The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals return home on Saturday to host the Buffalo Sabres and hope to stop skidding through their schedule like a car with bald tires in an ice storm. The Caps are 4-5-2 in the month of February and just 2-4-2 in their last eight home games as they prepare for Buffalo.
It has been just five days since the Caps last faced this team, the last team they defeated. And it is a team that struggles scoring goals on the road. Despite playing the seventh-highest number of road games this season (31), the Sabres rank 21st in goals scored (79/2.55 per game). Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly lead the team in road goals with 10 apiece, a number that has them tied for 40th in the league in goals scored on the road this season.
We focused on Kane in the prognosto for the last meeting, but O’Reilly deserves some attention. O’Reilly has been a reliable scorer over the last six seasons coming into this one. In the five full seasons preceding this one (not including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season), he topped the 50-point mark in each one with a high of 64 points with the Colorado Avalanche in 2013-2014. He seems a good bet to do that again this season, having posted 44 points in 60 games. He also is one of the most “gentlemanly” players in the league. In 630 NHL games he has a total of just 84 penalty minutes, only two in 60 games so far this season. If he finishes with fewer than ten penalty minutes this season it would make four seasons in the last six in which he did so. O’Reilly has received votes for the Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play) in five of the last six seasons, winning the award in the 2013-2014 season. He combines this with a reputation for defense, despite an odd progression of numbers. O’Reilly has been a “minus” player in each of the last seven seasons coming into this one and seems assured of an eighth (he is currently minus-12). However, he has received votes for the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in each of those seven seasons, finishing as high as sixth in 2013-2014. He is 0-5-5, minus-2, in 15 career games against Washington.
It was Rasmus Ristolainen who got our attention for his offensive contributions in the prognosto for the most recent game against the Caps, but among Sabre defensemen Marco Scandella deserves some attention, too. Scandella is in his first season in Buffalo after spending seven seasons with the Minnesota Wild. If there is a rough comparison with whom Caps fans might be familiar, it might be former Caps defensemen Karl Alzner. Take away Scandella’s 11-goal season in 2014-2015, and his seasons look a lot like Alzners – a low single-digit goal scorer and in the low- to mid-teens in assists. At the moment he is second among Sabre defensemen in road goal scored (2), assists (7),and points (9), his plus-4 being best of those defensemen on the road. And, he has logged 24:05 in 31 road games, second to Ristolainen on the team. Scandella is without a point in nine career games against the Caps.
Victor Antipin is not your usual rookie. First, he turned 25 years old in December, a bit on the older side for an NHL rookie. Second, he came to the NHL after spending six seasons skating for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL (he was not drafted by an NHL club when coming eligible). Two of those clubs won the Gagarin Cup as KHL champion, so he does come from a winning tradition that the Sabres haven’t been able to match in quite some time. He left Metallurg for the purpose of moving to the NHL, signing a one-year contract last May with the Sabres. He has been in and out of the lineup for health (missed six games in January to illness) and being worked gently into the roster – he has dressed for 36 games this season. However, he seems to have earned a spot on the big club, skating in 12 of the team’s last 14 games (one of those missed was against Washington last Sunday). His opportunity is a product of injuries suffered by the blue line, but he does have six assists in those 36 games for which he has dressed. He did skate against the Caps in the November 7th meeting won by the Sabres, 3-1, and did not register a point, although he was plus-2 for the game.
1. Buffalo’s defense has been a medical staff’s nightmare. Only one defenseman has appeared in all 61 games for the Sabres this season (Marco Scandella), and only two others have appeared in at least 45 games (Jake McCabe, who is currently injured, with 53 games, and Rasmus Ristolainen with 52 games). The club has dressed 13 defensemen overall.
2. You would think a team struggling as are the Sabres would be integrating a lot of rookies, or at least giving rookies a long look. Not so. As noted, Victor Antipin has 36 games played, but only three other rookies have dressed – Nicolas Baptiste, Brendan Guhle, and Kyle Crisciolo – and only for a total of 22 games among them.
3. The Sabres are the only team in the NHL not to participate in the Gimmick on the road this season.
4. One thing the Sabres are adept at – shorthanded goal scoring on the road. They have five, tied for second-most in the league (Colorado: 7).
5. If the Caps are going to get well, shots-wise, it is going to be against this team. Buffalo is minus-218 in the shot attempt differential at 5-on-5 on the road. That is the third-worst differential in the league (Ottawa: minus-224; Minnesota: minus-247).
1. The Caps had better watch out for Buffalo’s shorthanded goal scoring ability on the road. Only three teams have allowed more shorthanded goals on home ice than Washington (4). On the other side of the ledger, only three teams have scored fewer shorthanded goals on home ice than the Caps (1).
2. Alex Ovechkin might lead the league in goals overall (36), but he is just tied for sixth in goal scoring at home (17) and tied for 18th in even strength goals on home ice (10).
3. Ovechkin leading the club in home goals is not a surprise, but Lars Eller second with ten? That qualifies.
4. Only the New York Rangers (minus-87) have a worse shot attempt differential at 5-on-5 than the Caps (minus-81) when the game is tied.
5. Six different Capitals have empty-net goals on home ice, none of them with more than one: Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, Alex Chiasson, Jakub Vrana, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Nicklas Backstrom.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Buffalo: Kyle Okposo
When the Buffalo Sabres signed forward Kyle Okposo away from the New York Islanders to a seven-year/$42 million contract in July 2016, they were probably expecting a player who could score 29 goals a season, not 29 goals in 124 games over two seasons with the club. And this season has the makings of a less productive one than last year, when Okposo recorded 19 goals in 65 games. So far this season he has 10 goals in 59 games, putting him on a pace to finish this season with 14 goals. He has just one goal in his last dozen games, although he does have six assists in that span. One other problem has crept into his game, that being even strength performance. He is minus-8 in his last seven games and has not been a plus player for 13 straight contests, not since he had a pair of assists and was plus-1 in a 5-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers on January 23rd. The production has resulted in his ice time being pared back. He has not skated as much as 20 minutes in his last nine games, and he hit the 15-minute mark only once in his last four contests. Okposo is 11-11-22, plus-4,in 30 career games against the Caps. The goals scored against Washington is the second most he has in his career against a single club (he has 14 in 43 games against Pittsburgh).
Washington: Christian Djoos/Madison Bowey
When the Washington Capitals acquired Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek in separate deals with Chicago and Montreal, respectively, perhaps Caps fans could be forgiven for thinking the rookie experiment on the blue line was coming to an end. Never mind that both are among the top scorers among rookie defensemen in the league, Djoos ranked eighth (3-11-14) and Bowey ranked ninth (0-12-12). It left the Caps with the only team in the league with two rookies among the top-ten scorers among rookie defensemen. Both, however, have seen scoring dry up a bit of late. Djoos has only one assist in his last eight games after posting a four-game points streak. Bowey is without a point in his last nine games after consecutive games with points. While both have had low minute burdens, one has done reasonably well in possession numbers, given the team context, while the other has struggled. In February, Djoos is second on the club in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (47.83 percent), while Bowey is last in that category for the month (38.46 percent). But here’s the thing. Djoos and Bowey have combined for 103 games played in these, their respective rookie seasons. Kempny and Jerabek have combined to appear in 107 games in their respective NHL careers to date.
In the end…
Caps fans are watching the team’s seeding, if not their playoff hopes, slip away in slow motion. The Caps have not been awful of late, but they are just a single point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers at the top of the Metropolitan Division, and they are only ten points ahead of the ninth-place New York Islanders. A losing streak of any length would drop the club off the division pace and place their playoff position in jeopardy. When one considers that the Caps still have their three-game California trip ahead of them and 11 of their last 20 games on the road, the schedule does become challenging down the stretch. They simple have to win games they should win. They did not do it against Florida on Thursday – their second late-game collapse in barely a week – but they need to do it against the Sabres.
Capitals 4 – Sabres 2