Sunday, April 19, 2015

Eastern Conference Quarterfinal - Game 3: Islanders 2 - Capitals 1 (OT)

The Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders met on Sunday afternoon to break a 1-1 series tie in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.  It took extra time to break that tie, but precious little of it as the Islanders scored 15 seconds into overtime to take a 2-1 decision and a 2-1 series lead over the Caps.

The game held to form in one important respect in that the team that dominated the possession numbers skated off with a win.  The Islanders did just that from the drop of the puck, dominating in shots in the first period, 16-5 overall, and in shot attempts, 29-13.  If not for the effort of Caps goalie Braden Holtby, who returned to action after missing Game 2 to illness, the game might have been over early.  Holtby stopped all 16 shots he faced to allow the Caps to escape to the first intermission in a scoreless tie.

It would be the Islanders breaking on top, though, when Lubomir Visnovsky wired a shot from the top of the right wing faceoff circle that Kyle Okposo redirected past Holtby to make it 1-0 12:37 into the second period.

The Caps were unable to solve Islander goalie Jaroslav Halak in the first 40 minutes, but they broke through late in the third period.  Nicklas Backstrom started the scoring sequence from behind the Islander net.  He chipped a pass to Mike Green backing through the right wing circle, Green returning the puck to Backstrom circling out and around the faceoff circle in Green’s wake.  Backstrom curled out to the high slot where he fired a shot that snaked its way through a maze of bodies screening Halak and into the back of the net to tie the game with 6:06 left in regulation.

That did it for the scoring in the 60 minutes of regulation.  But on a day that was the 28th anniversary of the end of the four-overtime “Easter Epic” between these teams, extra time would end in a blink.  Johnny Boychuk fired a shot into the Caps’ end that was gloved down by Holtby, who swept the puck off to John Carlson in the corner to his right.  Carlson received the puck and in one motion sent it up the right wing boards, but not out.  Nick Leddy kept the puck in at the blue line and fired it toward the cage from the point.  Nikolai Kulemin tried to redirect the puck past Holtby, but Holtby managed to steer the puck off to his right.  As luck – Caps luck – would have it, the puck ended up on the tape of John Tavares who snapped it back behind Holtby’s back and into the far side of the net to give the Islanders a 2-1 win on the scoreboard and a 2-1 lead in games.

Other stuff…

-- The end in overtime is always like a thunderclap, but in this instance it was a lot of little things that went wrong for the Caps and right for the Islanders in those 15 seconds of overtime.  There was John Tavares beating Nicklas Backstrom on the draw to open the overtime (Backstrom was 5-for-13 against Tavares on draws for the game).  There was John Carlson’s no-look sweep of the puck up the boards into traffic.  There was Joel Ward along the wall, unable to deflect the puck up and out of the zone past Nick Leddy.  There was Brooks Orpik getting a stick on the rebound of Kulemin’s redirect that Holtby kicked out, forcing Holtby to kick his right pad out once more and sending the puck down the goal line to his right.  There was Carlson neither getting a body on Tavares nor tying up his stick before Tavares got his shot off.  There was Holtby, leaving just enough room off the near post after having to defend the puck twice in bang-bang fashion for Tavares’ shot to sneak through.  It was a sequence that you couldn’t duplicate, but one that could loom large in this series.

-- The Islanders held a 64-45 advantage in shot attempts at 5-on-5, a 31-22 advantage in scoring chances (numbers from war-on-ice.com). 

-- Alex Ovechkin finished with 14 of the Caps’ 57 shot attempts overall.  He was held, however, to just three shots on goal.  He has one goal on 15 shots and 36 shot attempt in three games.  13 of those shot attempts were blocked, nine of them in this game alone.

-- This was the first time this season that Braden Holtby faced more than 40 shots in a game (he saw 40 shots in a 3-2 win over Chicago on November 7th). 

-- Every Islander skater recorded at least one shot on goal.  Every Capital skater recorded at least one hit.

-- Eric Fehr skated two shifts and just 1:19 before going out with an upper-body injury.  It appeared to be a re-injury of his shoulder, a problem for Fehr over the late stages of the regular season.  Marcus Johansson went out late in the first period when he appeared to have taken a skate blade to his calf, but he returned for the second period and finished the game.

--  Secondary scoring means secondary effort.  Troy Brouwer: one shot attempt (one shot); Evgeny Kuznetsov: two shot attempts (one shot); Jason Chimera: no shot attempts; Jay Beagle: no shot attempts.

-- On the other hand, 16 of the Caps’ 57 shot attempts came from the defense, nine of them on goal.  Brooks Orpik was the only defenseman not to register a shot on goal.

-- A statistic you do not want to see associated with Nicklas Backstrom.  The Islanders have nine goals in this series; Backstrom was on ice for six of them, including the game-winner in this game (but as an observer, not a culprit, except for losing that draw to open overtime).

-- The Caps returned to that whole “one goal” thing against Jaroslav Halak.  He has held the Caps to a single goal in five of his last six games against Washington.

In the end…

The Islanders outplayed the Caps over more and over longer stretches of this game, particularly early in the contest, than vice versa.  In that respect the result is not surprising.  However, this was a game that was lying in plain sight, waiting to be stolen.  There is nothing to suggest that panic is in order, but on the other hand the Caps have been asleep at the start of games twice in three contests.  And now they have to deal with the possibility of the loss of a valuable, versatile forward in Eric Fehr. 

Falling behind two games to one, losing a forward to injury, letting a chance to steal a game get away, uneven play from the big guns, inconsistent production from the secondary scorers.  A team often has to deal with adversity and overcome it on their way to a deep playoff run.  Well, this is what adversity looks like for the Caps.  We will see if they deal with it any better than they have in past playoff seasons when they take the ice for Game 4.

Game 3...The Canary in the Coal Mine?

The Washington Capitals have played 33 "Game 3's" in their post season history (in seven-game series).  It is a point in a series in which the Caps have not been very successful.  Of those 33 instances, they lost 23 times.  And in those series in which they lost Game 3, their series record is 6-17.

Washington has lost Game 3 in each of the last five post season series in which they played, winning two of those series (in five games against the New York Rangers in 2011 and in seven games against the Boston Bruins in 2012).  They lost Game 3 three times in those last five instances, going on to lose in a four-game sweep to Tampa Bay in 2011, then twice losing in seven games to the Rangers (in 2012 and 2013).

Winning Game 3 is kinder to the Caps.  In the ten instances in which they won Game 3 in a playoff series, the Caps have a 5-5 record in the series.  The thing here is, the Caps have only two Game 3 wins out of 13 Games 3 played since they beat the Buffalo Sabres in Game 3 of the 1998 Eastern Conference final and went on to defeat the Sabres in six games to advance to the team's only Stanley Cup final.  They defeated the Rangers in Game 3 of their 2009 meeting, the Caps going on to win the series in seven games.  The Caps beat the Montreal Canadiens in Game 3 of their 2010 series, but it was the Canadiens who would advance, winning that series in seven games.

One thing that fans might count on, the game will be close.  Six of the last seven Games 3 played by the Caps were one-goal games, one of them a three-overtime loss to the Rangers in 2012.

Decades of history are not the best predictor of results today; after all, many of these players had not been born when the Caps lost Game 3 of the 1984 Patrick Division final to the New York Islanders (a series the Islanders won in five games).  Still...it would be a lot better winning this game than losing it, but you knew that already.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Play Hungry

In Game 1 against the New York Islanders, the Washington Capitals played passively in a curiously quiet arena.  Game 2 was another matter.  The team was hungry for a win, and the fans were in full-throated roar.  The recipe was hardly complicated...


Fifty-nine hits in 60 minutes.  The Capitals treated the Islanders like raw meat.  And there is they key going forward...stay hungry.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Eastern Conference Quarterfinal - Game 1: Islanders 4 - Capitals 1

Well, that didn’t go so well, did it? 

The Washington Capitals opened their 2015 post season by laying an egg, dropping a 4-1 decision to the New York Islanders at Verizon Center on Wednesday night, ceding home ice advantage to the Isles and putting themselves in a hole to start their first round series.

The Islanders scored early, scored late, and stifled the Caps in between.  Brock Nelson took care of the early scoring off a neutral zone turnover by the Caps, taking a feed at the Caps’ blue line from Josh Bailey, skating down the right side, and firing a shot past goalie Braden Holtby’s glove that Holtby might want to have back.  The Islanders had a 1-9 lead 6:06 into the game.

The Caps evened the game late in the period on fine efforts by Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson.  Laich applied pressure below the Islanders goal line prying the puck away from goalie Jaroslav Halak, then outdueling Nick Leddy for the loose puck, sliding it out to Johansson stepping down the right wing.  Johansson took the pass in stride and wired a shot past Halak’s blocker, and it was 1-1 with just 56.3 seconds left in the first period.

That would do it for the Caps on the scoreboard.   At the other end, the Islanders got a pair of second period goals, the first from Ryan Strome less than four minutes into the period.  John Tavares beat Michael Latta cleanly on a faceoff from the left wing circle in the Caps end.  He pulled the puck back to Strome who wasted no time snapping a shot over Holtby’s right shoulder to give the Islanders a 2-1 lead. 

Mid-way through the period the Isles added some insurance.  With the Islanders applying heavy pressure in the Caps’ end, they worked the puck to the front of the net where it squirted out to Holtby’s left.  Josh Bailey got two whacks at the puck the second one sufficient to nudge it under Holtby and just over the line before Karl Alzner could sweep it out and under Holtby.

The Islanders got an empty net goal from Brock Nelson, his second goal of the game, with 1:20 left to give the visitors their final 4-1 margin.

Other stuff…

-- The possession numbers favored the Islanders, who out-attempted the Caps, 65-55 overall.  It really was not that close.  In close score situations at 5-on-5, the Isles held a 36-18 advantage in shot attempts and a 13-8 advantage in scoring chances (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

-- Rough night for the defensive pair of Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner.   Niskanen was on ice for all four goals against, Alzner for three.  Niskanen’s Corsi plus-minus at 5-on-5, close score situations, was minus-11, Alzner’s was minus-10.

-- Only one Capital – one – managed to finish as high as “even” in Corsi plus-minus at 5-on-5 close.  Alex Ovechkin finished even and was the only Cap with a “plus” Fenwick number in those situations (plus-4). 

-- Until tonight, Braden Holtby’s record in first games of a playoff season was 2-0, but more important was his .970 save percentage.  Tonight, three goals on 26 shots (.885).

-- That one faceoff loss by Latta sticks out on a night that otherwise was kind to the Caps in the circle.  Latta was 7-for-9 overall, while the team went 39-for-62 (62.9 percent).

-- Twenty five shots on goal is not enough volume against Halak, and what made it worse was that Ovechkin had almost a third of those attempts (eight).  The other 17 skaters shared 17 shots, only Joel Ward having as many as three.  Ovechkin finished with 13 of the Caps’ 55 shot attempts.

-- The Caps had a lot of contributions on offense from the defensemen this season, but not against the Islanders.  That carried over into this game.  No points from defensemen, only five shots on goal.  John Carlson had five shots blocked.

-- It might not be the best time to bring this up, but Halak’s save percentage in the last four post season games he faced the Caps is .975 (155-for-159).  He has gone four straight playoff games against the Caps allowing a single goal.

-- Maybe the plan is to tenderize the Islanders.  The Caps were credited with 46 hits (the Islanders had 36).  Brooks Orpik had nine of them for Washington.

-- in the post 2004-2005 lockout era, the Caps are 2-3 in series when dropping the first game, 1-2 when dropping the first game at home.

In the end…

Keep telling yourselves, “it’s first to ‘four,’ not first to ‘one.’”  But the fact is that this series probably is going to turn on possession.  If the Islanders can dominate the possession numbers, it is evidence that the Caps’ “heavy” game is not being applied effectively.   In that context, what Caps fans might look for is the extent to which the steady application of such a “heavy” game wears down the Islanders before they can get to “four.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Capitals vs. Islanders

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals begin their march to the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night when they host the New York Islanders at Verizon Center.

The Caps and the Islanders have a rich history of playoff meetings, the teams having met six times in the post season:
  • 1983 Patrick Division Semifinal - Islanders win best-of-five, 3-1
  • 1984 Patrick Division Final – Islanders win best-of-seven, 4-1
  • 1985 Patrick Division Semifinal – Islanders win best-of-five, 3-2
  • 1986 Patrick Division Semifinal – Capitals win best-of-five, 3-0
  • 1987 Patrick Division Semifinal – Islanders win best-of-seven, 4-3
  • 1993 Patrick Division Semifinal – Islanders in best-of-seven, 4-2
Younger Caps fans, be advised.  Before the Pittsburgh Penguins perpetrated their version of grief on the Caps, there were the Islanders.  The Caps have never beaten the Isles in a seven-game series.  In all three best-of-seven series the teams played, the Caps won Game 1.  They took a three-games-to-one lead in 1987 before losing the series in the most excruciating manner imaginable:


But this will be the first meeting of the clubs in the post season in 22 years.  Of more recent relevance, the teams met four times this season, each club holding serve twice on home ice with three of the games decided in extra time:



The series might have been close on the scoreboard, but there are two things to note in the summary stats.  First, the Islanders have dominated the shots and shot attempts – 28 percent more shots on goal in the four games, 23 percent more shot attempts.  Second, special teams have been kind to both clubs, at least in terms of their respective power plays, both clubs converting more than 30 percent of their chances.  On that last point, the Caps suffered a problem consistent with one with which they had to deal all season – lack of power play opportunities.  Despite a better conversion rate than the Islanders, the Caps lost the special teams battle, 4-3.

In terms of individual scoring, the Caps have the usual suspects – Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom – leading the list.  The Islanders, on the other hand, have spread things around a bit more.  Overall, eight Islanders scored goals in the four-game season series, while 17 skaters recorded points.  For the Caps, eight players have goals (a third of the total coming from Ovechkin), and 15 players have points.  What the Islanders have been able to do, to an extent, is limit Ovechkin’s shots on goal.  He had 36 shot attempts in the four games, but 16 on goal, slightly lower than his 4.88 shots per game for the season overall.


Goaltending for each club is consistent with their season, at least in the workload.  Braden Holtby played every minute of the four games for the Caps. Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson split the duties for the Islanders, Halak recording both wins for the Isles, Johnson taking both losses.  The heavy shot volumes by the Islanders took a toll on Holtby’s goals against average and save percentage, both among the worst he posted against any Eastern Conference team this season.  Conversely, Halak has a respectable goals against average, but his .906 save percentage suggests a weakness at the most important position in a short series.


In terms of the teams’ overall performance this season, here is how they compare:


Who’s hot?

The Caps were 9-3-1 in their last 13 games of the regular season.  Only five times in those 13 games did they allow more than two goals.  Four of those occurrences came in the four losses, all four times the Caps falling into a 0-3 deficit.

Who’s not?

The Islanders came limping into the post season.  They went 6-8-5 in their last 19 games and did not win consecutive games at any point in that span of games (four of the extra time losses came in the Gimmick).  Scoring goals was a challenge.  They had a four game losing streak in that run in which they scored a single goal in each game, and they had a three-game losing streak in which they scored two goals or fewer.

Random facts to impress your friends and annoy your enemies...
  • Getting a lead matters, to a point.  The team that scored the first goal won three of the four games in the season series.  Only in the last game, when Anders Lee opened the scoring for the Islanders in a 4-3 overtime Caps win, did this not hold true.
  • Three times in this series the Islanders held a dominating shot and shot attempt advantage (Games 1, 3, and 4 of the season series).  However, all three of those games went to overtime.  In the one game in which the Caps held an advantage (Game 2), the Caps won going away, 5-2, scoring the game’s last three goals.
  • The Caps enjoyed significant contributions from the blue line offensively over the course of the season.  Not so much in the season series against New York, with one notable exception.  Of the Caps defensemen likely to play in this series, John Carlson and Mike Green each recorded an assist over the four games.  Neither Karl Alzner nor Brooks Orpik recorded a point.  On the other hand, Matt Niskanen went 1-4-5 in the four games (Tim Gleason did not appear against the Islanders as a Capital this season).
  • Power plays figured heavily in the outcomes of two games in this series.  Both Islander wins came in extra time on power plays, when the space available in a 4-on-3 advantage was greater than in 5-on-4 situations in regulation time.
  • The Caps outscored the Islanders, 6-2, in the third period of the four games in the season series.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

It is a given that if the stars – Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares – do not perform to their capabilities, the opponent is likely to advance.  But what players for each team that lack that kind of star power have to step up their game?

New York: Josh Bailey

In the four games against the Caps this season, Josh Bailey had one assist and was minus-1, despite averaging almost 17 minutes a game.  It was a curiously underwhelming performance given that Bailey finished the season with 15 goals (one below his career best in 2009-2010) and 41 points (a career high).  He comes into the post season without a goal in his last 11 regular season games and one in his last 15 contests.  He is 3-6-9, minus-4, in 27 career regular season games against Washington.

Washington: Mike Green

The Caps did not get much in terms of offense from its defense against the Islanders this season, with the exception of Matt Niskanen, and that largely the product of a three-assist game in the Caps’ 5-2 win last November 28th).  If the Caps can get more production out of the blue line and soften up the Islanders, the path to the second round of the playoffs becomes somewhat easier.  Green started showing signs of his old goal-scoring prowess late in the season.  He had five goals in his last 12 regular season games after recording only five goals in his first 60 games of the season.  He does not dominate the ice time he did in his younger days, but his one power play goal for the season was his lowest total in any season since his first full year – none in 70 games of the 2006-2007 season.  Green is 4-11-15, minus-2, in 27 career games against New York

In the end…

This series might just boil down to a trade-off between two questions.  Can the Caps dominate special teams?  Can the Islanders dominate the shot meter?  If the Caps can answer the first question in the affirmative and keep the Islanders from doing the same with the latter question, they win.  If the reverse is true, if the Islanders dominate the shot meter and keep the Caps from doing damage on their power play, they will advance. 

Where this series tilts is suggested by the season series.  Even when dominating the shot meter, the Islanders could only manage to drag things out into extra time.  When the Caps negated that advantage, they dispatched the Islanders with room to spare.

Those questions will turn on how the goaltenders can perform against the other team’s strengths.  In that regard, the Capitals have an advantage.  This is not 2010, and this Jaroslav Halak is not that Jaroslav Halak.  



Quoth the Eagle... "Just Win Four"

An ode to the first round...

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of playoff lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the sunny April;
And as I was eating a bagel, crumbs of which were on floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for disappointments in years before—
All those playoff losses from Capital seasons of yore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And I sat here, sad and surly, thinking of each red-rocked jersey
That killed me—filled me with those tragic images often felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken were the whispered words, “Win Four.”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the words, “Win four!”—
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Eagle of the Capitals days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Langway just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this regal bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the piercing sound upon its call,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Eagle wandering from the Ballston Mall—
Tell me what thy message is that you would scrawl upon the wall!”
Quoth the Eagle “just win four.”

Much I marvelled this majestic raptor to hear discourse verse and chapter,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With the message of “just win four.”

But the Eagle, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
Just those words, as if his soul in those few words he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other teams could not win four.”
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.
Then the bird said “just win four.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster with playoff wins a fruitless chore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘four’—just win four’.”

But the Eagle still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
To NHL.com, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “just win four.”

Thus I sat a nervous wreck, watching tape of hip and poke checks
With the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
Hoping that the Caps win four!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of playoff yore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this playoff lore!”
Quoth the Eagle “just win four.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Verizon?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Eagle “just win four.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that sport we both adore—
Tell this fan with who is so uptight if, within the next fortnight,
It shall clasp a vision of a team that can win four—
Clasp a vision of a team that can ‘win four.’”
Quoth the Eagle “If they can score.”

“Be those words our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no white plume as a token of faint hope thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my sadness still unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Eagle “geez, what a bore!”

And the Eagle, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Langway just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a Bettman, always scheming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—if the Caps win four!

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You the Bracket to Break All Brackets

The 2015 NHL playoffs are about to begin, and hockey fans are filling out their brackets, using pencils left over from March Madness and making changes using the tears of University of Kentucky basketball fans).

The cousins and I put our heads together (seriously, Cheerless head-butted both Fearless and myself trying to get the bracket all to himself so he could pencil in the Cleveland Barons as Stanley Cup champion) and came up with a truly inspired bracket for our entry in the NHL Bracket Challenge...



(click on picture for larger image)

We're thinking that in the first round...
  • Ottawa's hotness will prevail over Montreal's Carey Price.
  • Tampa Bay's almost anonymously fine season continues.
  • The Pens get a couple of fine performances from Crosby and Malkin, but the Rangers are just far too deep at every position.
  • The Caps are healthier than the Islanders.
  • Dub stubs his toe against St. Louis.
  • The Blackhawks get a dose of Kane just in time.
  • Winnipeg fans get to cheer another day; Bruce is disappointed once more.
  • Calgary is more than Johnny Hockey.

In the second round...
  • The Ottawa run will end, but not in the second round.
  • The Rangers perform to their possession level.
  • It's just St. Louis' turn.
  • Winnipeg's feisty, frisky style overwhelms the Flames.

In the conference finals...
  • All good things come to an end, and you can only stay hot for so long, Senators, so... so long.
  • St. Louis is just better.

And, in the finals...

When all is said and done, Alex Ovechkin gets the prize that eluded him for ten years, and no one is going to be ignorant of who Nicklas Backstrom is and his place among the game's best.



Caution: Playoff Construction Area (Rookies Under Development)

There once was a sit-com on network television that featured the clumsy antics of a low-rated cable network do-it-yourself show host.  One of the continuing features of “Home Improvement” was the appearance of the boys from “K&B Construction,” professional tradesmen who were skilled at their craft, if a bit odd.

As the Washington Capitals prepare for the post-season opener on Wednesday against the New York Islanders, they will be looking for that slightest edge, the one thing that can enable them to craft an opening series win over the New York Islanders and build a deep playoff run.

Perhaps the answer lies with their own “K&B” boys.  Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky have had their ups and downs as rookies this season, but with a full regular season in the book (granted, Burakovsky appeared in only 53 games) they have become accustomed to the pace of the NHL game. 

The playoffs are a different animal, but so, too, might these two rookies.  The Caps are one of two Eastern Conference playoff teams (Ottawa is the other) with two rookies among the top-20 rookies in points.  Kuznetsov finished ninth in rookie scoring (11-26-37), while Burakovsky finished in a tie for 20th (9-13-22).  Both finished in the top-15 among rookies in points per game.

Burakovsky’s availability is in question (he may be assigned to Hershey for their playoff run), but Kuznetsov could get time as a scoring line center.  He certainly has stepped up his scoring pace in the second half of the season.  In his last 36 games, Kuznetsov went 7-15-22, plus-5, a 50-point scoring pace over a full 82-game season.  He accomplished that despite having no games in which he skated as many as 20 minutes and skating fewer than 15 minutes a total of 21 times, largely in fourth line duty.

As noted, Burakovsky’s presence in the post-season is iffy (his call-up from Hershey late in the season was an emergency sort, owing to an injury to another player).  However, at season’s end, among Capitals appearing in at least 20 games, Burakovsky had the second highest points-per-60 minutes at 5-on-5 (2.07; numbers from behindthenet.ca).  He also had the team’s best shooting percentage in those situations (10.9 percent) and its third best PDO (1022).  Although he had somewhat sheltered minutes (64.3 percent offensive zone starts, tops on the club), he was productive when called upon.

One does not expect either Kuznetsov or Burakovsky to dominate in the post season.  After all, Nicklas Backstrom is the only Capital, age 22 or younger, to ever have averaged more than half a point per playoff game in a post season, minimum of ten post season games played (Kuznetsov is 22; Burakovsky is 20).  However, to the extent they can surprise with some timely offense, the “K&B Boys” might be the right tools for the job of getting the Caps past the Islanders and deep into the 2015 post season.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

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

Week 27, the last week of the regular season in the NHL, was a good one for the Washington Capitals.  They completed their 16th winning week of the season and finished the regular season with only five losing weeks in 27.  It suggested a kind of consistency or, dare we say it, grit, that has often been lacking in previous editions of the franchise.


Record: 2-1-0

The two wins in Week 27 allowed the Caps to finish the regular season with 45 wins, the seventh time in 40 seasons that the Caps reached that mark in wins.  The 101-point season was their eighth 100-point season in franchise history and the fourth in ten seasons since the 2004-2005 lockout.  While 100 points is not quite what it used to be, the NHL now characterized by the frequent three-point game resulting from overtimes and shootouts, it was still a respectable end to a respectable season.  A welcome change from the way the 2013-2014 regular season ended, with wheeze – a 1-0 Gimmick loss in the last game of a lost season.


Offense:  2.33/game (season: 2.89/game; rank: 6th)

It was a comparatively light week on offense.  Only seven goals scored, no player with more than one.  The good part of that is that there were seven different goal scorers.  Call it balance of a sort.  Two of them had special meaning for the players involved.  Matt Niskanen scored against Boston, ending a 37-game streak without having scored a goal in the month of April, dating back to April 2008.  Stan Galiev scored a late goal against the Rangers in the last game of the week and the season, his first goal in his NHL career.  In a way, it was symbolic.  The first goal of the Caps’ season was the first of the player’s career – Andre Burakovsky against Montreal back on Opening Night.  The last one was another first-goal. An optimistic fan would think that a good sign for the future.

Overall, Nicklas Backstrom led the week in points (0-3-3) and finished the regular season as the league leader in assists.  It was his fourth 60-assist season and second in a row.  Since Backstrom came into the league, only Henrik Sedin has more 60-assist seasons (five).  Only Sedin (472) and Joe Thornton (451) have more total assists in that period than Backstrom (427).

Defense: 1.67/game (season: 2.43/game; rank: 7th)

The Caps managed to shave more than a third of a goal per game off their scoring defense from last season (from 2.79 to 2.44).  They cut their shots allowed per game by almost five (from 33.5 to 28.9).  In Week 27 the scoring defense was there – five goals allowed in three games, one of them an empty-netter – but the shots allowed were on the high side (32.3 per game).  The problem there was in the second periods of games. The Caps allowed 38 shots in the middle periods of the three games, 16 of them to the Detroit Red Wings in the game to open the week.

The Caps had a decent week in terms of their underlying numbers.  At 5-on-5 overall, their Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages were 50.2 and 51.3, respectively.  Those numbers might sound a little better than they were since the Corsi and Fenwick plus-minus values were plus-1 and plus 5, respectively.

The numbers were better in close score situations, the Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages being 53.8 and 58.6, respectively.  The Corsi and Fenwick plus-minus values were correspondingly better – plus-6 and plus-10, respectively.  The Caps were on the good side of 50 percent and the plus-minus divide in all three games in close score situations.

Goaltending: 1.34 / .958 / 1 shutout (season: 2.38 / .917 / 9 shutouts)

Braden Holtby ended the regular season with a flourish.  Not even the three-goals-allowed performance on Saturday could cause much of a blemish to either the week or the season.  For the season, Holtby tied a franchise record for games played (73, with Olaf Kolzig in 1999-2000).  He tied Kolzig for the team record in wins for a season (41).  Holtby set a team record for save percentage in a season (minimum: 40 games played).  His .923 save percentage topped the .920 set by Kolzig in 1997-1998.  He posted the second lowest goals against average in a season in team history (minimum: 40 games played) with his 2.22 GAA.  Only Kolzig’s 2.20 GAA in 1997-1998 was lower.  Holtby’s 4,247 minutes is the third-highest total in team history.

For the season he finished among the league leaders in a number of categories:
  • Games played: 73 (1st)
  • Wins: 41 (T-2nd)
  • Goals against average: 2.22 (5th)
  • Save percentage: .923 (8th)
  • Even strength save percentage: .929 (13th; minimum: 25 games)
His performance in Week 27 was among his better overall weeks.  He allowed only two even strength goals for the week, both against the New York Rangers, on his way to posting a .972 even strength save percentage for the week.  He is heading into the post-season right where his season numbers suggest he should be.  Holtby was 9-2-1, 2.25, .923, with two shutouts over his last 13 appearances.

Power Play: 2-for-7 / 28.6 percent (season: 25.3 percent; rank: 1st)

As has been the case so often this season, the Caps power play was effective (two goals) and efficient (28.6 percent conversion), but lacked frequency (seven instances in three games).  Washington finished 23rd in the league in total power play opportunities for the season, meaning that despite finishing with the league’s most efficient power play (25.3 percent), they were tied for second in goals – 60, with Philadelphia, ten behind Detroit, who had 57 more opportunities than the Caps.

The Caps made the best of scarce opportunities in Week 27.  They converted twice in seven opportunities, scoring their two goals on seven shots in just 10:46 of power play time for the week.  It was typical.  The Caps finished the season with total power play time (371:06) that was the third-lowest number in the league. Only Boston (368:31) and New Jersey (356:44) spent less time on the power play.  The low power play ice time number made the Caps the most efficient team in the league in another respect.  They average one power play goal for every 6:11 of power play time, far better than the second-place team in this regard (Detroit; one goal per 6:43 in power play ice time).


Penalty Killing: 7-for-9 / 77.8 percent (season: 81.2 percent; rank: 14th)

Week 27 was more or less typical, which is to say more or less mediocre.  The Caps allowed a pair of power play goals, offsetting their own power play performance.  It was a bit of an odd week, a silent penalty kill that faced no shorthanded situations against Boston sandwiched between games in which the Caps allowed double digit shots to opponents’ power plays.  Overall, the Caps allowed two power play goals on 24 shots in 14:46 of shorthanded ice time.

As things ended, the Caps faced the eighth-highest number of shorthanded situations in the league (266, tied with Philadelphia, Toronto, and Vancouver).  They were able to do a bit better in efficiency, though. The Caps finished 17th in shots allowed per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time (53.7) and they finished 16th in goals allowed per minute of shorthanded ice time (one goal per 8:55).


Even Strength Goals for/Goals Against: 5-3 / plus-2 (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 1.08; rank: T-12th)

If there was one thing that killed the Caps’ playoff chances in 2013-2014, it was their ability to take advantage at 5-on-5.  Their goals-for/goals-against ratio of 0.90 was 23rd in the league.  Every team below them in the rankings missed the playoffs and earned fewer standings points than the Caps.  This season the Caps made progress.  They were not a dominating team at 5-on-5, but they did score more than they gave up, their 1.08 goals-for/goals-against ratio finishing tied for 12th in the league (coincidentally, with their first-round playoff opponent, the New York Islanders).

In Week 27 the Caps had a pretty good week.  Discounting the empty netter scored by the Rangers in their 4-2 win, the Caps were five to the good and two to the bad in goals.  It was better than their shot advantage (76-71, not counting the empty net goal).  The promising part of that was the Caps’ even strength shot advantage early.  They out-shot their opponents at even strength by a 34-24 margin in the first periods of games.

Faceoffs: 86-172 / 50.0 percent (season: 51.2% / rank: 12th)

As is the case with a 50 percent week, it was not good, and it was not bad, at least at the top end level.  Drilling down, the Caps were just one over 50 percent in the offensive zone (29-for-57), and the best of that was among players from whom not a lot of offense is expected or who do not take a lot of draws.  Brooks Laich, Michael Latta, Joel Ward, and Curtis Glencross were a combined 12-for-16 (75.0 percent).  Not seeing scoring line centers there.

The Caps did worse overall in the defensive zone (30-for-63), and that is attributed to, in part, the guys who take few draws or are expected to contribute more on defense.  Laich, Latta, and Joel Ward were a combined 10-for-26 (38.5 percent).

Overall, the Caps finished 11th in the league with a 51.2 percent winning percentage.  It was an improvement over last season’s 23rd-place ranking (48.4 percent).

Goals by Period:


With the light scoring week, both for and against, there was not much to take from goals scored by period.  The Caps had an advantage in the first two periods, a product of scoring first in their first two games of the week (in fact, getting out to multi-goal leads), one in the first period of their 2-1 win over Detroit and two in their 3-0 win over Boston.  That was turned against them against the Rangers, who scored a pair of first period goals against the Caps in what would be Washington’s only loss for the week.

In the end…

The week-by-week record of the Caps is perhaps their best argument for a long playoff run.  This is not a team given to streaks, but rather one that doggedly grinds out more wins than losses on a consistent basis.  The disappointment of years past in the post season has been the Caps ability to take a lead in series, but an inability to close the deal.  The 27-week performance of this team suggests perhaps a different profile.

As for Week 27, it was somewhat typical of so many weeks this season – an efficient power play that gets few opportunities to shine, a penalty kill that is middle-of-the road, excellent goaltending, decent possession numbers.  Most important, there was the winning, and 16 winning weeks with only five losing weeks in a 27-week season is a good way to be going into the post season.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Braden Holtby (1.34, .958, 1 shutout)
  • Second Star: John Carlson (1-1-2, plus-1, seven SOG, 16 shot attempts, nine blocked shots, 22:11 average ice time)
  • Third Star: Nicklas Backstrom (0-3-3, even)

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 82: Rangers at Capitals, April 11th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The curtain comes down on the 2014-2015 regular season on Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center, but not before the Washington Capitals host the New York Rangers in the fourth and final meeting of the clubs this season.

The Rangers lead the season series, having won the first two games this season, but the Caps scored four unanswered goals in the second and third periods to defeat the Rangers, 5-2, at Madison Square Garden in their most recent meeting.

It could be said that both clubs are happy with their momentum heading into the post season.  Washington is 9-2-1 in their last 12 games, scoring 35 goals in those games and limiting opponents to 27.  Meanwhile, the Rangers have built and sustained a remarkable record since they were just 11-10-4 after a 3-2 loss in Detroit on December 6th.  Since then, New York is 41-12-3, a 124-point pace over 82 games.

More recently, the Rangers had a five-game winning streak stopped on Thursday night, 3-0, by the Ottawa Senators.  The loss might be forgiven for a number of reasons – the Rangers were coming down off their Presidents Trophy-clinching win against New Jersey on Tuesday; and they sat out Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, and Marc Staal.  Defenseman Kevin Klein missed another game from a broken arm suffered against the Caps on March 11th.

As it is, the Rangers still outscored their opponents by a 20-13 margin in their last six games (5-1-0) since dropping that 5-2 decision to the Caps on March 29th.  Their special teams have been uneven over those games, the power play just 3-for-22 (13.6 percent) and only 1-for-18 (5.6 percent) since they scored a power play goal in the first period in a 3-2 win over Minnesota on April 2nd. 

The penalty kill has been a different story.  The Rangers are 14-for-15 over their last six games (93.3 percent), part of a longer run of success in which they are 53-for-58 (91.4 percent) over their last 21 games.  Part of the success here has also been limiting opportunities.  Only once in their last six games, and only four times in their last 21 contests, have the Rangers faced more than three shorthanded situations.

Over their 5-1-0 run the Rangers have enjoyed balance in their scoring.  Fourteen different players have goals, and 17 different players have points in the six games.  The goal scoring involves the expected and the unexpected.  Derek Stepan has 16 goals on the season, tied for sixth on the club.  Three of them came over the past six games, including the overtime game-winner in a 4-3 win over Columbus last Monday. Stepan has been on something of a tear of late, going 5-7-12, plus-8, over his last 11 games.  He is 5-3-8, minus-1, in 18 career games against the Capitals.

The other three-goal scorer over the Rangers’ 5-1-0 run is Dominic Moore.  Even with the three goals over his last six games, Moore has not cracked double-digits in goals; he has nine in 81 games this season.  The burst ended a long drought in which he recorded a single goal over a 24-game span. Moore, in his tenth season and his ninth different team (he was drafted by the Rangers in 2000 before starting his league tour), has been more of a checking forward with the occasional spasms of goal scoring (13 in 81 games with Toronto and Buffalo in 2008-2009 and 18 ub 77 games with Tampa Bay in 2010-2011).  The nine goals he has in 81 games this season is almost as many as he recorded (10) in 152 games over the previous two seasons with Tampa Bay, San Jose, and the Rangers.  Moore is 3-7-10, minus-4, in 31 career games against Washington.

Ryan McDonagh led the defense in scoring over the last half dozen games (1-5-6).  The Captain is not having quite the season he had offensively last season; he is 8-24-32 in 70 games versus 14-29-43 in 77 games last season.  However, his defensive numbers are puzzling.  His season Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 is 48.1, not especially indicative of being a top-end possession player.  His Corsi-for/relative of -1.62 is another such indicator.  However, he does have some hard minutes to play with an offensive zone start percentage of 45.1 (numbers from war-on-ice.com and behindthenet.ca).  The trouble is not his alone, though.  The Rangers are not a particularly effective possession team, more or less living off their PDO number (sum of shooting and save percentages).

Here is how the teams compare overall:


1.  Winning the Presidents Trophy is not a good indicator of post-season success.  The trophy has been awarded 28 times before this season.  Only eight times has the winner gone on to win the Stanley Cup, and only once was it done by an Eastern Conference team – the Rangers in 1994.

2.  Now, about those possession and PDO numbers.  The Rangers rank 20th in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (49.5) and 19th in Fenwick-for percentage (49.5).  Those numbers are not appreciably better in close score situations, 49.8 and 49.7, respectively (ranked 19th and 20th, respectively).  However, their PDO of 101.9 ranks first at 5-on-5 overall, and first overall in close score situations at 102.2 (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

3.  What the Rangers do quite well is get off to fast starts.  They lead the league in first period goals (82), lead the league in first period goal differential (plus-28), are tied for the league lead in scoring first in games (49, with Winnipeg), and is third in the league in leads taken to the first intermission (33, one behind Pittsburgh and Winnipeg).

4.  Odd Rick Nash fact… No player in the league this season other than Nash has a combination of at least six power play goals and at least four shorthanded goals.

5.  The Rangers’ team plus-minus on the road is best in the league (plus-30) and is almost twice as good as their closest pursuer (Anaheim: plus-16).

1.  In their 9-2-1 record over their last dozen games, special teams for the Caps have been quite special overall.  The power play is 8-for-29 (27.6 percent), while the penalty killers are 30-for-36 (83.3 percent), a special teams index of 110.9.

2.  In all three losses over that 12-game span, the Caps fell into an 0-3 deficit – to Winnipeg (lost, 3-0), to Nashville (lost, 4-3), and to Ottawa (lost in overtime, 4-3).

3.  In their last dozen games the Caps have had 18 skaters and one goalie (Braden Holtby) record points.  The leader among them in that span is Matt Niskanen (1-9-10).  His goal came in the Caps’ last game, a 3-0 shutout of Boston and was Niskanen’s first goal scored in April of the regular season since April 3, 2008, when he scored a goal in a 4-2 win over the Phoenix Coyotes.  The streak was stopped at 37 games.

4. Alex Ovechkin leads the league in goals; he leads the Caps in goals over their 9-2-1 run (seven).  What he does not have is a goal in any of his last three games.  It is his third three-game streak without a goal in his last 13 games overall.  He also has three multi-goal games in that span.

5.  Washington’s possession numbers over their 9-2-1 run are solid.  At 5-on-5 overall the Caps have Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages of 52.4 and 52.6, respectively.  In close score situations those numbers are 52.4 and 52.0, respectively (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Henrik Lundqvist

The New York Rangers got perhaps more than anyone could have dreamed from Cam Talbot in goal when Henrik Lundqvist went down with a neck injury suffered against Carolina on January 31st.  However, it is Lundqvist who had the 92 games of playoff experience, it is Lundqvist who has a Stanley Cup final appearance on his resume.  And, it is likely that if the Rangers are to be successful in the 2015 post season, it will be up to Lundqvist to perform at that level once more.  Lundqvist returned to the lineup on March 28th, and in six appearances since his return he is 4-2-0, 2.32, .925, and he has allowed more than two goals only once in his last five games.  It appears he is back.  This game has meaning for Lundqvist, should he get the call.  In eight full NHL seasons (not including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season) Lundqvist has never won fewer than 30 games.  He has 29 wins this season.  Lundqvist is 17-8-3, 2.53, .909, with four shutouts in 28 career games against the Capitals.

Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov

The end-game of the regular season is shaking out in an odd way for the Caps.  Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is not going to be the Calder Trophy winner many thought he could be this season as the league’s top rookie, is setting himself up to be perhaps the Caps’ “wild card” performer for the post season.  Kuznetsov is 5-8-13, plus-6, in his last 16 games for Washington and has held his own centering Alex Ovechkin in recent games.  Whether that combination survives into the post season, or if Ovechkin is once more paired with Nicklas Backstrom, Kuznetsov is performing at a level more in line with what fans might have hoped for when the season started.  He has proven to be an efficient scorer, too.  Despite his 13:16 of ice time per game, 72nd among league rookies, he is tied for 15th in goals (11), and he is ninth in total points (37).  Only Johnny Gaudreau (21) and Filip Forsberg (19) have more power play points than Kuznetsov (13).  He is 1-1-2, even, in three career games against the Rangers.

In the end…

When the teams take the ice on Saturday afternoon, 184 days will have passed since the Capitals opened their season in Montreal, and the Rangers opened their season in St. Louis.  It is hard to know what to make of the Rangers.  They have the league’s best record, but it has not been a product of sterling possession numbers.  That PDO number stands out and makes one wonder if there is a “correction” of sorts in the Rangers’ future, or if they are just that good, regardless of what the fancystats say.

On the other hand there are the Caps, the earnest tortoise to the Rangers’ hare, slowly and methodically reaching the 100 point mark for the eighth time in franchise history with a chance to become the fifth ranked club in standings points in franchise history (yes, in part fueled by the three-point game of this era of hockey).  The Caps have only one winning streak as long as four games this season, but they have another eight three-game winning streaks and could have a ninth with a win on Saturday.  Only once in eight ten-game segments this season have the Caps failed to earn at least ten points.  It is a mark of their consistency this season.

There might be points of pride for both clubs to make in Saturday’s game, and they should not be dismissed.  And, the Caps might still have the matter of seeding in the first round, whether they have home ice advantage or not.  However, each team has much larger stakes to worry about starting next week.

Capitals 3 – Rangers 2