The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals are down to their last ten games of the regular season. They head to the finish tied with the New York Islanders in standings points atop the East Division and are one point clear of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Caps begin this last ten-game stretch with what amounts to a pre-playoff series, a three-game set against the New York Islanders that starts with a pair of games on Long Island on Thursday and Saturday before wrapping up at Capital One Arena in Washington on Tuesday.
The Caps enter the series on a crazy run of late. They are 3-2-0 in their last five games, and in all of them the winning team scored five or more goals. On the other side, the Isles are 3-3-0 in their last six games. Going into their game against the New York Rangers on Tuesday night, the Islanders were having trouble scoring, posting a total of 13 goals in eight games and not scoring more than three in any of those contests. In fact, the only time the Islanders scored more than three goals in regulation in a 13-game stretch was when they plastered the Caps, 8-4, on April 1st. New York broke out of that scoring slump with a 6-1 win over the Rangers on Tuesday.
The April scoring slump (the Isles rank 24th in scoring offense this month) has not come at the expense of balance. Eleven Islanders share in the 25 goals scored this month, led by Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson with four apiece. In a quiet, understated way Eberle is merely extending what for him has been a consistent scoring touch over time. With a goal against the Rangers on Tuesday, he reached the 15-goal mark for the 11th time in 11 seasons. He is also averaging 0.33 goals per game, which is his best per-game production since he averaged 0.36 goals per game with Edmonton in 2015-2016. He has done his best to add to the Islanders offense in April, posting a point-per game over ten games played this month (4-6-10, plus-5). Although the Islanders are not a team that scores in bunches, especially lately, either as a team or individually, only Mathew Barzal has more multi-point games this season for the Isles this season (eight) than Ebele (seven). But like many offense-oriented players, more ice time is not necessarily an indicator of success, those players often getting more ice time when their team trails in games. The Islanders are just 4-7-3 in the 14 games in which Eberle skated more than 18 minutes. On the other hand, the Islanders are 25-6-1 in 32 games in which he skated less than 18 minutes. Eberle is 2-2-4, plus-5, in five games against Washington this season and 5-7-12, minus-6, in 26 career games against the Caps.
Brock Nelson hails from Warroad, Minnesota, one of the more prolific producers of hockey talent in NHL history, from the Christian family (Bill, Gordon, Roger, and former Cap Dave) to current Capital T.J. Oshie, who spent a portion of his formative hockey development years in Warroad. It was largely a product of his goal scoring (84 goals over 56 games in two years with the Warroad Warriors) that convinced the Islanders to draft Nelson 30th overall in the 2010 Entry Draft. Since joining the big club in 2013-2014, he has been a reliable 20-plus goal scorer for the Isles, topping the 20-goal mark in five of seven seasons prior to this one, and with 16 goals in 46 games this season, he could add a sixth 20-goal season, even with the abbreviated 56-game schedule. In addition to the offense he provides, Nelson is durable. He has missed just two games in his last seven seasons, including this one, and has not missed a game since the 2016-2017 season. His consistency has allowed Nelson to quietly climb the all-time lists in Islanders history. His 166 goals rank 15th all-time, and with two more he would tie Zigmund Palffy for 14th place in team history. His 321 career points ranks 21st in team history, and he could tie Palffy for 20th place (331) by year end if he records another ten points. Nelson is tied for 13th in game-winning goals in Islanders history (with John Tonelli) and has six overtime goals with the Isles, tied for second place with Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo behind John Tavares (11) in team history. Nelson is 2-1-3, even, in five games against the Caps this season and 10-9-19, minus-3, in 33 career games against Washington.
Noah Dobson has had a difficult April, perhaps the aftermath of his losing five games in late March to COVID protocol. Coming into this month, Dobson led the Islanders' defensemen in goals (three), was tied for second among Islander defensemen in points (12), and he did it while averaging just 16:58 in ice time, sixth among the team’s defensemen. Since April 1st, though, Dobson is 0-1-1, minus-2, has seen his ice time drop to 14:17 a game, has been on ice for fewer even strength goals scored than any Islander defenseman appearing in more than one game (four), has the second worst even strength on-ice goal differential (minus-2), and was benched for a game. Ice time has become an issue for Dobson. In his first dozen games he averaged 17:45 per game, 16:24 in his next dozen, and 14:55 in his last 13 games heading into the series with the Caps. It is all part of the learning curve for the second-year defenseman, even one taken 12th overall (the fifth defenseman taken) in the 2018 Entry Draft. Dobson is 1-1-2, plus-1, in four games against the Caps this season and 1-1-2, plus-1, in six career games against Washington.
Before the Islanders beat the New York Rangers, 6-1, on Tuesday night, six of their previous eight wins were in extra time (four in overtime, two in the Gimmick). The only two regulation wins in that stretch were against the Caps.
2. The Islanders have seven wins in April, five of them by one goal. They are one of five teams in the league with an unblemished record in one-goal games this month (5-0-0).
3. The other five decisions in April for the Isles came in three-or-more goal games, where they are 2-3-0.
4. New York lost their first four games decided in extra time this season. They have won their last eight decisions settled in extra time.
5. The Islanders are 6-0-0 when scoring first in April, one of four teams with a perfect record when scoring first this month.Sixteen different Caps have scored goals this month, including the departed Jakub Vrana. Seveteen different skaters have points for the Caps. Garnet Hathaway is the only Capital to have recorded points (two assists) without the benefit of a goal.
2. Plus-minus isn’t a statistic one dwells on these days, but being worst in any category stings. And in April, Zdeno Chara and Alex Ovechkin bring up the rear in this stat for the Caps, both a minus-6.
3. The Caps have 15 first period goals in April, most in the league. They have 18 second period goals, most in the league. They have eight third period goals, tied for 12th fewest in the league.
4. Washington’s power play is humming along at 35.9 percent in April, second-best in the league (Minnesota: 44.1 percent).
5. The Caps’ penalty kill has been almost as good for the month. The 90.6 percent PK ranks fourth in the league for April.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
New York: Matt Martin
Mathew Barzal gets the attention for his top-notch skill with the puck. Brock Nelson and Anders Lee are the lunch pail foot soldiers who chip in offense on a regular basis. Oliver Wahlstrom, Noah Dobson, and Anthony Beauvillier seem to be the next wave of contributors. And that leaves Matt Martin as the rugged greybeard veteran. Martin is the active leader on the Islanders in games played for the franchise (606) and ranks 14th in franchise history in games played. He is also, by far, the active leader on the club in penalty minutes recorded for the Isles (804), almost 500 more than Anders Lee (315). He is something of a complex character. Twelve of his 59 goals have been game-winners, , while he is a minus-2 game from cracking the bottom 20 in career plus-minus rating in club history (he is minus-40; John Tavares and Brian Lavender are minus-42). His 2.692 credited hits are more than 800 more than Cal Clutterbuck (1,832) in team history. He has more takeaways (159) than giveaways (146) in his career with the Islanders.
Martin has toned the hitting and the coloring outside the lines down in recent years. In his first tour with the Islanders – seven seasons covering the 2009-2010 through 2015-2016 period, he amassed 680 penalty minutes and was credited with 2,023 hits in 438 games. After spending two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs and returning to the Isles in 2018-2019, he has “only” 124 penalty minutes and 664 hits in 168 games over three seasons. Offense has never been a bit part of his game, but this year he has been prone to long unproductive streaks – nine games without a point to open the season and three other streaks of six or more games without a point out of a total of 46 games played. The latest of those streaks is an eight-game streak without a point that he takes into this series with the Caps. Martin is without a point in five games against Washington with a minus-1 rating this season and is 3-2-5, minus-3, in 39 career games against the Caps.
Washington: Conor Sheary
Some players have well-defined roles, responsibilities, and linemates that allow them to flourish, even in what some might view a lesser roles. The Islanders, for example, have been said to have the best fourth line of forwards in the NHL in Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin. Others consider it among the worst, but the point is that it is a fixture in the Islander scheme.
Then there are players like Conor Sheary, nomads in the night-to-night lineup who might find themselves skating on the fourth line one night and skating on a scoring line the next. It is not just the versatility of Sheary that makes him a valuable commodity to the Caps this season, but his ability to produce in the context of that versatility that makes him one of the genuine pleasant surprises for the Caps this season. It impressed the Caps enough to more than double his pay. After signing a one-year/$735,000 deal December 2020 as an unrestricted free agent after spending last season in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, the Caps re-signed him to a two-year/$3.0 million deal on April 14th.
Sheary has spent his career as an under-the-radar, underrated offensive player. He posted 23 goals in 61 games in his sophomore season with the Penguins in 2016-2017 and has ten or more goals and 20 or more points in each of his five full seasons in the league. His 0.28 goals per game this season is second-best in his career, topped only by the 0.38 goals per game he had in that 2016-2017 season. His 0.47 points per game is his best since that same season in Pittsburgh (0.87). The only thing he does not have yet this season is a game-winning goal among the 12 in 43 games he scored for the Caps. Sheary has been something of a good-luck charm this season. Despite not having a game-winning goal of his own, the Caps are 9-0-1 in games in which he scored a goal and 12-1-1 when he recorded a point. His physical engagement, despite being one of the smaller players in the league (5’9”/179 pounds) is also an indicator of success, the Caps with an 11-2-0 record when he was credited with at least one hit. Watch his ice time, too. Washington is 24-6-1 in 31 games in which he logged more than 11 minutes of ice time. Sheary is 2-1-3, minus-1, in five games against New York this season, 4-2-6, minus-5, in 21 career games against the Islanders.
In the end…
There is no mincing words here. This three-game set will have the look of a playoff series. The stakes are as high as a non-playoff series gets, with the two teams battling for the top spot in the division and each looking to send a message as potential playoff opponents down the road. These teams could find themselves playing each other ten times (this set and a seven-game playoff series, should they meet in the first round) in the next month. The Caps won the first three games of the season series – a one goal, a two goal, and a three goal win. The Islanders won the last two meetings in as different a manner one might imagine – an 8-4 win and a 1-0 win five days apart earlier this month. These are two teams that have played one another close in the regular season, the Caps holding a 7-6-0 record and a 37-36 edge I goals scored over that span. Expect these games to be as close, but with the Caps holding first place in the division a bit tighter when the three-game set is completed.
Capitals 2 – Islanders 1
Capitals 3 – Islanders 2
Capitals 3 – Islanders 2