Sunday, March 23, 2014

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 23

Week 23 was very good to the Washington Capitals.  More precisely, the Capitals were very good to themselves in Week 23.  They hit the hardest part of their road schedule, a three-game swing through California, and came out the other side with an historic performance in the Golden State.

Record: 3-0-1

The Caps had their best record for a week this season.  It was also just their second three-win week this season and only their fifth week without a regulation loss.  For only the third time this season the Caps posted a streak of at least three games without a loss in regulation on the road (2-0-1), the first time they did it on one road trip.  What set this road trip apart was two things, the “who” and the “where.”  When the schedule was published for this season fans might have looked at March and thought, “oh, this isn’t good.”  Of greatest concern might have been the three-game trip to California, which has been a pit of despair for the Caps in recent years.  However, when it was over, the Caps had something never before achieved in team history, a three-game California trip with five of six standings points in their carry-on baggage.

What made the trip special, what put the cherry on top of the tofu sundae, was a win in San Jose against the Sharks.  The 3-2 trick-shot win was the Caps’ first since Alex Ovechkin was about this age…

It broke an 0-11-1 streak of grief in San Jose for the Caps and pulled the club into a tie with Detroit in points (79) for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot.

Offense:  2.50/game (season: 2.76 / rank: 14th)

There wasn’t much, but what there was certainly was timely.  Offense, that is.  The Caps scored first in three of the four games this week, and at no point did they allow a team to get out to a two goal lead when they did fall behind.  If the Caps’ offense was a menu, the special of the week would be “grinders.”  Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer each had three goals for the Caps.  For Ward, who scored in each of the first three games of the week, the three goals meant hitting the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career, finishing the week with 22 for the season.  Brouwer’s three goals gave him 21 for the season, closing him to within a goal of his career high (22), set with Chicago in 2009-2010.  Nicklas Backstrom had four helpers for the week, giving him 56 for the season and leaving him third in the league in assists behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (60) and San Jose’s Joe Thornton (58).

Defense: 1.75/game (season: 2.85 / rank: T-21st)

Four games, seven goals against, on the road.  That is a good week, by any measure.  The seven goals in four games represents the second-best four-game stretch of goals allowed this season for the Caps.  They allowed six goals in a four-game stretch to open November.  Here is what made it better.  They did it playing three teams in the top-ten in scoring offense (Anaheim, San Jose, and Toronto). 

If you are looking for good news here, you can find it where you can find most good news for the Caps lately – the third line.  The trio of Joel Ward, Jason Chimera,  and Eric Fehr was on ice for one goal against this week, and that one was a bit fluky, the product of a Jason Chimera shot attempt that hit San Jose forward James Sheppard’s shin pad and rebounded into the neutral zone where Sheppard could run it down for a breakaway that resulted in a Sharks’ goal.  It was the last goal allowed by the Caps for the week.  At the other end, Nicklas Backstrom was on ice for six of the seven goals allowed this week.  No, that is not a typo.

The Caps still struggled intermittently with shots allowed, giving up 45 to the Ducks and 36 to the Sharks.  Those intermittent struggles were reflected in the possession metrics for the week.  Taken together the Caps were on the wrong side of 50 percent in both Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages at 5-on-5 over the four games (48.6/47.0).  The numbers were not appreciably different in 5-on-5 close score situations (48.8/47.7).  However, it bears noting that Washington faced, in Los Angeles and San Jose, two top-five teams in possession metrics this season.

Goaltending: 1.68 / .949 (season: 2.73 / .917 / 3 SO)

With the Caps managing just 110 shots on goal for the week and scoring 10 goals (9.1 percent shooting), then allowing 34.5 shots on goal per game on top of that, it fell to the goaltenders to stand tall.  They did.  Jaroslav Halak got the call for the first three games of the week and stopped 97 of 102 shots he faced (.951 save percentage).  He was better as games went on.  Halak posted a .842 save percentage in the first period of games, allowing goals in each of his three appearances in the opening frame, including a goal on only two shots faced in the first period against Toronto to open the week.  In the second period, though, he stopped 45 of 46 shots (.978) and in the third stopped 33 of 34 shots (.971).  He stifled the Kings on both overtime shots he saw for good measure in the Caps’ 2-1 Gimmick loss to Los Angeles.

Braden Holtby got the call in the last game of the week, his first week since stopping 40 of 42 shots in a 3-0 loss to Boston on March 6th.  Facing the top shooting team in the league in terms of shot volumes, Holtby was up to the task, allowing only two goals on 36 shots in the Caps’ 3-2 trick shot win over San Jose.  It was the 19th time this season that Holtby faced more than 35 shots in a game.  He has an 11-6-2 record in those games with a save percentage of .927.

Power play: 4-for-13 / 30.8 percent (season: 23.6 percent / rank: 2nd)

The power play continued to impress in Week 23.  The 4-for-13 effort in four games made it four straight weeks that the Caps’ power play finished at 25 percent or better.  Over the last four weeks it is 14-for-41 (34.2 percent).  Almost as impressive was that eight players shared in the power play point scoring ledger.  Troy Brouwer had two goals, Nicklas Backstrom has three assists.  Alex Ovechkin managed just one goal on the man advantage (his only point of the week).

The power play was efficient as well as effective, converting four of 19 shots (21.1 percent) in 19:21 of power play time.  Ovechkin was shut out on shots on goal in two of the three games, but he did go 1-for-3 against Anaheim.  His power play goal was the game winner against the Ducks and was his 20th power play goal of the season.  It is the second time in his career Ovechkin hit the 20-power play goal mark the first coming when he had 22 in 2007-2008.

Penalty Killing: 14-for-14 / 100.0 percent (season: 81.6 percent / rank: 18th)

The penalty killers shut out their opponents on 14 tries in Week 23, the third time the Caps were perfect for a week this season and first since Week 4.  That three of the teams (those would be the ones in California) were in the bottom ten in power play efficiency overall, and two of them (San Jose and Los Angeles) were bottom ten in home power play should not detract from the effort.

It was a case, though, of the goalie being the best penalty killer.  The Caps stopped all 14 power plays but yielded 36 shots on goal in 26:10 of power play time.  Jaroslav Halak was a perfect 25-for-25 in three games, while Braden Holtby stopped all 11 shots he saw from the San Jose man advantage.

The Caps are continuing to do a decent job in minimizing chances.  They did face five shorthanded situations against Anaheim, but it was only time in their last ten games that they faced more than three.  Washington faced three opponent power plays in the other three games for the week.  Not bad for a team that had at week’s end the sixth most shorthanded situations faced in the league.

Even Strength Goals Scored For/Against: 6-7 (season 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.89 / rank:T-22nd)

Facing a three of the top six teams in the league in 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio and holding them almost to a draw (four scored, five allowed) was something of a victory for the Caps, especially on the road.  It was more a case of goaltending keeping the even strength score close, though.  Opponents outshot the Caps by a 102-90 margin at even strength, Halak and Holtby stopping 95 of those shots (.931 save percentage).  At the other end, it was the third line of Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera accounting for four of the six even strength goals for the week, Ward getting two of them, with Fehr and Chimera getting one apiece.

Faceoffs:  117-267 / 43.8 percent (season: 48.7 percent / rank: 23rd)

It was not a good week for the Caps, which is something we have been saying a lot lately.  The Caps have not been over 50 percent since Week 19 and are winning just 43.9 percent of their draws over the past four weeks.  That includes a 43.8 percent performance in Week 23.   It was especially frustrating in the offensive end where the Caps won 42.5 percent of their faceoffs.  Being just one draw under 50 percent in the defensive zone (44-for-90) helped the week, but it was a consistently poor week overall.

This is one area in which the third line did not stand out in a good way.  More to the point, Eric Fehr was below 40 percent in all three zones for the week, 38.5 percent on 13 offensive zone draws, 38.9 percent on 18 defensive zone faceoffs, and 38.9 percent on 18 neutral zone draws.  Jason Chimera and Joel Ward were a combined 3-for-14 for the week (21.4 percent), making the line 34.9 percent for the week overall.

Nicklas Backstrom took the highest share of total draws for the week and won half of them (46-for-92), but he was just 14-for-33 in the offensive zone (42.4 percent).

Goals For/Against by Period:

It was an inside out week for the Caps on the road.  Six first period goals, four in the third period, none in the second.  Perhaps a bit odd for a club that is tied for fifth in second period goals scored.  The good starts served the Caps well.  They scored first in three of the games and won all of them.  It was the third period performance that was more consequential.  Three of the four goals scored in the third period of games either tied the game (in both cases being the goal that sent the game to overtime) or was the game-winner (Ovechkin’s power play goal against Anaheim).  Even Troy Brouwer’s third period goal against Toronto was an empty-net game clincher.

In the End…

It was a fine week for the Caps, even historic in a sense with those five standings points earned in California.  It sets the Caps up as well – better in fact – as can be expected as they head into their last ten games of the regular season.  Unfortunately, that kind of noble performance comes after a lot of iffy ones in their previous 22 weeks.  One hopes that in the end fans will not look back on Week 23 and sigh, thinking that if more of those previous 22 weeks had been played with the level of effort shown in Week 23, even to the point of just one standings point every other week, they would have been making playoff plans over these last ten games.

Washington Capitals: A TWO-point Night -- Game 72: Capitals 3 - Sharks 2 (OT/Gimmick)

It took 7,449 days, but the Washington Capitals finally won their second game at SAP Center in San Jose.  The Caps parlayed two own-goals off San Jose Sharks and a pair of scores in the trick shot competition into a 3-2 win over the Sharks for their first win in San Jose since October 30, 1993.

The odd proceedings got off and running mid-way through the first period on a goal that the official scorer could not settle on in terms of to whom it would be credited.  The play started in the San Jose end when Eric Fehr stripped Logan Couture of the puck at the right wing wall.  Jason Chimera beat Couture to the loose puck and skated it into the corner where he tried to send a pass in front to Joel Ward.  The puck skidded instead to Eric Fehr who snapped a shot at goalie Antti Niemi.  The shot was muffled in front.  Justin Braun tried to clear the puck back up the left side, but as he was doing so teammate Matt Nieto skated into the path of his clearing attempt.  The puck struck Nieto and found its way into the back of the net to give the Caps a 1-0 lead 11:25 into the game.  The goal was credited to Fehr, then to Joel Ward, and back to Fehr again.

That would have been a great way to go into the first intermission.  It would have been, but then again, these are the Caps.  With 15 seconds left in the period, a lot of things went wrong for the Caps in, well, less than 15 seconds.  It started when Jack Hillen could not settle a bouncing puck outside the Caps’ blue line.  It gave Matt Nieto a chance to get a step on Hillen, but Nieto could not control the puck, either.  He did manage to swat it into the corner to goalie Braden Holtby’s right.  Mike Green went to retrieve the puck having to do nothing more than send an indirect pass off the end boards to Hillen on the other side of the net below the goal line. 

Green’s backhand attempt was weak, though, and it was picked off by Nieto before reaching Hillen.  Nieto skated out from behind the Capitals’ cage and took two whacks at the puck.  Holtby defended both but could not cover the puck.  The puck squirted free, and when Green chose to defend Logan Couture cruising through the slot looking for a rebound, he left Patrick Marleau free at the top of the crease.  The puck found its way to Marleau, and before Troy Brouwer could tie him up, Marleau flipped the puck into the open side of the net to tie the game with 5.9 seconds left in the period.

After a scoreless second period, the Caps conjured up the ghosts of games lost in this building.  Jason Chimera tried to send the puck to the Sharks’ net.  His attempt hit the shin pads of James Sheppard and rebounded out into the neutral zone.  Sheppard collected the puck and steamed in on a breakaway.  Sheppard hinted briefly at a backhand aimed over Holtby’s glove, but when Holtby bit, the ruse was revealed.  Sheppard slid the puck between Holtby’s pads along the ice, and the Sharks had a 2-1 lead five minutes into the period.

Then it was time for the hockey gods to make some restitution for years of misfortune for the Caps.  Twelve minutes into the period Tom Wilson skated the puck down the right wing wall into the Sharks’ zone. He was stood up inside the line by defenseman Scott Hannan, who turned to collect the puck in the corner.  Wilson followed up on the play and caught Hannan behind the net, separating him from the puck.  The puck slid away onto the stick of Dustin Penner, who wasted no time sending the puck in front to Chris Brown.  From the edge of the left wing circle Brown wristed the puck at the San Jose net.  The puck was deflected off the leg of Matt Nieto, then off the jersey of Dan Boyle and past Niemi to knot the score at two apiece.

That would be how regulation ended.  After a scoreless overtime in which the Caps outshot the Sharks, 5-0, it went to the freestyle competition.  Evgeny Kuznetsov led things off for the Caps and beat Niemi on a shot that looked almost identical to the one on which he beat Jonathan Quick on Thursday, low over the right pad.   Patrick Marleau tied it up in the top of the third, leaving it up to Nicklas Backstrom.  Skating toward the Shark’s net in an agonizingly slow manner, Backstrom faked Niemi to his knees, then flipped a backhand over his glove to give the Caps a win more than 20 years in the making, 3-2.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps seem finally to have discovered defense.  The two goals allowed to San Jose made it nine straight games in which the Caps allowed three or fewer goals.  Considering the competition, allowing 2.22 goals per game over that stretch is rather remarkable.

-- On the other side, the two goals scored made it seven times in those nine games that the Caps scored three or fewer goals.  Scoring 2.11 goals per game over that span (and being shut out twice) is why the Caps are 5-3-1 in those games.

-- From the official scorer follies file, see if you can figure out what is wrong in this picture (click on it for a larger image)…

-- Chris Brown became the 26th Capital to record a goal this season.  That is the most to record a goal with the club since they had 28 skaters get goals in the 2010-2011 season.  Brown is the sixth Cap this season to record his first NHL regular season goal.  The others are: Julien Brouillette, Michael Latta, Connor Carrick, Nate Schmidt, and Tom Wilson.

-- The Caps were routed in the faceoff circle, losing 45 of 65 draws (30.8 winning percentage).  They were 5-for-21 in the offensive zone (23.8 percent).  Troy Brouwer was the only Capital to reach the 40 percent winning mark, going 2-for-5 (40 percent).

-- If there was something unusual about this game…ok, if there was something else unusual about this game, it was not that the Sharks out-shot the Caps, 36-25, but rather that the Caps finished virtually even in shot attempts, San Jose registering 61 shot attempts and the Caps finishing with 59.

-- The Caps did allow 11 shots on goal in six minutes of penalty killing time.  Braden Holtby turned all of them away, including all four on a late power play in the third period that could have sealed the deal for the Sharks and kept the Caps’ winless streak in San Jose alive.

-- Speaking of penalty kill, skating off three of three shorthanded situations makes the Caps a perfect 19-for-19 over their last six games.

-- That Ovechkin-Beagle-Johansson line?  It had five shots on goal.  Alex Ovechkin had five shots on goal.  The line had ten shot attempts.  Ovechkin had eight shot attempts.  Does anyone really think this is a good idea?  I mean, other than gentlemen in suits standing behind the Capitals’ bench.

-- Nicklas Backstrom’s star turn in the Gimmick tied him with Alex Ovechkin for the most appearances in the trick shot competition this season (15).  Ovechkin sat this one out, only his second absence from the white carpet in 17 freestyle competitions this season for the Caps and his first when healthy (he was injured in the Caps’ 3-2 Gimmick win against Florida on November 2nd).

-- Justin Braun had one of the stranger lines on a score sheet you will see for the Sharks.  In almost 20 minutes he had five blocked shots.  That’s it.  No shots, no shot attempts, no penalties, no hits, no turnovers, nothing.  Just five blocked shots.

-- The Caps could almost count this as a win, possession-wise.  In 5-on-5 close score situations the Caps had Corsi-for/Fenwick-for percentages of 49.4/45.3.  In all even strength situations the numbers were 52.0/48.5.

In the end…

Five of six points in California.  Here is how rarely that has happened in Capitals history…


In no three-game trip to California have the Caps ever won five of six available points.  Chances are that not even the most red-rocked Capitals fan thought this would be the year in which it would happen.  Three of six points, taken on its own merits without the baggage of the Capitals’ precarious playoff situation, would have been viewed as a success. 

Even with the successful western road trip the Caps find themselves jetting back across the country a tiebreaker out of a playoff spot, and the team with which they are tied (Detroit) has two games in hand.  The schedule does not get easier with games against Los Angeles and Boston on the home slate this week, either.

Of immediate concern is Jaroslav Halak’s health (he was a game-day scratch against the Sharks with a lower body injury) and “What’s My Line?” with Alex Ovechkin.  However, what the Caps have done better is win one-goal games, going 4-1-1 in such decisions over their last eight games.  Playing close games and succeeding might serve them well down the stretch. 

It had better.  The schedule will not be kind to them.  Of the eight teams in front of them in the Eastern Conference, four of them within four points of the Caps, Washington plays only Tampa Bay down the stretch, and they do not face the Lightning until the season finale.  The Caps will need help as they head for the season’s finish line, but unless they help themselves to more wins, it won’t matter.  But this win does feel good.