Sunday, December 14, 2014

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 10

Week 10 looked a lot like Week 9 for the Washington Capitals, and that is not a bad thing at all. For the first time since Weeks 1 and 2, the Caps put together consecutive winning weeks.  Let’s take a look at how they got there in Week 10.

Record: 2-0-1

The Caps came into the week teetering on the edge of the playoff mix, sitting in third place in the Metropolitan Division but ninth in the Eastern Conference standings.  But they were also coming into Week 10 on a two-game winning streak.  They made it three in a row with a win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday to start the week to match their longest winning streak of the year.  The Caps could not make it four, though, dropping a decision in overtime to Columbus.  The Caps made it two in a row over Tampa Bay to end the week on a high note, giving them a 4-0-1 record over their most recent five games, their best five-game record of the season.  It also lifted them into seventh place in the conference standings, their highest conference ranking since they stood in seventh place on October 27th.

Offense:  3.67/game (season: 2.90/game; rank: T-10th)

It was a week for the top line, even if it came with a bit of a smudge on the record.  Alex Ovechkin had a pair of goals in the first game against Tampa Bay in Week 10 and a pair of assists in the rematch to end the week.  Nicklas Backstrom had pair of assists in the first game against Tampa Bay and recorded a hat trick – his first career regular season hat trick – in the second game against the Lightning.  Tom Wilson had an assist in the first game against Tampa Bay and a pair of helpers – his first career multi-assist game – in the rematch.  However, the top line was shut out on points in the overtime loss to Columbus despite 12 shots on goal from the trio (nine by Ovechkin, three by Backstrom).

The Caps did get some scoring from down the line, though.  Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich, and Eric Fehr combined for five goals for the week.  The defense did not have much by way of goals (Matt Niskanen has the only one), but they did chip in six assists, three of them by John Carlson, who is on a tear of late (2-8-10, plus-11, in his last eight games).

Defense: 2.67/game (season: 2.66/game; rank: 16th)

The eight goals allowed in three games probably looks worse than it was.  One of those goals came with four seconds left in what would be a 5-3 win for the Caps in Tampa to start the week (the Caps got an empty netter with less than a second left for the final score).  Another came on an overtime power play for Columbus, a 4-on-3 situation that the Caps nearly killed off, the goal coming with just 19 seconds left in the extra period.

As far as the goals against/on-ice record goes, Brooks Orpik was on ice for five of the eight goals against and Matt Niskanen four among the defensemen.  Brooks Laich was on ice for four goals against among the forwards.  Sixteen different skaters were on ice for goals against.  Mike Green, Andre Burakovsky, Michael Latta, and Jay Beagle escaped notice in that regard.

What it was not was an especially good week for possession at 5-on-5.  The Caps held their own against Tampa Bay to start the week (Corsi-for: 53.9 percent) and broke even against Columbus (50.0 percent).  In Saturday night’s game against the Lightning, though, the Caps were dominated (39.2 percent).  A PDO of 101.3 helped make the week better than the underlying numbers might have suggested. 

Goaltending: 2.61 GAA / .908 SV (season: 2.59 / .906 / 1 SO)

Braden Holtby figured in all three decisions for the week, making it 12 straight decisions for Holtby.  Over those 12 games Holtby is 7-3-2, 2.35, .920.  In Week 10 he was sharp when he had to be and ended up with numbers that might not look as good as his play might have suggested.  It was in the second period of games in which he stood out in Week 10, stopping 27 of 28 shots (.964 save percentage).  It was in the third period that he was spotty, but owing to score effects. He allowed three goals on 28 shots in the two third periods he played against Tampa Bay, one goal coming in the last four seconds and the other two with the Caps holding a 3-0 lead when the scoring began.  He was a perfect 27-for-27 in score-tied situations, including stopping 11 straight shots in the second period of a scoreless game against Tampa Bay on Saturday (including a 5-on-3 Lightning power play) before the Caps registered their first shot on goal of the period.  On balance, Holtby had a very good week.

Power Play: 2-for-12/ 16.7 percent (season: 26.5 percent; rank: 1st) 

Week 10 was unusual for the Caps in one respect – power play opportunities.  Washington had 12 man advantage situations, making it the first week they hit double digits in power plays since Week 5 (4-for-10) and their highest volume week of the season.  The six opportunities they had against Columbus in the middle game of the week was the most the Caps had since Game 9 against Detroit on October 29th and tied the most they had in a game this season. 

The power play in Week 10 reflected the difference between efficiency and effectiveness.  In one respect the Caps were very efficient, recording 31 shots in 20:36 of power play ice time (1.5 shots per minute of ice time).  In another, the Caps were very ineffective, recording only two goals on those 31 shots, including going 1-for-18 against Columbus, arguably the difference between a 2-0-1 week and a perfect week.  And, one of the most unusual parts of the week was where the power play goals came from – Matt Niskanen and Eric Fehr, who are not generally thought of as consistent power play contributors.

Penalty Killing: 9-for-10/ 90.0 percent (season: 77.0 percent; rank: 26th)

It would have been a perfect week on the penalty kill, had only the power play done better against Columbus.  The Caps were 9-for-9 in regulation time in the three games of Week 10, but they allowed a power play goal in overtime against Columbus for the only blot on the Week 10 record.  Here, the Caps were both efficient (12 shots in 17:38 of ice time; o.68 shots per minute) and effective (stopping 11 of those 12 shots; a .917 save percentage). 

The pivotal point of the week came in the second period against Tampa Bay on Saturday night when the Caps killed off a full two-minute 5-on-3 power play.  The Caps allowed four shots in those two minutes, but only one of them from Steven Stamkos.  Braden Holtby stopped them all, and less than two minutes later the Caps broke a scoreless tie on their way to a 4-2 win and a winning week.

Even Strength Goals For/Goals Against: 9-7 / plus-2 (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 0.96; rank: 20th)

Win the even strength goal matchup, win the game, win the week.  The Caps won both ends of their two-game set with Tampa Bay in part by winning the even strength goal battle, 4-3 on Tuesday and 4-2 on Saturday.  Washington lost the even strength battle against Columbus on Thursday, 2-1, and lost the game in overtime.  It was a close week in even strength shots, the Caps winning that battle only once, oddly enough in the overtime loss to Columbus (21-20).  They were outshot at evens in both Tampa Bay games, 33-30 on Tuesday and 22-19 on Saturday.

The Caps have done a somewhat better job in the 5-on-5 battle recently.  Winning Week 10 is part of a run in which the Caps won or tied the 5-on-5 goal scoring battle eight times in their last 12 games.  Given the Caps’ power play abilities (their problems getting opportunities notwithstanding), this kind of a trend could spell a good run of success for the Caps if they can extend it.

Faceoffs: 94-for-173 / 54.3 percent (season:  percent; rank: 11th)

It was a good week in the circle, the Caps finishing 50 percent or better in all three games overall.  That’s not to say it was a great week.  The Caps’ 54.3 percent winning percentage for the week was inflated some by a 63.5 percent winning percentage on neutral zone draws.  They were at 49.2 percent on offensive zone draws and 51.7 percent in defensive zone faceoffs. 

On an individual level, 11 different skaters took at least one faceoff, three of them taking more than 25 overall.  Three of the four players taking more than 20 draws finished over 50 percent for the week: Nicklas Backstrom (68.8 percent on 48 draws), Eric Fehr (55.6 percent on 45 faceoffs), and Troy Brouwer (60.9 percent on 23 draws).  Only Michael Latta was under 50 percent, and that was by a single draw (10-for-21).

Goals by Period:

The Caps won or tied all nine periods in regulation time in Week 10, winning three periods and tied in six.  They lost their only overtime period.  Overall, they won each regulation period: 3-2 in the first periods of games, 3-1 in the second periods, and 5-4 in the third periods of games.  It was not a dominating sort of outcome, but its consistency is a result to be hoped for and, hopefully, extended.

In the end…

Two straight winning weeks, a 4-0-1 run in their last five games, and all of it against Eastern Conference teams.  The Caps now have a three-point lead over the New York Rangers for third place in the Metropolitan Division (the Rangers hold two games in hand) and a six-point lead over fifth-place Philadelphia and New Jersey (the Caps hold two games in hand over the Devils). 

There remains work to do; the Caps are still ranked in the lower half of the league in scoring defense, 5-on-5 goals ratio, and penalty killing, for example.  Nevertheless, the Capitals are in as good a place as they have occupied all season, especially because they are putting this run together against Eastern Conference teams.  Now we will get to see if they can continue this good fortune with the spotlight on them in the run up to the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Nicklas Backstrom (3-2-5, plus-2, hat trick, 1 GWG)
  • Second Star: Alex Ovechkin (2-2-4, plus-4, 23 shots on goal, 37 shot attempts, 14 hits)
  • Third Star: John Carlson (0-3-3, plus-3, 10 shots on goal, (23:51/game ice time)

A TWO-point night -- Game 29: Capitals 4 - Lightning 2

The Washington Capitals did something that they had accomplished only once in more than a month when they defeated the Tampa Bay Lighting, 4-2, last night at Verizon Center.  They won at home.  Since beating the Columbus Blue Jackets by the same 4-2 margin on November 11th, the Caps had won just once in five tries on home ice – a 5-2 win over the New York Islanders on November 26th – before the win last night.

The Caps and Lightning played to a scoreless first period and ten minutes of the second period.  Then, the Lightning made the mistake of taking an icing call at the 10:27 mark.  Nicklas Backstrom won the ensuing faceoff to the right of Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, drawing he puck back to Nate Schmidt at the left point.  Schmidt slid to his right and flung a wrist shot at the Tampa net.  The puck did not get through, it being deflected to Bishop’s right.  Backstrom was quick on the loose puck and from the inside hash marks of the faceoff circle let fly with a backhand that eluded Bishop to give the Caps the lead.

That was just the start.  And it was Backstrom starting things again. Skating through the neutral zone, Backstrom fed the puck ahead to Tom Wilson at the Lightning blue line.  Wilson skated in, then dropped the puck for Backstrom trailing down the slot.  Backstrom’s drive was stopped by Bishop, as was the rebound attempt by Alex Ovechkin.  Bishop could not secure the puck, though, and with it lying at the post to Bishop’s left, Backstrom threaded it between a diving Bishop’s glove and the post to make it 2-0 with just 80 seconds left in the second period.

Backstrom completed the natural hat trick, the first regular season hat trick of any kind in his career barely two minutes into the second period.  It started with Backstrom leading a 3-on-2 rush through the neutral zone.  At the Tampa Bay line, Backstrom fed Alex Ovechkin on his right.  Ovechkin returned the puck to Backstrom heading to the net down the middle.  Collecting the puck after an attempted poke check from Andrej Sustr, Backstrom snapped the puck past Bishop to start the hats raining down.

The Lightning made things interesting with goals less than two minutes apart in the back half of the third period by Tyler Johnson and Matt Carle.  That was as close as Tampa Bay would get, however.  In the last minute John Carlson backhanded the puck out of the Capitals’ zone to relive pressure from the Lightning.  At center ice Valtteri Filppula and Jason Garrison ran into one another, both tumbling to the ice.  It left Eric Fehr all alone to fire the puck into the empty net for the final 4-2 margin.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps’ 4-0-1 run over their last five games is their best five-game stretch of the season.  Perhaps most satisfying is that in doing so they have allowed only ten goals, only once allowing three goals in regulation, and that was in a win in which the third goal was scored with four seconds left.

-- The hat trick might have been Nicklas Backstrom’s first in the regular season portion of his career, but he also has a playoff hat trick.  It was his hat trick goal in overtime that beat the Montreal Canadiens in Game 2 of their Stanley Cup playoff series (the Caps lost, four games to three).

-- The Caps held the Lightning to two shots on goal in the first period, Mark Barberio and Tyler Johnson recording them.

-- Alex Ovechkin recorded seven shots on goal, the third straight game in which he recorded seven or more (23 in all with two goals) and the first time this season he recorded seven or more shots in three straight games.  It was the first time he did so since a five game, December 27 – January 4, last season (42 shots, one goal).

-- It was the top line’s night to shine.  In addition to Backstrom’s hat trick, Ovechkin had a pair of assists, was plus-3, and had five hits. Tom Wilson had a pair of assists (his first two-assist game of his career), was a plus-2, and traded punches with Brenden Morrow less than two minutes into the game.

-- Does plus-minus mean anything?  Well, John Carlson was a plus-2.  He is plus-11 over his last eight games.  He is tied for 17th among defensemen in that statistic for the season (plus-9), and his assist on Eric Fehr’s empty-netter left him tied for fifth among defensemen in total scoring (4-18-22).

-- Ben Bishop has faced Washington more than any other team this season – three times.  It has not turned out especially well for him. The Caps are the only team against which he has as many as two losses in regulation, and in giving up three goals on 27 shots his save percentage against the Caps this season sank below .900 (.899).

-- The game might have turned 6:49 into the second period when Mike Green took a hooking penalty, and Alex Ovechkin took a roughing penalty to give the Lightning a 5-on-3 power play for two full minutes.  Two minutes later, Tampa Bay had shots from Victor Hedman, Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan, and Steven Stamkos and no goals.  Less than two minutes later, Nicklas Backstrom scored to make it 1-0, Caps.

-- When the Caps get everyone going in one game, it is going to be a thing to behold.  While the top line had a big night (a combined 3-4-7, plus-7), the second line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Troy Brouwer, and Marcus Johansson had no points and only three shots on goal (all from Kuznetsov, but only one of those at even strength).

-- Andre Burakovsky has a bit of a hill to climb, ice time-wise.  He skated just 8:35, less than six minutes of that at even strength (5:45).  Only twice this season has he skated fewer total minutes.  He is 1-0-1, minus-5 in his last 11 games.

In the end…

This was another good win against a quality opponent in the Eastern Conference.  The 5-on-3 penalty kill was the inspiring sort of effort that can propel a team forward, and it certainly appeared to do wonders for the Caps.  The top line did what a top line has to do, and the Caps got solid play from the folks asked to keep the other guys’ top line from doing what they have to do.  The Caps are about to enter what looks like a bit softer part of the schedule teams that folks might normally associate with being winners.  Florida?  The hapless Panthers?  They’re 12-8-8.  Columbus?  They’re on a six-game winning streak, including an overtime win over the Caps.  Ottawa?  They’ve climbed back to .500.  OK, New Jersey is struggling, but the truth is, it really doesn’t get any easier.  The difference is that the Caps are playing solid hockey and seem equal to the task.