Thursday, May 25, 2017

Washington Capitals: 2016-2017 By the Tens -- Forwards: Brett Connolly

Brett Connolly

“Ask not what the role can do for you; ask what you can do for the role.”

-- Ricardo Montalban


It is hard to think of a 24-year old at a career crossroads, but last summer Brett Connolly might have found himself standing in one. A sixth-overall draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010, he steamrolled through his last year of Canadian juniors, scoring 46 goals for the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League. Then, he made the leap to the big club the following year, getting the call in 68 games for the Lightning in which he was 4-11-15.

It seemed to be a decent foundation on which to build a solid career in Tampa, but his progress came to a crashing halt the following year when he appeared in just five games for the Lightning and spending the bulk of his time with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. It was only marginally better the following season – 11 games with the Lightning and 66 with the Crunch.

In 2014-2015 he did seem to retrieve a bit of his scoring touch at the NHL level, scoring a dozen goals for the Lightning in 50 games, but he was a trading deadline casualty, sent to the Boston Bruins for a pair of second round draft picks. In a season and change with the Bruins, Connolly scored nine goals in 76 games, his career scoring line amounting to 27 goals and 59 points in 210 NHL games with two clubs. It was not the profile of a sixth-overall draft pick, and at the end of the 2015-2016 season he became a free agent, Boston declining to extend a qualifying offer to the player.

And that journey brought Connolly to Washington on July 1, 2016, signing a one-year/$850,000 contract. It was perhaps the move that head coach Barry Trotz alluded to before the unrestricted free-agent signing period began, ““We want to give some opportunity to our kids. They’ve made great progress, and I think they’ve earned that right to challenge for spots, and I think we’re not going to block them. I think if we do anything, we might add maybe one forward. I think we’ll be pretty quiet.”

With the Caps more or less set among their top six forwards, and perhaps even their top three forward lines, it was not immediately evident just what role an offense-oriented former top prospect fallen on hard times would play. And it did not help Connolly that he played only intermittently over the first month, appearing in just seven of the Caps’ first 15 games, recording just one point in the process (a goal against Calgary on October 30th), and just 17 of the Caps’ first 31 games (3-1-4, minus-1).

Starting on December 23rd, though, Connolly appeared in 49 consecutive games and going 12-7-19, plus-21, while averaging just 10:41 per game in ice time, for the most part on what was a solid third line for much of the season.

Still, Connolly’s ten-game splits were a bit odd.  His first four splits were light on production, a reflection of his intermittent play early on and settling into a role once he stuck in the lineup.  His pace picked up measurably in his fifth, sixth, and seventh splits over which he was 10-5-15, plus-17, over 30 games.  But he went almost silent in his last split of the season in which he dressed for 10 of the last 12 games (0-2-2, minus-1).

He still had good possession numbers overall, finishing third among Caps forwards playing in at least 25 games with a 53.92 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (numbers from Corsica.hockey).  When teamed with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky on the third line, he and his cohorts had the third-best Corsi-for at fives on the club (58.57 percent).


Fearless’ Take… That secondary scoring certainly comes in handy. Washington was 12-1-2 in the 15 games in which Connolly scored a goal this season, 16-1-2 in games in which he recorded a point. He was also consistent at home and on the road. At Verizon Center he was 7-5-12, plus-10, in 32 games, while on the road he was 8-3-11, plus-10, in 34 games.

Cheerless’ Take… Connolly seems to suffer from that weird Jason Chimera Syndrome thing. You know, the one where he’s hot one year, cold the next, then hot, then cold. With Chimera it was his goal totals. With Connolly it’s his shooting percentages… 4.3, 10.0 (ok, in only five games), 8.3 (alright, in only 11 games), 14.5, 9.5, and then 18.5 percent with the Caps this year. And more Connolly wasn’t necessarily a better thing. The Caps were 16-4-1 when he skated less than ten minutes; they were 16-3-1 in games in which he didn’t record a shot on goal (and he didn’t so much as record an assist in any of those games, either).

Odd Connolly Fact… Brett Connolly was the only player in the league to average less than 11 minutes of ice time per game and record 15 or more goals. And that isn’t even the odd part. Among players with at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, Connolly was 13th among 351 forwards in goals-per-60 minutes (1.28; numbers from Corsica.hockey).

Game to remember… February 1st vs. Boston

Brett Connolly had one shot against his former team this season, figuratively (the only game against the Bruins for which he dressed) and literally (he recorded one shot on goal).  The Caps took a 2-0 lead at Verizon Center before the game was 15 minutes old, but Boston tied the contest on a pair of goals by Brad Marchand wrapped around the first intermission.  Alex Ovechkin broke the tie in the last minute of the second period, but the outcome was still in doubt as the third period started.  In the fourth minute, Evgeny Kuznetsov skated the puck through the neutral zone and gained the offensive zone.  Pushing the Bruin defense back, he fed the puck across to Dmitry Orlov in the middle.  Orlov sent the puck ahead to Connolly darting in from the right wing, and Connolly lifted a backhander past goalie Tuukka Rask as he was cutting across the top of the crease.  It was the game-winning goal – his only such goal on home ice this season – in the Caps’ 5-3 win.

Game to forget… March 4th vs. Philadelphia

If you are not a penalty killer, and your teammates are taking a lot of penalties, you are going to spend a lot of time watching a game, not playing it.  Such was the case on March 4th when the Philadelphia Flyers visited Verizon Center.  Brett Connolly skated five shifts in the first period for 3:01 in ice time.  But when the Caps took two penalties in each of the last two periods tow give the Flyers four power plays after giving the Flyers a pair of man advantages in the first period.  Philadelphia did not convert any of the power play chances, but Connolly skated just five shifts combined over the last two period and finished the game with just 6:04 in ice time, a season low.  The only mark on his score sheet line was a shot attempt that was blocked.

Postseason: 7 games, 0-0-0, minus-2

Before the 2017 postseason, Brett Connolly had no games of playoff experience in his career.  His first experience was odd and disappointing.  Dressing for all six games of the opening round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he had what amounted to two distinct series, neither of which were productive.  In the first three games he averaged about 12 and a half minutes of ice time.  He did not record a point, and he had just four shots on goal.  In the back half of the series his ice time was cut significantly, averaging less than five and a half minutes per game and recording only one shot on goal without a point.  He dressed for Game 1 in the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he skated barely six minutes with just one shot on goal.  He did not dress again in the series.

In the end…

Brett Connolly did what a player in his position had to do, to a point.  He came in on what amounted to a low-risk, high-reward contract with the Caps that, if he performed well enough, he could parlay into a better deal with longer term when his contract with the Caps was up.  After shaking off the inconsistency and intermittent appearances early, he performed quite well, displaying a high level of efficiency in the minutes he got.  But it dried up late in the season, and he (along with a lot of his bottom six forward cohort) underperformed in the postseason.  What had been a strength where it was a weakness the previous year – the bottom six forwards – once more became a weakness when it mattered.  Brett Connolly was a part of that, and it cost him what might have been a very high grade.

Grade: B

Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty Images North America

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Washington Capitals: 2016-2017 By the Tens -- Forwards: Andre Burakovsky

Andre Burakovsky

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes his whole universe for a vast practical joke.”

-- Herman Melville


Three years ago, Andre Burakovsky was in the postseason in Canadian juniors, a forward for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League.  Since then, his career has been marked by a steep climb, making the Washington Capitals Opening Night roster for the 2014-2015 season at the age of 19 and finishing with nine goals and 22 points in 53 games.  Then last season, he appeared in 79 games with 17 goals and 38 points.  Not yet 22 years of age and taking the ice on Opening Night of the 2016-2017 season for his third NHL season, he scored a pair of goals against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

And then, a lot earlier than anyone might have expected, Burakovsky hit a wall.  After scoring those two goals on Opening Night against the Penguins, he went his next 26 games without a goal.  He had only eight assists in that span and was a minus-4.  His ice time started drifting southward, finally settling under ten minutes in consecutive games at the end of that 26-game goalless streak. 

Then, he was benched.

Burakovsky, displaying a maturity one might not see in every 21-year old, took the healthy scratches for three games in stride, remarking:
“It helped me last year when I was not playing really well and I sat out for two games and came back and my game just turned around from being bad to being really good.  Hopefully it’s going to be the same thing this year.”

Was it ever.  Over his next 25 games, starting with a two-point night (1-1-2) in his return to the lineup against the Philadelphia Flyers on December 21st, he was 9-10-19, plus-17.  He, Lars Eller, and Brett Connolly made for an extremely effective third line.  Against the Detroit Red Wings in that 25th game, though, he took a shot off his right hand that would lead to his missing another 15 games. 

Burakoivsky returned for the last 12 games of the regular season, but his scoring touch did not return with him.  He recorded a single goal on 26 shots in those 12 games (he did have five assists).  It made for an odd scoring distribution among his ten-game splits, his fifth split (Games 41-50) an impressive 5-7-12, accounting for more than a third of his season’s goals and points.  It was an outlier of efficiency, with those five goals coming on just 18 shots (only the fourth-highest number of shots in any ten-game split for the season).  It made for a frustrating and inconsistent season for Burakovsky.


Fearless’ Take…  Contributions from the bottom six matter, and Burakovsky was not an exception.  In 11 games in which he recorded a goal, the Caps were 7-1-3, two of the extra time losses coming in the Gimmick.  Washington was 21-2-3 in the 26 games in which he recorded a point.  And being active was important, shooting-wise.  In the 19 games in which he recorded at least three shots on goal in a game, Burakovsky was 14-2-3.

Cheerless’ Take… Yeah cuz, but not shooting was something, too.  In the dozen games in which he did not record a shot on goal, the Caps were 9-3-0.  But here is the odd one.  In the 18 games in which he skated at least 15 minutes, the Caps were just 9-6-3.  And was there a player with a bigger disconnect between productivity and performance?   Burakovsky had the best individual Corsi-for at 5-on-5 on the team (55.34 percent).  And he, along with Eller and Connolly, had the fifth-best Corsi-for as a group (58.57 percent) among 78 forward combinations with at least 200 5-on-5 minutes (numbers from Corsica.hockey).  But Burakovsky’s shooting percentage fell by almost three points (from 13.5 to 10.8 percent) from the 2015-2016 season.

Odd Burakovsky Fact… We are not sure if Burakovsky was more “road warrior” or just unlucky at home, but he scored 10 of his 12 goals this season on the road, shooting 16.7 percent.  He was just 2-for-51 shooting at home (3.9 percent) and did not have a goal at home after January 15th.

Game to remember…  January 19th vs. St. Louis

What Tom Wilson was against the Chicago Blackhawks (four goals in two games), Andre Burakovsky was against the St. Louis Blues in the 2016-2017 season.  In their first meeting of the season on November 23rd, Burakovsky recorded a pair of assists in a 4-3 win at Verizon Center.  In the finale of the season series in St. Louis on January 19th, Burakovsky got the Caps started with a goal early in the first period on what would be his only shot on goal for the contest.  It was a fine individual effort, taking a pass from Daniel Winnik as he entered the offensive zone, skated down the middle, curled off to his right and fired a shot that snuck under the glove of goalie Jake Allen.  He added an assist on a Brett Connolly goal in the second period.  Burakovsky finished 1-1-2, plus2, to finish the season series 1-3-4, plus-5, against the Blues.

Game to forget… November 18th vs. Detroit

Burakovsky and the Red Wings were a bad matchup in the 2016-2017 season.  He suffered the hand injury against Detroit in the second game between the clubs that caused him to miss 15 games, but he was also injured in the first meeting of the clubs back on November 18th.  He skated just seven shifts in the first period before departing with an upper-body injury, one of three Caps forwards to suffer injuries in the first period of that game (Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie were the others, and none of the three returned to the game).  The Caps did win that contest on a late goal from Jay Beagle, 1-0, but for Burakovsky it was part of a season in which he would be limited to a total of 9:55 in ice time over two games against Detroit.

Postseason: 13 games, 3-3-6, plus-5, 64.84 5-on-5 CF%

Even now, with the Capitals having been eliminated almost two weeks ago, Andre Burakovsky remains the top individual possession player of the postseason among 147 skaters with at least 100 5-on-5 minutes (64.84 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey).  He, along with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson, comprise still the top forward combination among 75 combinations with at least 25 5-on-5 minutes together (73.39 percent).  So, are three goals and six points a reasonable reflection of the dominance Burakovsky displayed in his possession numbers, both individually and with teammates?  Burakovsky had a hard time getting started in the postseason, not recording a goal in any of his first ten games of the playoffs (he had two assists).  He did, however, record three goals over Games 5 and 6 in the second round against the Penguins (fittingly, given his road record this season, he had a two-goal game in Game 6 in Pittsburgh).  However he, like the rest of the club, just couldn’t or didn’t answer the bell in Game 7, going without a point and with only a single shot on goal in the season-ending game.

In the end…

The 2016-2017 season was something of a step sideways for Andre Burakovsky.  Injuries and lackluster play caused him to miss 18 games, and his production when in the lineup was uneven.  Then there was the disconnect between his superior possession numbers and the performance-based numbers of goal, assists, and points, a disconnect exacerbated in the postseason.  It made for an odd season that seemed to resemble a queer (to use Melville’s term) practical joke of sorts.  But Burakovsky remains a player who has yet to complete 200 regular season games in the NHL (he has 196), and finding a way to align performance with his production numbers is now an important item on Burakovsky’s  learning “to-do” list. 

Grade: B-

Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America

Monday, May 22, 2017

Washington Capitals: 2016-2017 By the Tens -- Forwards: Jay Beagle

Jay Beagle

“The whole secret of a successful life is to find out what is one’s destiny to do, and then do it.”
-- Henry Ford


In the 42 seasons that NHL hockey has been played in Washington, only 39 skaters have played in more games for the Capitals than Jay Beagle (392).  This might seem a bit odd for a player who was not drafted, was only signed by the Caps as a free agent at the age of 22, who didn’t play his first NHL game until the age of 23, and didn’t play more than half the games of a Caps regular season until he was 27 years old.  His career is a statement of hard work, attention to detail, and perseverance.  In the 2016-2017 season, those traits combined for what was a career season for Beagle.  He finished the season with career bests in games played (81), goals (13), game-winning goals (4), assists (17), points (30), plus-minus (plus-20), and shots (100).

It was a season that was put together with an uncommon consistency.  Beagle scored goals in each of his eight ten-game splits and recorded between three and five points over those eight ten-game splits.  Only once did he have a “minus” record in any ten-game split (his seventh, over which he was a minus-1).  And, for a fourth liner, those points he recorded came on a regular basis.  His longest streak without a point was six games; in his last 50 games his longest such streak was four games.

Beagle added to a superb body of work in the game’s most basic play, the faceoff.  Of 150 players taking at least 250 draws this season, Beagle won 56.4 percent of his draws to finish ninth in that group.  Among 180 active skaters taking at least 1,000 draws over their careers, Beagle is fifth with a career mark of 55.9 percent.  Does it matter?  The Caps were 19-2-0 when Beagle won at least ten draws in a game this season.  Then again, they were 5-1-1 in games in which he lost ten or more draws.  Perhaps it was a simple matter of volume.  In 36 games in which Beagle took 15 or more draws, the Caps were 32-2-2.

Time seemed to matter, if only coincidentally, with respect to Beagle and the Caps’ success.  In the 32 games in which Beagle skated more than 14 minutes, the Caps were 29-2-1.  This might be a product of being able to roll four lines in games in which the Caps were competitive, but it is indicative that Beagle had enough value to give him those minutes in those games.


Fearless’ Take… Beagle has become a surprisingly effective secondary scoring threat.  In 2016-2017 he averaged more goals per 60 5-on-5 minutes (0.88) than did Alex Ovechkin (0.86).  Among 154 forwards skating in at least 40 games and averaging less than 14 minutes of ice time per game (Beagle averaged 13:37 per game), he was eighth in points (30).  It is not a sudden occurrence, either.  Over the last three seasons he has averaged 14.8 goals per 82 games.

Cheerless’ Take…  Of 14 forwards to skate at least 100 5-on-5 minutes for the Caps this season, Beagle had the worst individual Corsi-for (47.02 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey).  This is not a one-off instance, either.  In seven seasons in which he appeared in more than 30 games for the Caps, he has never reached the 50 percent mark in 5-on-5 Corsi-for.  Beagle skated at least 50 5-on-5 minutes with five Capital forwards, and each of those forwards had better Corsi-for numbers apart from Beagle than playing with him (numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com).  In fact, all of them had Corsi-for values under 50 percent with Beagle and had Corsi values over 50 percent apart from him.

Odd Beagle Fact… Jay Beagle scored goals in 11 games this season.  In those games, the Caps were 11-0-0.  In 40 career games in which Beagle scored a goal, the Caps are 34-1-5.

Game to remember… January 13th vs. Chicago

When the Capitals hosted the Chicago Blackhawks on January 13th, they were looking to sweep the two-game season series.  Washington defeated the Blackhawks in Chicago, 3-2, in overtime on November 11th, a game in which Beagle recorded both Capitals goals in regulation, one of them a shorthanded tally, the first such goal of his career.  In this contest, the Caps were riding a seven-game winning streak, their longest of the season to that point.  The Caps made short work of the competitive portion of the game, the scoring opened on a goal by Beagle 6:04 into the game, followed 13 seconds later by a Nicklas Backstrom goal and a score by Brett Connolly late in period to give the Caps a 3-0 lead at the first intermission.  Beagle scored his second goal of the game with 1:32 left in the contest to cap a 6-0 win.  He finished the season series against Chicago with four of the Caps’ nine goals scored, including the game-winner in the January 13th contest.

Game to forget… October 13th vs. Pittsburgh

Opening Night is always something special, a game players point to when preparing for the new season.  When it is against the defending Stanley Cup champions, it is just a bit bigger.   For Jay Beagle, it was a forgettable game for no other reason than one might have forgotten he was in the lineup.  He skated just 14 shifts and recorded only 7:37 in ice time, a season low, only 6:08 of that at even strength in a game that went 65 minutes of regulation and overtime before the Penguins won, 3-2, in the Gimmick.   It was not that he played poorly or committed any noteworthy errors (although he was on ice for a Penguin power play goal).  He had two shots on goal and two blocked shots, and he won five of eight faceoffs.  But it was a night he spent watching much more than playing.

Postseason: 13 games, 0-0-0, minus-5, 43.41 5-on-5 CF%

Jay Beagle has never been a big scorer in the postseason, but not since he played in four games of the 2008-2009 playoffs did he go an entire postseason without a point.  Such was his fate in the 2017 postseason.  It was part of a broader problem repeated from the 2016 playoffs, a lack of bottom-six contributions on offense.   It was, in part, a case of his shooting drying up.  He recorded only six shots on goal in more than 150 minutes of ice time.  And speaking of ice time, Beagle was something of the canary in the coal mine.  The Caps were 7-2 in games in which he skated at least ten minutes, both losses coming in overtime.  They were 0-4 in those games in which he skated less than ten minutes, and all of those games (and losses) were against Pittsburgh.

In the end…

Not that our prognostos are the first, only, or final word on how players will fare in a season, but Jay Beagle wildly out-performed our prognosto for the regular season, roughly doubling his goals, assists, and point projections.  His year-over-year improvements from the 2015-2016 season were substantial.  He centered what might have been the best fourth line in the NHL this season.  That is a phrase that seems a bit odd, perhaps giving added weight to the influence of a fourth line on game outcomes.  But contributions from that fourth line were significant (Beagle, Brett Connolly, and Tom Wilson contributed 33 of the team’s 176 even strength goals this season), more so than they were in 2015-2016. 

The playoffs were another matter.  Getting contributions from the bottom six was lacking in the 2016 postseason, and it seemed to be addressed with off-season moves and the emergence of Beagle as a more prolific offensive contributor in the regular season.  But the fourth line contributed one point in the postseason (Tom Wilson’s overtime goal in Game 1 of the first round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs; his other two goals were scored with the third line).  And Beagle had the worst plus-minus of any forward on the club for the postseason at minus-5.   Like a lot of Capitals, Jay Beagle undid a lot of good he accomplished in the regular season with a postseason that was as productive – and as disappointing – as that in 2016.

Grade: B-

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Washington Capitals: 2016-2017 By the Tens -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

"It is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them."
-- Mark Twain


It seems like only yesterday that Nicklas Backstrom was a 19-year old rookie lacing up his skates to face the Atlanta Thrashers in his first NHL game, but when he laced up his skates to face the Pittsburgh Penguins to open the 2016-2017 season he was embarking on his tenth NHL season, becoming just the 16th player in team history to play ten or more seasons for the Washington Capitals.  By the time the regular season was over, Backstrom stood in ninth place in games played for the franchise (734).

In some ways, the 2016-2017 season was among his best.  His 23 goals was the second-highest total of his career, topped only by the 33 he posted in 2009-2010.  He had 63 assists, the third-highest total of his career and most since the 2009-2010 season.  Backstrom finished with 86 points, the second-highest total of his career (101 in 2009-2010). 

Backstrom, who has been a model of consistency over his career, assembled his 2016-2017 season in what amounted to two distinct parts.  He started his season in good, but unspectacular fashion, going 10-24-34, plus-8 over his first 40 games.  But, starting with a four-point game against Pittsburgh in his 41st game of the season, he raised is production, a case of kicking his playmaking into high gear.  He had 13 goals over those last 42 games, but he recorded 39 assists.

The 52 points Backstrom recorded over those 42 games starting with that four-point game on January 11th tied Connor McDavid for most in the league over that span to close the season, and his 39 assists led the league outright.  He also led the league in power play points over that period with 21.

The odd part about Backstrom’s year in possession numbers was the extent he dragged down, or perhaps was dragged down, by his most frequent linemates, Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie, at 5-on-5.  As a group, that trio had a 50.25 Corsi-for at 5-on-5, ninth-best of 13 forward combinations skating at least 50 5-on-5 minutes together this season for the Caps (numbers from Corsica.hockey).  Breaking that down, Backstrom had better individual numbers when apart from either Ovechkin or Oshie, and conversely, Ovechkin and Oshie had better numbers when apart from Backstrom (numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com). 


Fearless’ Take… How many players in the league have more 50-assist seasons than Nicklas Backstrom since he  came into the league in 2007-2008?  If you answered “none,” you win a prize.  This was his seventh such season in his ten-year career, tying him with Ryan Getzlaf for the most 50-assist seasons in the last ten years.  Topping 60 assists this season, he also tied Henrik Sedin and Joe Thornton for the most 60-plus assist seasons in that span of time (five apiece).  This season, Backstrom was second in multi-assist games (15) to Connor McDavid (19), giving him 125 multi-assist games in his career, tied for second (with Sidney Crosby), behind only Henrik Sedin (132) over the last ten seasons.  In the 15 games this season in which Backstrom recorded two or more assists, the Caps were 14-0-1.

Cheerless’ Take… Time on ice looked weird for Backstrom this season.  He skated just 12 games with 20 or more minutes of ice time this season, and the Caps were 4-5-3 in those games.  They were 5-1-0 when he skated less than 16 minutes.  Not to say less of Backstrom is more (that might reflect the Caps not needing him out there to make up deficits), but it just looks strange.  Here is another one, though.  Losing faceoffs seemed to matter, if only as a coincidence, but not in the way one might have thought.  The Caps were 28-6-4 in games in which he was under 50 percent on draws, 27-13-4 in games where he was 50 percent or better.

Odd Backstrom Fact… With ten games of three or more points this season, Nicklas Backstrom became the second Capital in franchise history to record at least ten three-point games in a single season more than once.  He had 13 such games in the 2009-2010 season.  Alex Ovechkin leads the franchise with three such seasons.  Dale Hunter (12 in 1991-1992), Michal Pivonka (10 in 1991-1992), and Mike Ridley (10 in 1992-1993) are the others (information from hockey-reference.com).  

Game to remember… November 16th vs. Pittsburgh

In what might have been the team’s most satisfying regular season game of the season, a 7-1 win over the Penguins, Backstrom had what might have been his best game of the campaign.  It was certainly his most productive one.  Backstrom did not record a point on the Caps’ first goal of their November 16th contest against the Penguins, Jay Beagle assisting on a T.J. Oshie goal 7:32 into the game.  But Backstrom was all over the score sheet thereafter.  He scored a goal of his own late in the first period, taking a feed from Oshie at the red line, skating into the Pens’ zone and wristing a shot under the left arm of goalie Matt Murray.  Then, he recorded an assist on an Oshie power play goal with just 7.9 seconds left in the first period.  He added assists on goals by Dmitry Orlov and Justin Williams early in the second and third periods, respectively.  And after the Penguins ruined goalie Braden Holtby’s shutout with less than four minutes to go in the contest, Backstrom added his second goal on a play that seemed to distinguish his 2016-2017 season from seasons before it.  Taking a long lead pass from Nate Schmidt just outside the Penguin blue line, he skated in with Marcus Johansson on his left.  In games and years past, he might have opened up and tried to feather a pass to Johansson for a shot.  On this occasion, he called his own number and snapped a shot past the glove of relief netminder Marc-Andre Fleury to cap a 7-1 win.  It was the fifth time in his career Backstrom recorded five or more points in a game, moving into second place in franchise history, one behind Peter Bondra.  He was one of only five players in the league to score five or more points in a game in the 2016-2017 season.

Game to forget… December 27th vs. New York Islanders

When a player known for his two-way play has a bad game both ways, it’s a game to forget.  Such was the case in Brooklyn against the New York Islanders when Backstrom and the Caps seemed to be in an egg nog coma in their first game after Christmas.  The Islanders seemed on step ahead of the Caps – literally – throughout.  New York scored the first goal of the game eight minutes in, only to have the Caps tie the game five minutes later.  It was a pattern repeated once more, and then the Islanders took a lead they would not relinquish early in the third period, Backstrom being on ice for each of the three Islander goals.  He was not on the ice for what would be the game-winning goal, an Anders Lee breakaway of a Caps turnover.  But Backstrom was a minus-3  for the game (one of two such games he had for the season), and he managed only a pair of shot attempts.  In more than five minutes of power play ice time he did not manage to quarterback the Caps to a goal, and Washington dropped a 4-3 decision.

Postseason:  13 games, 6-7-13, even, 55.15 5-on-5 CF%

It is hard what to make of Nicklas Backstrom’s postseason.  As of May 20th, he remained one of just seven players appearing in at least ten postseason games who averaged at least one point per game.   His possession numbers, like those of the team in general, were solid, both individually (55.15 CF% at 5-on-5) and in combination (with Ovechkin and Oshie, a 56.73 CF% at 5-on-5; numbers from Corsica.hockey).  He led the team in goal scoring (six) and points overall (13).  He was remarkably efficient as a shooter, converting six of the 26 shots he took in 13 games (23.1 percent), third among the 85 players in the postseason to date having recorded at least 20 shots on goal.

On the other hand, he went without a point in three of the seven games in the second round loss to the Penguins, all three of those games ending in losses, including the series-deciding Game 7.  It was part of a disturbing pattern with Backstrom.  In 20 games facing elimination in his career, Backstrom is 4-11-15, plus-11.  That’s not bad.  But in 10 Games 7 in his career he is 1-2-3, plus-2.  The Caps are 3-7 in those ten games.  For Backstrom, the postseason was very much an uneven affair, and it gives greater weight to his overall grade than it might have in previous seasons (as will be true of all of the Capitals when evaluating their respective seasons).

In the end...

Last season, when writing of Backstrom’s postseason performance, we wrote with respect to his scoring numbers in losses

“This wasn’t the reason the Caps failed to advance, but one does wonder what one timely goal might have meant.  When one says ‘there is enough blame to go around’ with respect to the Caps’ second round loss, it doesn’t jump past Backstrom to the next player, either.”

It applies once more.   It is hard to say of a player who has been as consistent and as consistently productive as Nicklas Backstrom that he has come up short in the biggest games, but it is hard to avoid that conclusion.  And the notion of blame not skipping him to the next player seems to have particular relevance and urgency here, given the outsized blame placed on Alex Ovechkin for the Caps’ postseason woes.  For both Backstrom and Ovechkin, the clock is ticking louder with respect to time they have left in their careers to shake off the demons that appear in the spring.  In Backstrom’s case, doing that is likely going to mean raising his game in a season’s ultimate game to a level he has not been able to find.  It is the cloud that hangs over his 2016-2017 season.

Grade: B-

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America

Thursday, May 11, 2017

For the Washington Capitals, the End of an Era

The “Rock the Red” era is dead.

That isn’t a question, and it isn’t even really an opinion.  It is dead, succumbing to a peculiar strain of avian flu borne by Penguins.  What started as a season of hope, what became a season of accomplishment, what was almost an expectation that this – finally – would be the season in which everything came together for the Washington Capitals, died quietly at the hands of the team that has inflicted more emotional punishment on this franchise than perhaps any other has done to another franchise in the history of pro sports in North America, save for that whole “Bambino Curse” thing.

The quiet whispers among the cheers this season were that if the Capitals were ever to win a Stanley Cup, this was the year they could do it, in fact had to do it.  With another year tacked on to the resume of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom; the impending unrestricted free agent status of T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, and trading deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk; and the corresponding need to renew (at higher rates of compensation) young restricted free agents Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Dmitry Orlov, which would restrict the team’s ability to add players such as Oshie and Williams as they did two years ago, the window for the Capitals as a serious Stanley Cup contender was narrowing. 

But as if to hold the window open just a little wider for a little longer, the gods of hockey gave the Caps a break.  Three of them, in fact.  The Penguins faced the Capitals missing their top defenseman (Kris Letang) and their number one goaltender (Matt Murray) for the entire series, and then they lost their best skater – the best player on the planet in Sidney Crosby – to a concussion early in Game 3 that kept him out for the better part of two full games.  Not that the Pens were reduced to an AHL lineup; they still had Evgeni Malkin (the second best center on the planet, if not its second best skater), Phil Kessel, Marc-Andre Fleury, and a number of veterans from last year’s Stanley Cup run.  Nevertheless, it was a depleted team that the team with the best regular season record was facing.  The window looked inviting instead of like a guillotine slamming down.

And now, it is closed.  Not locked, perhaps, for the Capitals will remain a good team in the years to come.  But absent general manager Brian MacLellan pulling a rabbit out of his hat in the off-season, “good” might be a ceiling for the Capitals for the remainder of the tenure of Ovechkin and Backstrom in Washington.  The Caps might be a team that can make the postseason, but it is likely to be one that will be discussed among the group of teams with long odds on long runs in the playoffs, not as one of a few with serious Cup aspirations.

The loss to the Penguins in the second round is especially bitter and not merely for the fact that it comes against a team that now has nine wins in ten postseason series against Washington.  One of those Penguin series wins came in 2009 in a gut-wrenching seventh game.  But even with that difficult outcome, Capitals fans could take some measure of confidence that the team that lost would not be denied more, and more satisfying bites at the playoff apple.  Ovechkin was just 23 years old, Backstrom was just 21.  You could imagine the 2009 setback as just that, a temporary disappointment that could be used as a learning experience that would serve the Caps well over the years to come.

What the Caps and their fans learned since were new ways to deal with the disappointment of early round playoff losses.  Since that 2009 loss to the Penguins, the Caps have gone through four coaches (Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, Adam Oates, and currently Barry Trotz).  MacLellan succeeded George McPhee in the general manager’s chair.  The Caps, including Ovechkin and Backstrom, have had 61 skaters and five goaltenders dress for at least one postseason game since that 2009 loss to the Penguins.

And what do they have to show for it?  Yes, in the regular season the Caps have been dominant, posting the league’s third best regular season record over that span (365-181-76) with three Presidents Trophies (2010, 2016, 2017) as the league’s best regular season team.  But over that same span, the Caps have a 37-39 game record in the postseason, won six playoff rounds in 14 tries, and, as every Caps fan has had burned into their consciousness, never advanced past the second round.

Meanwhile, the very team that was to be the principal rival of the Capitals for a generation – these same Penguins – left the Caps behind in that 2009 season, winning the first of two Stanley Cups in this era and now on their way to challenging for a third.  The Chicago Blackhawks of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane caught and passed the Caps to win three Cups of their own.  The Los Angeles Kings of Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick did the same to win two Cups.  And now, in just another cruel twist of fate, the Toronto Maple Leafs (defeated by the Caps in the first round this postseason) and the Edmonton Oilers appear poised to catch and pass the Caps on their respective journeys to competing for a championship.

This year feels so different from other all-too-early postseason exits.   One might even feel wistful thinking about it.  Depending on who returns next season, Alex Ovechkin, depending on other postseason moves, could be the oldest skater on the club (he will be 32 next September, a month older than Jay Beagle).  Backstrom will be 30 in November.   It is hard to think of their production improving going forward, and you can almost see the weight of postseason misfortune pressing heavily upon them.

The rest of the roster – the new core, if you will – cannot be spared, either.  Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov improved upon their dreadful production in the 2016 postseason, but there remained a lack of consistency and their rising to the moment (they combined for three shots on goal and no points in Game 7 against the Penguins).  Can this “next wave” of youngsters grow into more productive roles in the spring?  Saying “they can” is not equivalent to saying “they will.”  To this add the mystifying performance of goaltender Braden Holtby this postseason.  “Collapse” might be too strong a word, but the postseason drop-off of the best postseason goaltender in the post-expansion era was a disappointment.  His surprisingly un-“Holtbeast”-ly performance should not have come as an utter shock to any fan of this team of long standing.  It was a thoroughly “Caps” thing to happen.

Almost as “Caps”-like was having the jewel of the trading deadline – defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk – become, if not quite a liability on the ice as the series with the Penguins started, an asset of a fleeting nature as it ended, almost certain to depart in the coming off-season.

Some contend that history doesn’t matter.  History is the 500-pound gorilla in the room that is on crack.  It will not be subdued.  Here is a chilling fact.  When the Caps entered the NHL in 1974-1975, they were one of 18 teams in the league.  Of those 18 teams only one team has reached conference final (or in the old days, the “NHL semi-finals”) fewer times than the Caps, who have done it twice.  And that team – the California Golden Seals – dissolved (as the Cleveland Barons) after the 1977-1978 season.

We do not advocate that Caps fans end or change their allegiance.  We’ve been a fan of this franchise since moving here in 1984 and have no plans to jump on any bandwagon painted in different colors.  But making the emotional investment in this team and this franchise with each passing year never gets easier.  I am old enough to remember the disappointments of the teams of the 1980’s, which means that I am old enough now to wonder how likely it is that I -- and fans of similar vintage -- will ever see a Stanley Cup champion in Washington. 

For the players, it has to be different. This has been something they dreamed of since they first laced on a pair of skates.  To be in the moment and see it pass, year after year, has to be a pain no fan can comprehend.  I read of Nicklas Backstrom and his father after last night’s game, and (being as old or older than most of the fathers of these young men) I wanted to take them all out for an ice cream…


“Rock the Red” has become less a marketing theme or the description of what might have been the best era in Caps hockey (and perhaps among the best in the last couple of decades in the NHL) and more a contemptuous turn of phrase.  “Rock the Red” sounds too much like “Mock the Dead,” something no small number of commentators will be engaging in over the next days, weeks, or perhaps months when they discuss the Caps at all.

The hardest part would seem to be before all of us in Capitals Nation.  Caps fans should have no delusions about this club.  It is at an inflection point – the point at which it will almost certainly cease to be on short lists for Stanley Cup contenders and become merely one of a couple of dozen teams that can credibly challenge for a playoff spot. 

None of this sentences the Caps to spend the rest of the careers of Ovechkin and Backstrom without a Stanley Cup, but it seems likely that they would be considerable underdogs in that quest.  It is something Caps fans might have to become resigned to and to accept any postseason success, modest though it might be, as a pleasant surprise rather than an expectation.  That makes the first order of business realizing that this era of Capitals hockey -- the “Rock the Red” era – is dead.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: The Cousins Sittin' On The Porch Looking Back at Game 6


The Washington Capitals, once within 20 minutes of yet another second round exit from the postseason, beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, 5-2, last night in Pittsburgh to put themselves within 60 minutes (and hopefully no more) of the most improbable comeback in team history. After last night’s win to even the series at three games apiece, the Caps will host the Penguins in Game 7 on Wednesday night.  The cousins are equal parts thrilled and terrified.

Cheerless… I spent the whole day Monday polishing my brassie and baffing spoon and cleek and mashie and niblick, and the Caps went and spoilt everything.  But hey, the golf clubs can wait until after the June draft for all I care.  Just remember…the Caps have never, not once, not anytime, won three straight playoff games against the Penguins.

Fearless… The philosopher George Santayana once famously opined that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  This is an instance in which the Caps might benefit from embracing their history… of not winning three straight games against the Penguins in the playoffs, of not winning that Game 7 in 2009 when Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby met for the first time in the playoffs, of Ovechkin not burying that breakaway early in that contest.  Remember it all, and say to yourself, “not this time.”

*****

Fearless… As Peerless pointed out last night, the Penguins have not scored a 5-on-5 goal in the last 109:36 of this series.  They have a power play goal and a pair of 4-on-4 goals.  That’s not a formula for success if you are the Penguins.  Since Phil Kessel scored a power play goal in the second period of Game 5, the Caps have outshot the Penguins, 44-31 (58.67 SF%), overall.  And it you take a look at Games 5 and 6, the first 50 minutes of Game 5 and the first 52 minutes of Game 6, when the Caps were racing out to multi-goal leads, the Caps out-attempted the Penguins by a 88-56 margin at 5-on-5 (61.11 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey).  The difference is now, shots are getting deep and going in; they are not getting blocked and turned around for Penguin odd-man breaks.

Cheerless… One game.  You know what you can do with your Corsi for one game?  All it would take to undo two games of great effort and lots of production is an odd bounce, a bad call, Marc-Andre Fleury remembering how to play goalie again.  In the long run, Corsi matters, but like that economics guy Peerless is always quoting, “in the long run, we’re all dead.” 

*****

Cheerless… Justin Williams does not have a goal in this series.

Fearless… Justin Williams is 7-7-14 in Games 7 in his career, and his teams are 7-0 in those games.  The secret to comedy and playoff success is timing.

*****

Fearless… If you want one obscure fact for Game 7, here it is.  In games on home ice this season, following a game in which the Caps scored five or more goals, regardless of venue, they are 9-0-0.

Cheerless… In road games following a game in which they allowed five or more goals, regardless of venue, the Penguins are 6-2-0.

*****

Cheerless… Alex Ovechkin has two goals in his last eight games on 27 shots.

Fearless… In ten career postseason games on home ice against the Penguins, Ovechkin is 10-5-15, plus-1, including a hat trick.

*****

Peerless… Kids dream of this moment.  The clock running out in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, the bottom of the ninth inning in the World Series, rising up to take the last shot as time is running out in the NBA finals.  This is not Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, but for Capitals Nation, it is the next rung on the ladder of accomplishment – vanquishing the Pittsburgh Penguins in a postseason series.  This will be the Caps’ fourth trip to a Game 7 against the Penguins, and they are in search of their first win.  Over the last two games, things have come together in a way seldom seen by Caps fans in the playoff history of the franchise.  Scorers score – even secondary scorers.  The team smothers the opponent to deny them shot attempts, let alone shots on goal.  Their goalie starts to outplay his counterpart at the other end.  The coaches’ moves are the right ones, not revealed to be panicky attempts to change the tone. 


So much can happen in one game, good or bad.  The last time these teams met in a over-the-top hyped Game 7, the outcome was decided early, the Caps finally relenting after a barrage of Penguin shots and punishment over the first six games.  This time, it is the Caps unleashing the fury of offensive pressure, forechecking, and physical play.  The Penguins are champions for a reason; they will not go quietly into the off-season.  But one could see cracks in their armor in Games 5 and 6.  For the Caps, the task will be to widen those fissures enough to drive the bus into the conference finals.  Do what you’ve been doing, and just do it.  Make that dream you had as kids come true.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 6: Washington Capitals 5 - Pittsburgh Penguins 2


The Washington Capitals forced a Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a convincing 5-2 win at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh on Monday night.  After falling behind, three games to one, the Caps tied the series with one of their best postseason performances in recent history.

Washington broke on top on with a power play strike in the first period.  Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom worked the puck back and forth along the right wing wall, Backstrom sending the puck down to Kuznetsov at the goal line for a one time pass to T.J. Oshie at the hash marks of the right wing circle. Oshie one-timed Kuznetsov’s feed past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and it was 1-0, Caps, 12:41 into the period.

The one-goal lead held up into the second period, and then the Caps added to it.  Ron Hainsey could not handle a pass along the right wing wall in his own end, and he was muscled off the puck by Andre Burakovsky.  Curling away from Hainsey, Burakovsky went to the net looking for a passing lane to Oshie on his right.  Without a lane opening up, Burakovsky called his own number and flicked a shot that snuck between Fleury and the near post, and it was 2-0 at the 6:36 mark.

That was the score going into the third period, but the Caps struck on their first shot on goal of the period.  Nicklas Backstrom picked up the puck just outside his own blue line and led Andre Burakovsky on a 2-on-1 rush. When Justin Schultz laid out to prevent a pass to Burakovsky, Backstrom called his own number and snapped a shot past Fleury’s glove to make it 3-0, just 16 seconds into the third period.

Mid-way through the period, the Caps poured it on.  With Matt Cullen in the box for the Pens, Matt Niskanen slid a pass into John Carlson’s wheelhouse at the top of the left wing circle, and Carlson let fly with a one-timer that sailed past Fleury’s left shoulder high into the net to make it 4-0, 11:17 into the period.

Barely a minute later, the Caps struck again.  Burakovsky and Oshie broke into the Pens’ zone on a 2-on-1 withonly Chad Ruhwedel back for the Pens.  Ruhwedel denied Burakovsky a passing lane, so Burakovsky worked the puck around him, held for a moment, and then snapped a shot over Fleury’s glove to make it 5-0 at the 12:29 mark.

Karl Alzner and Patric Hornqvist were sent off for coincidental minor penalties with under four minutes left, and it gave the Penguins enough space to score a couple of cosmetic goals – Jake Guentzel and Evgeni Malkin lighting the lamp.  But it was not nearly enough as the Caps turned the lights out at PPG Paints Arena for perhaps the last time this season, winning Game 6, 5-2.

Other stuff…

-- Pittsburgh does not have a 5-on-5 goal in the last 109:36 of this series.  Since Carl Hagelin scored 10:24 into Game 6, the Penguins have a power play goal and two 4-on-4 goals.  The Caps have outscored the Pens, 8-2, over the last four periods of the series.

-- Andre Burakovsky had three goals in his first 33 career postseason games.  With a pair tonight, he has three in his last two games.  He had his second consecutive two-point game in the series.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov had a pair of assists, extending his points streak in the postseason to four games (3-3-6).

-- T.J. Oshie had a goal and an assist, his first multi-point game of this series and his third of the postseason overall.

-- Nicklas Backstrom was the fourth Capital with a multi-point game (goal, assist).  It was his third two-point game in his last five in this series and his fifth two-point game of the postseason.

-- John Carlson led the Caps with seven shots on goal, one off his career high, set against the Penguins in Game 3 of last spring’s series between the clubs.

-- The win was the Caps’ second in Pittsburgh in this series, the first time they won two games in Pittsburgh in the same playoff series since they won Games 1 and 2 in Pittsburgh in 1996.

-- The five goals was the most scored by the Caps in regulation in a playoff game in Pittsburgh since they beat the Penguins, 5-3, in Game 2 of their 1996 series.

-- The 18 shots on goal allowed was the second fewest allowed by the Caps in a playoff game in Pittsburgh.  They allowed 17 shots on goal in Game 2 of their 1994 series.  It is the fewest shots on goal allowed in a road playoff win against the Penguins.

-- As in Game 5, the Caps won the shot attempts battle at 5-on-5, and as it was in Game 5, it was not as close as the final margin indicated.  Washington out-attempted the Penguins, 40-31 (56.34 CF%) overall, but when they scored to make it a 5-0 game in the third period, the advantage was 38-26 (59.38 CF%; numbers from Corsica.hockey).

In the end…

The Washington Capitals played 94 games this season to arrive at Wednesday night, a home date with the Pittsburgh Penguins for all the marbles.  The Caps have played in three Games 7 against the Penguins in franchise history, and each has dealt Capitals Nation their own brand of heartbreak –a 3-1 loss at home in 1992 after taking a 3-1 lead in games in the series, a 3-0 loss in Pittsburgh in 1995 after taking a 3-1 lead in games in the series, and a 6-2 loss at home in 2009 in the first postseason meeting between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.  Now we find the Caps in the ultimate test of whether or not they are a different team than the one Capitals Nation has known in many incarnations over the years.  It’s time to just do it.