Friday, November 21, 2014

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 20: Sabres at Capitals, November 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals return home from their 2-1-0 road trip to host the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night at Verizon Center.  The Caps were outscored on their trip, 7-6, a product of the 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues to open the trip.  The Caps won a pair of one-goal games to close the trip, the game-winning goals coming in overtime against the Arizona Coyotes, and late in the third period against the Colorado Avalanche. 

The Caps spread their scoring around on the trip, meager as it was.  The six goals were scored by six different players, and nine different players recorded a single assist apiece.  Five players had one of each – Alex Ovechkin, Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, and Nicklas Backstrom.  Special teams were an odd lot on both sides.  The common thread was the rare occurrence of a power play.  The Caps managed to limit their shorthanded situations to a total of six, none in their win over Colorado, skating off each one without damage.  For their own power play, there were only four opportunities, none against the Blues. They were blanked on all four chances.

As for the Sabres, they have shown recent signs of life after opening the season 3-13-2.  This past week they recorded wins over Toronto, 6-2, and san Jose by a a 4-1 margin.  They represent the first consecutive wins for the Sabres this season.  They missed a chance to make it three in a row when their game against the New York Rangers scheduled for Friday night was postponed due to the heavy snowfall in the Buffalo region this week.

Brian Gionta led the Sabres with two goals and an assist in their two wins.  Those two goals, both scored in the 4-1 win over San Jose were his first goals of the season, breaking a 19-game streak without one to open the campaign.  Gionta has not averaged less than 0.20 goals per game since his rookie season with the New Jersey Devils in 2001-2002.  Having lifted his scoring average to 0.10 goals per game with his two-goal effort against the Sharks, one might be concerned that he is starting on a correction.  In 35 career games against the Caps he is 10-13-23, plus-8.

The Sabres also got two goals from Zemgus Girgensons this past week, both in the 6-1 win over Toronto.  Girgensons, a 2012 14th overall draft pick now in his second NHL season, is tied for the Sabres’ team lead in goals (6).  He, like Gionta, seems to have emerged from a long slumber.  He had four goals in four games before he was held off the score sheet against San Jose.  It broke what had been a 13-game streak without a goal after opening the season with goals in each of his first two games.  In three career games against Washington he has not registered a point.

The Caps are not likely to see their former teammate Michal Neuvirth in goal.  Neuvirth was injured in a pile-up in goal in first period of the Sabres’ 4-1 win over San Jose and could not answer the bell for the second period.  He has been described as being “a little bit more than day to day” with his injury.  That led to a call-up of Nathan Lieuwen from Buffalo’s AHL affiliate in Rochester, but it would seem likely that the Sabres will call on Jhonas Enroth to tend goal against the Caps.

Enroth has had a tough go of it so far this season.  He has a record of 2-8-1.  His 3.63 goals against average ranks tied for 43rd of 46 qualifying goalies, and his .900 save percentage ranks tied for 35th (oddly enough, with former teammate and current Vancouver netminder Ryan Miller).  The problem, though, is not his.  He is facing a whopping 36.3 shots per 60 minutes.  To let you know how big a number that is, Enroth has faced the same number of shots as Miller and Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen, but Enroth has faced that volume in more than 200 fewer minutes than either Miller or Andersen.

Here is how the teams compare in their numbers so far this season…

1.  Buffalo is so far behind the eight ball to start games as to be in the parking lot outside the pool hall.  The Sabres have only seven first period goals this season; two of them coming in their win over Toronto last week. On the other side of the ledger they have allowed 16 first period goals.  It actually gets worse from there on a goal-differential basis.  Buffalo is minus-11 in the second periods of games and minus-15 in the third period of games.

2.  Buffalo has nine losses by three or more goals.  Only two of the other 29 teams have more than nine three-plus goal decisions.

3.  Buffalo is one of four NHL teams that have yet to pitch a shutout.  On the other hand, they have been shut out five times, most in the league.

4.  Buffalo has to score first to have a chance.  They have a respectable 5-2-1 record when doing so, the 19th best winning percentage in the league.  When they fall behind first, forget it. They are 0-11-1, the only team in the league yet to win a game when allowing the first goal, and their 11 losses in regulation lead the league.

5.  With a record as bad as that of the Sabres, they play a frustrated sort of game.  They are tied for the league lead in fights (12) with Anaheim and San Jose.

1.  The Caps have a chance in this game to win their third game in a row, which would tie a season-high winning streak.  They have only three instances this season in which they won two or more games in a row.   That said, the real hole in their record is that five-game losing streak from October 26 – November 4.  Take that away, and the Caps are 9-3-2.  You can’t just “take that away,” of course, but perhaps that was the aberration in play.

2.  The Caps still have work to do in that third period of games.  They have a plus-5 goal differential in each of the first and second periods of games.  They are minus-7 in the third period.

3.  The four power play opportunities on their road trip made it 18 in nine road games this season, the least frequently called upon road power play in the league.  At home it is a different story.  With 40 power plays at home the Caps are ninth in the league with 4.0 power plays per game at home.

4.  Scoring first matter to the Caps, too.  Not quite as much as Buffalo, but it matters.  Washington is 8-1-1 when scoring first, tied with Minnesota for the league’s fourth best winning percentage.  On the other hand, they are 1-6-2 when allowing the first goal, the third worst winning percentage in the league.

5.  The Caps have a bit of an odd dichotomy when it comes to scoring.  They have what amounts to a strong “top six” group of forwards (even if they are not, strictly speaking, deployed that way).  Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, Joel Ward, and Troy Brouwer all have double-digit point totals.  After that there is a considerable drop off to Evgeny Kuznetsov with six points and lower totals thereafter among the forwards.  On the defense the odd split is handedness.  The righties – Mike Green, John Carlson, and Matt Niskanen – are a combined 5-24-29.  The lefties – Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik, and Nate Schmidt – are 0-11-11.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo:  Matt Moulson

Matt Moulson is another of those Sabre who had a slow start.  He went his first 14 games this season without a goal.  This from a player who in six full seasons never averaged less than 0.23 goals per game, who is a three-time 30-goal scorer.  He, like a few other Sabres, seems to be waking up lately.  Moulson is 2-4-6 in his last six games.  In addition to scoring his first two goals of the season, he is up to six assists for the year, which is tied for second on the club.  Against Washington he is 4-6-10 in 18 career games.

Washington: Braden Holtby

This is what folks might have had in mind when Braden Holtby was placed under the tutelage of the goalie whisperer, Mitch Korn.  Holtby is 4-1-0, 1.59, .947 in his last five appearances.  He has allowed two or fewer goals in each of those games, his longest such streak since he had a six-game streak in his first season in 2010-2011.  The schedule sets up well for Holtby this coming week with no back-to-backs until the Caps face the Islanders and Maple Leafs on consecutive nights next weekend.   However, one can’t look ahead of the Sabres.  Holtby’s record against them is something less than stellar.  His 3.53 goals against average against Buffalo is his worst among the 12 teams he has faced at least five times, as is his .872 save percentage.

In the end…

Their two wins in their last two games notwithstanding, Buffalo is having an awful time of it.  They are last in scoring offense, next to last in scoring defense.  They are last in 5-on-5 goal ratio, last on the power play.  They have a shot differential of minus-13.5 shots per game.  There is no way… no way… that the Sabres should win this game.  What that means is that after passing a test of sorts on the road by scoring late goals to win one-goal decisions on the road, the Caps have to avoid a tendency of playing down to the level of their opponents.  The trouble with playing down to the level of the Sabres is that the dive will be so steep and so quick that they are likely to crash and burn.  Better to fly high and take care of business.

Capitals 6 – Sabres 2

Getting Old Has Its Charms

When Alex Ovechkin barreled his way into the National Hockey League in 2005, he demolished anything in his path.  Whether it was scoring goals or delivering thunderous checks, it was done with energy and without apparent regard to his well being.

As with many of us, though, the years slow us down a bit, but they also bring a knowledge of how to get things done without all that tiresome expenditure of effort.  Let us consider two goals, one from Ovechkin's rookie season and one from last night.  Both were highlights; one for the ages and one for, well, until the next news cycle.  Both were scored by Ovechkin cutting similar paths to the net -- a rush down the right side, a cut to the middle where a defenseman was lurking who could impede his progress, an attempt at evasion, and then an improvised finish.

Here is the first one, from January 2006...

"The Goal."  Scored on his back, sliding away from the net, facing in the wrong direction.  The kind of goal a 12-year old might try to make up when he is skating by himself on the pond after school.

And now, almost ten years later, with a little bit of gray streaking through his hair, Ovechkin cut a similar path through the neutral zone, into the attacking zone, and improvised a big finish again...

Not quite "The Goal," but impressive nevertheless.  And all without all that twisting and falling and sliding and contorting.  He's getting too old for that stuff.  Or, he's too smart now to have to indulge in it.  Just bat the puck off the end boards, and clean up the rebound.  Same result, less effort, still a highlight.

Maybe in ten years or so, he scores that goal from a recliner.

A TWO-point night -- Game 19: Capitals 3 - Avalanche 2

The Washington Capitals are making a habit of playing games lately that are of the nail-biter variety.  For the eighth time in their last ten games, the Caps fought to a one-goal decision, beating the Colorado Avalanche, 3-2, at Pepsi Center in Denver last night.

The Caps and Avalanche battled to a scoreless first period, but zeroes did not last long into the second frame.  Washington opened the scoring when Coloardo’s Erik Johnson tried to move the puck up the right wing wall from just inside the center red line, but had the attempt intercepted by Alex Ovechkin.  Heading the other way, Ovechkin skated the puck down the wall to the hash marks at the edge of the faceoff circle in the Avalanche zone.  There he stopped and threaded a pass across the offensive zone to Nicklas Backstrom who wristed the puck past goalie Reto Berra’s glove to make it 1-0.

Less than two minutes later the game was tied when Daniel Briere put in a rebound of a Nathan MacKinnon shot.  That was how it remained until the 13th minute.  The Caps moved the puck smartly out of their own end, Jay Beagle to Joel Ward in the neutral zone, then to Jason Chimera at the Colorado line.  Chimera took a couple of strides into the zone and placed a wrist shot over Berra’s glove on the far side, just inside the post to give the Caps a 2-1 lead going into the second intermission.

Tyson Barrie tied the game for the Avs 6:44 into the third period on a play that started when Nathan MacKinnon skated into the Caps’ zone and dangled the puck just out of reach of Jay Beagle.  MacKinnon threw the puck into the middle where Gabriel Landeskog was cutting in.  Landeskog skated the puck into the left wing faceoff circle, then sent it across to Barrie, who beat Mike Green into position to the left of goalie Braden Holtby.  Barrie had only to redirect the puck into the open side of the net, and it was 2-2 and looking as if the game would go to overtime.

Alex Ovechkin put an end to that thinking with teams going 4-on-4 late in the third period.  It started with Brooks Orpik backhanding a pass to an open Ovechkin on the right wing exiting the defensive zone.  Ovechkin carried the puck up the right side of the ice and into the Colorado zone where defenseman Jan Hejda was waiting.  Ovechkin tried to curl and drag the puck through Hejda’s legs and did manage to thread it through to his backhand.  His shot went wide and off the end boards, but the rebound came right back to him.  He slid the puck through on a bad angle past Berra, and the Caps had their game winning goal, sending the Caps home with a 2-1-0 road trip.

Other stuff…

-- Jason Chimera’s goal – his second of the season – broke a 13-game streak without one.

-- This was the Caps’ 12th one-goal decision of the season (5-4-3).  Only Anaheim, Chicago, and Colorado have played more, all with 13.

-- Alex Tanguay had one blocked shot for the game for the Avs, and it came at a price.  He was struck in the face by an Ovechkin shot 7:29 into the second period and did not return to the contest.

-- For Nicklas Backstom, his goal and assist combined for his sixth multi-point game of the season.  Ditto for Alex Ovechkin, whose goal and assist made it six times in the multi-point column this season.

-- Don’t look now, but Jay Beagle has points in four of his last six games.  It is the most points be has accumulated over any six-game stretch of his career (regular season) spanning 206 games.

-- Is Andre Burakovsky hitting a wall?  He did not register a point last night, the fourth straight game he has been held off the score sheet.

-- At the other end of the prospect chart, Evgeny Kuznetsov spent his second consecutive game with less than eight minutes of ice time (7:34).  It was also his second consecutive game without a shot on goal; he has two shots on goal over his last six games, four of which he skated fewer than ten minutes.

-- The Caps were charged with just one giveaway for the game (Colorado was charged with 13).  John Carlson was in the giving mood, if you are keeping score.  Not that it mattered a lot.  Carlson finished plus-2 for the evening.

-- Until Ovechkin scored with 5:56 left, he had gone seven straight games against Colorado without a goal.  He had not scored a goal against the Avalanche since potting one in a 5-3 win in Colorado on October 25, 2006.

-- The Caps managed to draw just one non-coincidental penalty for the game’s only power play.  Joel Ward managed the only power play shot of the game.  It did lift them out of the basement in the league rankings for total road power plays (18, one more than the New York Rangers), although their average of 2.0 per game still ranks last.  Colorado had no power plays.

In the end…

All things considered, not a bad road trip.  The Caps lost to a team that was very hot in the St. Louis Blues, then they ground out two one-goal wins in unfriendly confines, allowing only three goals in the process.  Braden Holtby was solid and might be turning a corner.  His 27 saves on 29 shots faced is the fifth straight game in which he allowed two or fewer goals (4-1-0, 1.59, .947).  He has climbed to 14th in the goals against average rankings (2.28), although he remains 28th in save percentage (.913, still two spots better the Henrik Lundqvist, so there is that). 

The Caps now get the woeful Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, and that assumes the Sabres can even get out of snow-bound Buffalo for the game at Verizon Center.  The Caps have the look of perhaps finally going on a roll that rewards their tighter sense of play over their first 19 games.