Week 23 was “California Week” on the schedule of the Washington Capitals, a week looked upon with dread by Caps fans annually. It just has not been a very hospitable venue for the Caps over the years. And so, when the Caps lost the first two games on the trip, it was merely more of the same. And then came Saturday, and for a moment, things didn’t look quite as, well, disappointing.
Coming into this season, the Capitals had a grim history in California, going 28-52-8 with two ties. Their more recent history was a bit more complex. Since the dark 2004-2005 season, the Caps came into this season with a 9-12-2 record in the Golden State. However, six of those wins were earned against the Anaheim Ducks, the first six games the Caps played in Anaheim coming out of that missed season. They suffered their first loss in the post-lockout era last March when they dropped a 5-2 decision. The Ducks made it two in a row with a 4-0 shutout on Tuesday to get the trip off to a rough start.
Then came the Los Angeles Kings. The Caps went into that game with a 15-32-6 all-time record in LA with a pair of ties. It was even worse in the post-2004-2005 season period, with the Caps recording only one win, that coming in their first visit to Los Angeles, post-lockout. Since then, going into Thursday’s game, the Caps lost seven in a row (two in extra time). The Caps made it eight losses in a row with a 3-1 loss.
Then came the ne plus ultra of disappointment, regular season edition. The Caps went to San Jose to face the Sharks in the last game of the trip. In 19 visits to San Jose, the Caps had five wins. However, three of them came in their first three visits, all in regulation. They were the last and only wins in regulation in San Jose, going back to October 1993. Since then, they were 2-13-1, both wins coming in extra time, coming in consecutive visits in 2014 and 2015. But the sun does not shine on the same dog’s backside (or the same Shark) every day. The Caps ended their run of despair to close the trip and the week with a pleasantly surprising 2-0 shutout to re-capture the top spot in the Metropolitan Division at the end of Week 23.
Offense: 1.00 /game (season: 2.99 /game, rank: 12th)
This week’s offense could be documented on a postage stamp. The best that could be said for it was that it improved from game to game, from getting shut out to scoring one goal to scoring a pair in the win to end the week.
No Capital had more than one goal – Lars Eller, Jakub Vrana, and Nicklas Backstrom lighting the red lamp. No Capital had more than one point, six other players with assists.
If there was anything odd about the scoring, other than the utter lack of it, it was that four of the six assists for the week were recorded by defensemen – Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, and John Carlson.
The forwards had an interesting week in a couple of odd ways. Travis Boyd got a sweater for the third time this season when he skated against the San Jose Sharks. That made two of three games he played this season coming against San Jose. He did not record a shot on goal, one of three Caps not to do so in Week 23. The others were Alex Chiasson (in one game) and Chandler Stephenson, who appeared in two games without a shot on goal. That makes 32 games in 54 this season in which he did not record a shot on goal.
Defense: 2.33 / game (season: 2.93 /game, rank: 16th)
If not for the anemic offense, the defense would have been hailed as having a good week, even with allowing four goals to the Ducks in the first game of the week. Washington allowed the three California opponents a total of just 71 shots on goal, none of them reaching the 30-shot mark. It is the first time that the Caps allowed opponents fewer than 30 shots in three straight games since Games 30-32 when they allowed the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Colorado Avalanche a total of 82 shots. It is the third time this season that the Caps allowed fewer than 30 shots in three consecutive games, and it is the lowest total of shots allowed in any three consecutive games this season.
If anything, the game against Anaheim was the most disappointing from a defensive standpoint. Not in the particulars – the Caps allowed the Ducks only 18 shots on goal – but in the results. Anaheim scored on their first shot 84 seconds into the game and on three of their first nine shots before Braden Holtby was relieved in goal. That the Caps held the Ducks to nine shots in the first 25:37 of the game had to be, purely on its own merits, thought of in positive terms.
The Caps returned briefly to their shot-allowing ways against the Kings in the middle game of the week, allowing 14 first period shots on goal. But holding them to a total of 14 shots over the final two periods was a welcome development, despite the loss.
What characterized the Caps’ grisly performances in San Jose over the recent history of the series was an inability to stop the Sharks’ offense. In nine games since the 2004-2005 dark season, the Caps allowed 39 goals (4.33 per game) and allowed five or more four times. In the entire history of the series spanning 40 games going into Saturday, the Caps had never shut out the Sharks and allowed only as few as one goal three times, each of them in Washington. Only four times had the Caps allowed the Sharks 24 or fewer shots in games played in San Jose. That the Caps got the shutout and allowed only 24 shots on goal made for a fine end to the week.
Goaltending: 1.70 / .928 / 1 shutout (season: 2.77 / .913 / 2 shutouts)
Washington thrives on controversy, whether political, quarterbacks, or now, goaltenders. Braden Holtby has been in a prolonged slump, and it got no better for him in Week 23. He allowed three goals on nine shots in 25 minutes and change to the Anaheim Ducks before being relieved for the third time in six appearances. After the game, the word came that Holtby would be given some time to “settle his game.”
Enter Philipp Grubauer. After a grisly start to the season in which he lost his first six decisions over eight games (all of them losses), he rebounded to go 8-2-2, 1.73, .944, with one shutout over 16 appearances going into Week 23. He continued that run of fine play in his three appearances this week, stopping all eight shots he faced in relief of Holtby on Tuesday, stopping 26 of 28 shots against the Kings in the middle game of the week, and then turning aside all 24 shot he faced in the 2-0 shutout of the Sharks on Saturday, his second shutout of the season. It left Grubauer 9-3-2, 1.59, .947, with two shutouts over his last 19 appearances.
Power Play: 0-for-6 / 0.0 percent (season: 21.8 percent, rank: 6th)
Few chances, few shots, no goals. Week 23 was not a good week for the man advantage, the fifth time this season that the Caps went a week without a power play goal and the first time since they went 0-for-2 in Week 14, one in which they played only one game.
It truly was a bizarre week on the power play. Alex Ovechkin did not record a shot on goal in 11:32 of power play ice time. The Caps did not have a single power play opportunity in their win over the Sharks to end the week, the third time this season the Caps went without one and the first since they were denied any opportunities in a 3-2 overtime win over the Anaheim Ducks on October 28th. The Caps won all three games this season in which they did not get a power play chance.
It was not as if the Caps put a lot of pressure on opponents when they did get their chances. Six shots on goal in 11:59 of power play ice time is not a very efficient level of pressure. Only one of those shots on goal came from a defenseman (Dmitry Orlov), while T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov “led” the team with a pair of shots apiece. Brett Connolly had the other one.
Penalty Killing: 3-for-4 / 75.0 percent (season: 79.8 percent, rank: 18th)
What was good for the goose was good for the gander, special teams-wise. The Caps faced only four shorthanded situations all week, the fewest since they faced four (in just one game) in Week 14. Only in Week 9 did they face fewer power plays (two in two games).
It did not start off very well, the Caps allowing a goal on the first shot – and the first power play shot – they faced for the week, the Ducks’ Adam Henrique scoring just 84 seconds into the 4-0 Anaheim win on Tuesday. The Caps shut out the Ducks from any further opportunities, and then they went on to kill the last three shorthanded situations for the week, allowing only three shots on goal in 5:59 over those three situations.
The three games this week allowing two or fewer power plays to opponents brought the streak to four games, tying the Caps’ longest streak of the season, that coming in Games 25-28. Coincidentally, perhaps, three of those games were against opponents in this current streak – San Jose and Los Angeles in this week’s set of games, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, against whom the Caps started the streak in their Stadium Series game win in Week 22.
Faceoffs: 80-for-161 / 49.7 percent (season: 50.3 percent, rank: 13th)
Strange week in the circle. Overall, one faceoff loss under 50 percent doesn’t seem like much, but the Caps were all over the place getting there. They sandwiched good games against Anaheim (54.7 percent) and San Jose (62.3 percent) around an awful game in Los Angeles (32.7 percent). In that game against the Kings, it was not quite as bad as the overall numbers suggested, though. They did win 11 of 22 defensive zone draws, but they were shut out entirely in the neutral zone, losing all 13 draws in center ice.
That neutral zone blanking led to the only under-50 percent zone result for the week, the Caps finishing 19-for-47 (40.4 percent). They did manage to win in the ends, going 32-for-63 (50.8 percent) in the offensive zone and 29-for-51 (56.9 percent) in the defensive zone.
Individually, it was a rough week for the pair of skaters at the top of the draws-taken list, Evgeny Kuznetsov (18-for-41/43.9 percent) and Nicklas Backstrom (16-for-39/41.0 percent) finishing under 50 percent. The other two with at least ten draws taken finished over 50 percent for the week – Lars Eller (18-for-34/52.9 percent) and Jay Beagle (19-for-30/63.3 percent).
Goals by Period:
The Caps just could not get started in the first periods of games, failing to record a first period goal for the entire week, the first time since Week 3 (also in three games) that the Caps were shut out in the first periods of games. It matters, given that the Caps have the best record in the league when leading games at the first intermission (22-0-1/.957). And when the Caps allowed three goals in the first period over the first two games, it was a hole out of which they could not dig.
Not that the scoring was much better in the periods that followed, but there was an odd aspect to it. The Caps held their opponents even in the second periods of games for the week at two goals apiece. It was the third period that was strange. The week featured three third period goals, two for opponents and one for the Caps, all of them being empty net goals.
As it is, the Caps now have negative goal differentials in the first and third periods of games for the season and a positive goal differential in the middle period, contrary to much of the season’s narrative in this category that the Caps struggle in the second periods of games.
In the end…
Well, it could have been worse. Last season, the Caps went to California and lost all three games by a combined 13-6 margin. This season they went 1-2-0 and were outscored 7-3. Last season they were just 12-for-17 killing penalties out west; this season they were 3-for-4. They posted their first ever shutout over the San Jose Sharks and recorded their first win in regulation there in more than 24 years. And, they finished the week still at the top of the Metropolitan Division. All in all, it was not as disappointing a week as it could have been, even if the best thing to be said about it is that California is in the rear view mirror.
- First Star: Philipp Grubauer (1-1-0, 0.79, .967, one shutout)
- Second Star: Lars Eller (1-0-1, even, 10 shots on goal, 16 shot attempts, 52.9 percent faceoffs, 100th career goal)
- Third Star: Nicklas Backstrom (1-0-1, minus-2, game-winning goal)