Sunday, April 06, 2014

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 25

Week 25 was a spotlight on the Washington Capitals’ season.  Four games, three losses, two losses in the Gimmick, one win, next to zero chance of making the playoffs at its conclusion. 

Record: 1-2-1

The thing about looking at games on a weekly basis is that the ebbs and flows come into sharper focus. The 1-2-1 record in Week 25 was the fourth week in five in which the Caps finished below .500 (6-7-4 over that span).  Over the last dozen weeks Washington has had seven losing weeks, compiling a record of 15-16-9.  What made it worse in Week 25 was that of the four teams the Caps played, three of them had fewer standings points, and one – Dallas, a 5-0 winner on Tuesday – was only two points ahead of the Caps in the league standings when they met.  As it was, the Caps opened the week in tenth place in the Eastern Conference, two points out of a wild card spot.  When the week ended, they were still two points out of a playoff spot, but now with three teams to pass, not two, to reach that wild card spot.

Offense: 1.75/game (season: 2.72 / rank: 14th)

It was a dry week in the offensive end of the ice for the Caps.  And, it was not even as good as it looked.  Nicklas Backstrom had a hand in five of the seven goals scored by the Caps (2-3-5).  After that, only four other Caps recorded goals: Troy Brouwer (2), Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Joel Ward.  It was an especially frustrating week other respects as well. 

For instance, three of the clubs the Caps faced – Nashville, Dallas, and the New York Islanders – ranked in the bottom ten in scoring defense.  Then there were the goaltenders.  The Caps did manage three goals on 26 shots against Nashville backup Carter Hutton, but they could not solve him in the freestyle competition and lost.  They got only one puck past New Jersey’s Cory Schneider, who might be more of a “1a” goalie than a backup at this point, but going into his game against the Caps he was 3-3-2 in nine appearances since the Olympic break, with a 2.87 GAA and a .876 save percentage. 

The Caps managed one standings point in those two games and managed neither a goal nor a standings point against Kari Lehtonen, with whom the Caps were quite familiar from his days with the Atlanta Thrashers.  As it would turn out, Lehtonen extended his unbeaten streak against the Caps since departing Atlanta to three games, over which he has allowed only three goals on 93 shots.

Defense: 3.75/game (season: 2.90 / rank: 24th)

Mark Twain once wrote, “facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.”  The two seem to converge when it comes to the Caps’ defense.  The Caps were outshot in all four games this week, bringing to nine the number of consecutive games in which Washington was out-shot and 11 out of their last 12 contests.  The four games this week make it 54 times this season that the Caps have been out-shot by opponents, the 69.2 percent share of games being out-shot ranking third-highest in the league behind Toronto (78.5) and Buffalo (79.2).  Making it worse, the Caps have the sixth worst winning percentage in the league when they are out-shot (22-23-9, .407).

The shots-on-goal results are merely the product of the same possession woes that have plagued the Caps all season.  In 5-on-5 close score situations the Caps struggled to top 40 percent in both Corsi-for (41.6) and Fenwick-for (41.6) percentages for the week.  It should be no surprise that the Caps were outscored for the week in those situations, 9-4.  In all, the Caps have topped 50 percent in Fenwick-for percentage in these situations only 26 times in 77 games.  They are 10-12-4 in those games, but among those ten wins are four in extra time, three in the Gimmick.  

Goaltending: 3.13 / .903 (season: 2.78 / .915 / 3 shutouts)

The problem with allowing a lot of shots on goal is that it puts pressure on goalies to post high save percentages, not the easiest thing to do when random elements like pucks hitting posts and going in or hitting bodies or sticks in front and going in being a feature of the sport.  It also does not help when the goalies have an iffy week generally.  The latter was more the case for the Caps in Week 25.  Combined, Jaroslav Halak and Braden Holtby posted a 3.13 goals against average and a .903 save percentage.  They were remarkably consistent with one another, which is another way of saying remarkably mediocre.  Halak was 3.11/.904 in 154 minutes of ice time, Holtby was 3.15/.902 in 95 minutes.

Looking at the two goalies individually, their performances were not very much alike.  Halak’s week by period was a slow drift downward, as far as save percentage is concerned.  Halak’s first periods (three in all) were played to a .906 save percentage, followed by .903 in the second period (three periods, one of which he was relieved by Holtby), and .882 in the third period (two periods). 

On the other hand, Holtby was superb in the only first period in which he played, stopping 16 of 17 shots against the Islanders on Saturday (a .941 save percentage).  The other two periods were something less than superb -- .857 in the second periods of games and .889 in the third. 

Power Play: 2-17 / 11.8 percent (season: 23.0 percent / rank: 2nd)

When your offense is so dependent on the power play, and it has a bad week, you are not going to generate a lot of offense.  The power play in Week 25 had its worst week since converting only one of 19 chances in Week 17.  The Caps started the week in good shape, converting two of four chances against Nashville on Sunday.  However, that would be it for the week on the power play.  After going 2-for-4 against the Predators on six shots in 4:52 of power play time, the Caps misfired on 19 shots over 20:22 of power play time on 13 power plays to close the week. 

Not that the Caps were getting shots from people they don’t want shooting the puck.  Alex Ovechkin had five of the 25 shots on goal, as did John Carlson.  Neither could rustle the twine in the back of the net, though.  Troy Brouwer had one goal on five shots.  Add in Nicklas Backstrom, who went 0-for-4, and the Caps biggest guns on the top unit were 1-for-19. It was just a bad week.

Penalty Killing: 11-12 / 91.7 percent (season: 81.5 percent / rank: 19th)

The penalty killers, on the other hand, had a pretty good week.  It started very well when the Caps didn’t have to skate shorthanded against Nashville last Sunday.  It was the third time this season that the Caps stayed out of the box, the second time in 12 games (they also escaped skating shorthanded on March 6th against Boston). 

The Caps were not so fortunate in the other three games of Week 25, but they rose to the challenge in killing off 11 of 12 shorthanded situations.  It continued a stretch of good effort when asked to kill off penalties.  By week’s end the Caps were 34-for-38 (89.5 percent) over their last dozen games.

It was a shared effort.  The Caps held opponents to 18 shots on goal in 18:18 of shorthanded ice time, and Jaroslav Halak and Braden Holtby combined to stop 17 of those 18 shots.  Halak’s perfect 11-for-11 for the week lifted his save percentage with the Caps when shorthanded from .948 to .958.  That save percentage with the Caps is more than 80 points better than it was with St. Louis (.876).

Even Strength Goals Scored For/Against: 5-11 (season 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.85 / rank:T-25nd)

The Caps had an uncommonly poor week at even strength, even by their modest standards.  It is not likely a coincidence that the only game in which they won the even strength battle (3-2 against the Islanders to close the week) was the only game they won.  Otherwise the Caps were two goals up and nine down, a really bad recipe for success.  Granted, four of those goals against came in the 5-0 loss to Dallas, but that game also represents one of the Caps’ worst performances of the season.

Not only were the Caps were out-shot at even strength in all four games, they were barely half as efficient as their opponents in the shots they did manage to direct on goal.  Washington shot to 5.6 percent for the week (5-for-90) while opponents were shooting 9.7 percent (11-for-113) at even strength.  It left the Caps in a run-down neighborhood in the league’s 5-on-5 goals scored/goals against ratio.  Only Florida, Calgary, Edmonton, and Buffalo are worse, and the Islanders and Nashville are tied with Washington for 25th place.

Faceoffs: 119-244 / 48.8 percent (season: 48.7 percent / rank: 23rd)

Another week, another week under 50 percent in the circle.  It was not quite as bad as all that, though.  The Caps were above 50 percent in the offensive and defensive zones for the week, doing poorly only in the neutral zone (33-for-76/43.4 percent).  There was one especially poor overall game, and it was one that the Caps needed to win.  Washington won just 20 of 49 draws against New Jersey, only 4-for-14 in the defensive zone, in their 2-1 loss to the Devils.

Individually the Caps did rather well.  Of the five Caps taking at least 20 draws, four of them – Nicklas Backstrom (72.0 percent), Jay Beagle (53.8), Eric Fehr (53.3), and Mikhail Grabovski (60.0) – finished over 50 percent.  Only Marcus Johansson finished under 50 percent (44.4).

Goals Scored For/Against by Period:

The Caps lost the week and lost all three periods.  Scoring just one third period goal was troublesome, even if that goal – scored on a power play by Nicklas Backstrom against Nashville – tied the contest and led to the Caps securing a standings point.  They were consistent, though.  Washington allowed goals in nine of the 12 regulation periods played this week and were outscored in seven periods in regulation.

In the end…

As we said at the top, “Four games, three losses, two losses in the Gimmick, one win.”  Three points in four games.  The Caps were two goals in regulation away from two additional points, those being the games against Nashville (a 4-3 Gimmick loss) and a 2-1 loss to New Jersey in regulation.  If the Caps had secured those points, they would be a tie-breaker out of a wild card spot.  Then again, it is like an old English rhyme:

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride,
If turnips were swords I’d have one by my side.
If ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans,
There would be no need for tinker’s hands!

Unfortunately, after not getting those two points in Week 25 by the thinnest of margins and there being only one week left in the regular season, the Caps are likely to have no need of scheduling playoff games, either.

Washington Capitals: A TWO-point Night -- Game 78: Capitals 4 - Islanders 3 (OT/Gimmick)

And a babe shall lead them…

OK, maybe not a babe, but the new kid on the ice.  The Washington Capitals rode goals in both the hockey portion of the contest and in the skills competition by Evgeny Kuznetsov, and tallies by Joel Ward and Nicklas Backstrom to a 4-3 trick shot competition win over the New York Islanders.

For more than 30 minutes it did not have the look of the night ending in the Caps’ favor.  In the first period the Islanders took advantage of some indifferent defense from the Caps’ forwards to draw first blood.  In the thirteenth minute Micahel Grabner backhanded the puck deep into the Caps’ end.  Casey Cizikas split Tyson Strachan and Julien Brouillette to get to the puck first.  Strachan followed Cizikas low, and Brouillette stayed in front but wandered too far to the weak side of the play.  It allowed Cizikas to throw the puck out in front where Cal Clutterbuck filled in behind the Caps’ forwards.  Clutterbuck wasted no time slamming the puck past goalie Braden Holtby to give the Isles the 1-0 lead.

Less than three minutes into the second period Kuznetsov got the Caps even on an odd-finishing play.  Kuznetsov walked the puck out from the right wing corner and spied Marcus Johansson heading to the far post on the weak side.  Kuznetsov threw the puck across to Johansson, who tried to one-time the puck into the net.  He misfired, though, the puck heading back across the crease onto Kuznetsov’s stick.  The rookie did not miss on his attempt, stuffing the puck behind goalie Evgeni Nabokov.

That lead lasted 100 seconds.  For the 29th time this season the Caps allowed a goal less than two minutes after scoring one of their own.  John Persson would do the honors, scoring his first NHL goal when he took a pass from Travis Hamonic and backhanded the puck through Holtby’s five hole, the puck sneaking over the goal line just before the referee blew the play dead for a covered puck.

When Franz Nielsen converted a feed from Josh Bailey into a one-timer power play goal at 9:55 to make it 3-1, the Caps looked cooked.  Less than three minutes later, though, the Caps drew back within one on another odd play.  It started when Alex Ovechkin got to a loose puck before defenseman Calvin de Haan in the right wing circle and dropped it for Mikhail Grabovski.  As Ovechkin continued around the boards, he ran into de Haan, the defenseman falling into the boards awkwardly and unable to get his feet back under him.  As the play unfolded the puck returned to Ovechkin low in the left wing circle.  Ovechkin tried to wrist the puck at the net, but whiffed.  It did have the benefit of drawing Nabokov to the ice, affording Ovechkin another chance at what was an empty net.  His shot missed, though, hitting deHaan, who was on his knees at the other side of the net, in the chest.  The puck caromed to Nicklas Backstrom who did not miss the empty net, and the Caps had a life.

Just 2:16 later, Joel Ward made the comeback complete off a broken play.  Marcus Johansson started it by trying to float a pass to Jason Chimera heading to the net.  The puck hit defenseman Thomas Hickey and was directed on goal.  Nabokov made the save, but when Hickey tried to clear the puck to the boards, he put it right on Ward’s stick.  Ward accepted the gift and ripped the puck past Nabokov, tying the game at the 15:01 mark of the period.

That would be it for the scoring in regulation time and for the five-minute overtime.  In the skills phase, Kuznetsov opened the competition with a goal that would end up being the only one scored.  When Brock Nelson chunked his backhand attempt in the third round and watched it go through Holtby’s legs and skitter just wide, Holtby looked back, saw the puck safely out of danger, and did a fist-pump to put an exclamation point on a two-point night the Caps desperately needed.

Other stuff…

-- If you happened to catch the Islanders’ TV feed, you might have thought Alex Ovechkin was the only defender on the ice for the Clutterbuck goal and was solely responsible for it.  None of the forwards – including Ovechkin – distinguished themselves on the play, but Ovechkin did happen to be the closest forward to Clutterbuck when he took the shot, so there was that.

-- The win makes the Caps 2-3-3 in their last eight games, both of their wins coming in the Gimmick.  The Caps do not have a win in regulation time since winning in Anaheim back on March 18th.

-- It might not be coincidence that those eight games correspond to an eight-game streak, extended against the Islanders, in which the Caps had Fenwick-for percentages in 5-on-5 close score situations below 50 percent.  Their 39.7 percent effort against the Islanders made it four times in those eight games that the Caps failed to reach 40 percent.

-- Mike Green skated less than eight minutes, going out after the first period after sustaining an upper body injury.  His absence meant big minutes for John Carlson, who skated 30:07 for the evening.  It was the fifth time this season Carlson topped 30 minutes in ice time.  It also meant a season high 24:15 for Tyson Strachan. 

-- At the other end, only Julien Brouillette among the surviving defensemen had less ice time (15:19) than Karl Alzner (20:36).

-- Nicklas Backstrom’s five shots on goal was topped only once this season, a six-shot effort against Detroit on November 15th.

-- When the game started, would you have had Julien Brouillette leading the Caps in hits?  Nope, me neither.  But he did get credit for five to lead the team.

-- Among rookies having played in ten or more games, Evgeny Kuznetsov is tied for 12th in goals per game (0.23/game).

-- Here is an odd, and not flattering, coincidence of numbers.  This season Tyson Strachan has logged 2:24 in total penalty killing ice time.  He has been on ice for four goals against.  He was on ice for 1:23 against the Islanders, and yes, for a goal against.

-- With seven minutes in penalties, Tom Wilson reached the 151-minute mark for the season.  He is just the sixth rookie since the 2004-2005 lockout to top 150 minutes in penalties, passing Derek Dorsett (150 in 2008-2009) on that list.  Next up is Derek Boogaard (158 minutes in 2005-2006).  The other three are Shane O’Brien (176 in 2006-2007), Jared Boll (226 in 2007-2008), and Zac Rinaldo (232 in 2011-2012).

-- With their 20th appearance in Bettman's Folly, the Caps tied a league record for appearances in a single season, tying Phoenix (14-6 in 2009-2010) and Minnesota (11-9 in 2011-2012).

In the end…

Maybe it postpones the inevitable, maybe it is the start of a miraculous run to the playoffs.  Either way, it was the sort of comeback one might not thought this team was capable of achieving given a five-game losing streak and their standing as a playoff contender, and that is to their credit.  If there is still fight in this team, though, it will be tested on Tuesday in St. Louis.  Even though the remaining road is short with four games left, there is a long way to go.