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