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

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