Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Capitals vs. Penguins: Takeaways and Throwaways from Game 3


The Washington Capitals find themselves in something of an unfamiliar place after Game 3 of their second round playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and we will get to that.  But at the moment, that place is down two games to one in their best-of-seven series.  It is the first time in this postseason that the Caps find themselves behind in games, a situation they will want to rectify on Wednesday night. But for now, we have takeaways and throwaways to discuss.

Takeaways…
  • The Caps recorded 49 shots on goal in Game 3.  And, it was not so much the “how many” as the “who.”  Alex Ovechkin had seven shots on goal.  John Carlson had eight shots.  Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson had six apiece.  These are players the Caps want getting shooting opportunities.
  • The shot attempts at 5-on-5 favored the Caps, and it was not really (or at least entirely) a score-effect phenomenon.  They out-attempted the Penguins by an 18-12 margin in the first period (12-5 in scoring chances), 19-9 in the second period (7-5 in scoring chances), and 27-10 in the third period (9-3 in scoring chances.
  • Justin Williams broke out of his doldrums in Game 3 with a goal and three shots on goal after going without a point on just three total shots on goal in Games 1 and 2.
  • John Carlson had an assist and eight shots on goal in Game 3.  He is second among defensemen in playoff scoring (nine points, second to Brent Burns’ 11), and he has a whopping 43-25 lead on Burns in shots on goal to lead the league in the postseason.
  • Matt Niskanen was credited with three more hits in Game 3.  He is one of three defensemen still playing in the postseason that is averaging more than three hits per game (3.3) and more than two blocked shots per game (2.3).  Johnny Boychuk and Roman Polak are the others.


Throwaways…
  • The 49 shots on goal for the Capitals tied for the second-highest total of shots on goal for a playoff game settled in regulation time in franchise history (April 23, 1990, a 7-1 win in Game 3 of their series with the New York Rangers).  The Caps recorded 54 shots on goal in a 4-1 Game 6 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on April 26, 2010.  Guess we’ll be hearing the choruses of “hot goalie” now.
  • As to the unfamiliar place in which the Caps find themselves, this is the seventh time in franchise history that the Caps lost Game 3 on the road after splitting their first two games at home.  They are 2-4 in their previous six series in this situation, but if there is good news, they won the last series in which they found themselves in this situation, a seven-game win over the New York Islanders last season.
  • The Caps could really use Mike Richards getting something of a scoring touch back.  Coming into this postseason he had 87 points in 124 career postseason games (26-61-87), but he is without a point in nine postseason games so far for the Caps.
  • The Caps were 67.4 percent to the good in shot attempts in Game 3.  A lot of good it has done, so far.  Washington is 2-3 in the post season when over 50 percent, 3-1 when they are under 50 percent (numbers from war-on-ice.com).
  • Caps fans will be of a mind that the hit on Marcus Johansson late in the first period by Kris Letang is the very definition of violation of Rule 48 (Illegal Check to the Head).  They will have a point (although Letang was penalized for interferennce, which happens to be the same violation for which Brooks Orpik was called for his hit on Olli Maatta that resulted in a three-game suspension).  Let’s break this down.  First, the play in question…


Now, for the rule.  Rule 48 states as follows:

Illegal Check to the Head – A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable is not permitted.
In determining whether contact with an opponent's head was avoidable, the circumstances of the hit including the following shall be considered:
 (i) Whether the player attempted to hit squarely through the opponent’s body and the head was not "picked" as a result of poor timing, poor angle of approach, or unnecessary extension of the body upward or outward.
(ii) Whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position by assuming a posture that made head contact on an otherwise full body check unavoidable.
(iii) Whether the opponent materially changed the position of his body or head immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit in a way that significantly contributed to the head contact.

Was the head the main point of contact?  It is apparently so, as it is Johansson’s head that is hit hard enough to twist it sideways…


Was the hit “avoidable” in the context of the three criteria?  First, was the player attempting to hit the opponent squarely, or did he “pick” the head exclusive of timing, angle, or unnecessary extension of the body upward or outward?...It appears that Letang left his feet to make this hit…


Did the player put himself in a vulnerable position?  There was commentary during the replay of this that Johansson had his head down.  That is not quite true.  In the full clip above, watch from the 22-second mark until Johansson is hit.  He gets his arm locked up with Evgeni Malkin and does have his head down, but he disengages and is almost upright when Letang, who left his feet, strikes him.

Did the opponent (Johansson) “materially” change his body position so as to contribute to head contact.  That “materiality” threshold is a significant one.  It is one thing for a player to turn his body to the boards just before contact, but in this case Johansson is skating what looks like a steady path.  The position of his body does not change in a “material” sense.

Then there is the lurking history here.  Letang got off without a penalty for a two-handed slash of the Rangers’ Viktor Stalberg in the first round that cost Stalberg three of his teeth.  It is not the sort of “prior bad act” that the league would formally take into consideration of fine or suspension (Letang has one suspension in his career, that in 2011 for two games), but it is there in full living color…



The league has a curious logic when it comes to things like this.  Johansson returned to the game.  That, in and of itself, suggests that Letang will avoid punishment altogether or perhaps get a nominal fine.  But if the league really is intent on getting head shots out of the game, or at least being consistent that players will be held accountable for such plays that involve head contact, Letang will be receiving notice from the Department of Player Safety that such plays are not tolerated.  We will not hold our breath.

In the end…

The Caps did everything but win Game 3, but then again, winning is the point of the exercise.  Still, they showed no quit when they fell behind, were not distracted when Marcus Johansson was smacked down by Kris Letang, did not let up until the horn went off.  But they cannot waste efforts like this, even if the Penguins were aided by a bit of luck in their scoring.  Game 4 is not a “must win” game, but going down 3-1 to the Penguins is not something Capitals Nation will want to contemplate between now and Wednesday night.  The real takeaway is that this series remains closer than two commuters on the Blue Line at evening rush hour.  It is still anyone’s series.

Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Screen Capture: NBC, Hockey Night in Canada


Washington Capitals Recap -- Capitals at Penguins, Game 3: Penguins 3 - Capitals 2

For six months we have seen ways in which the Washington Capitals differed from previous editions of the club – an ability to win one-goal games, an ability to hold a lead and come back from a deficit, a resistance to losing streaks.  Now, with the Caps falling behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, two games to one in their playoff series, after the Penguins’ 3-2 win on Monday night, Caps fans will get to see what might be the ultimate test of this team’s differences with those in the past – and ability to stare adversity in the face, in the form of trailing in a postseason series to a bitter rival, and overcoming it.

Pittsburgh put the Caps in a hole early in this game with a pair of goals 60 seconds apart in the first period.  Patric Hornqvist got the home team off and running by setting up in the high slot, in perfect position to tip a drive from Trevor Daley out of the air, the bouncing puck eluding goalie Braden Holtby at the 6:37 mark to make it 1-0.

A minute later, Tom Kuhnhackl double the Penguin lead.  It was a bit of an unfortunate bounce for the Caps, even as the Pens entered the offensive zone with speed.  Matt Cullen darted down the left side through the faceoff circle when he tried to slide the puck across to Kuhnhackl on his right.  The puck slid up the stick of Nicklas Backstrom, popped into the air, and deflected off the numbers on the back of Kuhnhackl’s jersey past Holtby to make it 2-0 7:37 into the period.

Pittsburgh went out to what looked like an insurmountable 3-0 lead late in the second period on a Carl Hagelin goal.  An attempted clear out of the defensive zone by Nate Schmidt ended up on the stick of Phil Kessel, who took advantage of the Caps flying out of the zone by sending the puck to Nick Bonino all alone in the low slot.  Boninio tried to sork the puck around Holtby’s left pad, but Holtby had that path cut off.  The puck slid out from under Holtby, and Hagelin managed to get his stick between Schmidt’s legs to poke the puck in to make it 3-0 with just under five minutes to go in the period.

Pittsburgh has not lost a game this season when leading after two period, but the Caps tested that record in the third period.  It started with Alex Ovechkin getting his first goal of the series, taking a drop pass from T.J. Oshie at the top of the left wing and rifling a shot past the left ear of goalie Matt Murray to make it a 3-1 game 8:02 into the period.

Despite withering pressure, the Caps could not solve Murray again until the last minute.  A one-timer by Alex Ovechkin hit the far post and ricocheted behind Murray to Justin Williams at the near post.  Williams had nothing but open net to shoot at, and he did not miss, getting the Caps to within 3-2 with 53.9 seconds left in regulation.

It would be as close as the Caps would get, though.  There just was not enough time for them to complete the comeback, and the Pens took their first lead in the series with the 3-2 win.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps are being bled to death by the rank-and-file for the Pens.  Nick Bonino, with an assist in this game, has figured in four of the Penguins’ eight goals (1-3-4).  Ditto for Carl Hagelin (2-2-4).

-- Meanwhile…Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky have combined for two points in this series (a goal by Burakovsky, an assist by Kuznetsov), neither of them marking the score sheet in this game.

-- Alex Ovechkin was a monster in this game.  A goal, an assist, seven shots on goal, 18 shot attempts, nine hits, a takeaway, and a blocked shot in 24 minutes.

-- Less dominant was the third line.  Mike Richards, Jason Chimera, and Burakovsky combined for six shots on goal, no points.  The fourth line was even more quiet.  Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, and Daniel Winnik combined for two shots on goal (three shot attempts, none by Winnik) and no points.

-- A sign that the end is nigh…Marcus Johansson was credited with nine, count ‘em, nine hits.  He also had six shots on goal, the most he had in a game since December 30th against Buffalo and the most he had ever had in a playoff game.

-- The power play continues its drought after the hot start in Games 1-3 against Philadelphia in the first round.  Going 0-for-4 in this game, the Caps are now 1-for-10 in the series and 1-for-20 in their last six games.

-- On the other hand, the penalty killers continued their amazing run. Killing all three Penguin power plays, the Caps are now 33-for-34 in the postseason (97.0 percent), tops in the league.

-- Every Capital except Justin Williams was credited with at least one hit.  Nine Caps had at leat three hits in piling up a 58-25 edge in that column.

-- Three goals allowed by Braden Holtby seems like an off night, but none could be considered “soft,” and two of them might have been a case of the hockey gods being kinder to the home team than the visitor.  The Kuhnhackl goal will be a snipe from the low slot in the retelling of the tale 20 years from now, but a puck hitting him in the “3” on the “34” on the back of his jersey qualifies as good fortune.  The Hagelin goal was just a matter of the puck having eyes to sneak through to his stick three feet from the goal line.

-- The Caps had a whopping 64-31 edge in shot attempts at 5-on-5, a 28-13 edge in scoring chances, and a 7-4 advantage in high-danger scoring chances.  Their plus-33 Corsi-differential at 5-on-5 was the fifth-highest for a Caps team in the postseason in the post-2004-2005 lockout era (numbers from war-on-ice.com).  Ominously, two of the games in which the Caps had a larger differential came in the 2010 postseason series against the Montreal Canadiens that the Caps lost in seven games.

In the end…

The Caps did everything right…almost.  They outshot, outhit, and outworked the Penguins almost without interruption.  They had balance of effort in terms of pressure from the scoring lines.  Even when falling behind, they stayed to the script and made life difficult for the Penguins.  But two things that crept into their play from time to time have had a bright light cast upon them – slow starts and lack of production down the roster.  It is not enough to get chances, the Caps have to finish them.  There is no trophy for “Corsi.”  As for the down-roster problem, this is the difference in the series so far.  The Penguins have had production from their “no-names.”  The Caps are still waiting.  If they wait much longer, we might be waiting until October for an end to the drought.



Sunday, May 01, 2016

Capitals vs. Penguins: Takeaways and Throwaways from Game 2


It was never going to be easy, and the Washington Capitals found that out in Game 2 of their playoff series against the Washington Capitals on Saturday night.  It was not the relatively open-offense contest of Game 1, but it was another one-goal game settled by the thinnest of margins.  The low score did not mean the game lacked for takeaways and throwaways.

Takeaways…
  • The penalty killers were superb, from the goaltender out.  The Penguins were awarded five power plays and managed nine shots in the ten minutes they skated with the man advantage.  Braden Holtby turned all of them away, making the Caps 30-for-31 on the penalty kill in the post season, best in the league (96.8 percent).
  • Matt Niskanen has been a gritty beast in the first two games.  In Game 2 he had three shots on goal, five hits, and two blocked shots, giving him four shots on goal, eight hits, and six blocked shots in the two games.
  • Nicklas Backstom was 18-for-20 in faceoffs in Game 2.  The only two draws he lost were the opening faceoff in the second period to Sidney Crosby and a defensive zone draw to Nick Bonino 12 minutes into the third period.
  • Not sure which side to put this on, but because he scored the Caps’ only goal, we’ll put it here.  Marcus Johansson gets the Whitman’s Sampler score sheet award for all the “1’s” on it – one goal, one point, minus-1, one shot on goal, one missed shot, one shot blocked, one hit, one giveaway, one takeaway.
  • Braden Holtby was outstanding once more, stopping 33 of 35 shots (75 of 80 for the series).  He leads all goalies in goals against average (1.24) and save percentage (.957) in the postseason (minimum: 200 minutes).

Throwaways…
  • The Caps split their two games on home ice.  In the post-2004-2005 lockout era, they are 1-2 in series when splitting their first two games at home, losing to Philadelphia in 2008 and to the New York Rangers in 2015, beating the New York Islanders last season.
  • Jay Beagle had an uncharacteristically tough time in the circle in Game 2, winning only six of 18 draws (only three of 12 against Crosby).
  • Five power plays allowed are too many to allow, even if you do have a Vezina-caliber goaltender backing things up.  It was the fourth time in the postseason that the Penguins had five or more power plays and the first time they failed to score at least one power play goal.  It is a proposition the Caps do not want to test frequently.
  • John Carlson had one of those “on the one hand…on the other hand” games.  He had five shots on goal, five hits, and a pair of blocked shots, but he got lost in a no-man’s land tracking Nick Bonino as the latter carried the puck along the wall behind the Caps’ net.  Carl Hagelin filled in to the space Carlson vacated and took a pass from Bonino for a point-blank shot that gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead.  Then, in the third period he was just a split second late getting in Evgeni Malkin’s face at the right wing wall, giving Malkin just enough of an opening to throw the puck in front where Eric Fehr finished the play on a redirect for the game-winning goal.
  • Andre Burakovsky might not get as little as 9:59 in ice time again in this series, but he is going to have to do better with the ice time he gets.  His score sheet was almost blank, a shot on goal and a giveaway the only marks on it.

In the end…

The curious part of the series so far is how little impact the big stars have had.  Sidney Crosby is without a point in two games and is a minus-3.  Alex Ovechkin has an assist, but he has been blanked on seven shots on goal.  It has been T.J. Oshie (a hat trick in Game 1) versus the foot soldiers for the Penguins (Fehr and Hagelin in Game 2).  Pittsburgh has been closer to imposing its will on the Caps than the Caps have on the Penguins (Pittsburgh has a Corsi-for of 54.7 percent; numbers from war-on-ice.com), and that is something the Caps are going to have to solve as the teams head to Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4.

Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Friday, April 29, 2016

Capitals vs. Penguins: Takeaways and Throwaways from Game 1


Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins is in the books.  And what a game it was.  You really don’t want to throw any of it away; you just want to watch it a few times to get some richer context and more nuances with each viewing.  But this is the space in which we do have those takeaways and throwaways, so let’s get to them.

Takeaways…

  • When the Caps scored first in this game, it was a good sign.  Recall that the Caps had the best winning percentage in the league when scoring first in games during the regular season (.895/34-2-2).  They came into Game 1 with a 3-0-0 record in playoff games this season when scoring first.  Winning their fourth such game was a healthy sign, if for no other reason that the business-like approach in the regular season has (at least for one game into the second round) carried over into the postseason.
  • Andre Burakovsky recorded his first point of this postseason, his first playoff point since recording a pair of goals in Game 4 of last season’s second round series against the New York Rangers.  Breaking the nine-game streak without a point is, Caps fans hope, a turning point.  Pittsburgh does not pose the physically punishing obstacles that Philadelphia did in Round 1, and if Burakovsky finds this pace and style more to his liking, it should give some depth to the Caps’ offense.
  • Hits are something of an arbitrary statistic.  It is defined as an instance in which a player initiates contact with an opponent so as to result in the puck carrier losing possession of the puck (it does not require a change in possession).  It sounds simple, but it’s like the strike zone in baseball.  Every umpire has a different one, and every official scorer sees “hits” with different sets of eyes.  All that nonsense aside, the 43-29 edge the Caps had in hits does reflect what appears to be part of the plan, to use their superior size to burden the Penguins physically.  Of the 18 skaters for Pittsburgh, 15 of them absorbed at least one hit (Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, and Sidney Crosby were spared).  Of the 43 hits, 21 were inflicted on defensemen, Kris Letang taking the most of that group and of the team as well (six).  This probably had little influence on the results of Game 1, but the accumulation of hits in Games 2, 3, and so on, could have an effect.
  • Jason Chimera recorded an assist, but perhaps as important, he had four shots on goal.  Remember that he failed to register a single shot on goal over the last four games of the first round series against the Flyers and had only two shots in all (both in Game 2, in which he scored his only goal of the postseason).  Getting him into the scoring mix is something that the Caps enjoyed in the regular season, and they need to see him doing the same in this round.
  • Braden Holtby has spent a lot of his postseason career tending goal in some bad luck.  Oh sure, he is now the career leader in playoff game wins for the Caps (21, passing Olaf Kolzig last night), but consider this.  Last night was the first time in 20 postseason games played at the Verizon Center in which Holtby allowed more than two goals in a game and won.  That’s right.  It was the sixth time in his postseason career in which Holtby allowed three or more goals and the first time he won.  And he did it matching the second-highest number shots he ever faced in a home playoff game (45).  Only in the triple-overtime 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 3 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semi-finals did he face more (49).

Throwaways…

  • Andre Burakovsky was moved off the second line in favor of Marcus Johansson again, but it didn’t cure whatever it is that ails that second line.  Johansson, Justin Williams, and Evgeny Kuznetsov combined for three shots on goal (all by Williams), six shot attempts (four by Williams, two by Johansson), won just five of 14 faceoffs (all of them taken by Kuznetsov), and all of them had a Corsi-differential at 5-on-5 of minus-10 or worse.
  • We like the physical edge Tom Wilson brings to the game, but he is getting right up against that edge where it can be a liability.  He did manage to pull Evgeni Malkin off the ice with him on coincidental minor penalties in the second period, which is an exchange the Caps would happily take.  But the hit on Conor Sheary was, depending on which team’s colors you wear, a hockey play gone bad (if you wear red) or dirty (if you wear black and Vegas gold).  It’s not so much the hit on Sheary, per se, as much as it is an indication that Wilson is getting outside of his game somewhat.  It is a fine line between getting under a team’s skin and just running around.  It is something he is still learning.
  • Dmitry Orlov is in a bad place right now with decision-making.  It’s got to be hard on the coaches to know what to do with him, because he is a talented young defenseman.  But his almost getting it right in defending Nick Bonino on a rush (right up until he tried to poke the puck away from Bonino, allowing the Penguin to walk around him when Orlov missed) is the sort of mistake that can be catastrophic in close or low scoring games.  That the Penguins scored on that play – neither Caps defenseman being near the scoring play because Orlov and Nate Schmidt got tangled up – might have been overshadowed by the T.J. Oshie hat trick and the win, but it cannot be ignored.
  • The 45 shots on goal recorded by Pittsburgh is the second highest number of shots on goal by the Pens against the Caps in the postseason history of this rivalry, topped only by the 65 shots on goal Pittsburgh recorded in Game 4 of their series in 1996 when the Pens won, 3-2, in the fourth overtime.  That is way too many shots allowed, even if you want to argue Braden Holtby had good looks at most of them.  It tied the highest number of shots on goal recorded by a Pens team this year, set back on December 14th…against the Caps (a 4-1 Washington win).
  • We said in the prognosto that the Caps do not want to get into a track meet with this team.  Well, they did, and it might have been lucky they were not burned in Game 1.  The Caps allowed 66 shot attempts by the Penguins at 5-on-5, the most allowed by the Caps in any game this season.  That they had 63 of their own (tied for seventh most this season) mitigates this to a point, but matching Pittsburgh attempt for attempt, especially at high volumes, might not be the way to beat this team over a seven game series.

In the end…

The only thing that matters now is winning.  Whether is it pounding the puck and winning the Corsi battle, getting a wink from the hockey gods, or sunspots, winning is the bottom line on a one line balance sheet.  And the Caps have one win.  Trouble is, winning the first one is hardly new to the Caps over the history of this postseason rivalry, and the Pens are neither very successful in Game 1’s or in playoff overtimes in their recent history.  It suggest that the Caps are going to have to find a higher level of performance to get to “four” before the Penguins in this series.  There were some good signs on that score in Game 1, but there are some serious issues (second line, third defensive pair) that need to be addressed and improved as the teams go to Game 2.

Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Washington Capitals Win in Overtime...It Sure Looked Like a Goal

How close do two teams have to play to go to overtime tied, then have the game settled on a goal on which the puck crawled (or not, depending on your point of view) over the goal line?  Looking at the NHL Situation Room video on the overtime goal scored by T.J. Oshie on goalie Matt Murray, it sure looked as if it was a good goal...


Look at where the puck is resting at what appears to be the deepest point at which it entered the goal (it is partially obscured by the shaft of Murray's stick, near the post)...


Not conclusive enough?...How about this (with the goal line enhanced)?...


It sure looks as if the entire puck has crossed the entire line.  But hey, your eyes might tell you something else.

And this was just Game 1.  Hang on tight.  It's going to be a crazy ride.

Washington Capitals Recap -- Penguins at Capitals, Game 1: Capitals 4 - Penguins 3 (OT)

If Game 1 of the playoff series between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins is an indicator of what the rest of the series will be like, it will be one for the ages. The Caps took a lead then fell behind, dominated then were dominated. But in the end, they prevailed in overtime, taking Game 1 in the first extra session, 4-3.

T.J. Oshie was the hero for the Caps, recording a hat trick, including the game-winner in overtime. It was Andre Burakovsky who got the Caps started, however. He started the play by muffling a pass from Evgeni Malkin in the Caps’ zone and starting the puck the other way. Taking a pass from Jason Chimera to start the ensuing rush, he carried the puck down the right side into the Penguins’ zone. At the top of the right wing circle he fed Chimera skating down the middle. Chimera’s shot was stopped by goalie Matt Murray, but Burakovsky followed up and batted the loose puck into the empty net past Murray at the 10:13 mark.

That goal held up until mid-way in the second period when the Pens struck twice in short order. Ben Lovejoy followed up a shot by Nick Bonino, sneaking it past the right pad of goalie Braden Holtby at the 10:40 mark to tie the game. Then, Evgeni Malkin struck just 57 seconds later on a superb backhand shot that he lifted over the right shoulder of Holtby to make it 2-1, Penguins, 11:37 into the period.

The Penguin lead lasted just 33 seconds, though. T.J. Oshie gladly accepted a giveaway by defenseman Olli Maatta just inside the Caps’ blue line and headed the other way. Skating in on Murray, Oshie snapped a shot over the goalie’s left shoulder and under the crossbar to tie the game 12:10 into the period.

Oshie gave the Caps the lead early in the third period, the product of another turnover by the Pens at the Caps’ blue line. This time it was Alex Ovechkin collecting the loose puck and racing down the left side. His shot from the left wing circle was blocked by defenseman Trevor Daley, but the puck came back to Ovechkin. He spied Oshie cutting down the middle and fed him for a backhand shot that slid under the right pad of Murray to make it 3-2, 3:23 into the third period.

Pittsburgh tied the game mid-way through the period, taking advantage of some misfortune on the Caps’ part. The Penguins moved the puck around the wall from Phil Kessel to Carl Hagelin behind the Caps’ net. Hagelin fed Nick Bonino cutting to the net. Bonino one-timed the puck, the shot ticking off the stick of defenseman Nate Schmidt and past Braden Holtby to make it 3-3 at the 8:42 mark.

That would be all the scoring in regulation. Overtime was hardly a passive affair, the teams exchanging a healthy volume of shots. It was the Caps’ eighth shot of the extra period that would decide the contest, and not without some controversy. Trevor Daley tried to backhand the puck up the wall at the players bench, but had his attempt intercepted by Oshie in the neutral zone. Oshie skated into the Penguin zone diagonally across the ice, then circled around the Pittsburgh net. His wrap-around shot appeared to beat Murray’s right pad to the post and sneak over the line, and it was signaled thus by the referee as a good goal. The play went to video review, where it was upheld, Oshie’s hat trick goal being the game-winner at the 9:33 mark, giving the Caps the 4-3 win and a 1-0 lead in the series.

Other stuff…

-- Team defense was occasionally an adventure for the Caps in this game. The goal scored by Ben Lovejoy might have been the most obvious example. With Nick Bonino entering the Caps’ zone with the puck at the start of the play, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov bumped into one another, allowing Bonino to step around them and take an unimpeded path to the net. His initial shot was stopped by Braden Holtby, but Lovejoy was there for the follow-up with neither defenseman in sight.

-- This is the eighth time in nine meetings against the Penguins in Caps franchise history that the Caps won Game 1 of the series.  They are 1-7 in their previous eight series in which they won Game 1, their only win coming in their only series win against the Pens in franchise history, beating Pittsburgh, four games to two, in 1994.

-- Jay Beagle was a force of nature in this game, in a figurative sense.  He exhibited an uncommon force of gravity with respect to sticks, getting one caught in his visor (giving him the look of a unicorn drawn by Salvador Dali) and another caught in his skate.  He still managed to record six hits, block two shots, and win 12 of 19 faceoffs.

-- Speaking of hits, Tom Wilson had six, but the long term effects of his effort might not be reflected in that column of the score sheet.  He endeared himself to Penguin fans for his on-the-edge takedown of Conor Sheary (that Pens fans, no doubt, will consider a kneeing penalty that wasn’t called) and goading Evgeni Malkin into an embellishment penalty.  Wilson took a coincidental cross-checking penalty on the play, but that is an exchange the Caps will take.

-- In the “game within a game,” strength versus strength favored the Caps in this contest.  The top line for the Caps (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie) were on-ice for three goals for, while the top line for Pittsburgh (Sheary, Sidney Crosby, and Patric Hornqvist) was on ice for the same three goals against.

-- In the “game within a game, part two,” Crosby was held without a point, had one shot on goal, but did win 19 of 28 faceoffs.  Ovechkin recorded an assist, had four shots on goals, and was credited with seven hits.

-- Every one of the 18 Pittsburgh skaters, except for Olli Maatta, recorded at least one shot on goal.

-- Braden Holtby allowed more than two goals in a game for the first time since he allowed four on 28 shots in a 4-3 Game 6 loss to the New York Rangers in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal.  In the next seven playoff games he played leading up to last night, he was 4-3, 0.98, .964, with two shutouts.  Only in that context could a .933 save percentage (42 saves on 45 shots) last night even hint at an “off” night.

-- Brooks Orpik returned to action last night and logged 25:58 in ice time.  He was one of four defensemen to get more than 25 minutes on the night.  Why?  Nate Schmidt finished with 12:13 in ice time, and Dmitry Orlov finished with a total of 5:44, getting only one shift after the second period, none in the last 27:25 of the game.

-- The Penguins edged the Caps in 5-on-5 shots attempts, 66-63 (51.2 percent Corsi-for).  They also had the edge in total scoring chances (29-24) and in high-danger scoring chances (10-9).  It was fueled largely by a dominant second period in which the Pens out-attempted the Caps at 5-on-5, 27-13.  The scoring chances were also heavily tilted to the Pens, 16-4 overall and 6-0 in high-danger scoring chances (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

In the end…

Don’t get cocky, Caps fans (as if you could, given this team’s history).  The Penguins have a bad recent history in Game 1’s and in playoff overtime.  The loss was Pittsburgh’s eighth straight loss in overtime of a playoff game.  The last time they won one, it was Brooks Orpik delivering the game-winner to eliminate the New York Islanders in 2013.  It was also the seventh straight time the Penguins lost Game 1 when playing on the road.  And we won’t linger on the matter of the Pens and Capitals and Game 1’s and their utter lack of influence on the final series results.

Still, the Caps played well.  One could argue that they could play better, two of the goals coming from breakdowns that allowed Penguins far too much open space in the middle of the ice to dart to the net.  Then again, another goal was off a Capital, but that’s hockey. 

The Caps got what they so sorely lacked in previous playoff games, especially against this opponent – someone to have a big game who is not named “Ovechkin.”  T.J. Oshie stepped up in a big way in this game, scoring in a variety of styles – off the rush, in close, using speed around the net.  It is that next dimension of skill that makes this Caps team as formidable as it is.   But that is hardly a collection of slugs and shrinking violets they are facing, too.  Game 1 is done.  Put it away, and get ready for Game 2.  Count on the Pens being ready.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: Eastern Conference Semifinal, Capitals vs. Penguins


The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

With the Philadelphia Flyers now in the rear-view mirror, the Washington Capitals will focus their attention on a familiar menace in the Eastern Conference semifinals – the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Both the Caps and Penguins dispatched fellow Metropolitan Division foes in Round 1, the Penguins sending the New York Rangers into the off-season in five games.  It is a series that has familiar history about it, just not recent history.  It should make for an interesting prognosto…

Washington Capitals (56-18-8) 
vs. 
Pittsburgh Penguins (48-26-8)

If you looked at the high-end optics of their respective series, you might conclude that the Pittsburgh Penguins had a much easier time of it defeating the New York Rangers in Round 1 than the Washington Capitals had in ousting the Philadelphia Flyers.  Ah, but appearances can be deceiving.  What is not deceiving is…

History

If of the days of the week Wednesday is “hump day,” then its equivalent in the Stanley Cup playoffs is the second round.  “Hump Round,” if you will.  The first round has the novelty of a new playoff season and the attendant excitement that goes with it.  The third round has the anticipatory factor of the Stanley Cup final if you win.  And the Stanley Cup final…well, what explanation is needed?

The second round, though, is a slog.  The blush of a new playoff season is gone, and you are really too far away from the final for thinking about who your opponent might be or whether you might win.  For the Washington Capitals, “hump round” has an entirely different connotation. This is the 12th time in franchise history that the Caps reached the second round of the postseason.  In their previous 11 appearances they lost nine times.  Four of those nine series losses came in seven games, including three of the last four second round series played by the Caps.  Two of those nine losses came to the franchise they will face this time around, the Penguins.

The second round is that slog where the hopes of Capital Nation have gone to die, but…

History, Part 2

The second round is a place that the Penguins have not frequented often since their Stanley Cup win in 2009, at least not as often as a perennial pick to be on a short list of Stanley Cup contenders might like.  This is the fourth time in the past seven seasons that the Penguins advanced to the second round.  Only once did they pass this point, beating the Ottawa Senators in five games in the 2013 conference semis.  But the mutual frustration of the second round does not end here.  There is also the matter of…

History, Part 3

Coaching.  This is Barry Trotz’ 17 season behind an NHL bench as head coach, his ninth trip to the postseason.  Three times in his previous eight appearances his teams reached the second round of the playoffs, the last three times his teams reached the postseason, in fact (two with the Nashville Predators, one with the Caps).  He has never taken a team past this point.  But hey, this was the first season a Trotz-led team won a divisional title, so there is that, if you are hanging your hat on a new historical narrative.

As for the other side, this is Mike Sullivan’s second trip to the postseason in his head coaching career.  His 2004 Boston Bruins were eliminated in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens in seven games after taking a 3-1 lead in games.  The oddity is that this is the first time Sullivan has reached the second round as either a coach or a player (six times as a player his teams were eliminated in the first round, once as a Boston Bruins in the 1998 playoffs to the Caps in Washington’s march to their only Stanley Cup final).

The coaches are not what give this series its historical flavor, though.  It is…

History, Part 4

The rivalry.  “Rivalry,” if you consider it being one being dominated by the other.  Until the teams met for the first time in the postseason in 1991, the Caps had already been tormented in the playoffs by the New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and Philadelphia Flyers, all of whom beat the Caps in one or more series as a lower seed.  But nothing prepared Capitals Nation for what would unfold starting in 1991.  In eight postseason series since then, ending in 2009, the Penguins faced the Caps eight times, winning seven of those series, four times after falling behind by two games, three times in seven games, each of them after falling behind by two games, twice after falling behind three games to one.   When facing elimination, the Penguins have an all-time record of 8-1 against Washington.

But that was then, and this is now, and that brings us to…

History, Part V

The teams played five times this past regular season.  Pittsburgh won three times, the Caps won twice.  Here is the tale of the tape:


You can pretty much throw this out, there being a fair number of “on the one hand…on the other” examples here…
  • On the one hand, the Pens won the season series, if you look at it from their perspective (wins and losses).  On the other, the Caps split the season series if you look at it from theirs (a standings point perspective).
  • On the one hand, the Pens won the season series, but the Caps won the series counting only those games for which Mike Sullivan was behind the Penguin bench (2-1-1).  And on another hand (three hands?)…the Pens split with the Caps with Sullivan behind their bench (2-2 on a win/loss basis).
  • On the one hand, the Caps won two games in which their Corsi-for at 5-on-5 was under 50 percent.  On the other hand, they lost two games when they were over 50 percent.
  • On the one hand, the Caps have held the Penguins’ power play in check.  On the other hand, their own power play has been similarly ineffective.

We think you get the point.  But let’s get to the here and now, and that means…

Know Your Enemy by Knowing His Enemy

The Caps played the Flyers in Round 1, while the Penguins played the Rangers.  The Caps took six games to subdue the Flyers, while the Pens finished off the Rangers in five.  The Rangers finished ahead of the Flyers, but were eliminated sooner.  Ergo, the Penguins are better…right?  Well, not so fast.

The Rangers finished only three points behind Pittsburgh in the final regular season standings, but their last 25 games tell a less flattering story.  The Rangers finished with a respectable 14-8-3 record in their last 25 games (a 102-point pace, roughly that over their entire 101-point season).  However, they split 16 decisions against teams that would qualify for the playoffs (three of the eight losses coming in overtime).  Further, their goals for/goals against was a combined plus-1.

And, it gets worse.  Their special teams were uneven, the power play finishing those last 25 games with a fine 20.9 percent conversion rate, but the penalty kill just at 81.4 percent.  Possession was the killer, though, and was the biggest vulnerability the Rangers had.  Over their last 25 games the Blueshirts were out-shot, 816-658, a whopping minus-6.3 negative differential per game. 

The shot attempts were no better.  New York was out-attempted at 5-on-5 over their last 25 games by an average of 8.5 attempts a game, registering a Corsi-for of just 45.3 percent (numbers from war-on-ice.com).  To give you an idea of just how bad that is, only one team in the league finished with a worse Corsi-for than that over the entire season (Colorado: 44.2 percent).

Facing a team that built a late-season record on something of a mirage, given the record against a higher quality of competition and their abysmal possession numbers, but Penguins should have feasted.  And they did, as the five-game series win in which they outscored the Rangers, 21-10, attests.

But it was not as if Pittsburgh dominated in the underlying numbers in that series, either.  Once, in a 3-1 Game 3 win, did the Penguins muster a Corsi-for at 5-on-5 overall above 50 percent.  Three times in the series there were under 45 percent, and they finished the series with a Corsi-for overall of 45.3 percent.  Their score-adjusted value was slightly better (47.7 percent), but it is still the fifth-worst ranking of 16 teams in the first round.

Compare this to who the Caps faced in the first round.  The Flyers became the “it” team that a number of pundits picked to give the Caps a rough time, if not win the series outright.  And why not?  Philadelphia finished 16-9 in their last 25 games (three losses in extra time, two of them in a Gimmick), 9-4 against teams that would reach the postseason (one of the losses in a Gimmick).  They had a plus-12 goal differential overall in those games (not counting shootouts).  Both their power play (20.2 percent) and penalty kill (86.9 percent) were good.

Their shots and possession numbers were very good as well.  The Flyers out-shot their opponents overall over their final 25 games by an average of 32.7 to 27.7 per game.  They out-attempted opponents at 5-on-5 by a 49.2 – 44.2 margin per game, a Corsi-for overall of 52.7 percent.

So, how did that work out for the Flyers against the Caps in Round 1?  The Caps out-shot the Flyers, 31.0 – 25.8 per game.  They out-attempted them at 5-on-5 by a 46.8 to 40.5 margin per game, their 53.6 percent Corsi-for being fifth-best among the 16 teams in the first round, and if anything their score-adjusted Corsi-for was better – 54.3 percent, third-best among the 16 teams in the first round.  More important, they outscored the Flyers, 14-6, one of the Philadelphia goals being an empty netter.  The Caps actually scored a higher percentage of the total goals in their first-round series (70.0 percent) than Pittsburgh did in its (67.7 percent).

Still, history is history, and the big thing about history is…

Narrative

Sid versus Ovi.  The Kid versus the Great 8.  Crosby versus Ovechkin.  Somewhere in there, there will be 19 other players dressing on any given night for each team, but the early narrative will be centered on the two top players. 

Sidney Crosby has re-asserted himself as, if not clearly the best player on the planet, then on a very short list.  He finished the regular season tied for seventh in goals scored (36), and he has not had a season with more goals scored since his only 50-goal season (51 in 2009-2010).  And, he had 85 points, good for third in the league.  If there was an odd feature about his season, though, it is that for which he gets most of his praise – playmaking.  On a per-game basis, Crosby had the worst season of his career in assists (0.61 per game).  And, there might be a warning in that.  In that 2009-2010 season, Crosby took matters into his own hands much more often (those 51 goals were 12 more than in any other season), but his Penguins only lasted two rounds.  Sure, that might be a stretch, but this season the Penguins were 22-3-2 in the 27 games in which he scored a goal, 26-23-6 in games in which he did not.  This is a Penguin team that depends on his goal-scoring as a feature of their success.

On the other side is Alex Ovechkin.  Fifty-goal season…again.  That makes seven times in ten full seasons he reached that threshold (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season in which his 32 goals in 48 games was a 55-goal pace).  However, like that minus-35 season he had a couple of years back that made him the only player since the league began recording plus-minus as a statistic (1967-1968) to finish a season with at least 50 goals and a minus-35 or worse, Ovechkin finished this season as the only player in NHL history to record at least 50 goals and have as few as the 21 assists with which he finished the season.  He is the only player in league history to finish a full regular season with at least 50 goals and fewer than 30 assists three times.  However, the Caps are not as dependent on Ovechkin’s “other” skill (in this case, “playmaking”) as the Penguins seem to be on Crosby’s.  Sure, the Caps were 15-2-1 when Ovechkin recorded an assist this season, but they were 41-16-7 when he didn’t, too.

Ovechkin and Crosby were conventionally productive in unconventional ways, which means that others have to be heard from, starting with…

Best Supporting Actors

Nicklas Backstrom finally got some of the recognition that eluded him up to this season.  He was named to the mid-season All-Star Game, his first career appearance.  Some might say the honor was overdue, but understated production has been Backstrom’s hallmark since he came into the league.  Whether or not one subscribes to the notion that his numbers are a product of Alex Ovechkin’s ability to finish (chicken…egg…tomato…to-mah-to), he is among the finest set-up men of this era.  Since he came into the league in the 2007-2008 season, only two players have more assists than the 477 recorded by Backstrom – Henrik Sedin (518) and Joe Thornton (515).  The three are much closer on an assists-per-game basis, Backstrom with 0.73 to Thornton’s 0.74 and Sedin’s 0.76 (Crosby leads all players with 0.83 per game). 

That said, there is a blemish on Backstrom’s history – the postseason.  In his first three postseasons with the Caps, Backstrom went 12-18-30, plus-13, in 28 games.  Then, for reasons mysterious, his production dried up in the playoffs.  In four postseasons leading to this year, he was just 6-15-21, minus-3, in 43 games.  Coming into this postseason, getting a more productive Backstrom seemed to be on a short list of to-do items for the Caps to make a deep run.  He got off to a good start in that regard with two goals (including the series-clincher) and five assists in six games while going plus-2.  In that sense his performance aligned better with his career production.  His personal Corsi-for overall at 5-on-5 this postseason (52.3) is eight years and counting in which he has been over 50 percent.

On the other side is Evgeni Malkin.  He might have more attention paid him by fans and the media than Nicklas Backstrom, but not much, really.  He has won the big trophies – Calder (top rookie), Ross (top scorer), Pearson (outstanding player), and Hart (most valuable player) over the course of his career, and of course, the big prizes, the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy (postseason most valuable player).  But he is, and always will be, so long as Sidney Crosby plays in Pittsburgh, the best supporting actor in that production.

Malkin would no doubt rank higher on the performance metrics – goals, assists, points, plus minus (both in total and per game) – but for one nagging thing.  His ability to stay in the lineup has been a question mark for some seasons now.  Since appearing in all 82 games of the 2008-2009 season, Malkin has appeared in as many as 75 games just once (75 in 2011-2012) and has missed 77 of 294 games over the past four seasons.  His ability to remain healthy (he missed ten games to a lower body injury in February and another 15 to an upper body injury in late March and April) is going to be essential for the Penguins to advance.  The reason lies in his performance in the post season over the years.  He is 44-74-118, plus-6, in 105 career playoff games, and in six of his nine postseasons (including this one to date: 2-5-7 in four games) he has been a better than a point-per-game player.

But as good as the leading men and best supporting actors are, these teams also have…

Depth

If there is a similarity in these teams, it is in their next-level production among the forward lines.  For the Caps, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Marcus Johansson, and Justin Williams went a combined 102-162-264, plus-74.  On the other side, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, and Carl Hagelin went 91-118-209, plus-76.  While that difference between the groups seems large, it might be narrowed somewhat by the fact that Hagelin played in only 37 games (with 27 points) after acquired from Anaheim in trade last January.

In the playoffs so far, the Penguins’ depth has been a bit more productive, their five players going 9-6-15, plus-2; while the Caps’ quintet is 3-10-13, minus-3.  And, both teams have suffered from lack of expected production from portions of their respective groups.

For the Caps, Kuznetsov and Burakovsky were largely neutralized in the first round series against Philadelphia, combining for a single point (a goal by Kuznetsov in Game 3.  And Justin Williams was slow out of the gate, recording a pair of assists and a team-worst minus-4. 

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, did not need production from Hagelin and Kunitz, which is a good thing, because they didn’t get it.  Those two combined for a single point (a goal by Hagelin in Game 5 against the Rangers).  Kessel had something of an odd series in the opening round.  While he did finish with three goals and six points, all of his goals and two of his three assists came on power plays.

You could say that both teams’ next level forward had good seasons but somewhat uneven postseasons to date, which brings us to…

Defense

At the offensive end, it is the superb production of Kris Letang for the Penguins (16-51-67, plus-9, in 71 regular season games) versus the comparative balance of the Caps with three defensemen – John Carlson (39), Matt Niskanen (32), and Dmitry Orlov (29) – with more points than the Pens’ second-ranked defenseman (Trevor Daley with 22 points in 53 games) – and Karl Alzner right behind with 21 points. 

The postseason scoring from the blue line has followed a similar pattern for the Penguins, with Letang leading the way with five points and with the only goal from a defenseman so far (in Game 3 against the Rangers).  The Caps’ pattern among the defensemen are somewhat similar – Carlson with six point in six games and all three goals by Caps’ defensemen, two points apiece from Niskanen and Alzner. 

Each team would like to shake a defenseman loose from slow starts thus far.  For the Pens, Olli Maatta did not record a point in five games, despite getting the third-highest amount of ice time (18:27 per game).  Maatta still has not returned to the productive level of his 2013-2014 rookie season (9-20-29, plus-8, in 78 games), perhaps a product of the health and injury issues he endured in the 2014-2015 season, but he was 6-13-19, plus-27, in 67 games in the regular season. 

For Washington, getting some more offense from Dmitry Orlov would be nice, but this comes with a caveat.  So far, Orlov has one point (an assist) in six games. But he has yet to be on ice for a goal scored against the Caps this post season, the only defenseman playing three or more games so far who can say that.  That sort of trade-off is one that the Caps might cheerfully take in this series.

But as good as the defensemen will have to play – at both ends of the ice – this series might come down to…

Goaltending

Imagine a goaltender in your organization who, in his first 97 regular season and playoff games as a pro, went 61-26-5, 1.86, .935, with 19 shutouts.  And that the other goalie in the series is the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top netminder.

The former is Matt Murray, who has been something of a revelation for the Penguins in his brief tour through the organization at the AHL and NHL level.  He would not be in the position of starting this series against the Capitals absent a concussion suffered by Marc-Andre Fleury on March 31st against Nashville, his second of the season (he suffered on against Los Angeles on December 11th).  leury is still experiencing intermittent symptoms, and his return to the ice remains uncertain.

That will leave the netminding duties to Murray for the foreseeable future.  But this might not be as dire as one might normally think in this setting.  While Braden Holtby and Philadelphia’s Michal Neuvirth were engaged in a 180-foot version of “can you top this” goaltending feats of wonder (finishing second and first, respectively, in goals against average and save percentage in the first round), Murray was doing just fine, finishing his first round body of work fourth in goals against average (1.33) and save percentage (.955).

If Caps fans think Murray’s lack of experience is a minus, consider that Holtby had only 21 games of regular season experience with the Caps before he was thrust into a starting role in 2012 after injuries shelved both Caps goalies – Tomas Vokoun and Neuvirth (Murray has 13 games of regular season experience at this level).  And Holtby finished that postseason with a 1.95 GAA and a .935 save percentage in 14 games.

What Caps fans might be hoping for here is not that Murray channels the younger Holtby, but perhaps the younger Semyon Varlamov.  Caps fans might recall that Varlamov had just six games of regular season experience in 2008-2009 when he relieved Jose Theodore early in the first round series against the New York Rangers.  Varlamov was spectacular in that first round, going 4-2, 1.17, .952, with two shutouts.  It was the second round – against the Penguins – that did him in.  Under a relentless barrage of pressure, Varlamov went 3-4 with a goals against average of 3.74, a save percentage of .898, and was relieved early in the second period of the deciding Game 7 after allowing four goals on 18 shots in a 6-2 Caps loss.

At the other end, Braden Holtby has been next to impenetrable in the postseason for some time now.   Over his last 17 postseason games, he is 10-7, 1.32, .954, with three shutouts.  In 11 of those 17 games he allowed one or no goals.  Over the span of Capitals history, 18 goalies have appeared in postseason games.  Holtby is second on that list in career postseason goals against average (1.76), and the goalie ahead of him (Bob Mason: 1.75) appeared in just four games for the Caps.  His save percentage of .940 stands alone at the top of the franchise list, and his four shutouts ranks second to Olaf Kolzig (six).  In the modern era of hockey (post 1967-1968 expansion), Holtby is the only goaltender in teh NHL to have appeared in at least 25 postseason games, post a goals against average under 1.80 (1.76), and record a save percentage of better than .930 (.940).

But when all is said and done about the usual suspects…

Is there an “X-Factor” for either team?

For the Capitals, we keep coming back to Mike Richards.  He has more points against the Penguins over the course of his career (32 in 47 games) than he does against any other team, except the New York Islanders (36 in 46 games).  He did not have a point in six games against the Flyers in the first round and is without a point in his last 11 games overall.  But his role here might be of the sort that does not show up in the box score, or in the more sophisticated analytics, either.  He is going to be a part of the penalty killing rotation that will have to be effective for the Caps to have a better chance of victory.  He is third among forwards in hits so far in the postseason, and his ability to antagonize could be a factor in preventing the Penguins from generating momentum.  There are a lot of points at which Richards can be a factor in this series, and he is sufficiently versatile player to make his presence felt at any of them.

On the Pittsburgh side, it might be an old familiar face.  Eric Fehr has not had as productive a year as he or Pens fans might have hoped for this season.  His eight goals in 55 games is his least productive year in goal scoring since he had just two in 35 games for the Winnipeg Jets in 2011-2012.  But half of those goals this past regular season came shorthanded.  If the Caps power play is going to be productive, it had better be disciplined, too.  Fehr can make them pay at the other end of the ice.  And, he has already done something in this postseason that he never accomplished as a Capital in 37 postseason games with the club.  His goal to open the scoring in a 5-0 Game 4 win over the Rangers was his first career playoff game-winning goal.

In the end…

You will not have to look far to find a pundit picking the Pens to prevail over the Caps in this series, if not to win the Cup outright.  In a way, their season looks a bit like their 2009 run to the Cup.  Fire a coach at mid-season who stifled the creativity of the club, bring in a new coach who prefers the up-tempo style, make a sustained run up the standings.  That’s nice as far as it goes, and in fact, in one important area this team might be even better than that 2009 club.  Over the entire season, that 2009 club was not an especially good possession club (48.4 percent score-adjusted Corsi-for at 5-on-5), while this one is (53.0 percent).

But that series with the Rangers still sticks in our minds.  The Pens faced a club that was a shell of its former self, one that stumbled to the finish line of the regular season and was never a very good possession team over any significant stretch of it.  Still, the Pens came out on the short end of the possession numbers, and they were under 50 percent in scoring chances generated at 5-on-5 (45.5 percent).  Sure, five games…small sample.  But you have the information you have, and in some respects it is revealing.

What it reveals is that the Caps do not want to get into a track meet with this team.  It would seem the Pens would be happy to trade chances in an up and down game and take advantage of their significant level of skill.  Pittsburgh did have a 53.4 percent edge over the Rangers in high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

Both teams have special teams indexes (power play plus penalty killing percentages) over 125, the Pens at 128.2, the Caps at 125.4.  But those percentage are not those on which this series might turn.  There is one number that jumps off the page with respect to the Caps: 4.8.  That is their team shooting percentage at 5-on-5 so far in the postseason.  Only the Flyers (2.6) and the New York Islanders (4.3) are worse.  The Caps have too much depth of skill for that to continue indefinitely. 

Between the difference in quality of their opponents in the first round (given their respective late-season performance), the more battle-tested goalie in the postseason, the improving possession numbers (and conversely the mysterious difficulty the Pens had with the Rangers in that regard), this should be an entertaining series, but one in which the Caps will ultimately go where they have gone just twice before in franchise history – the conference finals.

Capitals in 6

hoto: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Monday, April 25, 2016

Capitals vs. Flyers: Takeaways and Throwaways from Game 6


The first four wins are now in the bank for the Washington Capitals.  The Caps survived the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Philadelphia Flyers, scratching out a 1-0 win in Game 6 to win the series, four games to two. For a game with so little scoring, there was considerable drama and momentum shifts toward one or the other team.  In such a contest, there might be some takeaways and some throwaways at the end of it.

Takeaways…

  • If one had to point to a single factor that influenced the results in Game 5 and the series, it would be penalty killing.  The Caps faced a full two minutes of 3-on-5 shorthanded ice time in the second period of Game 6 with the contest still scoreless.  The Flyers managed three shots, scoring on none of them.  For the series, the Flyers had 3:07 in 5-on-3 power play ice time and had only those three shots on goal in Game 6.  All in all, the Flyers had 37:09 in power play ice time for the series (fourth highest through Sunday’s games), and all they had to show for it was one goal on 30 shots.  The Caps were both efficient (0.81 shots per minute allowed) and effective (95.8 percent penalty kill).
  • Nicklas Backstrom had, if not things to prove, then perhaps some responsibilities to fulfill in terms of his offensive production.  Backstrom had the game-winning, series-clinching goal for the Caps in Game 6,  With that, the Caps won each game in which Backstrom recorded at least one point (2-5-7 overall). It is early in the playoff season, but at the moment Backstrom is averaging more than a point per game for the first time since he had nine points in seven games (5-4-9) in the Cap’s first round loss to the Montreal Canadiens in 2010.
  • Alex Ovechkin had six shots on goal and 13 shot attempts in Game 6.  He did not record a goal, but it was not for lack of effort (or at least repetition).  Ovechkin finished the series leading the league in shots on goal overall (29 to Marian Hossa’s 28) and his 71 total shot attempts is far and away tops in the league (Jonathan Huberdeau has 52).  Ovechkin has not gone into a shell on offense.
  • Braden Holtby is quietly building a reputation as a postseason monster in goal.  In his last 17 games through Geme 6 on Sunday, he is 10-7, 1.32, .954, with three shutouts.  In 11 of those 17 games he allowed one or no goals.
  • Washington won the possession battle with the Flyers in Game 6 (50.6 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5) and dominated as the series wore on.  Over Games 4-6, the Caps had a 5-on-5 Corsi-for of 62.6 percent).

Throwaways…
  • The nominal second line of Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams went without a point in Game 6, had just four shots on goal, and were in fact split up with Marcus Johansson moving up a line and Burakovsky moving down one.  For the series, the Burakvosky-Kuznetsov-Williams trip combined to go 1-2-3, minus-6, with 40 shots on goal.  None of them had a point after Game 3 of the series.  If that production does not improve, it will spell trouble for the Caps in Round 2.
  • The power play that went 8-for-17 in Games 1-3 went 0-for-10 in Games 4-6, including 0-for-5 in Game 6.  It was not as if the Caps didn’t get looks on the power play in Game 6; they got five of their nine shots on goal from Ovechkin, two from Williams, and one each from Johansson and John Carlson.  The nine shots on goal on the power play in Game 6 was more than the total power play shots on goal they had in Games 4 and 5 combined (six).  Nevertheless, are the Caps that 8-for-17 power play that opened the series, or the one that went 0-for-15 to end the regular season and 0-for-10 in the last three games of this series.
  • In the prognosto for this series, we said…
“Faceoffs are generally considered one of those mundane tasks that do not have much of an effect on games…until you lose a critical one.  Like the one the Caps lost that led directly to the game-winning, series-clinching overtime goal in last year’s playoff series against the New York Rangers.  [Jay] Beagle and Mike Richards led Caps forwards still with the team in shorthanded ice time.  Beagle taking draws in his own end on the Flyer power play is a responsibility that should not be held as insignificant in this series.”
In Game 6, the Caps took only five shorthanded faceoffs, all of them in the defensive zone, and lost three of them.  Although it was a one-draw margin, it was the third time in the series they finished under 50 percent in faceoffs taken while shorthanded.  They won all three games (Games 1, 2, and 6).
  • PDO-my…  The Caps were 1-for-15 shooting at 5-on-5 in Game 6 (6.7 percent), and Braden Holtby stopped all nine shots he faced at 5-on-5 (100.0 percent), for a PDO of 106.7 (sum of shooting and save percentages).  It was the fourth time in the series that the Caps had a PDO over 100.0, all of them wins.  They lost both games in which their PDO was under 100.0 at 5-on-5 (numbers from war-on-ice.com).  Duh.
  • When the Caps went to the Stanley Cup final in 1998, two of their three winning series were settled in six games, both on the road (in Boston and in Buffalo), both by one goal, both in overtime.  This one was settled in six games, on the road, and in regulation time.  Think of it as progress.  Or just an historical quirk.

In the end…

What was remarkable about Game 6 was the utterly pedestrian nature of it in one sense.  It resembled so many games the Caps played in the first two thirds of the season. Stifle a team, get a lead, suffocate the life out of them, Holtby.  Don’t forget, the Caps won 27 of 41 one-goal games in the regular season, the best winning percentage in the league (.659).  And low scoring games have not been all that unkind to the Caps. Including Game 6, the Caps are 14-15 in games in which they score only one or two goals this season (shootout decisions not included), a respectable record.

Overall, the 4-2 final margin in games does not paint an accurate picture of how this series unfolded.  They had a 53.6 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (fifth in the league through Sunday), 54.3 percent in score-adjusted Corsi-for (third of 16 teams). The Caps held the Flyers to six goals overall, only three of them at 5-on-5 (one power play, one empty net, one 4-on-4).  Braden Holtby had the third-best 5-on-5 save percentage of any goalie in the league (.974; minimum: 50 5-on-5 minutes).

The other side of that is the resilience of the Flyers to have the ice tilted in their direction for so much of the series, for having to contend with that "hot goalie" that so often haunted the Caps, and still make a series of it.  Remember, this is a team that was breaking in a new head coach in Dave Hakstol and one that was not generally thought of as quite playoff-ready when the season began.  One could sense the fans in Philadelphia recognized this as the game ended, as Wells Fargo Center erupted in cheers for their team that battled so hard in this series.

That the Caps were extended to six games is almost entirely a product of the fine play of Michal Neuvirth in goal for the Flyers.  But this time, the Caps did not lose to a hot goalie, they won in spite of facing one.  In that sense, this team really does look different than its predecessors.

Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images