Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 59: Capitals at Sabres, February 19th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wrap up their four-game road trip with a matinee meeting in Buffalo against the Sabres on Monday.  And when the Capitals wake up to face the new day, they will be looking up at a team in the Metropolitan Division standings for the first time since December 29th.

The Pittsburgh Penguins passed the Caps in the Metro standings on Sunday night, the first team other than the Caps to occupy the top spot in the division since the New Jersey Devils sat atop the division on December 29th, but the Caps have the opportunity to reclaim that spot with a win in Buffalo.

The Caps will be facing a team that, in its own context, is on something of a good run.  Buffalo is 3-1-2 over their last six games.  They have done it largely with a consistent offense, scoring four or more goals in four straight games before they were held to a pair each of their last two games, a 3-2 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators on Thursday and a 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday.

It was an improvement for the Sabres, who still bring the league’s worst scoring offense into this game.  From that dim background, Jack Eichel shines.  Although Connor McDavid gets almost all the ink reporting on the 2015 draft class, it is Eichel who leads that class in goals scored (70 to 69 for McDavid through Saturday).  He has 22 of those goals this season, two behind his career high of 24 set in each of his first two seasons in the NHL.  He has displayed an odd habit of scoring goals in consecutive games this season.  Five times this season he recorded goals in consecutive games, but he does not have a three-game streak.  He will not have one if he scores against the Caps, his latest two-game streak stopped when he was held without one in a 4-2 win over the Boston Bruins on February 10th.  That was the result of his skating only 3:55 against the Bruins before sustaining a high-ankle sprain that has kept him out of the lineup since then.  He is listed as day-to-day, but the injury is reported to be serious enough to keep him out of the lineup for some time to come.  

In Eichel’s absence the goal scoring load falls largely to Evander Kane, second on the club with 18 goals this season.  Kane has been a 20-goal scorer in each of his two previous seasons with Buffalo (28 last season, 20 in 2015-2016), and he seems assured of hitting that mark again this season.  Provided he is not moved at the trading deadline, that is.  Kane is an unrestricted free agent after this season, and he is one of those players of whom reports concentrate these days on potential destinations as much as his performance with his current team.  Kane was mired in a 14-game streak without a goal until he scored in consecutive games against Boston and Colorado.  However, he is without a goal in his last three games heading into this game with Washington.  It matters, because the Sabres have at least a fighting chance when he lights the lamp.  Buffalo is 7-6-2 in the 15 games in which he has goals this season.  Kane is 13-6-19, minus-2, in 28 career games against the Caps.

Rasmus Ristolainen is in his fifth season on the Sabres’ blue line, and he is already 15th in franchise history in points scored by a defensemen.  He is no immediate threat to the player at the top of that ranking (Phil Housley with 558 points), but he has 136 career points heading into this game, including more than 40 in each of the past two seasons.  He has been on an extended run, going 4-12-16 in 20 games since the start of the new year, tied for fourth among all defensemen in points over that span.  Most of his production has come on the Sabres’ power play, 14 of his 27 points this season coming with the man advantage.  Ristolainen is 0-4-4, minus-2, in nine career games against the Capitals.

1.  Buffalo was last in the postseason in 2011.  Since then, they are 189-259-69, the worst record among  the 30 franchises playing over that span of seasons, and they have gone through five coaches: Lindy Ruff, Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma, and current head coach Phil Housley.

2.  That Buffalo is last in the league in scoring offense should be no surprise.  They are last in scoring offense among all of those same 30 teams over the same span of years since they last made the playoffs (2.26 goals per game). 

3.  This season, the Sabres’ problem is getting off to decent starts.  They have only 29 first period goals scored in 59 games, last in the league by a healthy margin (St. Louis has 36 first period goals in 60 games).

4.  Overtime has not been kind to Buffalo, either.  The Sabres have allowed ten goals in the extra session, most in the league.

5.  Like most teams, leading after two periods is a pretty good indicator of success for Buffalo.  They have not lost a game in regulation when doing so (12-0-5).  However, if they are not leading at the second intermission, the outlook is bleak.  They are 5-31-6 when tied or trailing after 40 minutes.

1.  The seven goals allowed by the Caps against the Blackhawks was the third time this season they allowed seven or more goals, the first time they did so against a team not in Pennsylvania (eight in an 8-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on October 14th, and seven in a 7-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 2nd).

2.  The Caps would do better to take leads into the first intermission.  Only Toronto (22) and Winnipeg (20) have more wins when leading after one period than the Caps (19).

3.  Washington is 9-5-4 in the 2018 portion of the season to date.  That is good for 16th best record in the league over that span.  But after winning their first three games of the new year they are just 6-5-4.

4.  Their possession rankings are even worse.  Only the Ottawa Senators (44.27 percent) and New York Islanders (43.88 percent) have worse shot attempts-for percentages at than the Caps (45.77 percent) since the calendar turned over.  It is their “PDO” keeping them afloat (shooting plus save percentages).  At 1028, their PDO is second in the league (Colorado: 1033).

5.  That the Caps no longer find themselves, at least for the moment, at the top of their division is odd.  Seven times in the previous ten seasons they finished at the top of their division, five times in the Southeast and twice in the Metropolitan.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo: Robin Lehner

No goalie has lost more games this season than Buffalo’s Robin Lehner (30 – 22 in regulation and eight in extra time).  One might say it is a reflection of being a bad goaltender, but that would not be fair to Lehner.  Buffalo goalies get little goal support, and Lehner is facing almost 33 shots per 60 minutes.  The fact is, his numbers rather resemble those of the Caps’ Braden Holtby.  His goals against average is 2.95 (Holtby’s is 2.92), and his save percentage is .910 (Holtby’s is .911).  And, he has three shutouts, while Holtby has yet to record one this season.  He has been substantially better on home ice with a 2.66 goals against average and a .916 save percentage.  If there is a problem, it is in how his numbers have deteriorated in his three seasons in Buffalo after spending his first five NHL seasons with the Ottawa Senators.  His goals against averages have gone from 2.47 to 2.68 to 2.92 this season, while his save percentage has gone from .924 to .920 to .910 this season.  Lehner is 1-2-1, 2.25, .922, in four career games against Washington.

Washington: Brooks Orpik

Plus-minus is not a very good statistic on its own, but let’s start there with Brooks Orpik.  He is minus-8 on the season, worst among the Capitals’ defensemen and his worst individual plus-minus since his rookie season (second in the league) when he was minus-36 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.  He is in jeopardy of finishing in minus territory for only the second time in his last 12 seasons.  The odd part of it, at least on the surface, is that his plus-minus tracks with his ice time.  In 30 games in which he skated less than 20 minutes he is minus-8, while he is even in the 27 games in which he skated more than 20 minutes.  One can reason this away in thinking that as a defensive defenseman, he is not going to get a lot of late ice time in games in which the Caps are trailing.  And he has had quite a home-road difference in this number, going minus-16 in road games and plus-8 at home.  But he does not come upon these numbers accidentally, either.  Of 212 defensemen to appear in at least 25 games so far this season, his shot attempts-for percentage on ice (43.31 percent) ranks 205th.  His frequent partner, Madison Bowey, ranks 200th in that group (44.61 percent).  It is a situation that has not prohibited the Caps from enjoying success so far this season, but unless it – and he – improves these numbers, it is hard to see how the Caps go deep in the postseason.  Orpik is 0-8-8, plus-2, in 42 career games against the Sabres.

In the end…

The Caps could end their longest remaining road trip of the season with a 2-1-1 record.  In the bigger scheme of things, this is not a bad result. But how they get there matters.  There was the late-game collapse against Winnipeg and not showing up against a struggling Chicago Blackhawks team that left three points on the table.  It is not unreasonable to think that under the circumstances, the Caps should be playing for a road sweep instead of fighting to stay above water for the trip.

The Caps seem oddly disengaged at the moment.  This might be – finally – the effect of having things a bit too easy in the regular season the past two-and-a-half seasons, and focus could be wavering.  Just as it is that momentum, once lost, is hard to regain, one wonders if a team’s focus, once it goes wandering, can be sharpened again in time for the stretch run and the postseason.  This is the task at hand for the Caps as they wrap up their road trip and head into the home stretch.

Capitals 5 – Sabres 2

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 20

Last week we said, “hockey is a funny game.  Not often funny, ‘ha-ha,’ but funny, ‘strange.’  Week 20 was no exception.  Although the Caps earned points in three of four games and ended the week still in first place in the Metropolitan Division, one had a sense of foreboding.  In the Era of Bettman, a .500 week in standings points earned can be accompanied with three losses in four games.  And that is the week the Caps had, seeing their division lead dwindle to a single thin point.  Worse, the week ended with what was arguably the worst game they played this season and the worst performance in goal perhaps in the career of their number one netminder since he took over that position, not that he had any support – any support this week – in front of him.

Record: 1-1-2

Technically, in the way the league keeps score of such things (standings points), it was not a losing week.  The Caps did earn four points in four games, three of them in three road games.  Under normal circumstances, three-in-three would not be a bad week on the road.  This wasn’t normal.  The Caps sandwiched ghastly, in different ways, performances around a very good one.

What might be most noteworthy about the week, record-wise, is the realization that there just might be something to this whole concept of “regression to the mean.”   Washington lost two games in overtime this week, bringing their streak of overtime losses to four, dating back to January 18th.  This after starting the season 6-2 in extra time games.

The strange part about the two overtime losses was that they came in consecutive games.  It has not been unusual for the Caps.  It was the fourth time this season that the Caps played at least two consecutive games into extra time (they had a three-game streak of such games in December).

The loss in regulation to the Chicago Blackhawks to end the week brought the Caps’ total of regulation losses to 18, tying their total of two years ago and closing to within one of their total of last season.

Offense: 3.25 /game (season: 3.09 /game, rank: 9th)

The Caps did not lack for offense, at least early in the week.  And overall, an average of 3.25 goals per game, their second straight week at or over that average, is top-five level performance in the league this season (Boston was fifth at 3.27 goals per game at week’s end).  They did it efficiently, scoring 13 goals on just 101 shots (12.9 percent shooting).

There was the good and the bad individually, though.  On the good side, four Capitals registered multi-goal weeks.  Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson led the team with three goals apiece.  Backstrom seems to have settled into a decent goal scoring rhythm after struggling over much of the early part of the season.  He has goals in five of his last seven games, four of them at even strength and one of them a game-winner.  Finally getting to the 200-goal career mark seems to have taken the shackles off.

Wilson’s achievement was more a marker in his developmental arc.  When he scored in the first period against Chicago in the last game of the week, it was his tenth of the season, the first time in his five-year career that he reached double-digits in goals scored.

It was good to see Andre Burakovsky awaken, too.  He has a pair of goals in the four games, the pair coming in consecutive games against Winnipeg and Minnesota, the first time this season he scored goals in consecutive games.

Alex Ovechkin had a strange week.  On the one hand, he was the fourth Capital with a multi-goal week, and he had the 24th game of his career with four or more points when he recorded a goal and three assists in the 5-2 win over Minnesota on Thursday.  But in the 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks to end the week, he failed to record so much as a single shot attempt, the first time in his 13-year career.

Defense: 4.50 / game (season: 2.98 /game, rank: 20th)

Shots allowed is going to sink this team.  Twice in Week 20 the Caps allowed 44 shots on goal – in the 4-3 overtime loss to Winnipeg and the 7-1 loss to Chicago.  Those two games are the highest in shots on goal allowed against the Caps this season, bringing the total to four the number of games the Caps allowed 40 or more shots.  They have a 1-1-2 record in those games, all of them on the road.  At weeks’ end, the Caps allowed teams 35 or more shots 21 times.  Only five teams have had more instances, and of that group only the Toronto Maple Leafs is playoff-eligible at the moment.  This week, each game feature a single period in which the opponent recorded at least 15 shots, the high of 21 coming in the first period against Chicago to end the week.  In only four of 12 regulation periods did the Caps allow fewer than ten shots.

Overall, the Caps were out-shot for the week, 151-101.  How bad is that?  The Arizona Coyotes, 31st in the league standings, were out-shot by a 155-101 margin.  Arizona is not a club the Caps want or can afford to emulatre.  It was almost as bad in the shot attempts, where the Caps were out-attempted at 5-on-5 by a 206-149 margin, their minus-57 being the fifth worst number for the week, as was their shot attempts-for percentage at fives (41.97 percent).

Goaltending: 4.44 / .881 (season: 2.84 / .912 / 1 shutout)

You could call this the worst week of the season for the Caps in net, and you would not be far wrong, if you were wrong at all.  Braden Holtby had what might have been his worst week as a number one netminder in his career.  Not that he had much support in front of him (see the shot differential discussion above), but he was not above .900 in save percentage in any of the regulation periods overall for the week (he played two third periods and was .900 overall in those).  You could say he is, if not in a serious slump, then stuck in an inconsistent pattern.  In his last six appearances he is 2-2-2, 4.53, .884, and he allowed five or more goals in three of those appearances.

Holtby’s struggles have inspired a new wave of the fans’ biggest pastime, calling for the backup to get more time or take over the number one spot (with the number one guy getting traded).  This is a staple of football fans and quarterbacks, and it rears it head from time to time in hockey.  The other side of this occasional distress is the play of the backup, which has to be good to complete the thought.  And Philipp Grubauer has been playing well.  In Week 20 he stopped 42 of 45 shots in limited duty (.933) earning the Caps’ only win of the week in the 5-2 victory in Minnesota.  In his last dozen appearances, Grubauer is 5-2-2 (three no-decisions), 1.86, .940, with one shutout.

Power Play: 2-for-9 / 22.2 percent (season: 20.9 percent, rank: 13th)

Another week, another plus-20 percent effort with the man advantage.  Over the last four week, the Caps have been better than 20 percent in each week and are 9-for-31 overall (29.0 percent).  This was where the top guys were the top guys, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin getting the two power play goals for the week and earning three of the six points awarded.  Ovechkin (1-1-2) and John Carlson (0-2-2) were the multi-point players for the week. The hard part of this is the opportunities.  Nine power play chances in four games put the Caps in the bottom third in the rankings overall for the week.  Only once in the last ten weeks have the Caps finished a week with ten or more power play chances (13 in Week 15).  While they rank in the middle third of the league in power play chances overall this season (177/19th), the lack of chances seems to be wasting one of, if not the most dangerous offensive weapons that the Caps have.

Things were not quite as good as they seemed, though, and there is an ominous quality to how the week progressed on the power play.  The Caps were 2-for-3 in 3:57 of power play time against Detroit to open the week, but they were 0-for-6 in 9:59 in power play time over the last three games of the week, and they were held without so much as a power play shot on goal in 2:44 with the man advantage in the 7-1 loss to Chicago to end the week. 

Penalty Killing: 13-for-15 / 86.7 percent (season: 79.9 percent, rank: 18th)

The Caps did not lack for opportunities to practice their penalty killing.  The 15 shorthanded situations they faced were more than the combined total of the previous two weeks (12 in five games).  It was the most opportunities faced since Week 2, when they were shorthanded 17 times (the Caps also were shorthanded 15 times in Week 7.

But here, too, things might not have been quite as good as they seem.  The Caps blanked Detroit and Winnipeg on six chances over 12 minutes, allowing only ten shots on goal.  Then, they stopped the first three power play chances the Minnesota Wild had in the third game of the week.  But the Caps allowed power play goals on two of the last six shorthanded situations they faced for the week (one in the last two the Wild had and one in four chances Chicago had).  And, the Caps were shorthanded nine times in the last two games, compared to six in the first two games.

Faceoffs: 118-for-244 / 48.4 percent (season: 50.3 percent, rank: 16th)

This is an area in which the Caps have been slipping in recent weeks.  This week was an instance in which the Caps were very good in one end and not so good in the other, almost mirror images of one another.  They managed to win less than 40 percent of their offensive zone draws for the week (27-for-71/38.0 percent), and no Capital taking more than one draw finished as well as 50 percent.  In the defensive end, things were much better, the Caps finishing 58-for-96 (60.4 percent).

Individually, the big four (those taking at least ten draws for the week) followed a similar profile – good in the defensive end, poor in the offensive end.  Jay Beagle was the only one of that group to finish the week over 50 percent (57.9), perhaps a function of taking 40 defensive end draws (winning 25) versus taking only nine faceoffs in the offensive end (winning four).  That offensive zone-defensive zone split for Beagle was certainly evident in the game against Winnipeg when Beagle took 18 defensive zone faceoffs (winning 12) and only one in the offensive zone (winning that one).

Goals by Period:

Third periods were the story in Week 20, and it was not a good one overall.  Yes, the Caps did score three third period goals to salvage a point in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings in the first game of the week.  However, the Caps gave up a pair of goals in the last 10 minutes of the third period to give back that standings point in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets, they gave up a pair of third period goals to the Minnesota Wild, and they played a lifeless third period after falling behind the Chicago Blackhawks, 6-1, after two periods of what would be a 7-1 loss to end the week. 

It falls into a patter with this team, one of allowing more goals as games go on.  They have allowed 49 first period goals this season, 56 in the second period, and 62 third period goals.  And there are those two overtime goals allowed this week that left the Caps with six overtime goals allowed this season, tied for fifth-most in the league.

In the end…

One wonders, is this club in a slump, or is it expressing its expected performance after overachieving for much of the season?  Consider that the Caps won their first three games of the new year, part of what would be a five-game winning streak.  Since then, though, they are 6-5-4.  There are 22 teams in the league with better records over that span.  If this is the team the Caps really are, and their possession numbers certainly suggest they might be (24th in the league in 5-on-5 shot attempts-for percentage), it could be time for a reality check, that this team might be what we thought it was when the season started, and not in a good way. 

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Tom Wilson (3-2-5, plus-2, nine shots on goal, 15 hits, five block shots)
  • Second Star: Alex Ovechkin (2-5-7, minus-1, 15 shots on goal)
  • Third Star: Nicklas Backstrom (3-1-4, minus-1)