It was a week in which the Caps looked more like a team whose attention has been stirred as they head into the last month of the regular season.
Last week, the Caps won three or more games for a week without a loss for the first time since Week 11. Now, they have two such weeks in a row, the first time they put together consecutive weeks without a loss since Weeks 8 and 9 over which they also went 6-0-0.
The three wins in Week 23 came at the expense of three Metropolitan Division teams and extended the Caps’ winning streak against teams in the Metro to five games. The two wins to start the week came on the road, giving the Caps 20 road wins this season. The 3-0 win over New Jersey to end the week left the Caps with 20 wins at home for the year. It is the 13th season, and the fifth consecutive season, that the Caps have won 20 games both at home and on the road.
And now that we are into the last 15 games of the season, one can start to look forward to matchups in the postseason. At the end of the week, with Washington having pulled in front of the New York Islanders once more, they would draw the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round if the standings hold. But with a narrow two-point lead and the Islanders holding a game in hand, the Caps are also facing the prospect of facing the Pittsburgh Penguins (currently third in the Metropolitan Division) in the first round.
Offense: 3.33/game (season: 3.38/7th)
The Caps did not have quite as prolific a week on the offensive side of the puck as they did in Week 22, but what they lacked in totals, they made up for with a pleasant surprise or two (or three). At the top of the pleasant surprise list was Andre Burakovsky. He had a goal in each of the three games for the week, his longest streak of consecutive goal-games since he put together a four-game streak in January 2017. In two of those three games this week, Burakovsky recorded a goal having played less than ten minutes. That brings his total of games scoring a goal while skating under ten minutes to four, tied for third-most instances in the league (Austin Wagner has six, and Tyler Ennis has five). It also brought his total for the season to 11 goals, the fourth straight season in which he reached double digits, not as small a feat as it might seem since he has never averaged as much as 14 minutes a game in any of his five seasons and is averaging just over 11 minutes a game this season.
In another surprise, Travis Boyd tied for the team lead in points for the week with three, all of them assists, to draw him to within a point of a 20-point season. His total of 19 points have come in only 42 games so far.
Next, there was Carl Hagelin recording his first goal (his first point) as a Capital. It might have fitting that he would get that goal against a team – the New York Rangers – for whom he played four seasons and 266 regular season games. Hagelin added an assist in the following game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Nicklas Backstrom had the other multi-goal week for the Caps, bringing his total to four over his last six games after going a dozen games without one. He, Boyd, and Burakovsky tied for the team lead in points (three).
Defense: 1.67/game (season: 3.09/20th)
The Caps appear to have re-discovered the art of playing defense, or at least they did in this week. They did not face elite offenses (Philadelphia ranked 12th at week’s end in scoring offense, the Rangers 23rd, and the Devils 24th), but they did not let those opponents get much traction either. They held those three opponents to a total of 79 shots (26.3 per game), and none of them recorded more than 30 shots.
The stinginess extended to shot attempts at 5-on-5, where the Caps held a 149-113 advantage (56.9 percent). They had a positive shot attempt differential in all three games, extending their streak of such games to six and posting a cumulative differential of plus-105 (59.6 percent). That might not be a coincidence that the six-game streak with positive shot attempt differential coincides with a six-game winning streak.
What is also noteworthy about the streak is the shot attempts allowed side of the differential. Twice in three games this week, the Caps held opponents under 40 shot attempts at fives. That makes five times in six games that they have done so after doing it only once in their previous 22 games, and in that instance they allowed Columbus 39 attempts.
Goaltending: 1.63 / .937 / 1 shutout (season: 2.94 / .907 / 4 shutouts)
Braden Holtby got all the minutes in goal in Week 23, and he did not disappoint. He was .900 or better in save percentage in each of the three games, extending his streak of .900-plus games to five, tying his longest such streak of the season. It is part of a longer run of good play in which he has a .925 save percentage over his last 13 games after posting a .905 save percentage over his first 36 games this season.
If there was a hint of a blemish on Holtby’s week, it was in the progression of save percentages through the periods. He was superb in the first periods of games, especially when you consider that he allowed a goal on the first shot he faced for the week, to Ryan Strome of the New York Rangers. He then stopped the other 27 first period shots he saw, a .964 save percentage. He was slightly less superb in the second periods of games, stopping 24 of 26 shots (.923), and he slipped a bit in the third periods of games, going 21-for-23 (.913). The odd thing about the third periods of games is that he stopped all the shots he faced in the first and third games of the week, a total of only nine shots. It was in the third period against Philadelphia in the middle game of the week, one that the Caps started with a 5-1 lead, in which he allowed both third period goals for the week on 14 shots.
Power Play: 2-for-12/16.7 percent (season: 22.0 percent/9th)
The difference between a very good power play week and an average one is often one goal, and that was the difference here. But the Caps’ power play was better as the week went on. Washington failed on four chances against the Rangers in the first game of the week, but they did go 2-for-8 against the Flyers and Devils to finish the week, and New Jersey was at week’s end the fourth-best penalty killing team in the league.
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom had the goals on the power play for the week, while John Carlson assisted on both. Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov also added assists to complete the scoring credits.
As a group, the Caps recorded 18 shots on goal in 19:07 of power play ice time, a respectable shots-per-minute mark. Ovechkin recorded seven of the 18 shots on goal to lead the team; Backstrom and T.J. Oshie had three apiece.
The odd part about the power play was that the Caps had three or more opportunities in all three games, the first time that they had at least three chances in three consecutive games since Games 40-42 in early January against Dallas, Detroit, and Philadelphia.
Penalty Killing: 9-for-9/100.0 percent (season: 79.2 percent/22nd)
Week 23 might have been the best penalty killing week of the season for the Caps, even if it did come against three teams in the bottom half of the power play rankings. It was the first time that the Caps faced at least nine shorthanded situations and shut teams out since they went 9-fo-9 on the penalty kill in Week 9. In the first two games of the week, the Caps killed penalties best by avoiding shorthandedness altogether. They went shorthanded only twice against the Rangers to start the week and only once against the Flyers in the middle game of the week.
They were more undisciplined in the last game of the week against the Devils, but they cleaned that mess up smartly, shutting out the Devils on six power play chances. What made this week more impressive was the sustained shot suppression on the part of the Caps’ penalty killers. The Rangers had one shot in 3:10 in power play time. The Flyers had no shots on goal in two full minutes of their lone power play. Even the Devils, with their six power plays, had only six shots on goal in 11:42 of power play time. All in all, the Caps allowed their three opponents only seven shots on goal in 16:52 of power play ice time.
Faceoffs: 59-for-147 / 40.1 percent (season: 45.8 percent/31st)
Overall, it was a poor week for the Caps in the circle, but not quite as bad as it was in the aggregate. Not that a barely 40 percent week is good, but that number was dragged down by a 28.2 percent win rate in the neutral zone. Still, the Caps lost all three zones in two games for the week and lost two of three zones in the other, the last game of the week against the Devils. The Caps did manage to win 12 of 19 defensive draws in that game (63.2 percent) to push them over 50 percent for the week in the defensive end (52.0 percent/26 for 50).
Individually, Lars Eller had a good week, winning 18 of 33 draws (54.5 percent). He was especially successful in the ends, finishing over 60 percent in both the offensive (61.5 percent) and defensive (63.6 percent) zones. No other Capital taking at least ten draws won as much as 45 percent of the faceoffs they took, Nic Dowd coming closest, winning nine of 21 draws taken (42.9 percent).
Goals by Period:
Doubling up on opponents in goals scored for the week generally means things break down well by period, and this was true for the Caps, to a point. They did allow a goal in the opening minute against the Rangers to open the week, the fifth straight game in which they allowed a goal in the game’s first four minutes. But that would be the only first period goal the Caps would allow for the week.
The Caps packed all of their second period offense for the week in the middle game, scoring three times in a span of 3:05 against the Flyers. It would be the third period of that game, though, that would be the smudge on an otherwise shiny period-by-period week. The Caps, who took a 5-1 lead into the third period of that game, allowed a goal in the first ten seconds, and then the allowed another in the eighth minute of the period to make things more interesting than they needed to be. But that would be it, and the Caps would go on to shutout New Jersey to complete the week’s sweep.
This team has now surpassed last year’s on a year-over-year basis. This year’s club has two more wins and four more points than did last year’s club. This is the sixth club in team history to reach 40 wins in 68 games and the third in four years to do it (the 2015-2016 team had 49 wins in 68 games; the 2016-2017 team had 44 wins in 68 games).
What has been most noteworthy about this team, perhaps, is the improvement in scoring offense. Goals are up by more than 13 percent from the same point last season, and this team has the second-highest scoring offense in the shootout era (since 2005-2006), its 3.38 per game average trailing only the 2009-2010 juggernaut (3.82). That improvement in offense drills down through shots on goal (up 5.5 percent over last year) and 5-on-5 shot attempts (up 2.2 percent), although this might be part of a broader increase in offense across the league.
The “grittership” numbers are up broadly as well – hits (2.9 percent), blocked shots (up 7.4 percent), and takeaways (up 12.8 percent), although faceoff winning percentage is down by 4.5 points from last season. Penalties and penalty minutes are down, which is largely a “Tom Wilson” effect. Last season, Wilson dressed for 64 of the Caps’ first 68 games and totaled 164 penalty minutes. This season, he has 99 penalty minutes in 49 games. But Wilson is also more disciplined in his games to date than at a similar point last season. In his first 49 games last season, he had 127 penalty minutes, 28 more than he has at a similar games-played point.
In the end…
If Capitals Nation has been waiting for the team to pay more attention and display more focus, the last two weeks are encouraging. The playoffs are in sight, and the Caps’ performance over the last two weeks in winning all six games at least gives the appearance that they are getting taking their defense of the Stanley Cup with the seriousness and resolve it requires.
It is a good thing, too, because the Caps are about to be tested a bit more rigorously by the schedule with games against Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay coming up. The scent of playoffs is in the air.
- First Star: Andre Burakovsky (3-0-3, plus-2, 2 game-winning goals, no charged giveaways)
- Second Star: Braden Holtby 3-0-0, 1.63, .937, 1 shutout)
- Third Star: Carl Hagelin (1-1-2, plus-3, 11:31 in shorthanded ice time (led all skaters))