Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 76/77: Capitals vs. Rangers, March 26th/28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Washington Capitals wrap up their three-game road trip on Monday night with a visit to the world’s most famous arena and a contest with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.  It is the first of the last home-and home series in the regular season for the Caps that will conclude in Washington on Wednesday.

Washington cannot eliminate the Rangers outright in the first game of the home-and-home, but they could push them to the brink.  It would be possible for the Rangers to tie the eighth-place New Jersey Devils with a 39-35-8 record (the Rangers having to sweep their last six games after a loss Monday night against the Caps and the Devils losing all of their remaining games in regulation), but could squeak past with more wins in regulation and overtime.

The Rangers just have not been able to get any traction to advance in the standings of late.  Just when they appear to be putting things in a better state, they slide right back.  They had an horrific stretch to open the new year going 12-20-3 after they beat the Buffalo Sabres on New Year’s Day in the annual Winter Classic.  They started to turn things around at the end of February, or so it seemed, with a three-game winning streak.  They followed that up with a three-game skid (0-2-1).  Then, wins in consecutive games were followed by another three-game losing streak (0-2-1) before they beat the Sabres on Saturday night, 5-1, leaving the Rangers 6-4-2 in their last 12 games and unable to close any distance on a playoff spot.

The Rangers have not had much of a problem scoring over those dozen games, recording 42 goals in all (seventh-most overall in that span).  Mika Zibanejad leads the team in goals (10) and points (15) over that period.  In fact, since February 28th, when the Rangers started on this meandering 6-4-2 run, only Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine has more goals than Zibenejad (12), and only nine players have more points through Saturday’s games.  Those ten goals propelled Zibanejad to a career best 27 goals through 65 games this season, surpassing the 21 he had for the Ottawa Senators in 2015-2016.  With 46 points, he tied his second-highest career point total (2014-2015) and is within striking distance of his career best (51 in 2015-2016).  Sadly for the Rangers, his production just has not mattered a lot. Zibanejad has goals in 24 games this season, and the Rangers are just 9-13-2 in those games.  He does, however, have goals in five of the Rangers’ last eight wins in which he participated.  In 17 career games against Washington, Zibanejad is 4-4-8, even.

You might be forgiven for not recognizing the name “Neal Pionk.”  Undrafted by any NHL team, the defenseman played for two seasons with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in the NCAA, upon which he signed a two-year/$3.55 million contract with the Rangers as a free agent.  He spent 48 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack in the AHL before being promoted to the Rangers in early-February.  He struggled a bit to get his footing in the NHL, recording only one point (an assist) in his first nine games and going minus-4.  He was getting a long look, though, averaging 20:57 in ice time over those games.  Since then, over this 6-4-2 run, Pionk leads Ranger defensemen in points (1-12-13) and is logging even more time – 22:45 per game, highest ice time average on the club.  There does seem to be a price paid in giving him so much ice time.  The Rangers are 4-6-0 in the games in which Pionk skated more than 23 minutes, although he does have points in six of those games (1-8-9) and are 4-2-0 in those high ice time games in which he did have a point.  This will be his first appearance against the Capitals.

If this is a Rangers game, this would be where we would talk about goalie Henrik Lundqvist.  However, he appeared only once in the last two weeks, giving up four goals on 30 shots in a 5-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 20th.  And now, there is talk of his being shut down for the rest of the season with a wonky back.  Not that Lundqvist seems inclined to listen to it.  If Lundqvist is held out of one or both of this home-and-home set, the goaltending duties would normally fall to Ondrej Pavelec, but he hasn’t seen action since February 9th, out of the lineup with a knee injury.  That leaves the bulk of the goaltending duties these days to Alexandar Georgiev.  Undrafted, he was invited to the Rangers’ development camp in the summer of 2017.  He made enough of an impression to get a three-year contract with the club.  He appeared in 31 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack, going 12-11-2, 2.97, .908 with two shutouts before getting his second call-up of the season in February.   He started slowly in terms of wins and losses, going 1-2-0 in his first four appearances (one no-decision).  But his goals against average of 2.65 was good, and his save percentage of .930 was very good.  Over his last five appearances, Georgiev is 3-1-1, 2.98, .924.  This would be his first career action against the Caps.

1.  The Caps might want to avoid the Rangers’ power play.  Over their last dozen games, the Rangers are 9-for-30, their 30.0 percent efficiency being fourth-best in the league over that span.  Those 30 opportunities are more than just six other teams in that span, and three of them played fewer games – St. Louis (25 chances in 11 games), Toronto (24 times in nine games), and Anaheim (24 times in 11 games).

2.  Defense?   Must be a four-letter word in Manhattan.  Only the Montreal Canadiens have allowed more shots on goal (507) than have the Rangers (485) over the Rangers’ last dozen games, and the 40.4 shots per game allowed is by far the most in the league over that time. And it isn’t as if the Rangers are engaging in up-and-down, firewagon hockey.  Their 353 shots on goal is sixth-fewest in that span, a shot differential of minus-132, worst in the league over those dozen games.

3.  Differences in official scoring aside, the Rangers are not very tidy with the puck.  Their 953 charged giveaways this season are second-most in the league, only three fewer than the Florida Panthers.  But on the other side, their 665 credited takeaways are third-most in the league, trailing only Carolina (831) and Vegas (781).

4.  The Rangers aren’t likely to blow anyone out.  They have nine wins this season by three or more goals, a total exceeding that of just four other teams: Carolina (8), Ottawa (7), Arizona (7), and Buffalo (3).

5.  If the Caps have an incentive to get pucks on net, it is that only one team in the league has more losses in regulation when out-shot than the Ranger (21 losses)). Ottawa has 25 losses when out-shot.

1.  Only three teams have more wins than the Caps when out-shot by opponents.  Their 25 wins in those situations is exceeded only by Nashville (26), Toronto (28), and Colorado (30).  On the other side of that, the Caps don’t lose much when they do manage to out-shoot opponents.  Their seven regulation losses are bested only by Nashville (five), and their eight total losses is fewest in the league.

2.  This will be the fourth home-and-home series for the Caps this season.  The Caps split the first, losing at home before winning in Carolina against the Hurricanes in mid-January.  In the other two series, the Caps opened each on the road – at Columbus and at the New York Islanders – winning in each instance before completing the sweep on home ice.

3.  Washington has the second-best shooting percentage in the league (10.8 percent), trailing only Tampa Bay (10.9 percent).

4.  No team has enjoyed fewer 5-on-3 power play chances than the Caps this season.  They have four, the same number as that of Edmonton, Los Angeles, Carolina, and Philadelphia.  They were successful on two of those four chances.

5.  The Caps have the second-highest number of penalties in the Eastern Conference (307) to Florida’s 314. And, no team in the East has spent more time killing penalties than the Caps this season (406:30).  They rank ninth overall in the league, but each of the eight teams ahead of them are in the Western Conference.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Jimmy Vesey

For the longest time, or so it might have seemed to him, offense was in short supply in Jimmy Vesey’s game.  Over a 30-game span from December 27th through March 10th, he was 4-1-5, minus-16.  But then he had his first career hat trick in a 6-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on March 12th.  Starting with that game, Vesey has five goals in six games on just 13 shots (38.5 percent shooting).  That goal scoring matters to the Rangers, who are 10-2-1 in the 13 games in which Vesey has at least one goal this season.  But while Vesey now has a career best 17 goals in 72 games this season, he is also a career-worst minus-20 (yes, it is only a two-year career so far, but still).  That minus-20 is tied for second-worst on the club with Brady Skjei, better than only David Desharnais (minus-23).  He has been on ice for 59 goals against, fourth-most among forwards, but then again among the forwards who have spent all season with the club, he is seventh in average ice time.  A lot happens when he is on the ice, some of it good and some of it not so good.  Vesey is 2-0-2, even, in six career games against the Capitals.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

There is the flashy for its own sake, and there is the necessary that only looks flashy.  The difference was on display against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.  With the first period winding down and the Caps holding a 2-1 lead, Nicklas Backstrom found some open ice to receive a pass from Andre Burakovsky at the right wing wall.  From just inside the dot in the right wing circle, Backstrom, facing the corner, spied Tom Wilson circling behind him.  Backstrom gave defenseman Jeff Petry a shimmy to get Petry to bite and step up, and it was just enough for Backstrom to backhand a no-look pass to Wilson in space for a one-timer that beat goalie Carey Price on the blocker side for a 3-1 lead.  If a no-look backhand pass could be considered subtle, that was it, Backstrom employing an economy of movement and an ability to think ahead a couple of moves to create space for the shooter and lay a pass right on his stick for a scoring chance.

It was Backstrom’s third assist of the period on the way to a four-assist night, his first of the season and the 11th of his career, most in franchise history.  The four points was his second four-point game of the season (October 13th against New Jersey being the other), the 20th of his career, second to Alex Ovechkin (24) in club history.  That moment was Backstrom’s career in a five-second burst, thinking the game better than his opponent, putting himself and a teammate in a position to make a play, and then executing it with calm and precision by taking the necessary action, not the “flashy” one for its own sake.  He will be coming into the home-and-home against the Rangers a hot player, 4-12-16, plus-3, in his last 12 games with four multi-point games among them.  Backstrom is 9-24-33, minus-5, in 41 career games against the Rangers.

In the end…

Going into Madison Square Garden and getting out with a win is never easy, although this year seems to be a little easier on opponents, the Rangers with only 21 home wins, 17th-most in the league with two home games yet to play.  On the other hand, only five teams have more home wins than the Caps’ 26 wins at Capital One Arena.  Add to that the fact that the Caps are the team with a future to play for this season, and the Rangers are a club looking more at what they might have for next season and beyond.  It is a formula for what would be a successful final home-and-home set of games of the regular season for the Caps.

Monday: Capitals 4 – Rangers 3
Wednesday: Capitals 4 – Rangers 2

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)