Saturday, March 29, 2014

Washington Capitals: A NO-point Afternoon -- Game 74: Bruins 4 Capitals 2

The Washington Capitals had the opportunity to take, if only briefly given today’s schedule of games, a wild card spot in the race for the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Not that such an opportunity would be easy to cash in.  To take a wild card spot the Capitals would have to defeat or take to extra time the Boston Bruins, a team coming to Washington having earned points in 14 straight games (13-0-1).

Make that 15 straight games.

The Bruins dominated the Capitals in the opening period, converted opportunities in the second period, and held off the home team in the third period to leave Washington with a 4-2 win at Verizon Center this afternoon.

The Bruins overwhelmed the Capitals in the first period, outshooting the home team by a 15-9 margin and going to the first intermission with a 30-14 edge in shot attempts.  What the Bruins did not do was score. Neither did the Caps.

That situation resolved itself less than three minutes into the second period when Boston was a step ahead in every phase of a sequence.  First it was David Krejci getting to a loose puck along the wall just inside the Bruins’ blue line a step ahead of Eric Fehr.  When Krejci sent the puck up along the wall, it skidded past a linesman then past the stick of defenseman Karl Alzner.  It made its way to Carl Soderberg who backhanded a pass to Jarome Iginla just before John Carlson could get a body on Soderberg. Iginla skated in alone on goalie Braden Holtby, and just before Tom Wilson could close the distance on the back check Iginla snapped the puck through Holtby’s pads, and it was 1-0.

Five minutes later the Bruins had a 2-0 lead.  With Fehr off for hooking the Bruins gained the Caps’ zone with speed, Dougie Hamilton carrying the puck through the middle.  Hamilton curled off to his left, throwing the puck across to Loui Eriksson on the right side.  Eriksson found Patrice Bergeron coming down the middle, and Bergeron one-timed the puck to the net.  The puck hit the skate of Carl Soderberg in front, tipping the puck through Holtby’s pads to give the Bruins a 2-0 lead.

If the Caps were holding out hope that the “the most dangerous lead in hockey” would be wiped clean, Boston put an end to that just 41 seconds after the Soderberg goal.  Jarome Iginla got his second of the game – 30th of the season – when he followed up his own shot and backhanded a rebound past Holtby’s right pad to make it 3-0.

The Caps made it respectable in the last minute of the period when they gave the Bruins some of their own medicine.  It started with Mike Green skating the puck down the left side.  As he crossed the Boston blue line he flipped the puck at the net, looking for a deflection from Jason Chimera seaming down the middle.  Chimera was marked by Johnny Boychuk, who actually deflected Green’s attempt into goalie Chad Johnson.  The puck was not handled cleanly, though, and Chimera’s momentum put him in position to tap in the loose puck from Johnson’s right, making it 3-1 Bruins at the second intermission.

Boston appeared content to run out the clock in the last 20 minutes, but they did add a goal on another power play.  It started with Dougie Hamliton tapping his stick on the ice calling for the puck.  He got it from Patrice Bergeron at the right point.  Hamilton fired a shot at the Capitals’ net where a group had congregated.  The puck was stopped, but Bergeron, darting in from the left wing wall after sending the puck to Hamilton, was alone to Holtby’s right to shove the puck into the back of the net to make it 4-1.

The Caps got some window dressing at the end, Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring in the last minute when Chad Johnson was caught in no-man’s land 20 feet from the net trying to beat Troy Brouwer to a loose puck to the right of the net. When Johnson missed and was briefly tangled up with Brouwer, Kuznetsov swooped in and wristed the puck from a severe angle into the far top corner of the net for the final tally of the day, Boston winning, 4-2.

Other stuff…

-- Iginla’s two goals made it 30 for the season, making him just the 12th player in the last 30 years to reach that mark in a season having reached the age of 36 or older.

-- Chad Johnson’s win makes him 11-0-1 over his last 14 appearances for Boston.  Over that span he has a goals against average of 1.83 and a save percentage of .934.

-- Marcus Johansson had an excellent chance to break a rough spell in which he had one goal over 29 games.  Troy Brouwer set him up almost on a tee from the inside edge of the right wing circle for an open look early in the third period that might have brought the Caps back within a goal.  He was denied on the attempt, and what might have been the Caps’ last chance to get back into the game passed by.

-- Alex Ovechkin had five shots on goal, but none were especially threatening.  Average shot distance was 41 feet and none closer than 34 feet.

-- Two pairs twice victimized.  John Carlson and Karl Alzner were on for two goals against, as was the pair of John Erskine and Patrick Wey.  Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov escaped unscathed.

-- Green was one of the few Caps of which it might be said, “he played a pretty good game.”  In almost 23 minutes Green had an assist, four shots on goal, eight shot attempts, and three blocked shots.

-- Boston moved to 39-5-1 when scoring the game’s first goal.  Only St. Louis has more wins (40) when scoring first.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov is now tied with Jay Beagle for 17th on the team in scoring (7 points) and is tied for 40th in scoring among rookie forwards.  After nine games.

-- The loss made it consecutive losses for the Caps on this abbreviated home stand (0-1-1).  It is the first time they lost consecutive games on the same home stand since losing in shootouts to both Buffalo and San Jose January 12th and 14th.

-- OK, in five full games since The Great Experiment began, here is how the even strength points break down… Alex Ovechkin: 0, Jay Beagle: 0, Marcus Johansson: 0.  How’s it working, Caps fans?   Oh, it hardly gets much better.  Nicklas Backstrom: 1, Troy Brouwer: 1, Evgeny Kuznetsov: 2.  Meanwhile, the third line… Eric Fehr: 1, Jason Chimera: 2, Joel Ward: 3.  And it was that third line who put on a show of cycling and controlling the puck for almost a half minute in the Bruins' zone that ended when Boston took a penalty in the seventh minute of the third period.

In the end…

Just another in a season full of opportunities the Capitals let pass by.  Most assuredly, this was hardly low-hanging fruit.  Boston is arguably the best team in the league at the moment.  However, the Caps looked as if they were still shuffling along in robe and slippers for the first 25-30 minutes of the early-starting game.  Braden Holtby kept the Caps in it in the first period, but Boston’s relentless pressure was too much as the minutes wore on.  And while there might be those who think the Caps were prepared to make a game of it late in the second period and early in the third, 10-15 minutes worth of effort is not going to win many games, and there was still the fact that the Bruins – a team that has not allowed more than two goals in a game in three weeks – had a 3-0 lead when the Caps finally woke up.  Washington was never really in this game.

And so it goes.  The Caps go to Nashville on Sunday in a game that they just about have to have to stay within reach of a playoff spot.  This is where the schedule takes one last nasty turn for the Caps.  Five of the Caps’ last eight games are on the road, and two of the home games are against Chicago and Tampa Bay, both teams having reached the 40-win mark already.  It just is not going to get any easier from here on out.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 74: Bruins at Capitals, March 29th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals have had three days off, but on Saturday begin their last and hopefully best push to a playoff spot when they host the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center. If you are a hockey fan, you know what the Caps are up against here. On the first day of March, the Bruins lost to the Caps in this same venue by a 4-2 score. After that game Boston was sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference, five points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Boston has not lost in regulation time since, though, posting a record of 13-0-1 that all but settles the matter of the number one seed in the Eastern Conference for the playoffs. The Bruins lead the Pens by seven points in the Conference standings and have a 15-point lead on the Montreal Canadiens in the Atlantic Division.

The Bruins have been nothing short of dominating:

They have not just beaten teams, they have obliterated them during this streak…

-- Eight wins by three or more goals
-- Eight games in which they scored four or more goals
-- Nine games in which they allowed fewer than two goals, including three shutouts
-- 7-0-0 on the road, 6-0-1 at home

Boston’s scoring balance has been nothing short of amazing. In their 13-0-1 run, 17 different skaters have goals, 20 different players have points. Three players – Jarome Iginla (11), Carl Soderberg (5), and Patrice Bergeron (5) – have at least five goals. Five players – Iginla (14), Bergeron (14), Soderberg (11), Milan Lucic (10), and David Krejci (10) have at least ten points.

Iginla is a remarkable case by himself. With his 11 goals in 14 games he now has 28 for the season. He is on the doorstep of becoming just the sixth player of the age 36 or older to record 30 goals in a season since the 2004-2005 lockout and just the 12th to do it in the last 30 years. How is he doing it? It is not based on a juiced shooting percentage. His 14.6 percent shooting percentage this season, while better than his career average (13.2) is not outlandishly so. He had five better seasons with Calgary over his 15-plus seasons there. Shots? Not really. His 2.63 shots per game this season is indistinguishable from the 2.62 per game he has in his brief Pittsburgh stay last season (after famously spurning a deal that would have sent him from Calgary to Boston) and is substantially lower than his career average of 3.23 per game. 

Iginla is doing it with durability. He is one of six Bruins to have dressed for all 73 games this season. It has been his hallmark as a player. Never in a full 82-game season – 16 of them, including this one – has Iginla dressed for fewer than 70 games. Nine times he played in all 82 games and is on pace to make it ten this season. In 20 career games against the Caps he is 6-10-16.

At the other end of the spectrum – in age, tenure, and position – there is Dougie Hamilton. Over last 14 games, Hamilton leads the Bruins in scoring from the back line (1-7-8). In fact, since Hamilton endured a 15-game stretch over which he recorded just one assist, the 20-year old is 4-12-16 in his last 27 games. Hamilton, the ninth overall pick in the 2011 entry draft, has been fast tracked to the NHL, having spent only one more year in junior after being drafted and not a game in the AHL before suiting up for the B’s as a rookie last season.  He is 1-1-2 in four career games against Washington.

Here is how the Caps and Bruins compare overall…

1. When Boston defeated the Chicago Blackhawks, 3-0, on Thursday, it was their 50th win of the 2013-2014 season. That made it nine times in franchise history that the Bruins won 50 or more games in a season. No NHL team has done it more often.  No, not even Montreal, who did it six times.  The Bruins did it six times between 1970-1971 and 1982-1983.

2.  Boston is one of two teams in the league in the top-ten of lowest goals allowed in each of the first, second, and third periods of games (Los Angeles is the other).  Boston has allowed both the fewest first period goals and the fewest third period goals this season (they are eighth in second period goals allowed).

3.  Boston has 35 multiple-goal wins this season.  No one is close in second place (Chicago and St. Louis have 28).

4.  Boston is not shy about dropping the mitts.  The Bruins are tied for second in the league in fighting majors (43), trailing only Toronto (46).

5.  As you might expect, Boston is an accomplished possession team.  In 5-on-5 close score situations the Bruins are top five in Corsi-for percentage (3rd/54.9), Fenwick-for percentage (4th/54.2), shots-for percentage (5th/53.1), and goals-for percentage (1st/63.4).  Here is the thing, though.  The spend a comparatively low amount of time in those 5-on-5 close score situations (14th/2174.2 minutes).  The Bruins do not often play in close games.

1.  The Caps’ six-game streak with points earned (4-0-2) is their longest this season.  Last season the Caps had a ten-game streak (Games 34-43) as part of a closing kick that saw them go 14-2-2 to close the regular season.

2.  The Caps are on the wrong side of the “top” rankings in one important metric.  The Caps are in the bottom ten in 5-on-5 goals scored (T-8th/123) and in the bottom ten in 5-on-5 goals allowed (10th/140).

3.  Evgeny Kuznetsov is now tied for 18th on the club in points with six in eight games (tied with Connor Carrick and Nate Schmist).  Next up… Jay Beagle with seven.  With a big night he could catch Dmitry Orlov (9).

4.  Mike Green has been stuck on nine goals for five games.  If he gets one in this contest, the Caps would be the fourth team to have two defensemen with at least ten goals (John Carlson being the other for the Caps).  Boston, Nashville, and Pittsburgh are the others.

5.  The Caps are 4-0-2 in their last six games, but they are not doing it with possession.  Their cumulative Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages in 5-on-5 close score situations over those games are 48.2 and 48.1, respectively.  They do have seven goals scored versus six allowed, though, and that provides a clue as to how the Caps fashioned six straight games with points.  Their save percentage in those games in those situations is .930.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Boston: Tuukka Rask

Tuukka Rask has staked a claim to being one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL.  Rask is fifth in wins, third in goals against average, second in save percentage, first in save percentage at even strength (minimum 20 games).  In Boston’s 13-0-1 run, Rask is 8-0-1, 1.31, .953, with two shutouts.  He has not allowed more than three goals in consecutive games this season and has allowed more than three only eight times in 53 appearances.  He has allowed fewer than two goals 25 times.  And, Rask is not a creature of abnormally low shot totals faced.  This season he is facing an average of 29.1 shots on goal per game.  He is 1-3-3, 2.99, .891 in his career against the Caps.  So far, if he allows a goal to the Caps, he loses.  His only career win is a 3-0 shutout of the Caps on March 6th.

Washington:  Marcus Johansson

On January 4th and 9th, Marcus Johansson scored goals in consecutive games.  Since then, Johansson has one goal in his last 29 games (1-10-11).  It is possible that Johansson will set a career high in points this season.  The 40 he has (8-32-40) is within six of the 46 he recorded in 2011-2012.  The 32 assists tie his career best set in that same 2011-2012 season.  However, getting as much top line ice time as he gets (third on the team in even strength ice time per game), one might expect more scoring of his own.  The Caps certainly could use it down the stretch.  He is 4-3-7 in 11 career games against Boston.


1.  Be quick, but not hasty.  Boston is one of those deep, grinding teams that will challenge opponents all over the ice.  The trick for the Capitals is to make decisions with the Bruins giving them little time to make them, but not so as to be hasty and lured into turnovers. 

2.  Score first.  When Boston scores first, it is their game.  Their 38-5-1 record when scoring the game’s first goal is second best in the league.  In their 13-0-1 run Boston scored first in ten of those games.

3.  “Never stop, never stop fighting till the fight is done.”  That is a quote from the movie, “The Untouchables,” but certainly applies here.  In their 13-0-1 streak the Bruins have outscored opponents in the third period by a 23-7 margin.  Boston recorded a third period goal in 12 of those 14 games and never allowed an opponent more than one goal in the final frame.

In the end…

This is as tough as it gets. Boston has been playing at a stratospheric level for going on a month.  One might wonder if they are peaking to soon, but that is of no relevance in this game.  Beating the Bruins, even at home, will take nothing less than the Caps’ best effort, perhaps their best effort of the season.

Capitals 3 – Bruins 2