’t hurt the Pittsburgh Penguins last season when Marc-Andre Fleury started 15 games, and Matt Murray got the call in ten others.  This might be the most important issue the coaching staff will have to address over the last few weeks of the season, and how it is handled might be the prelude to a successful run in the playoffs or another in a long history of early flameouts.

In the end…

This is not the same Detroit Red Wings team that beat the Washington Capitals, 5-4, in overtime last February 11th.  In 19 games since they scored five goals in a game (not including Gimmicks) only once and have scored more than three goals just twice in that span.  And, it is a team that has allowed four or more goals in nine of its last ten games.  That is a really bad combination, one that the Caps must take advantage of early and often.  It might be “Little Caesars Arena” in which the game is played, but the Caps should make this a “pizza night” from a competitor.

Capitals 5 – Red Wings 2

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A TWO-Point Night: Washington Capitals -- Game 73: Capitals 4 - Stars 3

The Washington Capitals took the ice on Tuesday night with the aim of holding on to their slim lead in the Metropolitan Division.  To do that, they would have to beat the Dallas Stars, a team they had not defeated on home ice since November 2006.  That streak ended on this evening as the Caps scored a tie-breaking goal late to beat the Stars, 4-3.

First Period

The teams almost got out of the first period scoreless, but with Nicklas Backstrom in the penalty box, Tyler Seguin scored the game’s first goal.  Taking a pass in the left wing circle from Alexander Radulov, Seguin had an open lane in front of him.  He had time to step up and pick a hole, which he found, snapping a shot over goalie Braden Holtby’s left pad and under his catching glove on the far side to make it 1-0, 16:04 into the game.  That would be all the scoring in the opening 20 minutes.

Second Period

The Caps had to kill off one power play that carried over into the second period, and then they had to kill another less than a minute after the first one expired.  They managed to keep Dallas from increasing their lead, and the penalty kills seemed to give the Caps a lift.  And sure enough, just after the second power play expired, Lars Eller cut across the crease to pick up a rebound, dropping off the puck for T.J. Oshie camped in front.  Oshie snapped the puck past goalie Kari Lehtonen’s glove on the short side, and it was tied, 1-1, 4:07 into the period.

And barely a minute after the Oshie tally, the Caps took their first lead of the contest.  A loose puck slid up the wall to Matt Niskanen at the right point.  Niskanen wasted no time sending a shot toward the Dallas net.  On the way through, the puck was deflected up by Dallas’ Greg Pateryn, and while Brett Connolly waved a high stick at the tumbling puck as it sailed by, he appeared to miss it.  So did Lehtonen, who could not adjust to the puck’s new trajectory, and Niskanen had a goal at the 5:32 mark.

The goals just kept coming after that.  Radulov got the Stars even again when he redirected a John Klingberg shot down and past Holtby’s glove 11:48 into the period.  Less than two minutes later, though, the Caps regained the lead on a power play.  T.J. Oshie won a faceoff to the left of Lehtonen.  The puck came back to John Carlson, who relayed it to Alex Ovechkin at the top of the left wing circle.  One one-timer later, and it was 3-2, 13:41 into the period.

Dallas tied the game again late in the period when Jamie Benn took advantage of a Lars Eller turnover in the neutral zone, scooped up the loose puck, muscled his way past Dmitry Orlov, and snapped a point-blank shot past Holtby’s blocker at the 18:15 mark to close the second period scoring.

Third Period

The frantic back-and-forth of the second period gave way to a bit slower pace in the third, but John Carlson broke through for the Caps late in the frame with the teams skating 4-on-4.  Lars Eller served up a pass on a plate that Carlson blasted past Lehtonen from the right wing circle at the 15:01 mark to make it 4-3.  It would be the difference as the Caps skated off with their fifth win in six games overall and their fifth straight win on home ice.

Other stuff…

-- When Tyler Seguin scored a power play goal in the first period it made five power play goals on 11 shots over three games against goalie Braden Holtby.

-- The teams combined for only 17 shot attempts in the first period (Dallas led in attempts, 9-8; Washington had the shots on goal advantage, 5-4).

-- The second period was a different story.  Both teams surpassed the combined shot attempt total in the first period, Dallas with 27 attempts and the Caps with 21.  Washington held a 16-13 edge in shots on goal.

-- The Caps broke a six-game home losing streak against the Stars, last having beaten them in Washington, 4-3, on November 30, 2006.  Until tonight, that was the last win in regulation they had anywhere against Dallas (they had two wins in Dallas in extra time in that span).

-- John Carlson had a goal and an assist, the goal being his 15th, inching him to within one of the league lead among defensemen (Calgary’s Dougie Hamilton has 16).  His two points allowed him to keep pace with John Klingberg atop the league points standings among defensemen (61 apiece), Klingberg recording two assists for Dallas.

-- Alex Ovechkin’s goal was his 44th of the season and 602nd career goal, passing Jari Kurri for 19th on the all-time list.  He added two assists for his tenth game this season with three of more points, tied with Connor McDavid for third-most in the league.  He also now has 81 points the ninth time in his career he topped the 80-point mark.

-- T.J. Oshie’s goal was his 16th of the season, but more important for the Caps at the moment, it was his fourth in four games after suffering a 19-game streak without one.

-- Tom Wilson recorded six shots on goal, tying his season high (January 9th versus Vancouver).

-- Holtby recovered nicely from the power play goal allowed in the first period.  The other two goals he allowed was a deflection and a breakaway off a turnover.  It won’t show up in his save percentage (24-for-27/.889), but he was solid.

-- Jay Beagle didn’t have a shot on goal, but he did have 13 faceoff wins on 17 draws taken (76.5 percent).  In his last six games, he is 55-for-75 (73.3 percent).

In the end…

It was not perfect, but for the result.  And frankly, against this team, which seems to have really had the Caps’ number over the last decade, that was more than enough.  The Caps concentrated their production (only five players had points, four of them with multi-point nights), but the energy was spread around well, evidenced by Wilson’s high shot total, John Carlson having six shot attempts, Lars Eller with four, and so on.  It was the right way to kick off a generous portion of the schedule, especially since the Caps now go on the road.  They might be facing weaker teams in Detroit, Montreal, and the New York Rangers, but winning on the road is never easy.  With that ahead of the Caps, this win against a frustrating opponent made for a satisfying evening.