Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 36: Capitals at Islanders, December 29th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals end the 2014 portion of their 2014-2015 schedule on Monday night when they visit the New York Islanders at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, NY.  This will be the 200th all-time regular season meeting of the clubs, a series that the Caps lead, 98-84 with 13 ties and four extra time losses.

The Caps and Islanders have split two games so far this season, New York winning the front half of a home-and-home series, 3-2, in overtime on November 26th on Long Island.  The Caps got even with a 5-2 win on home ice on November 28th.  The overtime win by the Islanders was typical of their season so far.  New York has won more extra time games overall (nine) than any team in the league and is tied for the league lead in wins via the Gimmick (six).  It is a team that has had very good fortune playing on thin margins.  While there are 18 teams than have played as many or more one-goal games as the Islanders (18), only Anaheim has more wins (17 in 23 games) than the Islanders (15 in 18 games).

Of late, the Islanders have been on a see-saw with respect to wins and losses.  Since losing to the Caps, 5-2, on November 28th, New York won three straight, then lost three straight, followed that up with a four-game winning streak, and now find themselves losers of their last two games as they prepare to face the Caps.

With two games left on their December schedule, the Islanders face the Caps with a 6-4-1 record for the month.  John Tavares leads the Isles in goal scoring for the month (five) and comes into this game with three goals in his last three games.  Tavares has been a very consistent player this season, not having gone more than two games without a point so far.  He has two four-game point streaks this season and is looking for his third such streak when he faces Washington on Monday.  He is 10-7-17, plus-1, in 19 career games against the Capitals.

Kyle Okposo leads the Islanders in points for the month (3-7-10).  He, too, is coming into the game against the Caps on a three-game points streak (1-3-4), and he has three multi-point games in his last nine contests.  Despite the points production of late, Okposo has had a odd season of sorts.  With 119 shots on goal in 35 games, he is tied for ninth in the league and is on a pace to finish with his highest career shot total (279).  However, with only eight goals on those 119 shots he is on a pace to finish with his second lowest shooting percentage (6.7 percent) in his eight-year career.  He is 7-7-14, plus-6, in 20 career games against Washington.

Brock Nelson got off to a fast start with six goals and 12 points in his first nine games this season.  Since that hot start he is 8-7-15 in 23 games.  Nelson is, however, second on the team in goals for December (four) and has already matched his career high in goals (14) set in his rookie year last season.  He is 0-2-2 in five career games against the Caps.

Here is how the two clubs compare overall…

1.  Those 15 one-goal wins are the reason that the Islanders have the best winning percentage in one-goal games this season (.833).  In decisions not settled by one goal, the Islanders are rather ordinary (8-9).

2.  The Gimmick has been kind to the Islanders so far, almost obscenely so.  New York is 6-1 in the freestyle competition and have done it largely by converting their scoring chances.  They have 12 goals in 24 shots, tied for the top shooting percentage in the league.  The 12 goals scored is second only to the Florida Panthers.

3.  Part of the reason the Islanders have been successful in extra time is that they have allowed themselves to be forced into the extra session.  Only five teams have allowed more third period goals than the Isles (38), and they have a third period goal differential of minus-9 for the season.

4.  Only four teams have scored more goals at 5-on-5 than the Islanders (72), and only two teams have more shorthanded goals scored than the five that New York has posted. 

5.  Three times this season the Islanders have lost a game after taking a 3-0 lead.  All three instances have occurred this month.  They lost to St. Louis, 6-4, on December 6th after taking a 3-0 first period lead.  They lost to Minnesota, 5-4, on December 9th, after taking another 3-0 first period lead.  Finally, they lost to Buffalo, 4-3 in a Gimmick last Saturday after taking a 3-0 lead into the third period.

1.  Only the New York Rangers have earned more standings points against Metropolitan Division teams (23) than the Caps (20).

2.  The Caps enjoyed 14 power play opportunities in three games last week.  It is the most they have had in any three-game stretch this season and the most they had in any three-game stretch since they had 16 opportunities over the March 1-5 period last season.

3.  Where one-goal games have been a source of success for the Islanders this season, they have been less of one for the Caps.  Washington is tied for 22nd in winning percentage in one-goal decisions this season (.400/8-6-6).  In decisions of more than one goal, the Caps are 10-5.

4.  All goals count, so we will not make too much of the fact that the Caps are tied for fourth in the league in empty net goals scored (five).  For the record, the scorers are: Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, and Brooks Laich.

5.  Washington, Pittsburgh, and Calgary are the only teams with five players with ten or more goals scored.  Marcus Johansson joined the club to make it five for the Caps when he scored against Pittsburgh on Saturday.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Jaroslav Halak

Number one Islander goaltender Jaroslav Halak last saw action on December 20th, stopping 20 of 21 shots in a 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.  He missed the Islanders’ last two games, however, with a lower-body injury (groin).  He practiced with the team on Sunday and seems likely to return to the net for the Isles on Monday night  They could use him.  Since going 3-4-0, 3.44, .891 in his first seven appearances, he is 15-2-0, 1.78, .932, with three shutouts in his last 17 appearances.  And that includes a two-game hiccup in which he lost consecutive games to the St. Louis Blues after winning 11 straight decisions.  He is working on a four-game winning streak as the Caps come to town. He is 5-4-0, 2.65, .897 in nine career appearances against the Caps.

Washington: Matt Niskanen

Although Matt Niskanen was signed to a big contract in free agency by the Caps last summer, it was always unlikely that he would match the point total he put together for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season (10-36-46, plus-33 in 81 games).  He was not going to get the featured ice time, either at even strength or on the power play, with fellow right-handed shots John Carlson and Mike Green on the roster.  Still, Niskanen is without a point in his last six games and has just a goal and an assist in his last 13 contests.  In those six straight games without a point he has just five shots on goal.  He is not expected to be a heavy-duty scorer from the blue line, but if he can jump up a notch in production it would add a dimension that would make the Caps that much more difficult to play.  He has never scored a goal against the Islanders, but he does have ten assists in 17 career games.

In the end…

In the Caps’ 8-1-2 run through the Eastern Conference to end the calendar year they have outscored opponents by a 34-20 margin and have a special teams index over 100 (101.5, power play plus penalty killing percentages).  They are 3-0-2 in one-goal decisions, 5-1 in games decided by more than one goal.  Twice they won games in regulation when scoring just two goals, an issue with the club last season.  Braden Holtby has two shutouts in his last four games.  This is a team that is playing well and being rewarded for it.  On the other hand, the Islanders have a very nice record, but one wonders if the underlying numbers – a dependence on one-goal wins and extra-time success – is sustainable over a full season.  The “X” factor here is Jaroslav Halak, who has been arguably the best goaltender in the league since November 1st.  If he is suffering any lingering effects from his groin injury, it could make it a long night for the Islanders.  Even if he is healthy, he will be facing a team that has been good on a consistent basis for the better part of a month.  It suggests that the Caps will spoon-feed the hosts a helping of reality to end 2014.

Capitals 4 – Islanders 2

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 12

Santa Claus was good to the Washington Capitals, filling their stockings with their fourth straight winning week and leaving them three points with a game in hand ahead of the Boston Bruins for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.  And even with a split in two road games, the Caps finished Week 12 with the conference’s best road record.  Overall, it was a fine week.

Record: 2-1-0

For the Washington Capitals in Week 12, the theme might be “slow and steady wins the race.”  The Caps recorded their fourth consecutive winning week, taking two of three contests.  It was the Caps’ fifth winning week in their last six, and they have not had a losing week since Week 6.  In the six weeks since the Caps are 11-4-3, a 114-point pace over what amounts to about one-quarter of a full season.  Better still, since losing to Vancouver in the first game of December to fall to 10-10-4, the Caps are 8-1-2 over their last 11 games, all of them against Eastern Conference opponents. 

Now, here’s the bad part.  Despite that 11-game run, the Caps have not budged in the Metropolitan Division standings – fourth then, fourth now – and they have climbed only two spots in the conference standings, from tenth to eighth.  They have, however, cut the deficit between themselves and first place in the East almost in half, from 12 points on December 1st to seven points after Week 12.

Offense: 2.33 /game (season: 2.89 /game; rank: 8th)

It was a balanced sort of week for the Caps.  Six players shared in the seven goals, Eric Fehr getting two against the Pittsburgh Penguins to end the week.  Twelve Capitals shared in the points, with three players – Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson – each recording three points.  If there was an odd aspect to the offense, it was Alex Ovechkin’s week.  Ovechkin recorded one point for the week, a goal in the 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers.  The light total was not for lack of effort, though.  Ovechkin was credited with 37 shot attempts in the three games – 21 shots on goal, ten shots that were blocked, and six misses.  He accounted for 20.3 percent of all shot attempts for the week.

Ovechkin’s contributions were a large part of the Caps averaging 29.7 shots per game for the week and increasing shot totals over the three games (23, 32, 34).  It was the percentage that was lacking.  The Caps shot to a 7.9 percent mark for the week, compared to 9.6 percent overall for the season.  Of course, there was Ovechkin at 4.8 percent for the week while the rest of the club was shooting at 8.8 percent.

Defense: 1.67 /game (season: 2.49 /game; rank: 11th)

One of the things that the Caps have improved significantly from last season to this has been the shots on goal allowed.  Coming into Week 12 the Caps were on a five-game streak of allowing opponents fewer than 30 shots (average: 25.4).  That streak came to an abrupt end in the first game of the week when they Caps allowed the Ottawa Senators to pepper the Caps’ net with 39 shots in a 2-1 Caps win.  After allowing only 27 shots on goal in a 4-2 loss to the Rangers in the middle game of the week, the Caps allowed the Penguins 31 shots on Saturday in a 3-0 Caps win.

Possession-wise, it was a good week, nevertheless.  Overall, the Caps finished the week with a Corsi-for percentage of 55.7 in even strength situations (  They were even better in tie-game situations, sporting a Corsi-for percentage of 60.5 percent, although there were only 71 events on which to draw for that number, 56 of them taking place in the game against Ottawa. Even in the loss to the Rangers, the Caps “played” well enough to win with a 60.7 Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (all score situations) and a plus-19.

Of the five goals allowed for the week, Brooks Orpik and John Carlson were on ice for four of them.  Among them included a deflection off a body part, a 5-on-4 power play goal against, and a 5-on-3 power play goal against, all against the Rangers.  When the Caps allowed a hat trick to the Rangers’ Rick Nash (one of the goals being the “body part” goal) it was the first time this season the Caps allowed an opponent a hat trick.

Goaltending: 1.69 GAA / .948 SV / 1 shutout (season: 2.43 / .912 / 3 SO)

Braden Holtby played in every minute for the Caps in Week 12, including the back-to-back games against Ottawa and New York to start the week.  The four goals on 27 shots against the Rangers might have been predictable, given Holtby’s history in the second half of back-to-back games.  Even including that game against the Rangers, Holtby had a sterling week in an important respect.  He stopped 55 of 58 even strength shots, a .948 save percentage.  And, even though he allowed two power play goals in the 4-2 loss to the Rangers, Holtby stopped 32 of 34 power play shots against (including six of seven shots in 5-on-3 situations), a .941 save percentage. 

Holtby has been a rock over almost two months now.  Since allowing four goals in three consecutive games in late October and early November, he is 13-5-3, 2.05, .930, with two shutouts in his last 21 appearances.  Only seven times in those 21 appearances has he allowed more than two goals, and only once has he allowed more than two even strength goals.  Whatever goalie coach Mitch Korn is selling, Braden Holtby is buying.

Power Play: 2-for-14 / 14.3 percent (season: 23.8 percent; rank: 5th) 

It was not a particularly strong week on the power play for the Capitals in Week 12, and this has become something of a trend.  With a 14.3 percent power play for the week, it made it four straight weeks that the Caps finished the week below 20 percent (6-for-39/15.4 percent).  Why was Week 12 underwhelming?  Part of it was the efficiency.  The Caps managed 18 shots in 21:08 of power play time.  Not that they didn’t get shots from those who they want taking the shots, although it might have been too much in one respect.  Alex Ovechkin recorded 11 of the 18 shots on goal, scoring once.  He was 0-for-6 in the 3-0 win over the Penguins to end the week.

It was a disappointing week in another, more general sense.  The 14 power play opportunities in three games were the most the Caps enjoyed in any week this season to date.  The five opportunities against the Rangers and the Penguins was the first time this season that the Caps had five or more opportunities in consecutive games.  Opportunity knocked, but the Caps couldn't find the front door.

Penalty Killing: 12-for-14 / 85.7 percent (season: 78.2 percent; rank: 24th)

The penalty killers might have had a pretty good week, killing off more than 85 percent of the shorthanded situations.  It was not the actual penalty killing that was the problem.  It was the lack of discipline that led to the situations, specifically the game against the Rangers that the Caps lost.  The Caps faced seven shorthanded situations against the Rangers in the 4-2 loss.  At least the Caps got their minutes worth in the nature of the fouls – cross-checking, boarding, slashing, a high-sticking double minor among them. 

Then there was the matter of a rule change; Rule 76.4 to be precise, which states: “Both players facing-off are prohibited from batting the puck with their hand in an attempt to win the face-off. Any attempt by either center to win the face-off by batting the puck with their hand shall result in a minor penalty. This penalty shall be announced as ‘Minor Penalty for Delay of Game – Face-off Violation’…”  Jason Chimera was caught with his hand in the cookie jar, so to speak.  Before we heap more on Chimera, let’s step back and remember that he is not a center and averages a little more than one faceoff taken per game.  This wrinkle in the rules might not have been foremost in his mind as he leaned in to take that draw.

As for the actual penalty killing, you could say Braden Holtby was the best penalty killer because he had to be.  In 22:13 of shorthanded ice time the Caps allowed 34 shots on goal, more than 1.5 shots per minute.  Against the Ottawa Senators to open the week it was 13 shots in just six minutes of power play time.  At week’s end, Holtby had faced the third highest shot volume in shorthanded situations (133).  Given that he is 14th in shorthanded save percentage (.880) among 33 goalies appearing in at least 15 games, those shot volumes might be something to address.

Even Strength Goals For/Goals Against: 5-3 / plus-2 (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 1.06; rank: 15th)

Three games, three even strength goals against.  That is a pretty good recipe for success, especially since the Caps came into Week 12 having allowed 1.84 5-on-5 goals per game.  The Caps have been reasonably consistent in this regard, having allowed more than two even strength goals only twice in their last 18 games, over which they are 11-4-3.

As for the even strength goals scored, it was a strange mix of scorers.  Eric Fehr had a pair in the 3-0 win over Pittsburgh with Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Jay Beagle scoring the others.  For Beagle, who scored the first goal in the Caps’ 2-1 win over Ottawa to start the week, it was his fifth goal of the season, a new career high and his third in nine games.  It might not be surprising that Alex Ovechkin finished the week with the most even strength shots on goal (10), but Joel Ward (8) and John Carlson (7) being next in line might raise an eyebrow. 

Faceoffs: 91-for-174 / 52.2 percent (season: 50.8 percent; rank: 11th)

It was a good week in the circle for the Caps, with one glaring exception.  In three games the Caps won the zone battle in eight of nine instances.  They were three-for-three in the neutral zone and three-for-three in the defensive zone.  They were even two-for-three in the offensive zone, but oh, that one game in which they lost in the offensive zone. 

Washington was 5-for-21 in offensive zone draws in the 4-2 loss to the Rangers in the middle game of the week.  Nicklas Backstrom was 1-for-6 in offensive zone draws against New York in what was otherwise a pretty good week (59.3 percent wins overall).  The surprise for the week, though, might have been Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was credited with 17 wins on 27 faceoffs (63.0 percent), not bad for a player who entered the week with a winning percentage of only 42.2 percent.

At the other end, it was a tough week for Eric Fehr, who was 36.7 percent overall and only 25.0 percent combined in the offensive and defensive zones.

Goals by Period:

The Caps fought to a draw in the first periods (one goal for, one against) and second periods (two and two) in games in Week 12 but won the third periods of games (four and two) for the difference in the week.  The Caps scored two against the Rangers in the middle game of the week to make things interesting in closing to within a goal before falling, 4-2, then scored two third period goals less than five minutes apart against the Penguins to break open a close game and provide some insurance in a 3-0 win.

The third period positive margin for the week allowed the Caps to establish positive goal differentials for the season in all three regulation periods: plus-4 in the first period, plus-9 in the second period, and plus-1 in the third period.

In the end…

With their fourth consecutive winning week in Week 12, the Caps are now on a 98-point pace for the season that should be, if sustained, enough to reach the post season.  If those playoffs started today, their first round opponent would be the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team the Caps defeated in convincing fashion to end the week.

The question now becomes one of how sustainable their 8-1-2 run through the Eastern Conference in December can be.  The Caps have one more visit to an Eastern Conference opponent – the New York Islanders on Monday – before the Winter Classic game on New Year’s Day against the Chicago Blackhawks.  After that, the calendar starts to look a bit better for the Caps in terms of strength of schedule.  The Caps have given notice of the level of play they can reach and sustain over an extended period.  But there is still more than half the season remaining, much more work to be done.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Braden Holtby (2-1-0, 1.69, .948, 1 shutout, first career win over the Pittsburgh Penguins)
  • Second Star: Eric Fehr (2-0-2, game-winning goal against the Penguins, his seventh and eighth career goals against Pittsburgh, second most against any opponent)
  • Third Star: John Carlson (0-3-3, plus-1; tied for third among league defensemen in scoring (second in even strength points); tied for seventh in plus-minus)