Sunday, April 22, 2018

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Washington Capitals: Three Games In and Things to Impress Your Friends With

Here we are, half way to where we expect the Caps to win this series, and we have some odd facts to amuse and amaze you...

  • After three games, one Capital is a “plus” player.  Christian Djoos, who having played one game is plus-1.
  • Ah, but 15 of 20 skaters to dress so far are over 50 percent in shot attempts-for at 5-on-5, and the team is second in shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 with 55.13 percent (Winnipeg is first at 62.07 percent).
  • Coming into this series, the Caps had a 7.8 shooting percentage in the postseason since 2008.  That was 23rd of 30 teams over that span.  After last night’s win they are 7.5 percent in this series (10 goals on 133 shots).  They rank 14th of 16 teams in 5-on-5 shooting percentage (4.3).
  • Last night the Caps recorded 45 shots on goal, the second time in this series they had at least that many shots and the ninth time they did it since 2008.  Last night was just their second time in nine tries that they won when posting at least 45 shots on goal, the other time coming in 2011, when Jason Chimera scored on the Caps’ 53rd shot to beat the New York Rangers, 4-3, in double overtime in Game 4 of their first round series that the Caps would win in five games.
  • John Carlson is averaging 30:45 per game in ice time in this series.  Not only does that not lead the league (Seth Jones is averaging 32:42 for Columbus), he doesn’t lead his own team.  Dmitry Orlov is averaging 31:04 and ranks second in the league in average ice time.
  • Different management approaches.  Capitals rank second through fifth in average ice time (Matt Niskanen is fourth at 30:42, and Alex Ovechkin ranks fifth at 28:22).  Meanwhile, Blue Jackets rank first through sixth in shifts taken per game played (Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, David Savard, Ryan Murray, Ian Cole, and Zach Werenski).  Five Capitals rank in the top 15 in time on ice per shift (no other team has more than two).  The highest ranking Blue Jacket in time on ice per shift is Pierre-Luc Dubois, tied for 47th at 49 seconds per shift.
  • No team has had more power play chances so far than the Caps (17, tied with San Jose), and that includes teams that have played four games.  No team has more power play goals than the Caps, either (six, also tied with San Jose).
  • The Caps’ goal scoring follows an odd, and a bit disturbing trend.  Four goals scored in the first periods of the three games, three in the second period, two in the third, and one in overtime.  Ten of the 11 goals they have allowed have come after the first period.
  • Through three games, the Caps have spent 3:58 killing penalties in overtime, 0:01 on their own power play.  Stop that!
  • Last night was the 70th one-goal game played by the Caps in the postseason since 2008.  No team has played more.  In fact, consider that the two teams ranked second and third – Pittsburgh (68) and Chicago (66) – have won multiple Stanley Cups in that span, while the Caps have not lasted past the second round, and you get a feel for just how embedded the one-goal decision is in recent Caps playoff history.  That they are 32-38 in those games (19 of the losses in overtime) is just depressing.

Photo: Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: The Rest of the 2018 Stanley Cup Tournament First Round

Having taken a look at the Washington Capitals first round matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets, we can turn our attention to the other series on the first round NHL playoff schedule. And there are quite a few interesting series in there. 

Tampa Bay Lightning (54-23-5)
New Jersey Devils (44-29-9)

Here is the “David and Goliath” series.  Tampa Bay was on just about everyone’s short list to come out of the East to the Stanley Cup final.  You would have had to look hard to find anyone who thought the Devils would find their way into the postseason.       

Tampa Bay did not disappoint, but the Devils were overachievers.  It makes the Devils something of the darlings of the East, but one would rather be the Lightning.  They scored more than half a goal per game more than New Jersey (3.54 to 2.96), had a better power play (23.9 percent to 21.4 percent), better shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (51.63 to 48.60).  But as they say in the TV ads at 3:00 am… “BUT WAIT!”  New Jersey won all three meetings against the Lightning this season, and Tampa Bay scored only three even strength goals.  All three games were one-goal decisions, one of those in a Gimmick.  Does that mean the Devils have the Lightning’s number?  Well, no.

Lightning in 6


Boston Bruins (50-20-12)
Toronto Maple Leafs (49-26-7)

This will be the 15th time these Original Six clubs have met in the postseason, but the first since 2013 and only the second meeting since 1974.  But familiarity with one another is not a problem.  They have met 73 times since the dark 2004-2005 season, the Bruins leading the series with a 43-19-11 record in that span.  This year, though, Toronto took a big wet bite out of that advantage the Bruins have enjoyed, winning three of the four games the teams played.  Boston stumbled at the finish, losing four of their last five games and going 7-5-4 over their last 16 contests.  On the other hand, the Maple Leafs wrapped up the season going 10-4-0 in their last 14 contests.  This could end up being the most competitive of the eight first round series.  We think Toronto has one more year to wait before advancing past the first round.

Boston in 7


Pittsburgh Penguins (47-29-6)
Philadelphia Flyers (42-26-14)

This series is one in which Caps fans root for the meteor, or a gamma ray burst, or bad meat in the cheese-steaks or Primanti’s sandwiches.  There is no team here to root for.  For Caps fans, the best outcome would be seven four-overtime games.  This would be one of those series in which one might say that because these teams are bitter rivals with a long history of antagonism toward one another, the Flyers would have a puncher’s chance, figuratively speaking.  Well, the Penguins won all four meetings of the clubs this season, and although two of them were in overtime, Pittsburgh still found a way to score five goals in each of the four games.  Given the lingering uncertainty in goal for the Flyers and whether Brian Elliott is sufficiently healthy to make a difference, this could be a short series.  But out of hope, we’ll give the Flyers one more win than our head says is likely.

Pittsburgh in 6


Nashville Predators (53-18-11)
Colorado Avalanche (43-30-9)

This is a series that pits “Team With Unfinished Business” against “Team Just Happy to Be Here.”  Nashville made it to the Stanley Cup final last year and followed that up with a Presidents Trophy this season.  Colorado hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2014, and they haven’t won a postseason series since 2008 (Joel Quenneville, who went on to bigger and better things, was their coach).  Nashville won all four games between the clubs this season, outscoring Colorado, 19-11.  Sweeping a team in the postseason is hard, and that’s the only reason we think…

Nashville in 5


Winnipeg Jets (52-20-10)
Minnesota Wild (45-26-11)

This is a series for hockey junkies, teams with rabid local followings but not much of a national footprint.  It could be entertaining, though.  There are the Jets with the second-ranked scoring offense in the league (3.33 goals per game) and perhaps the next great dominant goal scorer in Patrik Laine.  On the other hand, the Wild aren’t slouches in scoring, ranked 11th overall (3.05).  They are similarly ranked in scoring defense, the Jets ranked fifth (2.63 goals allowed per game) and the Wild ranked 11th (2.79).  Both clubs have special teams indexes – power play plus penalty killing percentages – over 100 (Winnipeg at 105.2 and Minnesota at 101.7).  Winnipeg won three of the four games in the season series, but all three wins came before December 1st , and the clubs haven’t met since the Wild secured their lone win on January 13th.  Winnipeg finished the season on a 11-1-0 run, but five of those wins were in extra time, and two of them were in Gimmicks.  The Wild struggled down the stretch, going 6-4-4 to close out their regular season.

Winnipeg in 6


Vegas Golden Knights (51-24-7)
Los Angeles Kings (45-29-8)

Vegas didn’t luck into their finish this season.  They were both a top ten scoring offense (3.27 goals per game/5th) and a top-ten scoring defense (2.74/8th).  They tied for tenth in both power play (21.4 percent) and penalty kill (81.4 percent).  But the Los Angeles Kings are a flinty sort of team, the best scoring defense in the league (2.46 goals allowed per game) and stingy with the shots they allow (30.9 shots allowed per game, eighth fewest).  They also played the Golden Knights tough this season, the teams splitting four games, each team getting one of their wins in overtime.  The difference, if there is one, is that the Kings won their two decisions in the last two meetings of the season, in late February.  Late February also happens to be the last time Los Angeles lost consecutive games.  They went 12-5-3 since then to finish the season.

Los Angeles in 7


Anaheim Ducks (44-25-13)
San Jose Sharks (45-27-10)

Things were looking really good for San Jose when they won eight in a row as March was winding down.  Then they went and finished 1-4-1 in their last six games.  On the other hand, the Ducks had a better finishing kick, going 10-1-1 in their last dozen games, scoring 40 goals in the process while allowing just 23 and shutting out opponents three times.  San Jose is a better possession team, as indicated by shot attempts at 5-on-5, and is more efficient on both sides of special teams (20.6 percent to 17.8 percent on power plays, 84.8 percent to 83.2 percent on penalty kills).  And, the Ducks put a little too much pressure on their own goaltenders in allowing 33.1 shots per game, seventh-most in the league (only Colorado has allowed more among playoff teams in the West).  There isn’t much to read in the season series.  Although San Jose won three of the four games, three of the games were decided in the Gimmick, two of which the Sharks won.  This will be close.

San Jose in 7

Monday, April 09, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: 2018 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal, Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Sixteen teams in search of sixteen wins and one rather large silver cup.  That is now what we are down to, and for the Washington Capitals it is their 28th visit to the postseason in franchise history.  They will face the Columbus Blue Jackets in their pursuit of a first-round series win for the 14th time in club history.  It will be Washington’s first ever meeting with the Blue Jackets in the postseason.

Washington Capitals (49-26-7)
Columbus Blue Jackets (45-30-7)

Then and Now I

Comparing this year’s Capitals and last year’s in terms of their regular season performance, the odd thing to note is that despite losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Daniel Winnik, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and Kevin Shattenkirk (and the 68 goals they recorded), the Caps scoring offense this season (3.12 goals per game) was just slightly off last year’s pace (3.18).

As expected, the defense was leakier, allowing 2.90 goals per game this season compared to a league-best 2.16 goals per game allowed in 2016-2017.  And the Caps could not score their way out of their defensive problems this season.  Not that could do so in 2016-2017, but they had so many fewer instances of having to.  In 2016-2017 the Caps allowed four or more goals in regulation/overtime 15 times and had a record of 3-11-1.  All three wins came in overtime.  This season, they allowed four or more goals 23 times, but could not improve on their win total, going 3-16-4, one win coming in regulation (6-4 over Montreal on March 24th), another in overtime (against Carolina to open the 2018 portion of the season), and the third in a Gimmick (that one on Opening Night against Ottawa).  This has some potentially ominous implications for the Caps, because Columbus leads the entire NHL in goals scored since March 1st (74 in 19 games/3.89 per game).

The same pattern appears in the special teams.  The 2017-2018 power play (22.5 percent) was not far off the 2016-2017 edition (23.1 percent), and the opportunities were almost identical to a scary degree – 131 home power play chances in each year and 113 chances on the road this season compared to 116 last year.  This year’s home power play was much more efficient (25.2 percent compared to 21.4 percent last season), while last year’s road power play was substantially better (25.0 percent to 19.5 percent this season).

What sticks out are the shot attempt numbers, and this year’s club does not compare favorably to last year’s.  The 5-on-5 shots attempts-for percentages in every situation posted among the NHL statistics were worse this year than last.  Overall (47.98 to 51.81), ahead (45.17 to 48.87), behind (53.35 to 54.96), and in close situations (46.59 to 53.85).

Then and Now II

These teams know one another.  Since Columbus joined the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division in the 2013-2014 season, the teams have faced off 22 times as division rivals, the Caps holding a 14-5-3 edge.  The 2017-2018 series reflected a similar dominance by the Caps in terms of wins and losses, Washington winning the first three games of the series before dropping the season series finale in Columbus in late February.

How Caps of you to notice…

Since the 2008 playoffs, when the Caps returned to the postseason for the first time since 2003, only six teams in the league have won more postseason games than the Caps (47).  All six of those teams have been to at least one Stanley Cup final – Pittsburgh (90), Chicago (76), Boston (59), Detroit (56), the New York Rangers (55), and San Jose (52).  Alas, the Caps have not.

How Caps of you to notice II…

Since the Caps first reached the postseason in 1983, no team in the NHL has more losses on home ice, although they are in decent company. Their 66 losses over that span are tied with the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens.  The difference is that Detroit has 108 home wins in that span, and Montreal has 82.  The Caps’ 64-66 all-time record on home ice in the playoffs is one of seven teams with a sub-.500 record on home ice in the postseason since 1983 (.492), and none of those seven teams have played more games on home ice in that period than the Caps.

Never, until now…

The Columbus Blue Jackets will be the 13th team that the Caps have faced in the postseason.  The Caps do not have an enviable record when facing a team for the first time in the playoffs.  Starting with their first appearance against the New York Islanders, in the best-of-five Patrick Division Semifinals in 1983 and most recently in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017, the Caps have a 4-8 series record against teams they met for the first time.

It might not be as bad as all that, though.  Those early playoff years were rough.  From 1983 through 1991 the Caps faced a team for the first time in the postseason six times and lost five of those series.  Only in the best-of-five Patrick Division semis in 1984 did the Caps come out on top of a team they were facing for the first time, sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers, a series memorable for current Caps TV analyst Craig Laughlin scoring the game-winning goal in the second and third wins of that three-game sweep.

The last first-timer series in that early period was a five-game loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1991 Patrick Division Finals.  The Pens went on to win their first Stanley Cup and have rained grief and disappointment on the Caps in the decades since.

After that loss to the Pens in 1991, the Caps did not face a team they had not already faced in the playoffs until 1998.  After dispatching the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals (the Caps were swept by the Bruins in the 1990 Wales Conference Finals), the Caps faced in the next three rounds teams they had not yet faced in the post season.  They defeated the Ottawa Senators in five games to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they beat the Buffalo Sabres in six games to advance to what was, and remains the only Stanley Cup Final in which the Caps have participated.  There, they fell to the Detroit Red Wings in a four-game sweep, ending their modest two-series winning streak against teams the faced for the first time.  Detroit was the third, and to date last team to beat the Caps in their first postseason meeting and go on to win the Stanley Cup.  The Islanders did it in 1983, and the Penguins did it in 1991.

That loss to the Red Wings set off a three-series losing streak against first-time opponents, the Caps dropping a six-game series to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2003 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals and a seven-game loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 Eastern Conference quarters that stands as perhaps the most stunning postseason loss in team history.  

Series involving teams the Caps play for the first time tend not to be dull affairs lacking drama.

Never Ever

The Caps have never…ever swept a best-of-seven series.  Only three times have they won a series in five games (1990 against the New York Rangers, 1998 against the Ottawa Senators, and 2011 against the Rangers).

Odd Capitals First Round Fact

Over the last three seasons, no team in the NHL has played more first round playoff games than the Caps (19).  No team has more wins, either (12), the product of being the only team in the last three years to have three first round series wins.  Turns out it’s not “one and done,” but “one is fun!”

Singing for the Unsung

Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Philden Holtbauer or Bralipp Grultby.  Caps fans will expect these players to make significant contributions in the postseason.  But star-power, while necessary, is insufficient for winning a postseason series.  Look back to last year.  The top of the scoring list was populated by the expected suspects: Nicklas Backstrom (6-7-13), T.J. Oshie (4-8-12), Evgeny Kuznetsov (5-5-10), Alex Ovechkin (five goals).  The Caps did not get that “surprise,” that player who breaks through unexpectedly to make critical contributions.  Andre Burakovsky had six points in 13 games, and it says something that the Caps were 3-1 in the games in which he recorded at least one point.  He just didn’t do it often enough.  Lars Eller did not record a goal.  He was one of three forwards who appeared in all 13 games only to be shutout in goals scored (Daniel Winnik and Jay Beagle were the others.

And that raises the question, who among the Capitals who are not stars might be the hero of a series or a deep run?  Put us down for “Tom Wilson.”  He was not an especially big contributor last spring, recording three points, all goals, in 13 games, one of them an overtime game-winning goal against Toronto in the first round.  But this season he showed a much deeper all-around game than merely the “bruiser” role he played over much of his first four seasons.  He set a career record for goals (14), matching his combined total over the previous two seasons.  He also had career highs in assists (21) and points (35).  His plus-10 was a career best, as were his 123 shots on goal and his 11.4 shooting percentage. 

It was more an expansion of his game than a replacement.  His physical edge was still quite evident, Wilson finishing the season with 250 hits (second highest of his career) and a career high 187 penalty minutes.  But it is that expansion in his game, presenting more of an offensive threat that puts Wilson at the top of the list in terms of possible dark horse heroes.  The Caps were 9-1-0 in games in which Wilson recorded a goal this season.  It is his combination of grit and new-found offensive production that can be especially important against a team of lunch pail guys like the Blue Jackets and a coach in John Tortorella who preaches that ethic.

And who might that be for Columbus?

Yeah, Artemi Panarin is the go-to goal getter; he had three of the team’s 12 goals against the Caps this season to lead the team.  Seth Jones is developing into a monster on the blue line.  Nick Foligno has been hurt, but he’s gritty and is the beating heart of this team.  Sergei Bobrovsky has a Vezina Trophy on his resume (two actually).  Those are the guys who are going to have to show up in the postseason for the Blue Jackets to move past the Caps.  Who might be that under the radar guy who could end up being and unsung hero of whom songs are sung in a couple of weeks? 

Here is where we go out on a limb and pick Sonny Milano.  For those of you who have not been paying attention to young Mr. Milano, and chances are you haven’t, he finished the season with 14 goals, good for 16th among rookies this season.  Not impressed?  He did it playing in only 55 games; 42 rookies appeared in more contests.  Still not impressed?  Starting with scoring the game-winning goal against Washington in Columbus’ 5-1 win on February 26th, Milano went 6-3-9 over his last 20 games (the six goals on just 33 shots, 18.2 percent) while averaging just 13 minutes of ice time a night.  Still not impressed?  That run, modest as it might look, roughly corresponded with Columbus’ run since March 1st as the top scoring offense in the league.  And, the Blue Jackets are 13-4-3 in the 20 games in which he recorded at least one point this season.

Specialty of the House

Special teams are always a fertile area for consideration as a deciding factor in a series.  And power plays have been powerful for each of these teams down the stretch.  Since March 1st, Washington was sixth in power play efficiency (25.4 percent), while the Blue Jackets were ninth (23.1 percent).  It might have been even better for each team had they enjoyed more opportunities.  The Caps were tied for ninth in power play chances since March 1st (55), while Columbus was tied for 17th (52).

The top unit for the Caps was effective down the stretch and surprisingly balanced in terms of goal scoring.  No surprise that Alex Ovechkin led the Caps in power play goals since March 1st (5), but Evgeny Kuznetsov had four power play goals of his own, while Nicklas Backstrom added three more.  Meanwhile, John Carlson led the Caps in power play assists in that span with nine, while Backstrom added seven.  The Caps scored power play goals in nine of the 18 games since March 1st and won eight of them.  Avoiding the Caps’ power play will be high on the to-do list for the Blue Jackets.

Columbus did not have the high end total among their power play goal scorers of an Alex Ovechkin, but their power play scoring was more balanced since March 1st.  Seth Jones led the club in power play goals with three in just 15 games played of the 19 on the Columbus schedule.  Pierre-Luc Dubois was the other Blue Jacket with multiple power play goals (2).  Five other players scored one apiece.  Jones also led the club in power play assists over that span with six, followed by Artemi Panarin (five).  The Caps might want to avoid the Blue Jacket power play, knowing that Columbus was 6-0-2 in the eight games in which they scored power plays from March 1st forward.  They also finished with a flair, going 7-for-15 in their last five games (46.7 percent).

While the power plays have been similar in overall effectiveness down the stretch, the penalty killing shows differences between the teams.  Since March 1st, the Caps were 11th in penalty killing (83.0 percent), while Columbus was just 75.0 percent (tied for 21st with the Dallas Stars).  It was in the total shorthanded situations faced that the teams were almost equal, the Caps going shorthanded 53 times in 18 games since March 1st, the Blue Jackets facing 52 shorthanded situations in 19 games.  If the Caps can get the Blue Jackets on the short side of the manpower situation, that might be an advantage for the Caps more than it would be for the Blue Jackets if the situations were reversed.

You have to be this tall to ride this ride

Rookies can make a mark in the post season, but it would not be the way to bet.  Since the dark 2004-2005 season, only two rookies finished a Stanley Cup tournament with more than 20 points – Ville Leino was 7-14-21 for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, and Jake Guentzel was 13-8-21 for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.  Guentzel and Brad Marchand (11 goals in 2011) are the only rookies in that span to finish with ten or more goals as a rookie in the postseason.

That said, do either the Caps or the Blue Jackets have rookies to keep an eye on as pivotal players in this series?  Washington had four rookies appear in more than 50 games this season, two forwards (Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana) and two defensemen (Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey).  If there are contributions to be made from this cohort, it would seem to be more likely from the forwards than the defensemen, neither of whom are certain to get a regular spot in the lineup in this series.  Stephenson and Vrana have entirely different profiles, the former being more of a checking, bottom-six contributor, while Vrana is a skill player who needs to be productive on offense to maximize his contributions.  Vrana did finish tied for 17th in this rookie class in goal scoring (13). However, after scoring ten goals in his first 32 games this season, his production dried up with just three goals in his last 41 games, and his appearances in the lineup became more infrequent.

Columbus dressed five rookies for ten or more games, but only Pierre-Luc Dubois and Sonny Milano dressed for more than 50.  Their contributions had bigger footprints than any Capitals rookie.  Dubois, the third-overall pick in the 2016 entry draft, would appear to bear watching.  He finished with 20 goals (tied for seventh in this year’s rookie class with New Jersey’s Nico Hischier) and 48 points (eighth). 

The Tender Mercies of ‘Tender Tendencies

This might be the most intriguing series in the first round if you like goaltending drama.  Three of the last five Vezina Trophies are represented in this series, Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky with two and Washington’s Braden Holtby with one.  Both have been among the finalists twice over the last five seasons.  And yet, there is Holtby around whom uncertainty swirls at the moment.   After winning both ends of a home-and-home against Columbus in early February, Holtby finished the season going 6-6-2, 3.79, .880 in 14 appearances and was pulled early from games three times.  His only win in six road appearances in that sequence was in his last road game, a 34-save effort in a 4-2 win in St. Louis against the Blues on April 2nd.  On the good side, he is 5-1-0, 2.68, .911 over his last six appearances.

Holtby’s performance opened up a lane of opportunity for Philipp Grubauer, and he drove through it.  Of 39 goalies in the league to log at least 1,000 minutes since January 1st, Grubauer is second in the league in goals against average (2.14) and save percentage (.931), both to Arizona’s Antti Raanta (1.84/.942).  And here is your interesting Grubauer fact.  Since he came into the league in the 2012-2013 season, none of the 61 goalies logging at least 5,000 minutes has a better save percentage than Grubauer (.923), and he is in a virtual tie with Raanta and Anaheim’s John Gibson for the third best goals against average (all three at 2.29).  It has made for an unexpected – and as of Monday morning unresolved – goaltending controversy.

There is no similar controversy in Columbus, where it is a betting lock that the Blue Jackets will live or die with Bobrovsky between the pipes.  This will not be a Vezina Trophy season for the netminder, now in his eighth NHL season and sixth in Columbus, but replicating last season’s Vezina Trophy and third-place finish in the Hart Trophy voting for league most valuable player would have been a heavy lift.  As it is, his 2017-2018 season is quite respectable.  Among 45 goalies logging at least 1,500 minutes, Bobrovsky finished 10th in goals against average (2.42), 11th in save percentage (.921), and tied for fourth in shutouts (5).  He ramped up his performance down the stretch, going 12-2-1, 2.33, .926, with one shutout. 

But then again, there is his playoff record.  In four trips to the postseason, Bobrovsky is 3-10, 3.63, .887 in 18 appearances, 14 of them starts.  And it is not as if he has improved with time.  Last season he allowed 20 goals on 170 shots (.882 save percentage) in a five-game loss to Pittsburgh.  More strange, perhaps, is that the Penguins were his opponent in each of his last three trips to the postseason.  Much might be made of his 3-8, 3.73, .889 record in 12 games against Pittsburgh, but it is not as if he had more success against the other two teams he has faced in the playoffs – Boston and Buffalo (0-2-0, 3.23, .877 in six appearances).  He has his own spring demons to exorcise.

Management Matters

This series brings together two of the most experienced head coaches in league history.  Barry Trotz has 762 career regular season wins (fifth all-time) in 1,524 games coached (also fifth all-time).  John Tortorella has 575 wins (19th all-time) in 1,175 games coached (18th all-time).

That is where the similarities end, though.  Where Trotz is, by outward appearances, an even-keeled sort who might fairly be characterized as a “players’ coach,” Tortorella is more mercurial in personality, bordering on the volcanic.  Post-game media press conferences can be must-see TV to see how he might respond to a question he deems insufficiently appropriate.  But more important are the performance differences in the post season.  Trotz has made ten playoff appearances as a head coach with Nashville and Washington, posting a record of 39-50 in 89 games.  In each of his last five appearances in the postseason – two with the Predators and three with the Caps – he led his teams to the second round.  None would go further.

Tortorella has had more post season success, but that does come with a caveat.  Nine times he coached teams in the postseason – four with the Tampa Bay Lightning, four with the New York Rangers, and once with Columbus.  He won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004 and went to a Stanley Cup final with the Rangers in 2012.  However, he failed to reach the postseason in his only season with Vancouver, and he is 0-for-1 in series behind the Columbus bench.  His overall record of 44-50 in 94 games is not that impressive as a total body of work, and he has been “one-and-done” in five of his last seven trips to the postseason.  One wonders if perhaps his most successful days in the postseason are in the rear view mirror. 

The Caps will win if…

One of their goaltenders is the real deal.  Is Philipp Grubauer the “real deal” version of what he was in the 2018 portion of the season?  Or, is Braden Holtby the “real deal” of the postseason netminder he has been over most of his career (last year being a noteworthy exception)?  If not, the Caps have to hope that all of their stars shine on offense and get some second and third tier support.

The Blue Jackets will win if…

Their run since March 1st has not been a mirage.  That league leading scoring offense was the product of a league leading 12.4 percent shooting percentage, more than full point better than the next best team, who happened to be the Caps (11.2, second in the league).  The difference is, that 11.2 percent for the Caps is a lot closer to their season norm (10.8 percent overall) than Columbus’ 12.4 percent was to theirs (8.5 percent overall, 23rd in the league).

In the end…

These are two teams that are coming in hot into the postseason.  Since March 1st, Washington is 13-5-0 in 18 games, while Columbus is 13-4-2 in 19 games.  Both teams have formidable power plays over that span – The Capitals are 25.4 percent, the Blue Jackets at 23.1 percent.  But one cannot help but wonder if the Blue Jackets aren’t sitting atop a bubble about to burst.  Since March 1st, Columbus has seven skaters who appeared in ten or more games with shooting percentages over 16.0 percent.  That is more than eight percent of the league total over that period.  If Columbus’ shooting bubble bursts, the pressure shifts to a goaltender yet to realize any success in the postseason.  There is also the matter of the Blue Jackets and their own history of playoff disappointment.  It is not nearly as long or storied as the Caps, but they are 0-for-3 in postseason series in franchise history.

For the Caps, the problems are the usual.  Saying the past doesn’t matter long ago sounded like whistling past the graveyard.  Now, it’s a whole brass band.  And until the Caps win something beyond the second round, the same demons will keep rising up every spring.  But they cannot get there until they win one.  And this team is one that a lot of folks in the world of hockey don’t put a lot of faith in to win one, at least not so much as teams of the past couple of years.  Perhaps that will release the valve behind which so much pressure has built over the years.  It just seems as though the Caps’ foundation coming into this series is of sturdier stuff than Columbus’.  It won’t be easy – for the Caps it never is – but they will advance.

Capitals in six

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 27

The 2017-2018 regular season came to an end for the Washington Capitals in Week 27.  The last week was, like the first week, a winning one.  For what should have been a meaningless week, the Caps having already clinched the Metropolitan Division title and a first round home-ice advantage, it was a week chock full of developments, almosts, and, as it turns out, unsettled issues.

Record: 3-1-0

Week 27 was the ninth four-game week of the season, and with a 3-1-0 record, Washington posted their fifth winning week with the heavy schedule.  In fact, the week was the eighth straight four-game week in which they split or won a majority of the available standings points since they went 1-2-1 in four games of Week 2.  The week was also the fourth straight winning week overall for the Caps, over which they went 11-3-0 to finish with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Tampa Bay and Boston.  The Caps tied in standings points with the Toronto Maple Leafs but won the tie-breaker (regulation/overtime wins).

The schedule of opponents provided an interesting contrast.  Washington wrapped a pair of Metropolitan Division rivals around two Central Division opponents – Pittsburgh and New Jersey to start and end the week, respectively, and St. Louis and Nashville in the week’s middle games.  The 3-1 win over the Penguins to start the week earned the Caps a split of the four games against Pittsburgh this season, each team splitting both the home and road pairs of games.  The 4-2 win over St. Louis on Monday gave the Caps a sweep of their two games against the Blues, while the 4-3 loss to Nashville gave the Predators a sweep of the Caps in their pair of games on the schedule.  The Caps' win over New Jersey to end the week gave Washington points in all four games and a 3-0-1 record against the Devils.

The back-to-back set of games against Pittsburgh and St. Louis to open the week was the 14th set of back-to-backs this season.  It was the Caps’ third sweep of back-to-back games and their second sweep in a row of such games (they swept the New York Islanders in a home-and-home back-to-back on March 15th and 16th).  Their other sweep came back in November against Tampa Bay and at Toronto.

The 4-3 loss to Nashville on Thursday ended the Caps’ chance for a third-straight 50-win season, but the 49 wins with which they finished was the sixth highest win total in franchise history.  Of those six seasons, Barry Trotz was head coach for three of them (56 and 55 wins in the two seasons preceding this one).  The others on that list are Bruce Boudreau (54 wins in 2009-2010 and 50 wins in 2008-2009) and Brian Murray (50 wins in 1985-1986).

Offense: 3.75 /game (season: 3.12 /game, rank: 9th)

The Caps scored three of more goals in all four games of the week, making it 12 out of their last 14 games with three or more, averaging 3.79 goals per game in that span.  They spread things around fairly well with nine different skaters recording at least one goal.  Perhaps as important, the Caps got the lion’s share of contributions from players who are expected to, and in fact will have to show up in the postseason.  Alex Ovechkin, Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom were the skaters who finished the week with two or more goals.

The Caps had 16 skaters recording points in Week 27, one of those points posted by Shane Gersich – an assist on a Michal Kempny goal in the Caps’ 5-2 win over New Jersey to end the week.  The primary assist was Gersich’s first NHL point.  As for the top of the points list, Kuznetsov and Backstrom led the team with six apiece, both players recording two goals and four assists.  Backstrom was the only skater to record more than one multi-point game, going 1-2-3 against St. Louis and then 1-1-2 against the Devils.  Kuznetsov was the only player to record a point in each of the four games of the week. He finished the regular season with a rush, going 7-12-19 in his last 11 games and 11-17-28 in his last 19 contests, recording 10 multi-point games.

Another good sign was the Caps getting points from six of the seven defensemen to dress during the week.  John Carlson led that group with three points (all assists).  Only Christian Djoos, who appeared only in the 4-3 loss to Nashville, did not record a point among the blueliners.  Dmitry Orlov got one of the two goals from the defense, becoming the 11th skater this season to record 10 or more goals.  Michal Kempny was the other defenseman to score a goal in Week 27.

Defense: 2.50 / game (season: 2.90 /game, rank: 16th)

The strange number for the Caps on defense in Week 27 is “72.”  That is the number of blocked shots they recorded for the week, tied with the San Jose Sharks for second-most in the league (the Colorado Avalanche had 74).  San Jose’s number is a bit stranger in that their 72 blocked shots came in only three games.  There were 19 different skaters who had at least one blocked shot, John Carlson (14) and Brooks Orpik (10) the pair reaching double digits.  Carlson’s total tied for the league lead for the week (Chicago’s Brent Seabrook being the other).

Another number of note was “36.”  This was the number of credited takeaways the Caps had for the week, third-highest in the league (Florida had 47, Winnipeg had 37).  John Carlson had six of them to lead the club, tied for the third-highest individual total for the week (Aleksander Barkov had eight for Florida, Boston’s Torey Krug had seven).

The Caps also ranked high on the hits list, finishing with the sixth-highest total for the week (85).  And that brings us to Tom Wilson, who had a unique week.  Wilson had 15 hits to lead the team.  With his five takeaways, he was the only player in the league to finish the week with at least ten hits and at least five takeaways.

Put it together, and it is not surprising that the Caps were below 50 percent in shot attempts-for at 5-on-5.  However, they did not play to their season rankings in that area, finishing the week at 49.87 percent for the four games, considerably better than the 47.98 percent with which they finished the season (24th).  However, the shot-attempts against part of that equation did not paint quite as good a picture.  The 190 shot attempts against at fives was the sixth-highest in the league and in the upper half of the 15 teams that played four games.

Overall, the Caps did finish the week with consecutive games holding opponents to fewer than 30 shots, the first time they did that since a five-game streak in Game 65-69 in early March.

Goaltending: 2.54 / .922 (season: 2.75 / .913 / 3 shutouts)

Are the Capitals entering the postseason with a goaltending controversy?  If they came into the week with one, the matter was not settled in Week 27.  The overall numbers for the week were good, and there was little difference between the pair of Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer.  Holtby finished the week with two wins, a goals against average of 2.52, and a save percentage of .919.  Grubauer split his two decisions, had a goals against average of 2.56, and a save percentage of .924.  If you are looking for daylight between the goalies and their respective performances, it is in the opponents each netminder faced.  Grubauer beat Pittsburgh and lost to Nashville, teams that in the minds of some will meet in the Stanley Cup final for a second straight year.  On the other hand, Holtby won his two decisions against St. Louis and New Jersey, teams that were fighting to clinch a postseason ticket (the Devils are in, the Blues are out), neither of them thought of as being among the elite teams in the league.  You could argue that Grubauer was facing better “on-paper” teams with little, if anything to play for except seeding, both teams having already clinched playoff spots.  You could also argue that Holtby allowed five goals to two unimpressive offenses in the league (New Jersey finished the week 15th in scoring offense, St. Louis finished 24th).

With so few games in the population, period-by-period results do not reveal a lot, but the two goalies did seem to go in opposite directions.  Grubauer’s weak period was in the third in which he allowed three goals on 25 shots over two games (.880 save percentage).  Holtby’s was the first periods of the two games, over which he allowed two goals on 16 shots (.875).

It was not a defining week in terms of settling on a goalie to enter the postseason.  If one has to look further back, to the season series with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Caps’ first round opponent, Holtby was 3-1-0, 3.32, .913 in four appearances, but four of the 11 goals he allowed came in the first period of a 5-1 loss to Columbus in the last game of the season series, the only one of the four that the Caps lost.  Grubauer stopped all 18 shots he saw in a shade under 39 minutes in relief in that last game of the series.

Power Play: 3-for-14 / 21.4 percent (season: 22.5 percent, rank: 7th)

The Caps finished Week 27 with their 15th week with a power play over 20 percent.  The week on the power play capped a 2018 portion of the season in which the Caps had the fourth best power play (25.6 percent; if Boston has a power play and fails to convert in their season finale against Florida on Sunday, the Caps would jump to third).

Alex Ovechkin had two of the three power play goals for the week, bringing his season total to 17, second in the league to Patrik Laine’s 20 for the Winnipeg Jets.  Small wonder he led the team in goals for the week; Ovechkin had nine power play shots on goal, more than the combined total of the other five players recording at least one (seven). 

Evgeny Kuznetsov added the other man advantage goal for the week.  In retrospect, his might have been the goal that kept Ovechkin from finishing with 50 goals for the season.  In the seventh minute of the second period of the Caps’ game against Nashville, after Ovechkin had already scored a goal (his 47th), the Caps had a power play.  From the goal line extended to the left of goalie Juuse Saros, Kuznetsov tried to snap a pass across the top of the crease to Ovechkin, ready and waiting to unleash a one-timer from low in the left wing circle.  Defenseman Ryan Ellis, trying to block the pass across, slid feet-first on his stomach and had his skate redirect the pass through Saros’ pads, Kuznetsov credited with the goal.  Ovechkin finished that game without another goal and then had two against New Jersey to finish with 49.

As a team, the Caps were not especially efficient.  They scored their three goals on 16 shots in 20:00 of power play time.  What was noteworthy about that was the lack of anything out of the middle of the power play.  T.J. Oshie skated 9:45 on the power play, and Brett Connolly added 8:31, both skating in the middle of the 1-3-1 power play.  Neither recorded a power play shot on goal.

Penalty Killing: 10-for-12 / 83.3 percent (season: 80.3 percent, rank: 16th)

If you wanted to describe the Caps’ penalty kill over the second half of the season, the word you might use would be “consistent.”  Not great, not awful, just “consistent.”  The 10-for-12 week had two things going for it.  The first, in keeping with the “consistent” theme, meant that the Caps spent the last 15 weeks of the season oscillating between a season penalty kill rate of 79 and 81 percent.  Never higher, never lower.  The other thing to keep in mind is that their 80.2 percent kill rate over those 15 weeks, while a shade lower than their overall season rate of 80.3 percent, was nevertheless the 11th best in the league, better than the 16th-ranked penalty kill with which they finished the season.  The week would have been a lot better, though, without allowing Nashville power play goals on both of their opportunities, one of which tied the game in the third period before the Predators went on to win.

The Caps were lit up for 12 shots in 8:40 of shorthanded ice time against Pittsburgh to open the week, but the Penguins could not solve Philipp Grubauer.  Over the rest of the week, the Caps allowed just 11 shots in 12:20 to finish allowing 23 shots in 21 minutes of shorthanded ice time, marred only by the two power play goals Nashville scored three shots in 2:23 of power play ice time.

Faceoffs: 124-for-254 / 48.8 percent (season: 50.4 percent, rank: 13th)

In an odd coincidence, the Caps had a second consecutive “48.8” week, their faceoff winning percentages last week and this.  Going underneath the top-end numbers revealed an odd sort of week.  The first thing to notice was the nature of performance by zone.  Washington won 54 of 86 offensive zone draws (62.8 percent) but managed only 34 wins in 91 defensive zone faceoffs (37.4 percent).

The next thing to notice was that the Caps were under 50 percent in the first three games of the week, under 45 percent in the games against St. Louis and Nashville, perhaps not that much of a surprise since Nashville finished the week third in the league in faceoff winning percentage and St. Louis finishing 11th.  The Caps dominated the Devils in the last game of the week (32-for-54/59.3 percent), which might not have been surprising, either, the Devils ranking 30th in the league at week’s end.

Individually, four of the five Caps to take at least ten draws finished at 50 percent or better.  Only Evgeny Kuznetsov, who took the most draws for the week, finished under 50 percent among that group.  Missing from the 10-and-over group was Jay Beagle, who won two of five draws in just 3:22 of ice time against the Penguins in the first game of the week before sustaining an upper-body injury that kept him out for the remainder of that game and the three contests to end the week.

Goals by Period:

It was the middle period in which the Caps did most of their offensive damage in Week 27.  They scored second period goals in each of the four games, two in the middle frame against St. Louis and Nashville.  It was the third period in which the Caps had some leakage, allowing goals in the last three games of the week (two to the Predators in that lone loss).

The Caps finished the week as a top-ten offense in first period goals scored (76/ninth) and second period goals (87/tied for tenth).  The defense finished the regular season in an odd sort of way.  The 73 second period goals allowed was tied with Vegas for sixth-fewest in the league.  But the rankings in the first and third periods went in the other direction entirely, the 70 first period goals allowed ranking 17th and the 89 third period goals allowed ranking 24th.

In the end…

Week 27 was quite a week for a season-ending week with no standings implications.  The Caps took care of business to win three of four games, they saw Nicklas Backstrom continue his torrid second-half points pace (45 points in his last 44 games), Alex Ovechkin come within a whisker – a missed shot on a breakaway in the third period against New Jersey – of finishing with his eighth 50-goal season, and John Carlson getting a point to finish the season at the top of the points rankings among defensemen, but they also failed to settle the matter of who is the clear number one goaltender heading into the postseason.

As it was, the Caps had 16 winning weeks in the 2017-2018 regular season and another seven weeks where they earned half the available standings points.  They had four losing weeks out of 27, only two of which came after Week 3.  There is a line of thinking that the Caps have over-performed their season possession numbers, that they allowed a disproportionate number of scoring chances, that their underlying numbers in general point to another disappointing early exit in the postseason.  But we do wonder about such things when we look at shot attempts.  The Caps finished the week 24th in the league in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (47.98).  One spot above them are the Arizona Coyotes (48.10).  The Coyotes won 20 fewer games than the Caps and finished 35 points behind them. 

This is not a comprehensive argument poking holes in the predictive power of shot attempts as a proxy for possession, and overall possession numbers can be subjected to finer analytical detail to reveal trends.  What it suggests is that the Caps have a skill advantage over the Coyotes (and perhaps a number of other lower-third dwellers in the shot-attempt rankings).  Over 82 games of a regular season against the population of 30 other NHL teams, the Caps would use that skills advantage to take advantage of opponents, even with unfavorable possession numbers.  In that respect, Week 27 provides a clue and a caution to what lies ahead.  The Caps were better than Pittsburgh and New Jersey in shot attempts at five on five.  Pittsburgh was coming off clinching a playoff spot and might not have been at their sharpest.  The Caps will not encounter the Pens in that situation again this season.  The Devils are not nearly as skilled as Washington, Taylor Hall’s sublime season notwithstanding.  On the other hand, the Caps lost that differential to Nashville, a more balanced and deeper team on paper, and St. Louis, a team in virtual playoff mode battling for a postseason spot.

The question as the Caps put Week 27 in the rear-view mirror and head to the postseason becomes whether their skills advantage is going to be sufficient to offset their season-long battle with their own underlying numbers against teams much closer to, if not superior to the Caps in skill.  That’s why they play the games.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Nicklas Backstrom (2-4-6, plus-5, 9 shots on goal, 14 shot attempts, 20:15 average ice time)
  • Second Star: Alex Ovechkin (4-0-4, minus-1, 2 power play goals, 1 game-winning goal, 21 shots on goal, 48 shot attempts, seventh Richard Trophy as top goal scorer)
  • Third Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (2-4-6, even, 1 power play goal, 14 shots on goal, 18 shot attempts)

Friday, April 06, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 82: Devils at Capitals, April 7th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wrap up their 43rd regular season on Saturday night when they host the New Jersey Devils at Capital One Arena.  The Caps, who saw their chance at a sixth 50-win season in franchise history go by the wayside when they lost to the Nashville Predators, 4-3, on Thursday night, can still end the regular season with the sixth highest win total in club history and sixth highest standings points percentage in the 43-year history of the franchise. 

For both the Capitals and the Devils, who they will face in Round 1 of the playoffs is still an unknown, even heading into this last game of the regular season for both clubs.  As of Friday morning, the Caps could play any of four clubs, all of them Metropolitan Division rivals: Pittsburgh, Columbus, New Jersey or Philadelphia.  The Devils could face the Caps (as of Friday morning, this would be the matchup), Tampa Bay, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or Columbus. 

For the Caps, neither a win nor a loss affects their seeding in the first round.  They get the first wild card team.  A win for the Devils in this game could propel them all the way into second place in the Metro division and a home ice advantage in the first round.  It would also cap quite a finish for the Devils, who bring a four-game winning streak into this game and points in their last eight contests (7-0-1).

The Devils’ success, both over this eight-game run and over the course of the season, starts with winger Taylor Hall.  It has been a career year for Hall, who is in his second season in New Jersey after spending his first six seasons with the Edmonton Oilers.  He has his first career 30-goal season and could, with a goal against the Caps, reach 40 goals for the first time in his career.  His 54 assists tops the 53 he had in 2013-2014 with the Oilers, and his 93 points is 13 clear of the 80 he had in Edmonton in that 2013-2014 season.  His 25 even strength goals is a career high, as are his 13 power play goals (tying the number he had with the Oilers in 2011-2012).  His 24 power play assists are more than twice as many as he had in any other season (ten in 2012-2013 and in 2013-2014).  He has been an absolutely terrifying image to opposing goaltenders over the 2018 portion of the season.  Since recording an assist in a Gimmick loss to the St. Louis Blues on January 2nd, Hall is 27-30-57, plus-17, in 40 games.  Over that span, Hall is second in the league in goals (Evgeni Malkin has 28), tied for 14th in assists, and is third in points (behind Malkin and Connor McDavid, each with 61).  His 25 power play points leads the league in 2018.  He has to be on anyone’s short list to be a Hart Trophy finalist as league most valuable player.  Hall is 3-2-5, minus-3, in 11 career games against the Capitals.

Winger Jesper Bratt poses an interesting, if not confounding contrast in his numbers.  He is fifth on the team in points this season (13-22-35), but he is also second-worst among 30 Devil skaters in plus-minus (minus-16).  What is more, he has had a problem being productive on the road lately, perhaps not altogether unsurprising given his rookie status.  Bratt has one point (a goal) over his last ten road games dating back to February 17th in Tampa.  And, as is the case for second- and third-tier scorers, it matters.  The Devils are 8-4-3 this season in road games in which Bratt recorded at least one point.  Then there is ice time.  Looking at his top eight games this season in time on ice, the Devils lost seven of them, although four of those losses came in the Gimmick (1-3-4).  In three career games against the Caps, all of them this season, he has yet to record a point and is even in plus-minus.

So, what happened to Cory Schneider in goal?  If Caps fans are scratching their heads over Braden Holtby’s troubles in the second half of the season, Devils fans are gouging their eyes out over Schneider’s difficulties.  He missed 16 games with a groin injury from January 25th to February 27th.  Since returning, though, he has only four appearances (none since March 20th, when he was pulled barely 30 minutes into a 6-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks in which he allowed four goals on 14 shots) in which he is 0-4-0, 3.82, .862.  Schneider does not have a win since December 27th against Detroit and since then is 0-9-2, 3.94, .868.  He is 3-8-2, 2.50, .912, with one shutout in 14 career appearances against the Caps.

That would seem to leave things up to Keith Kinkaid in goal, and he has been more than up to the task.  He has not lost consecutive decisions since he dropped three in a row in early February.  Since then, he is 16-3-1, 2.32, .929, with one shutout.  He has made the most of his opportunities this season, his 26 wins overall topping his combined win total over his first four seasons (23) and appearing in a career high 41 games so far.  In five career appearances against Washington, Kinkaid is 2-3-0, 3.95, .864.

1.  Five Devils account for ten Gimmick goals this season.  Four of those five players have at least one game-deciding goal.  The only one to have scored at least one goal without a game-deciding one: Taylor Hall.  Go figure.

2.  Jersey does it with balance.  They have 21 skaters with points in double digits this season.  Ten players have at least ten goals.

3.  Trailing the Devils after the second intermission is a signal to head to the parking lot.  New Jersey has the third-best winning percentage in the league when leading after 40 minutes (.941), and their 32 wins (two extra time losses) is sixth-highest in the league.  They don’t do so badly when trailing after two periods, either.  Their 8-23-2 record in those situations is the third-best winning percentage in the league (.242), the win total being tied for first with Tampa Bay.

4.  You wonder how the Devils do it late in games.  The good news is that the 67 goals allowed in the third periods of games this season is fourth-fewest in the league.  The bad is that their 68 goals scored in the last 20 minutes is tied with Arizona for fifth-fewest.

5.  Road possession numbers have been a challenge for New Jersey.  Their 46.45 percent shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 is fifth lowest in the league.

1.  If the Capitals have a lead after one period in this game, they can make a bit of history.  Since the dark 2004-2005 season, no team has twice gone an entire season without losing a game in regulation when leading after one period.  The Caps went 18-0-8 in 2015-2016 and are one of four teams to have turned the trick in that span (Vancouver could become a fifth in their last game).  If the Caps do it, they would be the first of the group to do it twice.

2.  Over that same span, this year’s Caps team is among the most porous of the teams they iced in third period goals allowed.  The 88 third period goals allowed by this club is second-most by a Caps team since 2005-2006 (93 in that first season after the lockout) and tied with the 2006-2007 club.

3.  One would not necessarily like to have it become necessary, but if New Jersey does score first, this club could become the third since the 2004-2005 lockout to record 20 or more wins when the opponent scores first.  It happened in 2015-2016 (22 wins) and in 2010-2011 (23 wins).

4.  In the “boy, have times changed” category, this team has been whistled for 331 penalties so far this season.  That is the fourth fewest since the 2004-2005 lockout and fewer than half of the infractions for which the Caps were penalized in 2005-2006 (673).

5.  In the Eastern Conference, only Toronto has more wins this season when being out-shot (29) than the Caps (28).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New Jersey: Nico Hischier

Nico Hischier was the first overall pick of the 2017 entry draft last June.  He has certainly justified that selection, at least in the early returns.  Only 11 skaters of that draft have dressed for at least one NHL game this season, and Hischier is the only one to have dressed in all of his team’s games so far.  In fact, after one considers the 72 games played by the Flyers’ Nolan Patrick (taken second overall), Hischier’s total is 20 more than the rest of the class of skaters combined (61).  He is the youngest rookie this season to have appeared in at least ten games, and despite his youth, he is tied for eighth in his rookie cohort in goals (19, with Alexander Kerfoot), fifth in assists (32), and seventh in points (51), despite being 21st in average ice time among rookies with at least ten games played (16:19).  At the moment, he is tied with Adam Henrique (2011-2012) for the fourth-highest point total by a rookie in Devils history and is tied for fourth on that list in goals (Scott Gomez in 1999-2000).  He is closing with a bit of a rush, too, going 6-4-10, plus-5, over his last 14 games going into this contest.  In three games against the Caps this season, Hischier is 0-1-1, minus-1.

Washington: The Fans

One could make an argument that over the span of 43 seasons, no NHL fan base has endured more grief and disappointment than that suffered by the fans of the Washington Capitals.  It is one thing, perhaps the biggest thing that unites fans, management, coaches, media, and players.  From an inaugural season that is, and will likely remain until the sun goes dark, the worst record over a full season in NHL history, to having their guts ripped out by the New York Islanders in the 1980’s and, more recently, by the Pittsburgh Penguins (who, history will note, have never won a Stanley Cup without first beating the Caps in a playoff series).  Not even a conference final in 1990 or a Stanley Cup final in 1998 can do much to bandage the wounds of those disappointing years.  And after the Caps squandered two Presidents Trophy-winning seasons at the hands of, of course, the Penguins, this season was thought by many to be one in which the Caps would lose free agents, take stock of what they had returning, look at some younger players, and perhaps compete for a playoff spot.  The consensus was that they would take a step (or more) back.  

That they finished (ok, will finish) the regular season with their third consecutive Metropolitan Division title has to be considered something of an over-achievement.  Of course, whatever joy one can take with that result might be diminished by what takes place in the weeks ahead, but maybe it is time to take a moment and appreciate just what fans have here.  Only five teams in the league have more wins than the Caps this season.  If offense is your thing, the Caps are still a top-ten offense (ninth in goals scored).  Fans saw a young goaltender emerge, not just as “the best backup in the league,” but to take his place, at least for this season, as one of the best of any netminders in the league in Philipp Grubauer. 

It is tempting to take for granted the accomplishments of Alex Ovechkin, since he has been part of the fabric of DC sports for more than a decade.  There is a considerable number of Caps fans who have never known a team without him on the left wing (or for one season, on the right wing).  But with every milestone he reaches or rung on the all-time leaderboard he climbs, take a moment to appreciate being witness to all of that.  The same goes for Nicklas Backstrom, who might be the best all-around player this franchise has ever known when you look at all facets of the game.  You have to watch him often and sometimes look at a play over and over before you see what he sees and wonder, “how did he do that?”  

John Carlson came of age this season, having what amounted to a dream season for a player in the salary cap era, putting himself in a position any player covets – to be able to control his own destiny from the summit of a career season.  But at the same time, he has grown into one of the cornerstones of the franchise, and many hope there are more years in Capitals red for Carlson.  

Evgeny Kuznetsov has taken his place among the most skilled and most entertaining players in the league to watch, who is now taking his place at the head of the next generation of Capitals in their pursuit of a Stanley Cup.

Braden Holtby, whose rise to the elite level of NHL goaltending was meteoric, experienced the difficulties any player who plays long enough in this league is bound to face, but he did it unflinchingly and with resolve.  There were no tantrums, no complaints, no expressions of the unfairness of it all.  He just kept working at it to find the magic he had over the past few years as a name always in the Vezina conversation.

Caps fans, take a moment, and appreciate what this team has accomplished so far and what a special experience it has been to follow them this season. 

In the end…

And now it’s time to return to the task of slaying the last demon this franchise faces, its heart-wrenching postseason history.  But before that, there is one more item of business for the Caps and for Caps fans.  In what might be "Game 0" of the first round of the postseason…

Capitals 4 – Devils 2