Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 25: Bruins at Capitals, December 7th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

When the Washington Capitals host the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night, it will be a contest of two teams with similar records and similar numbers, if not similar styles.  The Caps go into the contest winners of their last game, a 3-2 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres that snapped a three-game losing streak (0-2-1).  On the other hand, the Bruins arrive in Washington winners of three straight and four of their last five games after a three-game losing streak of their own (4-0-1).

Before one gets the notion that the Bruins have turned things around, though, keep in mind that they have been playing right on the margin.  Each of their last four games were one-goal decisions, three of them settled in extra time, two of them in the Gimmick.  Still, the Bruins find themselves with 31 standings points, third in the Atlantic Division and tied with the Caps and the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference (the Caps have two games in hand).

In the Bruins’ 4-0-1 run over their last five games, they are led in goals by David Backes and David Pastrnak with three apiece.  Backes and Pastrnak represent the dawn and the dusk of sorts on the Bruins roster.  Backes, at age 32, is the fourth-oldest player on the Bruin roster.  He is in his first year in Boston, a free agent who signed a five-year/$30 million contract last summer, after spending ten seasons with the St. Louis Blues.  He has a reputation of being a tough, two-way forward, one who only once in the last seven full seasons (not including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season) failing to reach the 20-goal mark and twice topping 30 goals.  He can certainly mix it up physically, having accumulated 992 penalty minutes in 748 career NHL games, 23 of those minutes recorded in 21 games this season.  In 11 career games against Washington, Backes is 3-3-6, minus-2.

Pastrnak is at the other end of the spectrum, age-wise.  At 20 years of age, he is the youngest player on the Bruins’ roster, and he might be the biggest surprise.  His 15 goals in 21 games ranks second in the league, trailing only Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine (16) and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (17).  The 15-goal total already matches his total in 51 games last season.  But his goal scoring is not out of line with his early-career performance in which he is averaging almost 30 goals per 82 games over his first two-plus seasons.  Of particular importance to this game, Pastrnak has been a beast on the road with nine goals scored in eight of the 11 road games played by the Bruins to date.  He has yet to record a point against the Caps in three games in his career so far and is a minus-1.

It appears that the end might be in sight for the career of defenseman Zdeno Chara.  And what a remarkable career it has been to date.  Chara is, by far, the leader among active defensemen in games played (1,295), far ahead of the Flyers’ Nick Schultz (1,050).  Only 16 defensemen have played in more games in NHL history.  This season, Chara dressed for the Bruins’ first 19 games before sitting out with an undisclosed injury for six games.  He returned to the lineup on Monday against the Florida Panthers.  At age 39 (he will turn 40 in March), he remains a formidable physical presence with an extraordinary reach that goes with a 6’9” frame, but his offensive production has wilted somewhat in recent years.  This season he has one goal and has gone 17 games since scoring that one.  With six points in 20 games he is on a pace to finish with 23 points, which would be barely half of what he posted in 80 games last season (37).  In 63 career games against the Capitals, Chara is 7-19-26, plus-8 (five of the seven goals are power play goals).

1.  Dominic Moore has six goals in 26 games, a pace to score 19 for the season. He hasn’t had more than ten in any season since 2010-2011 (18), with Tampa Bay.  That was three teams ago for Moore (the San Jose Sharks and New York Rangers intervening).  He’s played for ten different teams in a 12-year career.  The post office must love this guy for mail forwarding.

2.  Boston gets pucks to the net. Boston is third in the league in shot attempts per game in all situations (61.1), but they are second in shots on goal per game (33.2).

3.  Through 26 games, the Bruins have had just one contest decided in the five-minute overtime, second fewest in the league (the New York Rangers have yet to have a game settled in the extra hockey frame). And that game was just this past Monday night against the Florida Panthers, a 4-3 win on a goal by David Pastrnak.

4.  Five teams have perfect records when leading after two periods, and Boston has more wins than any of them (12-0-0). On the other hand, the have only one win when trailing after 40 minutes.  Six teams have yet to win a game in that situation.

5.  Boston has the second-best Corsi-for at 5-on-5 in the league (53.70 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey). They do it mostly with offensive pressure, their 60.44 shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 ranking third in the league.

1.  The Caps have allowed more than four goals in a game once this season (a 5-1 loss to Carolina on November 12th). Only the Buffalo Sabres have not allowed more than four goals in a game so far.

2.  The Caps have scored more than four goals just twice this season (a 7-1 win over Pittsburgh on November 16th and a 5-2 win over Vancouver on October 29th). Only four teams – Arizona, Carolina, Colorado (once apiece), and San Jose (zero times) have done it fewer.

3.  Washington has allowed 40 or more shots on goal only once this season (45 shots in a 3-2 win over Winnipeg on November 1st). Five teams have yet to allow 40 or more shots on goal in a game.

4.  When the Caps allowed a goal to the Buffalo Sabres in the first period of their 3-2 overtime win on Monday night, they became the last team in the NHL to surrender a tenth goal in the first period this season. The ten goals allowed in the first period by the Caps is lowest in the league.

5.  The Caps have been quite efficient at denying shot attempts. Their 50.83 shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 is fourth fewest in the league (numbers from Corsica.hockey).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Boston: Tuukka Rask

How can a goaltender so gifted, with such sterling number against 28 NHL teams, find himself with poor numbers against one team?  Such is the case of Tuukka Rask, the NHL, and the Washington Capitals.  In 336 games against the 28 teams in the league that are not the Caps, he is 180-99-40, 2.18, .926, with 32 shutouts.  Against the Caps, it is a different story.  Rask is 1-8-4, 2.92, .899, with one shutout in 13 career appearances against the Caps (here’s a thought… to win, score).  Rask’s only career win against the Caps was a 16-save shutout back on March 6, 2014 in Boston.  In eight career appearances at Verizon Center, he is 0-5-3, 3.14, .900.  If you’re wondering, backup Anton Khudobin is 4-2-1, 2.41, .923, with one shutout in seven career appearances against Washington.

Washington: Andre Burakovsky

At the end of the film “Sunset Boulevard,” Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson) speaks the line, “Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”  Well, Caps fans are ready for Andre Burakovsky’s close-up, or at least his return to something resembling reliable contributions on offense.  Burakovsky hasn’t scored a goal since the Harding administration.  Okay, since Opening Night, but it just feels like 95 or so years.  He doesn’t have a point in four games, and over those four contest has just three shots on goal.  The odd part of that last fact is that he is shooting at a frequency (1.67 shots per game for the season) that approximates last year’s frequency (1.59 shots per game), but the bottom has fallen out of his shooting percentage (5.0 this season compared to 13.5 last season).  After scoring on his only two shots on goal on Opening Night against Pittsburgh, Burakovsky is 0-for-38 in his last 23 games.  He was not among the four lines taking drills at Monday’s practice, but if he does get a sweater against Boston, he is 1-3-4, plus-4, in five career games against the Bruins.

In the end…

On Monday night, the Caps struggled with a team in the Buffalo Sabres that worked hard, battled in the corners, and crowded the net.  They barely escaped with a win.  The difference on Wednesday night when the Caps host the Boston Bruins is that the Bruins have much more offensive talent than the scoring-starved Sabres.  Players like Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Backes do not generally take many shifts off, and they can score.  Add in the prolific play of David Pastrnak so far this season, and the Bruins pose a different, more difficult challenge.  The Caps dominated the last 15 minutes and overtime of their game against Buffalo on Monday.  Less than 20 minutes of hard work and attention to detail on Wednesday just won’t do it.

Capitals 3 – Bruins 2

Monday, December 05, 2016

A TWO-Point Night -- Game 24: Washington Capitals 3 - Buffalo Sabres 2 (OT)

The Washington Capitals looked for all the world like a six-pack of Charmin for most of their game against the Buffalo Sabres on Monday night – squeezably soft.  But over the last 15 minutes, the Caps dug in, fought back, and finally pulled out a 3-2 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres.

Buffalo opened the scoring just before the six-minute mark when Zemgus Girgensons took a pass from Derek Grant just outside the Caps’ blue line, caught defenseman Matt Niskanen flat-footed, stepped around him and then darted to the net to lift a backhand over the left pad of goalie Braden Holtby. 

The Sabres carried that 1-0 lead into the second period, but Jay Beagle tied the game for the Caps just over five minutes into the period.  Beagle started and ended the play, sending the puck up the boards to Daniel Winnik at the right point, then darting to the net.  Winnik moved the puck across to Brooks Orpik at the top of the left wing circle, and Orpik threw it at the net where Beagle was waiting to redirect it past goalie Robin Lehner to make it 1-1, 5:23 into the period.

Ten minutes later, the Sabres had their one-goal lead back.  It was a turnover by Niskanen that started things, his attempted pass from below the goal line picked off by William Carrier, who fed Ryan O’Reilly in the low slot.  O’Reilly’s shot was stopped by Holtby, as was the rebound attempt from Kyle Okposo.  The second shot came back out to Okposo drifting across the slot, and he had an open net to shoot at, converting the chance to make it 2-1 at the 15:23 mark of the second period.

It looked as if the Sabres would nurse that one-goal lead through the third period, but with 6:18 left, Marcus Johansson made a new game of it.  With Evander Kane in the penalty box on a hooking call, Justin Williams won the ensuing faceoff to Lehner’s left back to John Carlson.  Carlson backed off a step and let fly with a shot that Johansson redirected inside Lehner’s glove to tie the contest.

That would be how regulation ended, leaving things to the 3-on-3 freestyle competition.   In the third minute, Johansson skated the puck down the middle and into the Sabres’ zone.  He left the puck for Evgeny Kuznetsov crossing behind him, and Kuznetsov found Dmitry Orlov at the top of the left wing circle.  Orlov faked a slap shot and sent the puck across to Johansson coming through the right wing circle.  The pass hit Johansson in stride, and his one-time slap shot beat Lehner cleanly over his left pad to give the Caps the 3-2 win.

Other stuff…

-- That was the Caps’ first win this season when trailing at the end of two periods.  They were 0-5-2 in such games coming into this contest.

-- OK…we’ll take credit for having Marcus Johansson as our “playerto ponder” in the prognosto.  The two-goal night was Johansson’s third this season and first since October 30th. It was his ninth career multi-goal game, fourth most on the club since his came into the league.

-- Jay Beagle scored a goal. The Caps win when Jay Beagle scores a goal.  They are now 27-1-5 in games in which he scores a goal over his career, 4-0-0 this season. 

-- At the other end, Alex Ovechkin had one shot on goal, that coming in the third period.  He has 15 shots on goal in his last five games (since the hat trick against St. Louis), which might not sound noteworthy, but for him it’s almost a drought.  He is now five games without a goal, his longest streak without a goal since he went five games without one in Games 62-66 last season.

-- The Caps were credited with 24 hits.  Defensemen had 16 of them, led by Taylor Chorney (five).

-- Lars Eller…minus-2, three shots on goal (no points), lost five of seven draws.  Not an inspiring night.

-- Tom Wilson…no shot attempts in 13 minutes and change…ditto.

-- Whatever his effectiveness, Dmitry Orlov was a whirling dervish on the ice tonight. Carrying the puck end-to-end, getting good looks at the net, playing decent defense for the most part.  An assist, plus-2, four shot attempts.  But that chance he had from in tight that rolled off his stick and went wide…gotta bury that.

-- Don’t lose sight of the fact that Braden Holtby stopped 31 of 33 shots and shut the door in the third period, turning away all nine shots he faced.  Given the Caps’ woes in the third periods of games, that was a big lift.

-- There is possession, and there is possession that means something.  The Caps won the 5-on-5 shot attempt battle, 52-49 (51.9 percent Corsi-for; numbers from Corsica.hockey), but lost the shots battle, 29-23 and the goal battle, 2-1.

In the end…

OK, the comeback was, for lack of a better term, gritty.  But let’s remember, this Sabres team came into the game with the worst scoring offense in the league (2.00 goals per game) and lived up to their average.  This wasn’t the 2010 Capitals the Caps were facing.  And, it could have been worse.  Buffalo had one goal disallowed (the dreaded “offside before the goal was scored” video) and another barely avoided with a pileup in the crease.  For 45 minutes, the Caps looked as if they were having a leisurely skate up the C&O Canal.  

It was Jay Beagle who served as something of an example, fighting for pucks, going to the net, winning faceoffs, doing the little things that this whole “will” part of “will over skill” is supposed to embody.  And give Marcus Johansson some credit for going against recent type and shooting the puck (and going to the net for a redirect).  Good things happen when pucks are on net.  Things to keep in mind as the Caps prepare to host the Boston Bruins on Wednesday.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 24: Sabres at Capitals, December 5th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Looking to avoid a fourth consecutive loss, the Washington Capitals return home to face the Buffalo Sabres on Monday night at Verizon Center.   It has been almost 23 months since the Caps last lost four consecutive games, that being when they dropped Games 44-47 of the 2014-2015 season, January 16-27 in the 2015 portion of that season.

Buffalo had a two-game winning streak snapped in their last contest, a 2-1 loss to the Boston Bruins on Saturday.  If there has been a bright spot this past week for the Sabres, coinciding with their recent 2-1-0 record, it is that star sophomore Jack Eichel saw his first game action this season after sustaining a high-ankle sprain in practice the day before the Sabres’ season opener.  Eichel seems to be trying to make up for lost time, having scored a goal in his first game, a 5-4 win over the Ottawa Senators, and then following that up with a pair of goals in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers last Thursday.  He was held off the score sheet in Saturday’s game 2-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, making the Sabres 22-30-10 in games in which Eichel does not score a goal, while they are 15-6-1 in games in which he does light the red light.  In three games against the Caps last season, Eichel had two assists and was minus-2.

At the other end of the scoring spectrum for the Sabres is Kyle Okposo.  The ten-year veteran is in his first year with the Sabres after spending his first nine seasons with the New York Islanders.  Okposo is tied for the team lead in goals with Matt Moulson (seven) and leads the team in points (16).  He has stepped up his point production lately, going 2-4-6 in his last six games.  If there is a bit of an odd number attached to Okposo, it is that he does not have a game-winning goal this season for the Sabres and has only one such goal in his last72 games dating back to last season.  Caps fans will be hoping that is extended at least one more game.  Okpopso is 8-11-19, plus-4, in 26 career games against the Caps.

Rasmus Ristolainen is in a small community of players with an odd statistic.  Only four players in the league – all defensemen – have no goals scored, but have at least 12 assists (Ristolainen is 0-12-12).  Ristolainen was the eighth overall pick of the 2013 entry draft and the third defenseman selected, behind Seth Jones (fourth) and Darnell Nurse (seventh).  Ristolainen is second in that class of 69 defensemen in games (218), goals (19), assists (58), and points (77), trailing Jones in each of those categories.  Ristolainen started the season fast with four assists in his first three games and five in his first five contests.  Then, he tapered off, but he has three assists in his last three games for the Sabres.   Ristolainen is 0-2-2, minus-3, in seven career games against the Caps.

1.  The Buffalo Sabres won the Presidents Trophy with the league’s best record in 2006-2007.  Since then, the only teams with more losses than the Sabres are the Edmonton Oilers (450 – 365 in regulation and 85 in extra time) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (423 – 327 in regulation and 96 in extra time.  Buffalo has lost 412 games, 320 in regulation and 92 in extra time.

2.  The Sabres are struggling to score goals.  The rank last in the league in scoring offense (2.00 goals per game).  They have been held to two or fewer goals 16 times in 24 games, although that happened only once in their last three contests. 

3.  More evidence of the Sabres’ offensive struggles… they are the only team in the NHL to have scored fewer than 20 goals in each of the regulation periods this season (15 in the first, 16 in the second, and 17 in the third periods of games).

4. Only the Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, and New York Rangers have fewer fighting major penalties  (two apiece)than the Sabres (three, tied with six other teams, including the Caps).

5.  Buffalo ranks 20th in the league in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (49.05 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey).  On the road, though, they rank 25th (47.70 percent).

1.  We noted Buffalo’s losing record since they won the Presidents Trophy in 2007.  Well, since then, the Caps – starting with the 2007-2008 season – are tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for the fewest losses in regulation (224).

2.  With five minor penalties in his last four games (four in his last two), Alex Ovechkin now finds himself among the top dozen forwards in the league in minor penalties (10, tied for 12th with Paul Stastny and Blake Comeau).

3.  The Caps scored a 5-on-4 power play goal in their 2-1 Gimmick loss to Tampa Bay on Saturday night, but they are still tied for last in the league (8, with the Islanders).

4.  Karl Alzner still leads Caps defensemen in goals (2).  With 23 games gone in the season, who would have thought that to be the case?  At the other end, John Carlson has no goals on 57 shots.  Only St. Louis’ Colton Parayko has more shots on goal among defensemen (66) with no goals (Carlson is tied with Ristolainen at 0-for-57).

5.  The Caps are continuing to do well in possession, especially at home.  They rank fourth in the league in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 on home ice (53.66 percent).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo: Robin Lehner

One might look at the record of Sabres goalie Robin Lehner this season, see his .922 save percentage, and think, “nice, but what’s the point?”  The point is, that .922 save percentage happens to be equal, accounting for rounding, with the defending Vezina Trophy winner, Washington’s Braden  Holtby.  Lehner, who is the heaviest goalie in the league at 239 pounds, is building on a 2015-2016 season with the Sabres in which he finished fourth in the league in save percentage (.924) among goalies playing at least 1,000 minutes.  He has been streaky, though.   In his first three games this season he was 1-1-1, 3.33, .890.  He followed that up by going 3-2-0, 1.41., .953 in his next five appearances.  Then, he was 0-4-1, 3.15, .904 in five appearances.  In his last four games, Lehner is 2-1-1, 1.79, .936.  One thing he has not done has been create much of a body of work against the Caps.  He has one career appearance against Washington, stopping 27 of 29 shots in a 2-1 loss to the Caps on February 5, 2015, when he was tending goal for the Ottawa Senators.

Washington: Marcus Johansson

For a while it looked as if the early season goal-scoring binge for Marcus Johansson was going to quietly fade.  After posting six goals in his first nine games, Johansson went ten games with but a single goal on his game log.  He does have goals in two of his last four games, though, so perhaps the goal scoring isn’t going to go quietly after all.  What has been apparent, though, is that Johansson’s shooting frequency is dropping.  In those first nine games in which he posted six goals, he recorded 18 shots on goal (2.0 per game).  In the ten games that followed, in which he had only one goal, he averaged 1.7 shots per game.  And, although he does have two goals in his last four games, he has only six shots on goal for an average of 1.5 shots per game.  Johansson is 6-5-11, even, in 20 career games against the Sabres.

In the end…

These teams met just ten days ago, the Caps taking a 3-1 decision, but not after some treacherous moments when the Sabres closed to within a goal in the third period.  And there is a problem the Caps need to resolve, their propensity for giving up third period goals.  There is just too much loose play going on in the final 20 minutes that suggests to the casual observer that the Caps are a team than just isn’t buckling down and maintaining their focus through games.  If the Caps continue this unfortunate trend against a club that is having troubles of their own scoring in any period, then it will be time for Capitals Nation to be more than a little concerned about the path the team is taking.

Capitals 3 – Sabres 2

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 8

The Washington Capitals experienced what for them was the rarest of weeks in Week 8, that of a winless week.  The Caps went 0-1-1 in Week 8, the first time that they went without a win for a week since Week 16 last season, when they played only one game, an overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.  The regulation 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders and the 2-1 Gimmick loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning was the first time they went winless for a week with two or more games since Week 23 of the 2014-2015 season.  So, what happened?

Record: 0-1-1

All of a sudden, the Capitals find themselves struggling against Eastern Conference teams.  The regulation and Gimmick loss for the week left them 6-5-3 against Eastern Conference teams this season.  It is worse against Metropolitan Division teams, where the 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders in regulation left the Caps 2-4-2 against division opponents. 

Of more immediate urgency, the losses were the Caps’ second and third consecutive losses, the first time they lost three straight games since Games 78-80 last season, the difference in that case being that by that time, the Caps had 55 wins and were coasting to a Presidents Trophy-winning season.  At the moment, the Caps are one of four teams with 29 standings points fighting for the last spots in the playoff-eligible mix.  They hold the first wild-card spot at the moment, although they do have two games in hand on the Boston Bruins, and three games in hand against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Philadelphia Flyers.

Offense:  0.50/game (season: 2.52 /game; rank: T-18th)

Nicklas Backstrom.  That’s it.  That was the offense.  It was not as if the Caps lacked for shots on goal, either.  They had 38 against the Islanders and 35 against the Lightning.  That makes four straight games in which the Caps topped the 30-shot mark (35.0 per game).  Six goals on 140 shots over four games (4.3 percent shooting) had turned the Caps into a team full of Justin Williams’.  Speaking of Williams, is there a player in the league with more bad luck than this guy? 

Against the Islanders, Williams had seven shots on goal (ten attempts) with nothing to show for it, having a goal scored at the horn to end the first period taken down because the video replay showed the puck had not completely crossed the goal line before the clock ran out.  He ended the week with no goals on ten shots and just two goals on 52 shots for the season.  His 3.8 shooting percentage for the season ranks 272nd among 290 forwards with at least 25 shots on goal.  If 50 goals in your threshold, he ranks 109th of 109 forwards (although Caps fans might take some solace in the fact that Filip Forsberg and Carl Hagelin rank just above him in the next two slots).  The hockey gods would appear to owe Williams some slack.

Defense: 2.00/game (season: 2.22 /game; rank: T-5th)

When a team out-attempts opponents by a 98-67 margin in two games at 5-on-5, you would think it would be a good week.  And for the Caps, there was the consistency in holding opponents to low shot attempt totals.  They held the Islanders to 34 shot attempts at 5-on-5 and held the Lightning to just 33 shot attempts in almost 48 5-on-5 minutes (numbers from Corsica.hockey).   All they had to show for it was allowing three 5-on-5 goals (scoring none) and losing both games.  Defense has not been the problem for the Caps, and it wasn’t in Week 8.  The Caps allowed 47.38 shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 for the week, even better than their season mark of 51.39 that ranks fifth-lowest in the league.

Goaltending:   1.98/ .934 (season: 2.08 / .925 / 2 SO)

Braden Holtby tended goal for all the minutes in Week 8, and he probably deserved better.  Of the three goals the Islanders scored in the third period of their 3-0 win over the Caps, one came on a breakaway, and another came on an ugly turnover that left the puck on an Islander stick all alone in front of the goaltender (they still needed several whacks to score).  Against the Lightning, Holtby allowed a power play goal.  With fewer breakdowns (and a lower propensity to take penalties), Holtby might have had even better numbers and a successful week.  As it was, he allowed just the one goal to the Lightning, the first time in five games he allowed fewer than three goals.  Still, he has losses in his last three decisions (0-2-1), the first time that happened since he took three straight losses in regulation in his Games 52-54 of the 2014-2015 season.

Power Play: 1-for-12 / 8.3 percent (season: 14.5 percent; rank: 22nd)

Opportunity was not a problem for the Caps in Week 8.  Washington had six power play chance in each of the week’s two games, the first time this season the Caps had consecutive games with six or more power play chances and the first time since Games 61 and 62 of the 2013-2014 season that they enjoyed as many or more power play chances in consecutive games.

If there was something odd about the Caps’ power play for the week, it was the shot mix among the players.  Eight different players recorded shots on goal for the week, but Alex Ovechkin had just two of the total of 17.  John Carlson led with four, and both Nicklas Backstrom (with the only goal) and Justin Williams had three apiece.  Even Brett Connolly and Dmitry Orlov got in on the act (one apiece).  It made for a large shot total, but the Caps also had a total of 21:16 in power play ice time. With 0.80 shots per minute, you might say that the Caps just weren’t getting enough pucks on net, or at least could have done with more frequency to make goalies work harder to fight through screens and deal with rebounds.  It seems to be a lingering problem.

Penalty Killing: 4-for-5 / 80.0 percent (season: 82.4 percent; rank: 17th)

The penalty kill was odd.  One problem the Caps have been having lately is taking too many penalties.  In eight games coming into Week 8, Washington was facing an average of 4.25 shorthanded situations per game, compared to 2.69 per game in their first 13 games.  Facing five shorthanded situations in two games, Week 8 was right in line with the first part of the season, an encouraging sign.  Still, it was odd.  Why?  Four of those shorthanded situations came as a result of Alex Ovechkin taking minor penalties (two in each game).  Three of those penalties (two slashing, one tripping) were stick penalties.

The Caps did a credible job of denying opponents opportunities, at least with respect to getting shots on net.  In the two games, the Islanders and Lightning combined for five shots in 8:49 of power play time, the 0.57 shots per minute being a good week’s worth of holding down shots.

Faceoffs: 60-for-117 / 51.3 percent (season: 51.2% / rank: 8th)

The Caps had a decent week in the circle, owing mostly to the efforts of Nicklas Backstrom and Jay Beagle, who combined to take 66 of the 117 faceoffs the club took for the week, and who won a combined 54.5 percent of them.  Backstrom was especially efficient in the offensive zone, winning 14 of 25 draws (56.0 percent), while Beagle was over 50 percent in both the offensive (5-of-7) and defensive (6-of-10) zones.  For the week, the team was 50 percent or better in all three zones.

Goals by Period:

If every period was the first period, life would be unicorns and accordions in Capitals Nation.  Not that the team is lighting it up in the first period.  They scored no goals in the first period of either game this week, although they did finish the week with 22 first period goals, tied for eighth-most in the league.  What is remarkable is that they did not allow a first period goal in Week 8 and that the nine goals they have allowed in 23 first periods this season is the fewest in the league.

Now about that third period.  Things got away quickly for the Capitals against the Islanders, giving up three goals in a span of 4:28 of the third period after the teams went scoreless over the first two periods.  They finished the week having allowed 24 first period goals for the season, almost as many as their total in the first two periods of games combined (26).  Closing out games and owning the third period have not been characteristics of this team so far.

In the end…

In the scale of “whatever” to “full-throated panic,” the recent play of the Caps might be said to merit “concern.”  They have not put together consecutive winning weeks since Weeks 1 and 2, and they have two losing weeks in their last four, over which they are 5-5-2.  They aren’t scoring much – four games with more than two goals in their last 12 contests – and they are very leaky late in games.  Their possession numbers still look good, ranking fifth overall in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (52.68 percent), so it might be a case of bad luck or bad alignment between process and results, a matter that one might expect to correct itself given the skill level on this team.  But for the time being, this is a club that looks too much as if it is running at 85-90 percent, and in a league this balanced, that number needs to be higher on a more consistent basis.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Braden Holtby (0-0-1, 1.98, .934)
  • Second Star: Nicklas Backstrom (1-0-1, 52.4 percent faceoff wins)
  • Third Star: John Carlson (0-1-1, 7 shots on goal, 14 shot attempts, 3 hits, 3 blocked shots)

Saturday, December 03, 2016

A ONE-Point Night -- Game 23: Tampa Bay Lightning 2 - Washington Capitals 1 (OT/Gimmick)

The Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning were two teams coming into their contest on Saturday night crippled in the lineup and in their recent schedules.  The Caps were missing T.J. Oshie, and the Lightning were missing Steven Stamkos.  Small wonder that both teams came into the game on losing streaks, the Caps on a two-game skid, the Lightning losers of their last four contests.  It was the Lightning ending their streak and sending the Caps to a third straight loss, 2-1, in a Gimmick at Amelie Arena in Tampa. 

It was an uncharacteristically low-scoring game between these teams, five of the last six games featuring the winner scoring at least four goals.  Each team would have to be satisfied with one in 65 minutes of actual hockey, though.  Tampa Bay opened the scoring in the second period on a power play when Nikita Kucherov one-timed a pass from Victor Hedman from the right wing circle off the near post and behind goalie Braden Holtby 12:38 into the period.

That goal held up until the seventh minute of the third period when the Caps scored a power play goal of their own.  Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson played back and forth with the puck, Carlson pulling the puck back along the inside of the Tampa Bay blue line to open up the right wing for a pass back to Backstrom.  Taking the puck at the right point, Backstrom circled down to the top of the right wing circle and snapped a shot past a stacked screen of Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, and past the glove of goalie Ben Bishop at the 6:24 mark.

And that would be all for the scoring.  A lively five-minute overtime that featured nine shots combined for the two teams yielded no scoring, and it was off to the trick shot competition.  Evgeny Kuznetsov scored for the Caps on a deke and a wrap-around Bishop’s right pad, but Brayden Point tied it up for Tampa Bay, and Brian Boyle won it with a goal in the fourth round for the 2-1 final score.

Other stuff…

-- Ben Bishop has never had much success against the Caps since he arrived in Tampa.  In eight appearances against the Caps as the Lightning goalie, he was 1-5-1 (one no-decision), 3.68, .882, and only once had he allowed as few as two goals in an appearance.  On this night he stopped 34 of 35 shots faced.

-- The Caps scored a power play goal, their first in three games, but it took them ten shots to do it.  Nicklas Backstrom scored on the Caps’ tenth power play shot of the night.  They finished with 11.

-- Although the Caps scored on one of their six power plays, it was that sixth power play that was a short summary of their power play lately.  In overtime, with a 4-on-3 advantage, the Caps had a face off in the Lightning end with 33.5 seconds left.  It took the Caps almost 25 seconds to get a shot on goal, their only shot on goal on the abbreviated power play.

-- Alex Ovechkin does not have a goal in four games since his hat trick against St. Louis on the night before Thanksgiving, but he does have five minor penalties.  He took two more tonight.

-- Paul Carey had his first action of the year, one game late after coming down with an illness that kept him out of the loss to the Islanders on Thursday.  In 12 minutes of ice time, he recorded…well, nothing.  His line on the score sheet is without a mark in any column.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov did have three shots on goal, and his trick shot turn was nifty, but it still looks as if he is passing up good shooting opportunities, especially in the first period when he was in deep and tried to slide a pass back through the slot to Jakub Vrana.  Nothing came of the play as the puck slid off to the right wing boards.

-- The difference in this game, at least to the extent the Caps could not dent Bishop, was that the Lightning put pucks on net (33 shots on goal in 45 shot attempts), while the Caps were misfiring (35 shots on 63 shot attempts).  That 56.0 percent Corsi-for at fives looks good for the fancy-statters, but one goal with that kind of possession advantage, and that coming on a power play, makes for small consolation.

-- Braden Holtby stopped 32 of 33 shots, the first time he allowed fewer than three goals in five games, since he shut out the Detroit Red Wings, 1-0, on November 18th.

-- The Caps got 13 shots on goal from defensemen, six of them from John Carlson (he had 11 shot attempts to lead the team).  Nate Schmidt was the only defenseman not recording a shot on goal.

-- The trick shot competition left the Caps in an odd place in that phase of the game this season.  They now have three goals on eight shots, a 37.5 shooting percentage.  They also have three saves on eight shots, a .375 save percentage. 

In the end…

The Caps got a point.  That said, they look like a team that is employing 18 different play books for their skaters.  The power play is still meandering.  The even strength play tentative.  There are moments here and there (Justin Williams had more than a few good ones in this game with nothing to show for it), but not enough of them strung together to establish any momentum.  And Alex Ovechkin seems to be in a goal drought that has been an odd feature of his season to date (he is four games without a goal, his third streak of three or more without one this season).  Braden Holtby played well, and the Caps team defense did hold the Lightning to a low total of 5-on-5 shot attempts.  But not nearly enough players are lifting their game at the moment, and when that happens, this happens.

Friday, December 02, 2016

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 23: Capitals at Lightning, December 3rd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals look to avoid a three-game losing streak in regulation for the first time almost two years when the visit the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.  The Caps, losers to the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders in their most recent contests, have not lost three consecutive games in regulation time since dropping games to the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Carolina Hurricanes in Games 61-63 in the 2014-2015 season.

The Caps will be facing a Lightning team that is either very ornery or very ripe for the picking.  Tampa Bay is on a four-game losing streak, allowing five goals in three of the losses.  The last three of those losses came on the road, so a return to Amelie Arena might be just the tonic for that team.

On the offensive side, the problem for the Lightning has been consistency over the four-game losing streak.  The first and last games in that streak, the Lighting scored three and four goals against the Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues, respectively.  However, they were held to a single goal in the middle games in losses to the Boston Bruins and the Blue Jackets. 

Consistency has not been a problem for Nikita Kucherov.  The fourth-year forward is 2-2-4 in the four-game losing streak with two-point games (goal and assist in each) in the first contest against Columbus and against St. Louis in the Lightning’s most recent game.  The odd part of it is that the middle two games of the streak, the losses to Boston and the second meeting against Columbus, represent the first and only time this season Kucherov was held without a point in consecutive games.  Kucherov has been able to parlay that consistency into second place in the league points standings (12-16-28), trailing only the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (11-23-34) through Thursday’s games.  He is 3-3-6, plus-2, in nine career games against the Caps.

At the other end of the ice, Ben Bishop is experiencing that thing every goalie does from time to time – a slump.  It is not so much that he has been consistently bad as much as he has been inconsistent.  He won three of his first four decisions this year despite a .885 save percentage and allowing at least three goals in each of the four games.   The underlying numbers came back to show up in his win-loss numbers, though.  Since those first four games, Bishop is 4-8-0, 2.81, .908.  The thing is just how unsuccessful he has been when allowing more than one goal.  When allowing a single goal (he has no shutouts so far), he is 3-1-0, but when allowing more than one goal he is 4-8-0.  That speaks as much to the goal support he is getting as much as it is his own performance.  Bishop is 1-6-1, 3.74, .880 in nine career appearances against the Capitals.

1.  Two years ago, Tampa Bay had the best home record in the league, the only club to win at least 30 games on home ice (32-8-1).  Since then, they have (as most teams do) won more than half their games on home ice, but they have not been dominant.  Last year, they were tied for seventh in home wins and finished tenth in standings points earned at home (53 on a record of 25-13-3).  So far this season, the Lightning are 6-3-1, tied for 21st in home wins and 23rd in standings points earned at home.

2.  Only twice in ten home games so far have the Lightning allowed fewer than 30 shots on goal).  They are 6-1-1 in those games.

3.  Tampa Bay does not have a player ranking in the top-60 in scoring on home ice.  Nikita Kucherov 4-5-9), Steven Stamkos (3-6-9), and Victor Hedman (3-6-9) are tied for 61st in home ice scoring through Thursday night’s games.  That might be a product of so few home games played by the Lightning so far (ten); only ten players having played in ten home games or fewer have more points.

4.  The four-game losing streak Tampa Bay brings into this game has been characterized by slow starts.  Opponents scored first in each of the four games.  Only once (and not in their last three games) have the Lightning scored in the first period, and they have been outscored, 9-1, overall in the first periods of those four games.

5.  Tampa Bay is something of a middle of the pack possession team with a 49.70 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 overall (16th in the league), 50.61 percent at home (13th in the league; numbers from Corsica.hockey).

1.  In their first five road games this season, the Caps allowed opponents an average of 26.8 shots per game and went 3-1-1 in the process with a goal differential of plus-4.  In their last five road games they allowed opponents an average of 36.2 shots per game and went 2-2-1 with a goal differential of minus-5.

2.  That seven goal outburst against Pittsburgh on November 16th is looking like an outlier.  In the ten games out of the last 11, not counting that win over the Penguins, the Caps are averaging 1.7 goals per game and have scored one or fewer five times (shut out twice).

3.  If there a power play causing more mystery than that of the Washington Capitals, it might not exist in the NHL.  Consider the Caps at 5-on-4.  Their shot attempts per 60 5-on-4 minutes is fourth most in the league (105.23).  Even their shots on goal per 60 5-on-4 minutes is highly ranked (52.87/fourth in the league).  But their goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-4 are near the league bottom (3.66/27th).  Their ratio of shot attempts to goals (28.75:1) is the worst in the league.  Compare it to Columbus, who scores a goal every 8.93 shot attempts at 5-on-4 (numbers from Corsica.hockey).

4.  Maybe it’s an intermission thing.  The Caps have a plus-13 goal differential in the first period, tied with Columbus for best in the league.  After the first intermission in the second period the Caps have a minus- 4 goal differential, and after the second intermission in the last 20 minutes that goal differential is a minus-3.  Only six teams have allowed more than the 24 third period goals allowed by Washington, and every one of those teams has played at least one more game than the Caps going into Friday night’s games.

5.  The Caps have the best Corsi-for in the league on the road in tie games (56.92 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey).  That number drops ten points when they are leading in road games (46.92 percent/9th in the league). And it is 50.74 percent when trailing (23rd).  Maybe the motto is…always be tied on the road until the end?

Tampa Bay: Victor Hedman

The last three seasons before this one, two defensemen recorded a total of at least 30 goals, 100 assists, and finished higher than plus-30.  The Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty is one of them (31-103-134, plus-44, in 242 games).  Victor Hedman is the other (33-107-140, plus-38, in 212 games).  All he has to show for it, recognition-wise, is a ninth-place finish in the Norris Trophy voting in 2014 and an seventh-place finish last season.  Over those same three seasons, Hedman has the seventh best Corsi-for at 5-on-5 among defensemen with at least 2,500 5-on-5 minutes (54.95 percent).  This season, Hedman is tied with Montreal’s Shea Weber for fourth in total points among defensemen (18).  He might be the most elite defensemen who is not described by the term.   Hedman is 2-9-11, minus-1, in 27 career games against the Caps.

Washington: Justin Williams

How unlucky do you have to be to be on the doorstep for a perfect pass from a teammate, to redirect the puck perfectly behind the goaltender into the net, only to find that the clock ran out on the period literally as the puck was on the goal line on its way into the net?  That, in microcosm, is Justin Williams’ season so far.  With two goals this season on 49 shots, he ranks 259th among 280 forwards (25 shots minimum) in shooting percentage (4.1).  And if you go back to last season, Williams has five goals on 115 shots (4.3 percent) in his last 47 games.   He almost had his third goal of the season and sixth in 47 games when the scenario described above played out as the first period ended in what would be a scoreless first period in a game the Caps would lose to the New York Islanders, 3-0.  The odd part is that Williams remains a fine possession player, fourth among the team’s forwards in individual Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (54.56 percent).  You might thing Williams could get well against the Lightning.  He is 15-17-32, even, in 44 games against Tampa Bay, but he went without a goal in all three games in which he faced the Lightning with the Caps last season.

In the end…

It is said, misery loves company.  Well, here are two teams generally thought of as contenders to come out of the Eastern Conference as a Stanley Cup finalist that are having what passes for them as a miserable stretch.  The Caps are just 5-5-1 in their last 1`1 games and losers in their last two contests, while the Lightning are losers of their last four games and five of their last six.  The Caps hold the first wild-card spot going into Friday’s games, while the Lightning hold the second wild-card spot, one point behind Washington (the Caps have three games in hand).  Both of these teams would be a good bet to right themselves at some point and challenge for their respective division leads, perhaps even for the top spot in the conference.   But only one team will turn themselves around in this game. 

Capitals 3 – Lightning 2

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 22: Islanders at Capitals, December 1st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals end their longest hiatus of the season to date (four off days) when they take the ice against the New York Islanders on Thursday night at Verizon Center.  The Caps will enter the game winners in two of their last three games and four of their last six, but they will be trying to avoid losses in regulation in consecutive games for the first time since Games 5 and 6 of the season in late October.

The Islanders will be coming to Washington as a team in crisis.  They went into their Wednesday night game against the Pittsburgh Penguins off a 2-1 overtime win over the Calgary Flames on Monday night, but they had not won consecutive games since their own fifth and sixth games of the season in late October.  The Isles are 4-7-4 since those consecutive wins.  Their road record is dismal as well, a record of 1-6-1, their lone win coming in a 2-1 Gimmick decision in Anaheim against the Ducks on November 22nd. 

The Islanders have what one might consider balanced scoring – 20 different skaters have recorded goals for the club so far this season.  What they lack, though, is anyone stepping up as a go-to goal scorer.  John Tavares leads the club with six goals, but that total is tied for 76th in the league going into Wednesday night’s game against Pittsburgh.  What Tavares has been, though, is consistent as a point producer.  After going without a point in each of his first two games this season, he is 6-11-17 in his last 19 games and has not had consecutive games without a point.  It just has not translated into big nights for either himself or the club.  Tavares has points in 14 of the 21 games in which he played, but only two of them are multi-point games, and the Islanders are just 6-4-4 in games Tavares recorded a point.  In 26 career games against Washington, Tavares is 12-12-24, plus-3.

The disconnect between Tavares’ production and the team’s success suggests that other Islanders just are not stepping up their games.  One player who might qualify as a disappointment so far is Andrew Ladd.  A member of two Stanley Cup winning teams (Carolina in 2006 and Chicago in 2010), Ladd has been one of the most reliable goal scorers in the league over the last six seasons entering this one, averaging about a third of a goal per game each year (a range of 0.29 – 0.38 goals per game and 26.9 goals per 82 games overall).  This year, however, Ladd has just two goals in 21 games, none in his last seven contests, and is on a pace to finish with eight goals, his lowest total since his first NHL season, when he had six goals in 29 games with the 2005-2006 Carolina Hurricanes.  Ladd is 14-19-33, plus-13, in 43 career games against the Caps.

Another player in the “disappointing” category might be an old friend of Caps fans.  Jason Chimera was signed away as a free agent by the Isles last summer, and he started the season with his new team with his new head coach having the idea of using him on the top line  Chimera did have points in three of his first five games, but that mini-run came to a screeching halt.  In his last 15 games he is 1-2-3 (the goal being his only one of the season so far).  None of this should surprise Caps fans, who watched Chimera display an odd “saw-tooth” pattern to his scoring.  In his six full seasons in Washington, Chimera’s goal totals were 10-20-3 (in 47 games of the shortened 2012-2013 season) -15-7-20.  With one goal so far, he seems on his way to a seventh year as a prisoner of that pattern.   Chimera is 1-2-3, plus-2 in six career games against the Caps.

1.  The Islanders have but seven wins going into their Wednesday night contest against Pittsburgh.  Only one of them has come against an Eastern Conference team, a 5-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on October 30th.

2.  New York special teams are struggling individually and together.  Both the power play (27th) and penalty kill (23rd) rank in the bottom third in the league, one of five teams to rank in the bottom third in both categories (Winnipeg, Colorado, Arizona, and Calgary are the others).  The Islanders have the fourth-worst special teams index – the sum of power play and penalty killing percentages (92.9) – in the league going into their Wednesday night game.

3.  Through Tuesday night’s games, there are149 players in the NHL with five or more goals scored this season.  The Islanders have two of them, John Tavares (6) and Brock Nelson (5).  No team has fewer, and only Detroit has two of their own.

4.  Speaking of “bottom third,” the Islanders find themselves in that position in a lot of categories… wins (7/30th), scoring offense (2.38/21st) scoring defense (2.95/T-23rd), shots on goal per game (29.0/24th), shots against per game (31.7/25th), faceoff winning percentage (48.9/23rd), wins when trailing after one period (0/one of four such teams), wins when scoring first (4/tied for 27th), one-goal wins (4/tied for 22nd), overtime losses (4/only three teams have more)…the Islanders do not come upon their record accidentally.

5.  Possession seems to be a four-letter word in Brooklyn. The Islanders are 29th in the league in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (46.07 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey).  They are 28th in this statistic on the road (44.61 percent).

1.  Washington allowed the first goal of a game only four times so far this season, fewest instances in the league.  By the same token, they are tied for fewest wins when allowing that first goal – one, that one coming in a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers on November 5th when the Caps allowed a Jared McCann goal to open the scoring.  Washington scored three unanswered goals in the third period for the win.

2.  Nicklas Backstrom is plus-3 for the season, which puts him at plus-99 for his career.  Only Rod Langway had a better plus-minus as a Capital (plus-117).

3.  Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson are tied for second in the league in game-winning goals (4), two behind Los Angeles’ Jeff Carter.

4.  The Caps have only one one-goal loss in regulation time this season.  Only two teams have yet to suffer a one-goal loss in regulation (Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay).

5.  The Caps are a very efficient team in one respect.  Well, two actually.  At 5-on-5, Washington has the third-best Corsi shooting percentage (goals as a share of shot attempts) – 4.58 percent.  They also have the fourth best Corsi save percentage (saves as a share of shot attempts) – 96.80 percent (numbers from Corsica.hockey).  Are those numbers sustainable?  We’ll see.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: The Goalies

If there is a situation that seems to capture the mess in which this club finds itself at the moment, it is the goaltending situation.  When the season started, there was the appearance of a hierarchy with Jaroslav Halak as the number one goaltender (he started and finished four of the first five games of the season) and Thomas Greiss as the backup.  By the end of October, though, the situation was in meltdown mode.  It started when the Islanders claimed Jean-Francois Berube on waivers in October 2015 from the Los Angeles Kings. The move was seen as a bit of an insurance policy against the possibility of injury to Halak, who did spend some time on injured reserve in the 2014-2015 season and whose availability to start the 2015-2016 season was in some doubt.  The injury fears played out as Halak missed the last 17 games of the 2015-2016 season to a groin injury.  What that led to was a three-headed goalie monster to start the 2016-2017 season – Halak, Berube, and Thomas Greiss – the second year the Islanders would go that route.  Those situations almost never work, and it did not in Brooklyn.

Halak wasn’t happy about the goalie rotation last season,  Berube wasn’t getting any work this season (he has yet to appear in a game), and Greiss seemed to be the goalie in front of whom the skaters performed best.  It got worse.  Allan Walsh (who also happens to be Berube’s agent) took to social media to stir the pot, questioning the wisdom of carrying three goalies, upon which it became known that the club let the other teams in the league know that Halak was available in trade.  Then, head coach Jack Capuano started Halak in seven straight games.  Halak was just good enough to be not terrible.  He went 1-2-4 in those seven games, two of the extra times decided in the freestyle competition.  His own numbers were not sterling (3.01/.910), but not really indicative of a six-time loser in seven games.  Greiss got the call in the last two games, allowing only four goals on 54 shots (.926) while splitting the decisions (1-0-1).

Washington: Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson is tough (played in every game in three of four seasons, including all 21 games this season), ornery (507 penalty minutes and 36 fighting majors in four seasons, both among the top five in the league over that span), and plays with a physical edge (697 hits, tenth among forwards over those four seasons).   That’s not bad for a young player who might be a fourth-round draft choice getting third line minutes, but Wilson is a 16th overall pick who was drafted with the idea of having “power forward,” with the scoring contributions that come with that, as his description.  His offensive development seems frozen in amber.  After posting career highs in goals, assists, and points last season; he has one goal – his only point – in 21 games this season.  That one goal is his only goal – his only point – in 35 regular season games dating back to last season.

You could argue that Wilson is still only 22 years old, certainly young enough to grow into a player who can contribute more in the offensive end of the rink.  And, his propensity for fighting has dropped off somewhat (one fight in his last 18 games), suggesting a growing maturity from which those offensive contributions might also grow.  On the other hand, Wilson does have more than 250 regular season games of experience on his resume and just 15 goals (strangely enough, 16th in his draft class, the same position at which he was picked).  Part of the problem, at least in recent games, is just not getting pucks on net.  He has five shots on goal in his last eight games and was shut out in five of them.  Wilson is 1-3-4, plus-3, in 13 career games against the Islanders.

In the end…

On the one hand, the Caps will be playing their first game in five days.  On the other hand, the Islanders are a team that is in a bad place, and we don’t just mean dead last in the league standings.  They aren’t getting much in the way of scoring, their goaltending is a mess, they have key pieces out of the lineup (Mikhail Grabovski and Dennis Seidenberg are on injured reserve), and they can’t win on the road or against the East.  If the Capitals do not take this club lightly, they could put the game away early.  Then again, if they get off to a good start and think, “this is in the bag,” or if they just think the Islanders are not in their class, it will make for a lot of grumbling after the game in Capitals Nation.  Never underestimate the pride of hockey players. 

Capitals 5 – Islanders 1

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 7

Week 7 for the Washington Capitals was a busy week with four games and an holiday to boot.  The holiday part, as well as the traditional games the nights before and after Thanksgiving, were happy.  The games to begin and end the week were a good deal less so, and overall there were ominous signs in what would be a .500 week.

Record: 2-2-0

When Week 7 began, the schedule looked accommodating to the Caps.  They would play three of their four games on home ice, and three of their four opponents were outside the playoff eligibility window, only the St. Louis Blues being a playoff-caliber club as the week began. When it was over, the Caps handled the Blues, although not without some drama (we’ll get to that problem in a bit), and they subdued a Buffalo Sabres team missing arguably their best player in Jack Eichel, who has yet to dress for a Sabres game this season (high-ankle sprain).

It was the first and last games of the week that bedeviled the Caps. And in those games, an issue bubbled to the surface.  In the Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs, you have two relatively young teams (the two youngest teams in the league at the start of the season).  Both have a measure of speed with some skilled youngsters.  And, they are hungry, trying to rise to the competitive elite in the Eastern Conference.  That combination in both teams seemed to catch the Capitals at their lackadaisical worst, especially late in those games in which both the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs scored a pair of goals in wins.

Offense:  2.75/game (season: 2.71 /game; rank: 12th)

A 2.75 goals-per-game week is not bad when you consider that the Caps were missing their number two goal scorer as the week began in T.J. Oshie (eight goals).  On the other hand, the Caps did face two backups, both of whom they defeated (four goals on St. Louis’ Carter Hutton and three against Buffalo’s Anders Nilsson).  The managed only four goals combined against the number one goalies they faced for the week, Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Toronto’s Frederik Andersen, both losses.

What is more, the secondary scorers did not step up in Oshie’s absence.  Alex Ovechkin finished the week with more than a third of the team’s goals for the week (four of 11), three of them in a hat trick performance against the Blues, his 16th career hat trick.  Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson each had a pair, but after that, it was three goals in four games from the support troops.  One might explain that away with the fact that the Blue Jackets and the Sabres are, perhaps surprisingly, in the top ten in the league in scoring defense, but getting goals from six skaters and points from 12 skaters cannot be considered either prolific or balanced offense.

Defense: 2.75/game (season:  2.24/game; rank: 4th)

The 2.75 goals against per game number for Week 7 is not what one would consider good, but neither was it as bad as it looks.  Let’s do a little unpacking.  First, there were the two teams to whom the Caps lost. Columbus and Toronto, with all those precocious youngsters, are both top-five teams in scoring offense in the league.  What’s more, they made offense count when they had it.  Both Columbus and Toronto entered the week having lost just one game in regulation when scoring three or more goals, not exactly a rarity in the NHL (there were 22 such teams at the end of Week 7, including the Caps, who have yet to lose such a game), but when the week ended, both still had one regulation loss when scoring three or more goals as both did to the Caps.

Then there was the 5-on-5 aspect.  The Caps actually won the week in that regard.  In fact, they lost only one game at fives, 3-2 to the Maple Leafs to close the week.  They held Columbus even (1-1), and beat St. Louis (3-1) and Buffalo (2-1).  Holding three teams to a goal apiece at 5-on-5 is not, on its face, indicative of defensive or goaltending breakdowns.  But there is more to this, and we’ll bet to that…in a bit.

Goaltending:  2.78 / .904 (season: 2.09 / .924 / 2 SO)

If hockey games were 40 minutes, Capitals goalies would have been brilliant in Week 7.  All in all, Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer were 34-for-35 in the first periods of games (.971 save percentage) and 32-for-33 in the second period (.970).  That third period, though.  Grubauer was fine, allowing only one goal on 15 shots (.933), but Holtby was just 23-for-29 (.793). 

That pattern was reflected in the even strength goaltending as well.  Overall, Holbyt and Grubauer stopped 82 of 89 shots at evens (.921 save percentage), but that broke down into 53-for-55 in the first two periods (.964) but only 29-for-34 in the third periods of games (.853).

The bright spot was Grubauer, who stopped 32 of 33 shots overall in the Caps’ 3-1 win over Buffalo on Friday.  It was the fourth time in five games this season in which he allowed two or fewer goals, and it was the fourth time in those five games in which he posted a save percentage of .920 or better in a game.  When the week was over, the Capitals were one of two teams (Buffalo was the other) with two goalies having appeared in at least 300 minutes with a save percentage of .920 or better (Holtby: .920; Grubauer: .936).

Power Play: 3-for-13 / 23.1 percent (season: 15.6 percent; rank: 18th)

If there was a ray of sunshine in Week 7, the power play was it.  A 23.1 percent power play efficiency rate might not be all that impressive in the context of the Caps’ power play in recent seasons, but given its struggles so far this season and the absence of T.J. Oshie from the lineup for all four games, it was a good result.

It was hardly a result that Alex Ovechkin led the team in power play goals (two) and shots (seven) for the week, but it was Brett Connolly who scored the other power play goal and had four power play shots for second-most in Week 7. The Caps had eight different players record power play shots on goal for the week and managed 21 shots in all in 19:52 in power play ice time (1.06 shots per minute).

Penalty Killing: 13-for-17 / 76.5 percent (season: 82.6 percent; rank: 16th)

And they were doing so well, too.  After a five-week stretch over which the Caps went 42-for-48 (87.5 percent) on the penalty kill, they struggled in Week 7.  You could almost see it coming.  The four clubs the Caps faced in Week 7 all were in the top dozen power plays in the league with the Blue Jackets having the most efficient power play in the NHL.

The Caps’ penalty killers were not quite up to that challenge, allowing power play goals in three of the four games, blanking only Buffalo while allowing a pair to the league-leading Blue Jackets.  The Caps did themselves no favors, though, by having to skate off 17 shorthanded situations in the four games.  It was, by far, the most shorthanded situations faced in a week by the Caps this season (11 in three games in Week 6).

The Caps spent more than a full period of the week killing penalties (21:34), and it could have been worse.  The Caps allowed Columbus, the league’s best power play, only three opportunities.  A good thing, since the Blue Jackets converted two of those three opportunities on just three shots in only 2:25 of power play time.  As it was, the Caps allowed four opponents four goals on 24 shots on goal in 21:34 of shorthanded ice time.  It was not a good week.

Faceoffs: 128-for-248 / 51.6 percent (season: 51.1 percent / rank: 8th)

It was an uneven week in some respects for the Caps on faceoffs for the week.  They alternated games with better than 50 percent winning percentages (against St. Louis and Toronto) and less than 50 percent (against Columbus and Buffalo).  And, they were a better than 50 percent club for the week in the offensive zone, while losing more than 50 percent in the defensive end. 

Of four players taking more than ten draws for the week, three of them finished Week 7 better than 50 percent.  Nicklas Backstrom was 35-for-65 (53.8 percent), Lars Eller was 19-for-37 (51.4 percent), and Jay Beagle was 38-for-62 (62.3 percent).  Backstrom had a particularly odd week.  He was 17-for-26 in the offensive zone (65.4 percent) but just 4-for-17 (23.5 percent) in the defensive end.

Goals by Period:

Well, here we are “in a bit.”  The Caps allowed 11 goals for the week.   Only one of them came in the first period, only three of them in the second period.  But that third period…woof.  Seven goals allowed, four of them in the last five minutes of the period, three of them in the last two minutes of regulation time.  Sure, two of those goals scored the last two minutes came when the Caps held a 4-1 lead over St. Louis, but if Week 7 has a take away, it was the incomprehensible inability of the Caps to put games away and finish them strong, especially as one of the best scoring defenses in the league overall. 

It seemed as every game had its third period disappointment.  The Caps blew a 2-1 third period lead in losing to the Blue Jackets, 3-2. They allowed two goals in the last 75 seconds to turn a mini-rout into a nail-biter against the Blues.  They allowed the Sabres to claw within a goal before scoring a late power play goal to win, 3-2.  Then there was the third period goal scored by Toronto barely two minutes after a Nicklas Backstrom goal to get the Caps within 3-1 and threaten to make a game of it to close the week.  When it was over, the Caps were tied for having allowed the tenth-most third period goals for the season.  Of the ten other teams with whom the Caps are tied or who have allowed more third-period goals, nine of them are outside the playoff eligibility window.  This is not a good neighborhood in which to find oneself.

In the end…

Beating St. Louis was an encouraging sign for the Caps, defeating a club with the second-best record in the Western Conference and one that had been on a four-game winning streak.  The rest of the week was not confidence inspiring.  The Caps beat Buffalo, a team that they should frankly have dominated, the Sabres’ surprisingly efficient scoring defense notwithstanding.

The loss to Columbus, coming as it did a week after giving up and third period lead to lose in overtime, then doing it again (with the loss coming in regulation) was frustrating.  The loss to Toronto, even in the back-half, road-portion of a back-to-back set of games, seemed like the sort of game that the Caps would put away efficiently last season.

Then there is the third period goal problem.  Seven goals in four third periods for the week is a problem that needs to be corrected.  Quickly.  That is the kind of thing that can become a bad habit or a characteristic that could rear its ugly head at the most inopportune moments, like trying to close out a team in a series-clinching opportunity in the playoffs.

If Week 7 was not quite a going-through-the-motions sort of week, it looked a lot like a team that thought a little too much of itself and its confidence to turn on the afterburners when it counts.  That’s the sort of thing out of which .500 weeks are made.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Alex Ovechkin (4-2-6, plus-3, 16th career hat trick, one game-winning goal, 16 shots on goal, 31 shot attempts, six hits)
  • Second Star: Nicklas Backstrom (2-3-5, plus-2, 180th and 181st multi-point games of his career (tied Joe Thornton for fifth-most since Backstrom came into the league and third in Caps’ history), 53.8 percent on faceoffs)
  • Third Star: Philipp Grubauer (1-0-0, 32 saves on 33 shots in win over Buffalo on his birthday)