Sunday, January 26, 2014

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 17

For the Washington Capitals, as it is for just about any team, how you end the week is generally how you feel about yourself.  A good thing, too, because for the Caps, Week 17 might have been a disaster.  As it was, it was merely a frustrating week that ended with a sense of hope that the worst of the worst stretch of the season was at an end.

Record: 1-3-0

The Capitals came into the week having lost four straight, three of those by one-goal margins, two of those in the trick shot competition.  Then they lost three games to start the week, scoring only two goals in the process.  The seven-game losing streak became the worst for the club since the infamous eight-game losing streak in December 2010 in the run-up to the 2011 Winter Classic, a streak lovingly captured by the cameras of HBO in its four-part 24/7 series on the Classic.

More important, when the streak started the Caps were in second place in the Metropolitan Division.  When Week 17 started, and the Caps had four straight losses, they dropped to fifth.  By Thursday, with two more losses on the books, they were seventh of eight teams in the division.  Another loss to New Jersey on Friday followed, but the streak finally came to an end on Saturday night in Montreal with a 5-0 whitewashing of the Canadiens.  Washington remains in seventh place in the Metropolitan at week’s end, but they are just three points out of second place and a with game in hand compared to those second-place New York Rangers.

Offense:  1.75/game (season: 2.69 / rank: 16th)

For the second straight week the Caps averaged less than two goals per game for the week (1.50 in Week 16).  It was an extension of bad luck shooting the puck that was the critical element of the losing streak.  In the first three games of Week 17 the Caps shot 2-for-90 (2.2 percent).  It was actually worse in the first three games of Week 17 than their performance for Week 16 (5.0 percent), and extended a dry spell that left the Caps with a 3.8 percent shooting mark over seven straight losses.

When the Caps lit up Montreal for five goals on Saturday it matched their offensive output over their previous 286:51 over four-plus games.  It was their largest single-game output since beating Tampa Bay, 6-5 in a Gimmick, back on December 10th, a span of 21 games.  Between those five-goal outbursts (not counting the game-winning trick shot goal against the Lightning) the Caps averaged just 2.20 goals per game.

For the week Alex Ovechkin, despite missing two of the four games with a lower body injury, led the team in goals (two) and points (three).  Three Caps had a pair of assists: Mike Green, Martin Erat, and Tom Wilson.  Against Montreal to end the week, three Caps recorded their first goals of the season: John Erskine, Jay Beagle, and Casey Wellman.

Defense: 2.00/game (season: 2.85 / rank: 19th)

Lost in the depths of the recent losing streak, the Caps’ defense has not been bad.  In Week 17 they allowed only eight goals in four games.  It was the product of some generally good efforts on defense.  Washington allowed opponents only 25.8 shots on goal per game for the week.  Overall they were on the good side of Corsi-for (53.2) and Fenwick for percentages (53.3).  They were just as effective in 5-on-5 close score situations, during which the Caps had similar numbers for Corsi-for (52.2) and Corsi-for (53.5) percentages (numbers from 

As for the nuts and bolts of it, it was an odd week.  If we told you last Sunday that John Erskine would be on ice for only one goal against, would you have believed it?  Erskine was replaced for one game this past week by Nate Schmidt, but in three games there he was, on ice for only one goal against, that being a power play goal (what would be the game-winner) against New Jersey on Friday.  John Carlson also was on ice for only one goal against in four games.  At the other end of the spectrum, Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov (four apiece), you guys have some work to do.  Ditto for you, Nicklas Backstrom (four goals against).

Still, the lingering thought of the week on defense might be this number: 3.  Over the first 32:44 of their game on Saturday, the Caps outshot Montreal by a 26-3 margin in building a 4-0 lead in what would be a 5-0 win on Saturday.  They held the Canadiens without a shot on goal over a 19:57 span crossing the first and second periods of that game.

Goaltending: 2.03 GAA / .922 SV / 1 SO (season: 2.74 / .917 / 2 SO)

It was a week of transition in goal for the Caps.  It started with Philipp Grubauer allowing three goals on eight shots in 17:49 of work this week, after which he was reassigned to the Hershey Bears.  Not that it was all his fault (or, perhaps, even mostly).  The reassignment will give Grubauer a chance to get regular work, because by week’s end, one had the feeling it was once more Braden Holtby’s cage. 

Holtby had a fine week overall.  In addition to relieving Grubauer in the week’s first game of the week, stopping 17 of 18 shots in a 4-1 loss to the Rangers, he was 24-for-26 in a 2-0 loss to Ottawa on Tuesday and stopped all 21 shots he faced in the Caps’ 5-0 win over Montreal to end the week.  Overall, Holtby’s 1.12 goals-against average, .952 save percentage, and shutout to end the week set him up once more as the number one netminder.

Lost in the comings and goings, and it should not be, was Michal Neuvirth’s solid outing against New Jersey on Friday.  Neuvirth stopped 28 of 30 shots in a 2-1 loss.  Lately it has been shot volumes that have done in Neuvirth more than his own inefficiency.  In his last three appearances he has what looks like a not-so-special 2.71 goals against average, but his save percentage of .921 is solid. 

Power Play: 1-for-19 / 5.3 percent (season: 22.2 percent / 5th)

What a dismal week for the power play.  The Caps had 34:32 in total power play time over four games, 19 chances in all, 26 shots… and one goal.  The 19 chances for the week is a season high for a one-week period (16 opportunities in Week 6), and the eight opportunities they had against Montreal was their high for the season. 

One could explain away a piece of this week’s output by saying that in the last power play of the week for the Caps the fivesome to start the man advantage would be: Casey Wellman, Jay Beagle, Jason Chimera, Mike Green, and Dmitry Orlov.  No Ovechkin, no Backstrom, no Brouwer or Johansson.  Reward for their effort in helping the Caps build a 5-0 lead against the Canadiens.

Still, the Caps were 1-for-18 for the week before those substitutions were made.  It is part of a longer stretch of futility in which Washington is 1-for-33 dating back to the third period of their 4-3 win over Tampa Bay back on January 9th.  It might surprise no one that the Caps are 2-5-2 since then, including Saturday’s win over Montreal.

Part of it might have been Alex Ovechkin missing two games this week.  He is, after all, the primary trigger man on the power play.  Even with missing those two games he led the team in power play shots on goal with six, and he had the only goal.  Joel Ward was next with four shots for the week.

Penalty Killing: 14-for-17 / 82.4 percent (season: 80.3 percent / 20th)

Only once in the past 12 weeks did the Caps finish a week with a more efficient penalty kill than what they produced in Week 17 (85.7 percent in Week 13, but that was on only seven situations faced).  That’s the good part.  The bad is that the 82.4 percent for the week matches the 14th-place team in the league this season in penalty killing (Boston).  “Better” does not necessarily mean “good.”

The Caps allowed power play goals in each of the first three games of the week, all of them losses. It could have been worse.  First, opportunities were high.  Facing 14 shorthanded situations in those first three games was the most over a three-game span since they faced 15 over a three-game span from December 15-20.  Second, the Caps allowed 22 shots in 23:28 of penalty killing time in those three games.  The .864 save percentage by Caps goalies in those three games was not extraordinary, but given the time burden faced, it was not all that bad, either. 

The Caps finished up the week killing off all three (three, not four, not five) shorthanded situations on their way to their only win of the week.  There is a lesson to be learned there, one that perhaps should have been by now.  Stay out of the box.

Even Strength Goals For/Against: 6-4 (season 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.93 / rank: 18th)

Looks can be deceiving here.  While the Caps finished a plus-2 for the week at even strength, that included a plus-5 in their lone win of the week, the 5-0 shutout of Montreal.  Otherwise, Washington had one even strength goal scored in three games.  Really, 1-for-64 in even-strength shooting in those three games? One-point-six percent shooting?

The lack of even strength punch on offense more than negated a decent performance at the other end in those first three games of Week 17.  Caps goalies stopped 53 of 57 even strength shots in those games (.930 save percentage).  The trick in Game 4 of the week was, in part, shots.  The Caps had 23 even strength shots on goal in the first two periods against Montreal, hitting on four of them in building a 4-0 lead.  At the other end they held the Habs to eight even-strength shots over those same 40 minutes (16 for the game), shutting them out on the way.

Faceoffs: 107-229 / 46.7 percent (season: 49.3 percent / rank: 18th)

It was another week of the total looking better than the detail.  The Caps were just 37-for-86 on faceoffs in the offensive end (43.0 percent) and just 34-for-76 in the defensive end (44.7 percent).  Nicklas Backstrom and Mikhail Grabovski (before missing the Montreal game with an injury) had pretty good weeks.  Backstrom was over 50 percent in all three zones on his way to a 59.0 percent week in the circle.  It was the same for Grabovski, albeit in fewer opportunities, in his 56.5 percent week.  After that, though, it went south.  Brooks Laich, Troy Brower, and Jay Beagle all took more than 20 draws and all of them finished the week on the south side of 50 percent.

Goals For/Against by Period:

It is a good thing the Caps had that four-goal period against Montreal, because to that point the first period was killing them in games.  Well, perhaps in one game.  The Caps allowed three goals in the first period of their game against the Rangers to open the week, all of them coming against Philipp Grubauer in his last appearance with the Caps before reassignment to Hershey.  After that, it wasn’t bad as first periods go.  In three-plus opening frames after that disappointing start to the week the Caps allowed just one goal on 21 shots in 62:11 of ice time.

As for that second period, as much as the first might not have been as bad as it looked overall, neither was the second as good as it looked overall.  The Caps finished the week with five second period goals in four games, but they had just one in the middle frame of their first three games on 34 shots on goal.  They made up for it by lighting up Carey Price for four goals on 14 shots in 10:31 of the second period of their 5-0 win over Montreal.

The third period was calm in comparison, the Caps scoring twice, one of them a goal to halve a New Jersey lead that the Caps could not erase, and the last goal (Casey Wellman’s first of the season) capping the 5-0 win over Montreal on Saturday.

In the end…

The end might matter most, but only if the Caps can parlay their convincing win over Montreal into a streak of better luck in the win column.  It was not as if the Caps played badly to start the week any more than it has been the case over their seven-game losing streak overall.  High shooting percentages are generally unsustainable over large populations of games.  So, too, is it with low shooting percentages.  After all, these are NHL-level players we are describing. 

That the Caps could go 2-for-90 in their first three games of the week (8-for-210 in their seven-game losing streak) is unsustainable.  However, a five-goal night does not sponge away the problems, either.  This is a team that lacks finishers.  Alex Ovechkin missed two games this week, scoring goals in the other two.  He has goals in four of his last five games, five of his last seven.  He is on a pace to finish with 59 goals, despite having missed four games to injury. 

After that, the capacity to finish on a consistent basis drops off a lot.  And that is what makes dry spells such as that the Caps experienced to open January unsustainable, but not unrepeatable.  Joel Ward is second on the club with 13 goals.  First, Ward is not who one would expect to occupy that ranking on this club (or maybe one would, given the possibilities).  Second, Ward has not had a goal in his last eight games and has only one in his last dozen contests.  No one has stepped up to overtake him in the club goal-scoring rankings.

The Caps have three road games coming up in Week 18, leading off against the Buffalo Sabres, who have two 2-1 trick shot wins in the last two meetings of the clubs.  That probably means facing Ryan Miller, who stopped 77 of 79 shots in those two Sabre wins.  We will see if the gusher of goals against Montreal is reduced once more to a trickle.

Washington Capitals: A TWO point night -- Game 52: Capitals 5 - Canadiens 0

The Washington Capitals took their road show to Montreal on Saturday night to face the Canadiens in hope of ending a seven-game losing streak.  In the prognosto for this game we said…

“One gets the feeling it is going to be a fluke, something on the order of that goal Detroit scored a short while back that hit the netting behind the goal, fell, hit the goalie in the back and caromed into the net.  Maybe it will be a shot that deflects off an official, hits the goalie in the mask and tumbles into the net.  Maybe it will be an opponent shooting the puck into his own net while skating on a delayed penalty to the Caps.”

The Caps almost had that fluke – a near buzzer-beater as the first period ended at Bell Centre.  But when the late goal by Troy Brouwer was disallowed for being after the horn to end the period, we thought it might take divine intercession to break the Caps free of the chains that bound them to their losing streak.

It did not take that much, not quite.  The Caps did get their first goal on a half-flukish, half amazing play by their captain, Alex Ovechkin, tore off four more goals, and then let Braden Holtby do the rest as the Caps skated off with a 5-0- win to end the losing streak.

After the scoreless-almost score first period, the Caps took the lead in the second minute of the second period as a power play was expiring.  Martin Erat got things started from the right-wing half wall, sliding a pass to John Carlson at the top of the offensive zone.  Carlson let fly with a shot that pinballed off bodies in front of goalie Carey Price.  The puck finally bounced out to Price’s right where Ovechkin was waiting.  What Ovechkin was not waiting for was the puck to settle.  He took it out of mid-air, bounced it off his stick a few times, and whacked it off Price into the back of the net…

Oh, wait…

Less than two minutes later, a flukier goal was scored.  It was Erat starting things again, once more from the right-wing half wall.  Erat slid the puck across, this time to John Erskine who, for lack of a better word (since he really did not shoot the puck), “redirected” it from 35 feet out slo-o-o-o-o-o-wly toward the Montreal net.  Brooks Laich kept P.K. Subban from getting a stick on the slo-o-o-o-o-owly sliding puck, and the biscuit somehow managed to slip through Price’s pads for a 2-0 lead.

Barely three minutes after that it was Jay Beagle deadening a centering feed from Tom Wilson with his skate, then backhanding the puck into the net left open by Price when he thought Wilson was going to take the shot.  Four minutes after that John Carlson scored when his floater from the blue line was tipped by Montreal defenseman Nathan Beaulieu over Price’s glove.  The fourth goal in just 8:45 ended Price’s night in favor of Peter Budaj.

The Caps put the cherry on top of the sundae in the third period when Casey Wellman finished a 2-on-2 rush with Ovechkin, taking a feed from across the slot and snapping the puck past Budaj, who looked convinced (like everyone in the rink, including perhaps Ovechkin’s father in the stands, that Ovechkin would take the shot). 

From there it was just a matter of playing solid defense in front of Braden Holtby, who would blank the Canadiens the rest of the way for the shutout, a 5-0 win.

Other stuff…

-- At one point in this game the Caps had the edge in shots, 26-3.  Montreal went 19:57 between shots on goal, from the 12:47 mark of the first period to the 12:44 mark of the second period.

-- Three Capitals recorded their first goals of the season for the club – John Erskine, Jay Beagle, and Casey Wellman.  Martin Erat’s lonely search for his first goal of the year continues.

-- Erat did have two assists.  No player in the league has as many assists without a goal as does Erat (18).  It’s not even close.  Montreal’s Raphael Diaz and Boston’s Ryan Spooner each have 11 assists without a goal.  It was Erat’s best game of the year, plus-minus wise, with a plus-3.  It was the first time he was that far to the good on the plus-minus ledger since he was a plus-3 playing for the Nashville Predators against the Toronto Maple Leafs on November 17, 2011.

-- It was Braden Holtby’s fourth appearance at Bell Centre.  He is 4-0-0, 0.75, ,970, with two shutouts.  That’s pretty good.

-- It was the first time that the Caps scored five goals in a game since they beat Tampa Bay, 6-5, in a Gimmick back on December 10th.

-- Here is a truly bizarre stat… the plus-13 shot differential was the Caps’ largest in a win this season.  Note…in a win.  They were plus-13 when they lost to Colorado, 5-1, on October 12th.  They were plus-22 in a 2-1 Gimmick loss to Toronto on November 23rd.  They were plus-33 in a 2-1 Gimmick loss to Buffalo on December 29th.  They were plus-19 in a 5-3 loss to Minnesota on January 4th.

-- The Caps were just 7-for-22 on offensive zone faceoffs, 7-for-19 in the defensive end.

-- The Caps had eight power play chances, the most this season and the most they had since getting eight opportunities against New Jersey in a 3-2 overtime loss on January 25, 2013.  It is the most they had without converting one since going 0-for-8 in a 3-0 loss to Florida on December 9, 2010.  The power play is now 1-for 33 dating back to the third period of the Caps’ 4-3 win over Tampa Bay on January 9th.  They were close, though.  Ovechkin’s goal was scored just as a power play was ending.

-- Alex Ovechkin recording ten shot attempts is not unusual.  Nicklas Backstrom recording eight (five on goal) is a little more eye-opening.  Not much to show for it, though.  He was one of only five Caps skaters without a point and one of only three who did not finish on the plus side of the plus-minus ledger.

-- Hometown scoring…  Montreal was credited with 29 hits among 15 skaters.  The Caps were credited with eight, four of them by Ovechkin, among five skaters.

In the end, the streak is over.  The Caps are still in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division, but they are only two points out of third place, three out of second (with a game in hand on second-place New York Rangers).  Sometimes it takes a spark, a fluke, or something bizarre happening to end a long losing streak.  The Caps benefited from all three on Saturday night – Tom Wilson’s early scrap against Brandon Prust, the Ovechkin “Tribute to Tiger” goal, John Erskine’s laser that you could time going to the net with a calendar.  It was all good and a good end to the trip with the players’ dads.  It is something to build on, and it comes just in time as the Caps head to Buffalo, where they are likely to face this year’s demon in goal for them, Ryan Miller, who has stopped 77 of 79 Caps shots in two 2-1 Gimmick wins this season. 

Let’s hope there are more goals on those sticks, bizarre or otherwise.