Sunday, November 03, 2013

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 5

Sometimes it is as much the “how” as the “what.”  The Washington Capitals finished the week with the same record they had in Week 4, but it was a very different road they took to get there.

Record: 2-1-0

Washington finished the week with its third straight 2-1-0 record that, if not a signal of dominating play, does reflect a certain consistency.  How they got there was very different than the week previous.  In Week 4 the Caps won the first two games of their five-game road trip, beating Winnipeg and Edmonton, but fell flat in Calgary, dropping a 5-2 decision to the Flames. 

This week started as if the Caps were going to spend the rest of the road trip marinating in constant disappointment after they lost a third period lead in Vancouver and lost to the Canucks, 3-2.  Getting out of western Canada was a relief though, as the Caps pasted the Philadelphia Flyers, 7-0, then came home and eked out a 3-2 trick shot win over the Florida Panthers, finishing the 2-1 week on a higher note than that which they finished the 2-1 week last week.  And if you are thinking a 2-1-0 record is unimpressive, if the Caps were to average that per week over the remaining weeks of the season they would finish with 104 points.

Offense: 3.67/game (season: 2.93 / rank: 13th)

It was an odd week for the offense.  No, not odd as in “strange,” odd as in numbers.  The offense was dominated by the first and third lines, a fact made, well, odd by the fact that Alex Ovechkin missed the last two games of the week with an upper-body injury.  The top line of Nicklas Backstrom, Martin Erat, and Eric Fehr finished the week with three goals (all by Backstrom) and six assists.  The three goals for Backstrom more than doubled his season total (from two to five), ditto for Fehr and his three assists (also jumping him from two to five).

Meanwhile, the third line of Mikhail Grabovski, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera finished with six goals and eight assists.  Joel Ward had his first career hat trick in the 7-0 romp over the Flyers, and Jason Chimera finished with a six-point week (2-4-6), more than doubling his points output for the season (from five to 11).

It was a week of firsts, too.  Michael Latta recorded his first point in the NHL, assisting on John Carlson’s goal against Florida.  The goal was only the second of the season by a Capital defenseman and the first from a player currently on the roster (Connor Carrick owns the other goal, and he is currently in Hershey).  The goal was Carlson’s 100th point in the NHL.

Defense: 1.67/game (season: 2.86 / rank: 19th)

The Caps allowed each of their opponents 30 or more shots this week, making it nine games in a row that the Caps failed to hold an opponent under 30 shots (oddly enough, the only two times the Caps accomplished the feat this season, they lost).

The Caps did make some progress in one respect, though.  They lost the even strength shots battle to Vancouver, 26-14, to open the week.  In the last two games of the week they held opponents to a virtual draw, outshooting the Flyers and Panthers, 41-40.  Before we make too much of that, however, the Flyers and Panthers are in the bottom five in the league in scoring offense and are in the bottom seven in shots on goal.

Goaltending: 1.63 GAA / .952 save percentage / 1 shutout (season: 2.76 / .918 / 1 shutout)

There was not much fault to find in either Braden Holtby’s or Michal Neuvirth’s performance this week.  Neuvirth opened and closed the week with solid performances.  He opened the week being shelled for 41 shots by the Canucks in Monday’s game in Vancouver.  Neuvirth might have wanted the second goal back – a rebound goal scored by Ryan Kesler when Neuvirth could not glove down the original shot from the point – but in the context of the whole game Neuvirth was the Caps’ best defender. 

Neuvirth closed the week with a solid 31-save effort against the Florida Panthers for his first home win of the season and the game’s first star.

Speaking of stars, Braden Holtby was that in his lone appearance of the week, a 30-save shutout of the Flyers in Philadelphia.  It was his first blanking of the season and the eighth of his career.  What he did not get out of it was a game star, that being reserved for his opposite number, Ray Emery who managed 11 saves on 15 shots in 22 minutes and change of ice time.  Oh, but he did race the length of the ice and mug Holtby, who had no desire to fight in a 7-0 game he was winning.  In Philadelphia that means something.  It also is no surprise that the Flyers are a Buffalo chicken wing or two from having the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Power Play: 2-14 / 14.3 percent (season: 23.6 percent / rank: 4th)

The Caps are in the midst of quite a dry spell on the power play.  A 2-for-14 week makes them 2-for-20 over their last five games.  It was not an especially efficient week with the man advantage.  In 22:49 of total power play time the Caps were just 2-for-17 shooting (11.8 percent). 

It is possible to make too much of this week, though.  One would expect that the Caps’ power play, when fully functioning, would have most of the shots come off the stick of Alex Ovechkin with a sprinkling of Mike Green and Troy Brouwer or Joel Ward in the middle of the 1-3-1. 

This week, eight different Caps recorded power play shots, including the rarely-used Michael Latta and Nate Schmidt, who got ice time in the Philly beatdown.  Missing Ovechkin for two games meant Eric Fehr took his spot on the left wing, and Fehr did record a pair of power play shots.  It was Mike Green, though, who led the team with five shots on goal over the three games.  He is still looking for his first goal of any kind this season, power play or otherwise.

Penalty Killing: 16-17 / 94.1 percent (season: 90.7 percent / rank: 2nd)

The streak continued deep into the week.  A penalty killing streak that started in the third period of the Caps’ October 12th game against Colorado reached 35 PK’s in a row before they finally allowed a goal in the late stages regulation time of the Caps’ 3-2 Gimmick win over Florida to end the week.

The efficiency was nice – great in fact.  A 94.1 percent penalty killing rate and a .971 save percentage while shorthanded is spectacular.  It is also not likely to be sustainable.  And that brings us to the skunk at the garden party: frequency.  That the Caps had to face 17 shorthanded situations for the week is a bit disturbing, even with the hijinks that took place in Philadelphia on Friday night. 

Six shorthanded situations against Vancouver, five against Philadelphia, six against Florida.  If practice makes perfect (or almost so this week), the Caps sure got that.  They spent 29:20 killing penalties, allowing those 34 shots in the process.  That they got out of the week with just one goal allowed should be viewed with equal parts pride in skill and a deep breath for the good luck enjoyed.

Even Strength Goals For/Against: 9-4 (season: 26-31; 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.93 / rank: 18th)

This statistic, while welcome, is entirely a product of the smackdown the Caps applied to the Flyers in Philadelphia.  Washington put up five even strength goals against the Flyers and otherwise broke even for the week, losing the ES battle to Vancouver, 3-2, and winning it against the Panthers, 2-1.

Still, it is improvement, and the Caps lifted their 5-on-5 goals scored to goals allowed ratio from 0.73 before the Vancouver game to 0.93 when the curtain came down on the week.  It is as close as they have been to 1.00 as they have been all season so far.  

Faceoffs: 86-182 / 47.3 percent (season: 49.2 percent / rank: 19th)

That the Caps lost the week was the product of having their lunch taken away in the circle in Vancouver on Monday.  Winning only 17 of 51 draws (33.3 percent) made finishing the week a tough chore.  They almost did, winning 34 of 65 draws against Philadelphia (52.3 percent) and 35 of 66 against Florida (53.0 percent). 

The Caps were run over in their own end, winning just 21 of 57 draws for the week and doing poorly against both Vancouver (5-for-17/29.4 percent) and Philadelphia (7-for-22/31.8 percent).  In the defensive end they were much better, winning 39 of 71 for the week (54.9 percent), a product of their effort against Philadelphia (16-for-23/69.6 percent) and Florida (16-for-30/53.3 percent).

The guys on the scoring lines taking most of the offensive zone draws did not have a very good week.  Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich (against Vancouver), and Marcus Johansson (against Philadelphia and Florida) were 8-for-25 (32.0 percent) for the week. 

Goals For/Against by Period:

The problem for the week, if there was one, is right there hiding in plain sight.  Twice the Caps had leads in the third period of games, and twice they lost them.  It cost them two points in one game, and it cost them a regulation win in the other. 

Although the Caps outscored opponents by a 3-1 margin in the first period of games this week, it remains that there are only five teams that have scored fewer first period goals than the Caps.  They do seem to make up for it with their second period performance, both this week (a 6-1 advantage) and overall (21-12), but it still would be nice to get out to better starts.

In the end…

The saying goes that it is not “how,” it is “how many”…wins that is.  But how a team arrives at those wins is something to think about as the team goes forward.  Did the formula they used to win those games suggest a template to duplicate going forward? 

We are not sold on that.  Much of this week’s results was a product of the second period against Philadelphia.  A great 20 minutes, to be sure, but 20 minutes nonetheless.  Otherwise they had those lost leads against the other two teams that could have made it a much more disappointing week.

The good part is that the Caps did get two wins with their captain on the bench, and others (most notably Nicklas Backstrom and that third line) stepped up in his absence.  There is still much work to be done before one could say this is a good team playing well, but they gave themselves a basis this week for building toward that goal.

Washington Capitals: A TWO point night -- Game 14: Capitals 3 - Panthers 2 (OT/Gimmick)

All’s well that ends well.

The Washington Capitals were in the midst of a game that they could have – and almost did – let get away.  They did not, though, beating the Florida Panthers in a Gimmick, 3-2.

After spending five games on the road, finishing up with a rousing 7-0 over Philadelphia, the Caps came home to face a team that they had a habit of mauling in Verizon Center.  The Caps might have overlooked the Panthers, but it was more a case of trying to dance a two-step in waltz time.  The steps just did not work, and their feet kept on getting in the way.

That is, except to the extent the Caps could hoof it to the penalty box.  The Caps had to kill off three Panther power plays in the first period and six for the game, testing the eight-game streak they brought into this game without allowing a power play goal.

The Caps killed those three power plays in the first period, another in the second period, and another mid-way through the third period.  But the sixth time was the charm for the Panthers on a 4-on-3 power play when Jonathan Huberdeau slid the puck behind the net to Brian Campbell who fired it back in the direction from which it came, hitting Tomas Fleischmann on the tape of his stick.  Fleischmann buried the puck in the back of the net before goalie Michal Neuvirth could recover to the near post.  That goal, with just 2:38 left in regulation time, sent the contest into extra time.

Before that, though, it was a rough, sandpapery kind of game.  Marcel Goc and Michael Latta dropped the gloves in the first period after Goc was elbowed by Latta.  Goc got two to even the penalty scoring for instigating the fight.  It ended up suiting the Caps just fine 20 seconds later when Nicklas Backstrom took advantage of an odd bounce of the puck off the skate of the Panthers’ Jesse Winchester, collecting the puck in the slot with not a Panther around him.  Backstrom snapped the puck past goalie Scott Clemmensen before he could flinch for the first goal of the game.

Winchester atoned for his misfortune in the second period when he stepped around Brooks Laich at the Florida blue line just as Scottie Upshall was intercepting a loose puck.  Upshall led Winchester with a pass into the neutral zone, and it was all Winchester from there, outracing Steve Oleksy and Laich, who was desperately trying to hook Winchester from behind.  Winchester spared the referee from deciding whether to award a penalty shot (we think he would have) by slipping the puck between Neuvirth’s pads to tie the game.

The Caps struck quickly in response once more, though, answering with a goal just 36 seconds later.  Michael Latta scooped up a loose puck in the defensive zone and circled up the left wing boards with speed.  He carried the puck all the way into the Panther zone with Aaron Volpatti and John Carlson stepping up to create a three-on-two advantage for the Caps.  Volpatti drove the net, backing off the defensemen and creating a passing lane that Latta used to his advantage, hitting Carlson at the inside edge of the right wing circle.  Carlson wristed the puck past Clemmensen’s glove, and the Caps had their one goal lead back.

The Panthers tied the game late to force overtime, which passed almost without incident (the Caps had a 4-on-3 power play that they could not convert), leading to the free-style competition.  Mikhail Grabovski and Aleksander Barkov scored on similar one-handed moves that left the goalies helpless to look at the puck sliding past them.  Brooks Laich put the Caps at the advantage when a puck that slipped off his stick as he was trying to pull it to his forehand fooled Clemmensen just enough to sneak through his pads.  When Michal Neuvirth stoned Jonathan Huberdeau with a glove save on a snap shot, it was up to Nicklas Backstrom to end the night.  He did just that, snapping the puck past Clemmensen’s right pad just as the goalie appeared to be going for a poke check.  It was Nick first and Nick last for the win.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps penalty killing streak ended at 35 in a row.  The power play goal the Caps allowed was only the fifth they allowed so far this season, the second fewest in the league (Colorado: 3).  The Caps remain second in the league in penalty killing (90.7 percent).

-- The goal by Nicklas Backstrom made it the first time he had goals in consecutive games since Games 3 and 4 last season, against Winnipeg and Montreal.  It is the first time he has had three in two games since early November of 2011, when he followed up a pair against the Anaheim Ducks with a goal against Carolina.  If you are wondering, yes, he has had a three game goal-scoring streak, three times in fact.  The latest came in the 2009-2010 season.

-- Speaking of streaks, Jason Chimera’s goals/points streak ended at four.

-- The Caps played in a bit of bad luck with Eric Fehr hitting a crossbar on a power play, one of seven shot attempts by Fehr in 19 minutes of ice time.

-- We said that the game had a sandpapery feel to it.  It was especially coarse grit in the third period when Krys Barch ran Alexander Urbom into the side boards after he was upended by Steve Oleksy on a hip check at the other end.  Later it was Mike Green and Tomas Kopecky exchanging gloves to the face (and roughing minors).  Then, after Oleksy was run into the glass near the Caps’ bench late in regulation, he took a two-handed swing at the perpetrator, Scottie Upshall.  It was that last penalty that led to the Panthers’ tying power play goal.

-- Micahel Latta’s assist on John Carlson’s goal was his first NHL point.  It was Carlson’s 100th NHL point.  Carlson is now the only roster defenseman with a goal this season (Connor Carrick, currently assigned to the Hershey Bears, has the other one).

-- There is a line in the game summary that we do not often pay attention to, that being the “Even Strength – Goals/Occurrences” line.  However, tonight the number jumped out at us: “13.”  There were 13 separate occurrences of even strength play, an indicator of how choppy this game was.  By way of comparison, the game Friday against Philadelphia – one that fans might remember as more ornery – had ten distinct even strength situations.

-- The Caps were three for three shooting in the freestyle competition in this game.  That makes them 9-for-11 so far, an 81.8 percent shooting percentage.  Wasn’t last year the year when the Caps were supposed to have trick shot specialists?  Matt who?  Mike who?  Wojtek who?

-- This was one of those really odd games in this respect.  The Caps had only 23 shots on goal, but 11 of them came from the defense (the defense had 25 of the team’s 50 shot attempts).  If you take away the eight shots that the top line of Backstrom, Fehr, and Martin Erat had, that left four shots on goal for the other nine forwards.  For the record, they were: Aaron Volpatti, Jason Chimera, Tom Wilson, and Marcus Johansson.  Hey, the third line isn’t going to do it every night.

-- It was just about as odd on the other side.  Defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Brian Campbell led the team with five shots on goal apiece.  Defensemen had 15 of the 33 shots on goal for the Panthers.

-- The win for Neuvirth came in what was only his second home start of the season.  It was only his third win at Verizon Center over the past two seasons.

-- Starting with a March 29, 2008 win over the Panthers in Florida, the Caps are 24-8-1 against Florida in their last 33 contests.  The Caps are 13-3-0 at home (3.94 goals/game to 2.13 for the Panthers) and 11-5-1 in Florida (3.35 - 2.77).

In the end…

Not every night is unicorns and accordions.  Sometimes, a team just has to plug away for 60 minutes when things are not going quite right, when they are coming off a high of a big win, when they just might be a bit out of kilter after a long spell away from home and playing the back half of a back-to-back set of games.  We thought the Caps might let the Panthers (who were playing their own back-to-back games) hang around into the third period, and they did.  But they ground out the last few minutes of regulation without letting things getting away entirely, then pushed through the overtime where they could then let their superior skill take over in the freestyle round (with a little luck on the stick of Brooks Laich). 

There are games one can look back on at the end of a season and think, “there’s a point they want back.”  Tonight the Caps got a point that one might look back on in April and think, “that’s one they could have left on the table and did not.”  If it comes down to a point for a playoff spot, the extra time effort in this one will matter.