Sunday, February 02, 2014

Washington Capitals: A TWO point night -- Game 56: Capitals 6 - Red Wings 5 (OT)

It was a game that featured more fireworks than most Super Bowls and provided appropriate entertainment for a Super Sunday.  The Washington Capitals snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, not to mention embarrassment, when they took away two points in a 6-5 overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings in the back half of their home-and-home weekend series.

The Caps avoided the sweep at the hands of the Red Wings when Alex Ovechkin pounded a one-timer past Jimmy Howard 2:37 into the extra session, the Caps’ third power play goal of the game.  The game-winner spared the embarrassment that might have been felt by a team that had three two-goal leads in the game.

The Caps established their first two goal lead in the first period with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward scoring just 2:37 apart.  For Chimera it was a case of finishing off some fine forward pressure deep in the Red Wing zone, pinning the Red Wings behind their own goal line before the puck squirted out to Chimera all alone on the dot in the right wing faceoff circle.  With goalie Jimmy Howard’s head on a swivel, he could not find the puck, and Chimera had an open net to shoot at before Howard could realize where the puck had gone. 

Ward finished the first Caps power play of the game when, while occupying the right wing half wall spot normally manned by Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson found Ward in the slot with shooting room.  Ward settled the puck and wristed it past Howard before the Red Wing defense could converge, and the Caps had their first two-goal lead.

After Gustav Nyquist halved the lead on a power play goal at the 11:20 mark, John Carlson restored the two-goal advantage when he took a pass from Nicklas Backstrom in the high slot and pounded a slap shot past Howard’s blocker to make it 3-1.

Detroit got back within a goal at 13:30 of the second period on a Tomas Tatar goal that seemed to fool goalie Michal Neuvirth from the left wing circle.  However, Joel Ward put the Caps up by two goals for a third time just 19 seconds later.  Ward started it, and he finished it.  From the left wing wall Ward dumped the puck into the far corner where defenseman Connor Carrick was headed.  Carrick threw the puck at the crease, but defenseman Jakub Kindl had Jason Chimera tied up.  No one bothered to track Ward coming from the far side, however, and he jumped into the slot and stuffed the puck past Howard for his second goal of the game.

Nyquist got the Red Wings within a goal for a third time with a power play goal – his second goal of the game – with just 1:11 left in the second period, something of a momentum changer as it turned out.  The Red Wings capitalized on the momentum change just 42 seconds into the third period when Nyquist completed the hat trick.  The Caps took it back, though, less than four minutes later. 

Although he would not get the goal, nor even an assist on the play, the tie-breaker was largely the product of hard work by Martin Erat.  Firt, Erat chased down Justin Abdelkader, who was himself in flight into the Detroit zone to try to gain control of a loose puck.  All Abdelkader was able to do as a result was poke the puck across to Jonathan Ericsson.  When the puck slid past Ericsson, it was Erat pouncing in the opposite corner to pressure the defenseman into a turnover.  The puck slid out to the left wing circle and past Nicklas Backstrom and Henrik Zetterberg, finding its way onto the stick of Troy Brouwer in all alone on Howard.  Brouwer made good on the chance, snapping the puck to the long side and inside the post to give the Caps a 5-4 lead.

That lead did not hold up, either.  Abdelkader got it back just 1:57 later – yet another goal allowed less than two minutes after scoring one – and the game was tied for the last time.  The Red Wings sealed their fate when Brendan Smith was sent off 1:26 into the extra session to give the Caps the advantage of numbers and open ice.  When John Carlson fed Alex Ovechkin barely a minute later, the Caps took one more, one last, one final lead, and sent fans home to their Super Bowl parties happy.

Other stuff…

-- Ovechkin had the game-winning goal, 11 shot attempts, two hits, and a takeaway in 24 minutes of ice time.  He was also a minus-1.  Wonder what will get the attention on Monday morning.

-- Speaking of Ovechkin, one wonders if he ever had as open a net as the one in front of him with two seconds left in the first period.  If the Caps make it 4-1 there, does Howard return for the second period?   Do the Red Wings come back?  Would Lassie get the sheriff to the well to save Timmy in time to watch the Super Bowl?

-- In the two-minute goal sweepstakes, the Joel Ward goal 19 seconds after Tomas Tatar scored in the second period was the ninth time this season that the Caps scored a goal less than two minutes after giving one up.  When Gustav Nyquist returned the favor 1:17 after Troy Brouwer scored in the third period, it was the 24th time it happened to the Caps.

-- The three power plays on six chances made it 6-for-18 in the Caps’ last four games (33.3 percent).  It was the first time the Caps had three power play goals in a game since December 20th in a 4-2 win over Carolina.

-- The Caps have not lacked for offense against Detroit recently.  Six goals made it 24 in their last five games against the Red Wings.  It was the most goals the Caps scored at home since beating the New York Islanders, 6-2, back on November 5th.

-- For Nicklas Backstrom, his two assist day made it his first multi-point day since he was he had a goal and an assist in a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers on December 27th.

-- The Caps abused the Red Wings in the circle.  They were 13-for-21 on faceoffs in the offensive end, 15-for-26 in the defensive end, and 18-for-29 in the neutral zone.  Eric Fehr (10-for-12), Nicklas Backstrom (12-for-21), and Jay Beagle (14-for-19) were beastly.

-- Speaking of Fehr, Backstrom, and Beagle, those three tied for the team lead in hits with five apiece.

-- For Joel Ward it was his second three-point game of the season, his other one coming when he recorded a hat trick against Philadelphia in a 7-0 win on November 1st.

-- Connor Carrick had his first multi-point game in the NHL with a pair of assists.

-- Marcus Johansson had a shot on goal and a missed shot.  It broke a string of four games in which he did not have so much as a shot attempt.  He had an assist for good measure.

-- Martin Erat had 20:36 in ice time, a season high for him and only the second time this season he topped 20 minutes.  Erat has five assists in his last five games, including the helper he had this afternoon.

In the end…

At this point, you take the points where you can get them, however you can earn them.  The Caps had a chance to put this game away early with three goals (and what should have been four) in the first period.  But no lead is safe with this team, and it was simply a case of outracing the usual demons – losing focus after a goal, letting teams back into games, underwhelming goaltending.

However, the Caps did have balance – five skaters with goals, nine with points – and did not allow momentum changes to overwhelm them.  They had secondary scoring, they had stretches in which they exerted great pressure on Red Wing skaters in their own end.  Actually, what they had in the end was the puck on Alex Ovechkin’s stick, and that made all the difference.

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 18

In Week 18 of the 2013-2014 season the Washington Capitals tread water.  Unfortunately, when a team starts the week in seventh place in an eight-team division, two points out of a playoff spot, and ends the week in seventh place in an eight-team division and three points out of a playoff spot, it just is not good enough, especially with a difficult schedule looming down the road in March.  Ground not gained now is ground lost.

Record: 1-1-1

The best thing that can be said about the Caps’ record for Week 18 is, “it could have been worse.”  They blew a two-goal lead among the three leads they held over the Buffalo Sabres before winning in overtime.  They were pasted, 5-2, by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the middle game of the week.  They scored with seven seconds left in regulation to salvage one point against the Detroit Red Wings to end the week.  They were an overtime goal and seven seconds away from a one-point week.

Through a certain lens (rose-colored, of course) one might rationalize the week away by saying, “but they split their points on the road…split on the road, win at home, voila!”  Yeah, well, hang on to that idea when you’re wondering what to do on a weekend night in April when the Caps’ season is over.

Offense:  3.33/game (season: 2.73 / rank: 15th)

It was not as if the Caps lacked for offense in Week 18.  Ten goals in three games is, if done on a regular and consistent basis, certainly good enough to succeed in this NHL.  They showed a remarkable consistency in one respect.  Their shot attempts in the three games for the week were: 55, 55, 54.

The Caps also extended a quiet streak in the first two games of the week.  They outshot Buffalo, 35-27, and Columbus, 32-29, to make it five straight games in which they outshot their opponents.  Only once before this season had the Caps outshot opponents in consecutive games, that being January 2-4 when they outshot Carolina, 41-33, and Minnesota, 30-11.  The Caps lost both games.  As it was, he Caps also went 2-3-0 in their five-game shooting streak.  It was a streak that ended in the last game of the week when they were outshot by Detroit, 45-29, in a 4-3 trick shot loss.

Eight players shared in the goal scoring for the week.  Alex Ovechkin recorded a pair, having one credited to him changed to Joel Ward’s ledger (the game-tying goal with seven seconds left against Detroit).  With the goal put into Ward’s column, he finished the week with a pair of goals as well.  There were 16 players sharing in the point-scoring for the week, including goalie Braden Holtby, who recorded an assist on Ward’s first goal of the week in the Caps, 5-2 loss to Columbus on Thursday. 

Defense: 4.00/game (season: 2.91 / rank: T-23rd)

Here is the odd thing about defense in Week 18.  The Caps held Buffalo to 27 shots and Columbus to 29 shots, extending their streak of games to three holding teams under 30 shots per game, their longest streak of the season and making it five times in six games they accomplished the feat.  It was part of a generally sparse output from both opponents regarding shot attempts overall.  Buffalo managed 53 attempts, Columbus 48.  In Detroit, however, the Caps had their highest shots-allowed total (45), since allowing 47 to St. Louis in a 4-1 Caps win on November 17th (the second time the Caps allowed 47 shots this season, the first coming against Winnipeg in a 5-4 Gimmick win on October 22nd).

The possession numbers were deceptive.  In 5-on-5 close score situations the Caps had a Corsi-for percentage for the week of 51.4, a Fenwick-for percentage of 52.7.  That is overall.  The week was skewed by the Caps’ dominance in those statistics in their 5-4 overtime win over Buffalo to start the week.  Their Corst-for and Fenwick-for percentages were 59.2 and 64.2, respectively.  Against Columbus (41.2/38.5) and Detroit (44.8/40.0), possession was something the Caps appeared to lack in those 5on-5 close score situations.  One more word about the Columbus game.  There were only 17 Corsi events and only 13 Fenwick events in those 5-on-5 close score situations.  It was not exactly a “close” game.

Goaltending: 3.90 GAA / .881 SV (season: 2.80 / .915 / 2 SO)

Those numbers up there are not good.  And what is more disturbing, it was Braden Holtby’s that were worse than the week.  Holtby had the first and second games of the week and stopped only 47 of 56 shots (.839 save percentage).  That only scratches the surface of his week.  Underneath those numbers is the fact that in the first and second periods he had a save percentage of .800 in the first, .810 in the second (.806 overall).  He was letting games get away from him, and the team, early.  Then there were the periods where lack of focus cannot be overlooked.  In the second period against Buffalo (two goals on four shots) and the first period against Columbus (two goals on five shots) he suffered from lack of consistent work.  It was not a good week for the number one netminder.

As for the backup, Michal Neuvirth, he did his level best to keep the Caps in it against the Detroit Red Wings in his only appearance of the week.  Neuvirth faced 45 shots, 22 of them in the first period alone (all of which he stopped).  He was 14-for-14 stopping the Red Wings on seven power plays.  It was his third game in four in which he finished with a save percentage over .930.

Power Play: 3-for-12 / 25.0 percent (season: 22.3 percent / 5th)

The three goals scored on the power play by the Caps in Week 18 matched their total for the previous three weeks combined, and it was the most they had since recording five power play goals in Week 12.

It was not an especially efficient week for the Caps, despite the high conversion rate.  Washington recorded their three power play goals on 26 shots in 18:04 of power play time.  They did not lack for shots, they lacked for finish.  They had an especially difficult time against Columbus, where they went 0-for-7, misfiring on all 16 shots they had in 10:44 of power play time.  That game suffered, from the Caps’ point of view, from scoring effects of a sort. Guys who don’t normally get a lot of power play time showed up on the shot meter.  Brooks Laich was 0-for-2, as was Connor Carrick.  Eric Fehr had three third period power play shots.  It was bombs away, just duds when they got to the goaltender.

What the Caps did get was some variety among the scorers.  Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer, and Jason Chimera were the goal-scorers for the week on the power play.  What they also got was the puck shoved back in their face, or more precisely, their own net.  The Caps allowed their seventh shorthanded goal of the season in the 5-2 loss to Columbus.  Only three teams – Otrtawa, Philadelphia, and Edmonton – have allowed more.

Penalty Killing: 13-for-14 / 92.9 percent (season: 81.2 percent / 16th)

The penalty killers had their best week since going 16-for-17 in Week 5.  It was the second straight week that the season penalty killing rate was higher at the end of the week than at the beginning.  It would have been nicer without all the opportunities to show off their penalty killing chops, though.  The 14 shorthanded situations faced was the second-highest for the Caps in a three-game week this season (those 17 situations in Week 5).

Still, holding opponents to 1-for-25 shooting in 23:50 of shorthanded ice time has to qualify among the best weeks of the season for the Caps on the penalty kill.  When the Caps shutout Columbus on seven opportunities on Thursday, then blanked Detroit on five opportunities on Friday, it marked the first time the Caps shut out opponents in consecutive games in which they allowed five or more power plays since they stopped Vancouver on six chances and Philadelphia on five on October 28th and November 1st.

On top of that, the Caps scored a shorthanded goal of their own in the loss to Columbus on Thursday.  Joel Ward’s shorthanded goal was his second of the season and the team’s fourth.  The Caps had only three shorthanded goals in the 2012-2013 season.

Even Strength Goals For/Against: 6-10 (season 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.90 / rank: T-21st)

If special teams were fairly good to the Caps in Week 18, their performance at even strength left much to be desired.  This is a team than has spent most of the season below the 1.00 threshold in goals scored for and against at 5-on-5, but this week was especially grim.

The Caps scored half of their total for the week against a backup goalie, netting three on 31 even strength shots against Buffalo’s Jhonas Enroth.  They did not score an even strength goal in either of the first two periods of the other two games of the week.  It seems not to be a coincidence that it was the first game that they won, the other two that they lost.

At the other end, Columbus was 3-for-14 shooting at even strength in the first and second periods of their 5-2 win, while Detroit was 2-for-19.  It put the Caps in a hole out of which they could not climb against Columbus, and out of which they managed to climb to the top before losing in the Gimmick.

Faceoffs: 93-191 / 48.7 percent (season: 49.3 percent / rank: 18th)

It was a tale of two different ends for the Caps in the circles this week.  A poor outcome in the offensive end against Buffalo (8-for-22) led to a sub-50 percent week in the offensive zone (47.8 percent).  Meanwhile, the Caps were above 50 percent in the defensive end in all three games to finish the week at 58.5 percent.  It might have been enough to push them over 50 percent overall, but 38.5 percent in neutral zone draws put an end to that thinking.

The offensive end draws finishing under 50 percent was more a product of players who do not get many opportunities doing poorly.  Looking at the three top players in terms of frequency, Nicklas Backstrom (52.2), and Troy Brouwer (70.0) were over 50 percent, while Jay Beagle was 5-for-11.  In the defensive end, Backstrom and Brooks Laich took the most draws, and they made them count.  Backstrom was at 70.6 percent for the week, while Laich was at 52.2 percent. 

Goals For/Against by Period:

The second period, so good to the Caps this season, killed them in Week 18.  Washington allowed two second period goals in each of the three games this week.  They returned the favor against Buffalo in a game they won, but they managed only one in the middle frame against Columbus and none against Detroit in games they lost.  It hardly seems surprising, given that the Caps outshot the Sabres by a 16-4 margin in their game, while they were outshot in the second period against Columbus (17-5) and against Detroit (9-8).

In the end…

The Caps beat a bad team starting their backup goalie, lost to a team that is starting to look hungry to make it to a rare playoff appearance, and lost to a team that had a number of players injured or just coming off injuries.  Road games or not, all of them were games the Caps could have won, yet they were close to making it a winless week.  And again, there might be too much Alex Ovechkin reflected in the scoring.  He had a hand in six of the Caps’ ten goals for the week.  That is not an argument for Ovechkin to score less, but for others to step up.  Like Marcus Johansson, who finished the week, not only with no shots on goal, but no shot attempts in the three games.  Not a blocked shot, not a missed shot. 

Not that all this is on Johansson; he is a symptom of a broader malaise.  The Caps need to get more push from others, like Eric Fehr (one goal in his last 12 games), Troy Brouwer (one goal in his last 14 games), and Nicklas Backstrom (one goal in his last 17 games, only seven points over that span).

Even the increase in scoring, though, won’t fill in all the blanks.  Week 15 saw a return of the inconsistent goaltending, specifically the performance of Braden Holtby.  If the Caps are going to make a push for a playoff spot, Holtby is going to have to show more consistency than he has displayed so far this season, a trait that was on display this week.

All them are.