Sunday, March 25, 2018

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)

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