Food, family, and friends about the holiday table, and three solid wins on the ice for the hockey team. For Week 9 of the hockey season, the Caps took care of business in a variety of ways, dispatching a team that is particularly annoying whenever they meet, defeating a club with whom an interesting and complex rivalry has been forged, and giving a rebuilding club that was looking to measure itself against an elite team an indication of just how far they had to go to return to competitiveness.
One of the features of Capitals hockey in recent years has been their ability to find ways to win close games. Since 2007-2008, only the Anaheim Ducks had won more one-goal games (266) than had the Caps going into Week 9 (256). No team won more games in extra time over that period than the Caps (135). The Caps added to those totals with a pair of one-goal wins to open the week, one of them in overtime.
Washington opened the week with a 4-3 win over the pesky Florida Panthers, giving the Caps consecutive wins over the Panthers for the first time since 2016 and only the second time since 2015, since which time they are now just 5-6-2 in 13 games with the win. The win over Florida also broke a four-game losing streak to the Panthers on home ice and extended a history of successful Thanksgiving Eve games for the club.
The Caps followed that up two nights later in fine fashion, spotting the Tampa Bay Lightning a two-goal lead less than 25 minutes into the game, trailing by a pair after 40 minutes, and then coming back with goals eight minutes apart by Jakub Vrana and Alex Ovechkin to force overtime. Dmitry Orlov won it three minutes into the extra session with his first goal since Opening Night, snapping a 25-game streak without a goal.
The Caps closed out the week with a surprisingly difficult and misleading 5-2 win in Detroit over the Red Wings. It was the back half of a back-to-back set of games with travel involved, and it was the third game in four nights wrapped around holiday. Still, it was a matter of the Caps taking care of business, their depth and deeper skill level allowing them to pull away late with a pair of empty net goals from Alex Ovechkin to seal the third perfect record in nine weeks this season and the first since Week 6. The Caps finished November with ten wins, the fourth time in team history that the team recorded ten wins in November and the second season in a row in which they did it.
Offense: 4.33/game (season: 3.61/4th)
Three games, three times scoring four or more goals. A high-powered offense is good, a consistent one is better. Those three games gave the Caps eight games in 14 games on the November schedule, tied with Boston for most in the league (not including Gimmick results). And, the Caps are the only club to have eight wins in those games (Boston was 6-1-1). Overall, the Caps have 16 games of four or more goals this season, most in the league, and have a 15-1-0 record to go with it.
Eight different Capitals had goals for the week, but it is here that there is a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty matter to consider. Alex Ovechkin led the team with five goals, a total that led the league for the week. It was highlighted by his posting three goals against Detroit to end the week. It was his 137th career multi-goal game, fourth most all-time and by far the most among active players (Sidney Crosby: 84). It was his 24th career hat trick, passing Jari Kurri for fifth place all-time, and again far more than any active player (Eric Staal: 14). It brought Ovechkin’s career total to 678 goals, 12th all-time and 121 more than the second-ranked active player, Patrick Marleau (557).
The glass-half-empty part is that no other Capital had more than one goal in the three games. Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, Lars Eller, Brendan Leipsic, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Dmitry Orlov, and T.J. Oshie…one goal apiece. Spreading goals around nine players is good, but more than a third of them in one player is not likely a sustainable scenario to achieve a high-volume scoring week.
The Caps did manage to spread the points around well, though. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov tied for the team lead with six points apiece, with Oshie adding five and Vrana four. The Caps had 13 skaters contribute at least one point for the week among the 19 skaters to dress. If there was a pleasant surprise on offense, it might have been the game-winning goals. There was Orlov snapping his long goal-scoring drought with an overtime winner against Tampa Bay, and to that was added a game-winner from grinder Brendan Leipsic against Florida and Tom Wilson’s game winner against Detroit. For Leipsic it was his first game-winner as a Capital, and for Wilson it was a team-leading fourth game-winner.
Defense: 2.67/game (season: 2.89/11th)
We can get this out of the way quickly. Detroit has the worst scoring offense in the league (2.14 goals per game after nine weeks) and are as bad on home ice (2.07 goals per game through nine weeks). Not surprising, since they are an inefficient shooting lot – 7.3 percent overall (last in the league) and 7.0 percent on home ice (30th). That the Caps held them to two goals might have been surprising only in that the Wings managed that many.
But those other two games against Florida and Tampa Bay. Those two teams finished Week 9 as the fifth and third ranked scoring offenses, respectively, in the league. Tampa Bay has the best scoring offense in the league in road games (4.09 goals per game), and Florida closed the week not far behind at 3.75 goals per game on the road. The Caps did struggle in shot attempts allowed against Florida, the 50 shot attempts allowed at 5-on-5 being the fourth time in 14 home games than the Caps allowed 50 or more, but that was also a game in which the Caps never trailed, Florida perhaps feeling the pressure to increase the intensity in the offensive end. Against Tampa Bay, the Caps allowed 46 shot attempts at fives, but they still finished that game with a plus-15 edge. The Caps did not strangle those offenses, but they did manage to be solid enough in the defensive end to give the offense a chance to do what it does.
Goaltending: 2.63 / .918 (season: 2.77 / .910)
The Caps continued to inch higher in goaltending statistics with a solid week from the two-member tandem. Braden Holtby was the starter for the first two games of the week, going 2-0-0, 2.93, .914 against those two high-powered offenses from Florida. The two wins continued an exceptional run of success for Holtby, who is now 12-1-2, 2.48, .924 in his last 15 appearances. Since he started this run on October 18th, the 12 wins lead the league, his goals against average is fifth, and his save percentage is fifth. His 13 wins for the season at the end of the week were tied for the league lead.
What characterized Holtby’s week was his being a fine starter and a fine finisher. In his two games he stopped a total of 18 of 19 first period shots (.947), while in the third periods of the two games he stopped 23 of 24 shots (.958).
Ilya Samsonov got the start against Detroit to end the week, and he continued to shine in his rookie season. The two goals his allowed in the contest was the fourth time in eight starts that he allowed two or fewer goals and fifth time overall in nine appearances. Samsonov now has a 6-2-1 record in his nine appearances, and the win over the Red Wings that gave him six in this rookie season are now already fourth-most by a Caps goalie in his first NHL season (Jim Carey: 18; Jim Bedard: 11; Braden Holtby: 10) with the Caps only having just passed the one-third mark of their regular season schedule. Only New Jersey’s Mackenzie Blackwood has more wins among rookie goalies (eight) than Samsonov, while Samsonov leads all rookie goalies having played more than one game in goals against average (2.58) and save percentage (.914, tied with Colorado’s Adam Werner).
Power Play: 3-for-7/42.9 percent (season: 25.3 percent/5th)
Once more, it is good news/bad news for the Caps’ power play. The good news is that the Caps had their most efficient week of the season on the man advantage. Yes, Tampa Bay is a bottom-half penalty killing team (21st after nine weeks), and Detroit is dead last in the league. But the Caps took advantage of those clubs for three power play goals in five chances. It is what good teams do. That they were blanked by Florida, the seventh-best penalty killing team at week’s end, was a bit disappointing, but then again, the Caps had only two power play chances.
That brings us to the not so good news – volume. The Caps had only seven power play chances in three games in Week 9. The two chances against both Florida and Tampa Bay brought their total of games with two or fewer power play chances to 12 in 28 games. It has not had a noticeably adverse effect on results to date, the Caps holding a 9-2-1 record in those 12 games and a 10-2-4 record in games when they had more than two power play chances.
For the week, the Caps were nonetheless efficient at applying pressure on goal on the power play. In their seven chances they recorded 12 shots in 9:33 of man advantage ice time. And, they did it by changing things up a bit. Alex Ovechkin led the team in power play shots on goal (four), but it was Jakub Vrana recording three in more than five minutes of power play ice time, fourth-highest among forwards for the week. Even Travis Boyd managed to record while getting 2:39 in power play ice time for the week as the team tries to plug the hole left with the injury to Nicklas Backstrom.
Penalty Killing: 9-for-11/81.8 percent (season: 83.0 percent/12th)
It was a good, if unremarkable week on the penalty kill, the result being consistent with the team’s performance to date this season. There were blemishes, though. First, there were the 11 shorthanded situations faced. This was the sixth straight week that the Caps faced ten or more shorthanded situations and seventh in nine weeks overall. At the end of Week 9, no team had been shorthanded more frequently than the Caps (100, tied with San Jose).
On the good side, though, the Caps held Tampa Bay and Florida, the third and seventh ranked teams in the league on the power play, respectively, to one goal in seven chances and held the pair to 11 shots in 12:56 in power play ice time. They slipped a bit against the Red Wings, allowing the 17th ranked power play squad a goal on four chances, although two shots on goal in 5:48 of ice time is an efficient result. Again, the frequency of special teams occurrences has not made much of a difference to date for the Caps, who are 12-2-3 in 17 games in which they faced four or more shorthanded situations, 7-2-2 in 11 games in which they faced fewer than four. Whether this is a formula for success, though, is an open question.
Faceoffs: 81-for-182/44.5 percent (season: 49.9 percent/18th)
If there was a blemish on the week for the Caps, it was in the faceoff circle, where one can point and say, “See? Faceoffs don’t matter much.” For this week, one would have a point. The Caps were under 50 percent in all three games, they were under 50 percent in all three zones. That they were just 20-for-50 in the offensive end (40.0 percent) might make one wonder how it was that they scored 13 goals in three games with so many starts in the offensive zone that opponents won. And it was not as if the opposition was elite in this regard. Tampa Bay did finish the week seventh in the league in faceoff winning percentage, but Florida was 11th, and Detroit was 20th.
The week’s struggle was reflected in individual numbers, where Evgeny Kuznetsov’s 20.0 percent in the offensive end (3-for-15) stands out, but is hardly alone as an indicator of frustration. Three of the four Caps to take at least ten draws were under 50 percent (Kuznetsov finished at 31.3 percent), with only NIc Dowd topping 50 percent (18-for-31/58.1 percent).
Goals by Period:
It is hard to play a 60-minute game every night for 82 games. Good teams will do it a lot, but when they don’t, it might be best to finish strong and run through the tape than to start fast and fade. That might have been the Caps, at least somewhat, in Week 9. Florida is an annoying team, at least when playing the Caps, and even when a club is grinding through the minutes it might not look as if they are. Still, the Caps took a lead, took a second lead, then finished strong with a two-goal third period to earn a win. Against Tampa Bay, they fell behind by a pair, were trailing by two after 40 minute, and came from behind to win in overtime. Finally, the Caps looked a bit sluggish in Detroit in their third game in four nights wrapped around a holiday, yet still solved the Red Wings for three third period goals (two of them empty netters) to complete the perfect week.
What the Caps ended up with a minus goal differential in first periods (minus-1), even in second periods, but dominating the third period (plus-5) and overtime (plus-1). That the Caps have dominated second period this season has been an ongoing feature, but the plus-5 in the third period left the Caps plus-9 in the last 20 minutes for the season, fifth-best differential in the league.
A trend that has been running through this year’s club compared to last is coming into sharper focus as the schedule passes the one-third mark. This club look stronger in terms of balance on either side of the puck. Year over year, goals…no change. Shots for…up significantly (6.1 percent). 5-on-5 shot attempts…up significantly (2.9 percent). On the other side, goals allowed…down eight. Shots on goal allowed…down 14. Shot attempts allowed at 5-on-5…down significantly (6.7 percent). Blocks…down seven (a function of possession). Giveaway/Takeaway change…net down two. That the improvements, year-over-year, are so broad suggest a sustainability that seeing in one or two categories might not.
In the end…
A very good week against three teams in a division the Caps have dominated in recent years, the only non-Atlantic Division team in the NHL with at least 100 wins against Atlantic Division teams since 2007-2008 (103). Better still, the Caps have almost erased the games-in-hand problem they had with the New York Islanders in the standings, the Caps now holding a seven-point lead with the Isles having four games in hand with eight possible points to be had. That the Caps have been able to bank points with consistency is a comfort as the team heads west for its annual California trip that is always a challenge.
- First Star: Alex Ovechkin (5-1-6, plus-3, 16 shots on goal, 24 shot attempts, 1 power play goal, recorded 24th career hat trick (10th on all-time list), 10 hits, 20:46 average ice time)
- Second Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (1-5-6, plus-2, two power play points)
- Third Star: Jakub Vrana (1-3-4, minus-1, two power play points, 16 shots on goal, 21 shot attempts, posted 100th career NHL point)
Captain rates the week…