Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Semifinals: Capitals vs. Rangers

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

One down, and…

OK, let’s just take them one at a time.  Having escaped the first round of the playoffs with a seven-game series win over the New York Islanders, the Washington Capitals take the next step in their Grand Nostalgia Tour of the post season by locking up with the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinal round.

You will remember that the Caps and Islanders met for the seventh time in the playoffs in Capitals franchise history when they met in Round 1.  Now, the Capitals face a team that they will battle for the ninth time in the post season.  Here is the history:
  • 1986 Patrick Division Semifinal – Rangers win best-of-seven, 4-2
  • 1990 Patrick Division Final – Capitals win best-of-seven, 4-1
  • 1991 Patrick Division Semifinal – Capitals win best-of-seven, 4-2
  • 1994 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal – Rangers win best-of-seven, 4-1
  • 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal – Capitals win best-of-seven, 4-3
  • 2011 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal – Capitals win best-of-seven, 4-1
  • 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinal – Rangers win best-of-seven, 4-3
  • 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal – Rangers win best-of-seven, 4-3
The Capitals have not faced any team in the post season more frequently than the Rangers, not the Penguins (eight times), not the Islanders (seven), not the Flyers (four).  Each team has won four series, the Caps holding a thin 25-23 edge in games won.


This will be the fifth time in seven seasons that the Caps and Rangers faced off in the playoffs, each team having won two of the previous four meetings.  With so many meetings in so narrow a space of time, you might expect that the Caps and Rangers have a fair number of players who are veterans of all four of the recent meetings.  You would be wrong on that score.  In the four series meetings since 2009, here are the skaters who have appeared in at least one game in all of them and who can be expected to play in this series:

The Rangers have completely remade their forward corps since that 2009 meeting, while the Caps have almost replaced their entire defensive squad. 

However, while the skaters have largely been swapped out between 2009 and this season for both teams, the comparison of goalies yields something very different.  Here, for example, are the Capital goaltenders having appeared over the last four series between the clubs:

And here is the list of Ranger goalies having appeared against the Capitals:

But for 40 minutes over two games, Henrik Lundqvist has tended goal for each and every game and minute of the four series played between these two teams since 2009.  There is a certain richness in that four-year record that is interesting.  For example, over his first 21 appearances in that span of games, he won consecutive games only once, that in Games 1 and 2 to open the 2009 series.  However, since he was lit up for five goals on 20 shots in 40 minutes of work in Game 6 of the 2009 series (the second straight game in which he was pulled after two periods), Lundqvist has allowed more than three goals to the Caps only once in 20 post season appearances.  If anything, his most recent performance is even more impressive.  Lundqvist has won four of his last five post season appearances against the Caps, posting shutouts in his last two games against Washington to clinch the 2013 series. As far as the regular season series is concerned, here is how the principals compare:

The Recent History: 2014-2015

The Caps and Rangers met four times this season, and things did not go so well from a Capitals perspective.  If you are going to put lipstick on this pig, first we need it to stand still:

So, what do we make of this?  On a wins-losses basis, the optimism-addled Caps fan might say, “well, they lost the first two games, but then they pasted the Rangers on their own ice and then lost the last game of the season after they already clinched a playoff spot.” 

To that we say, “nice try, Sparky.”  But that does not mean that this was as cut and dried as all that, that the Rangers are the clearly dominant team based on the season series.  The Caps out-attempted the Rangers in shots in three of the four games and tied with them in the fourth (oddly enough, the Caps’ only win).

Where the Caps shot themselves in the foot was early in games.  New York out-scored Washington in the first periods of games by a 7-2 margin and scored the first goal of the game three times (all Ranger wins).  The Caps spent too much time in too many games playing catch-up, and while the third period goal differential in the four games looks better (7-4, Caps), it was not good enough to actually pull victory from the jaws of defeat very often.

Here is a summary of the four games from the 100,000-foot level...

Special Teams

The Caps do not exactly live or die by the power play, but it is an integral part of their success, particularly the power play.  Washington scored a power play in each of the four games this past season, so if they couldn’t parlay that success into wins, at least the Caps established that they can be effective against the Ranger penalty killers.

Overall, the Caps were 4-for-13 (30.8 percent) for the season against the Rangers.  In putting together that mark the Caps had an odd set of coincidences.  In each game, their goals/shots equaled their goals/power play chances.  They had one power play on five chances in their first meeting, one goal on five shots.  It was 1-for-3 and one goal on three shots in Game 2, one goal on four opportunities and four shots in the third game, and one goal on their only opportunity and only shot in the last game of the season.

It was an effective power play (4-for-13 in chances), but it was mixed in efficiency (a 30.8 percent shooting percentage, but only 13 shots in 17:28 of power play ice time).

The Caps’ penalty kill was effective, but this is a mixed bag, too.  Killing 16 of 19 Ranger power plays was a good thing (84.2 percent), but 19 Ranger power plays in four games, giving the Rangers a plus-6 in power play chances, was not a recipe for success.  Here is another number, a worse number, a number you do not want to see in this series: 30.  The Rangers managed 30 shots on goal on 19 power plays.  That they did it over 30:34 of power play ice time makes the result sound a bit better on an efficiency basis, but it was too many shots over far too much power play ice time.  The Rangers do not have an especially effective power play overall, but if the Caps are marching to the penalty box with the frequency they did in the regular season against the Rangers, they will be marching to the first tee in the second week of May.


When looking at the Caps’ leading scorers, there is a glass half full/glass half empty quality to it.  The “half full” part is that the Rangers have not found an answer to Alex Ovechkin.  He had five goals in the four games of the series this season, recording at least one goal in each game.  On the “half empty” side, those five goals represent half the Caps’ total against the Rangers.

The overall scoring is more balanced, owing to the assists being spread around more liberally. Eleven Caps have helpers, seven of them with two or more.  John Carlson leads with four.  The “half empty” part of that glass is the fact that Nicklas Backstrom had only two assists in the four games.  Overall, the Caps’ scoring had an odd look to it; you were either a goal scorer, or you had assists, not both.  Of the 14 skaters to record points, only Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov managed to record both a goal and an assist (both recorded one of each).

The Rangers, as one might expect, had a bit more balance.  Eight players shared the 13 goals scored by New York in the season series.  Four of them had two or more, Rick Nash leading the way with three.  He had all of them in a hat trick performance in the teams’ first meeting of the season, a 4-2 win in New York on December 23rd.

Fourteen players recorded points, six of them with two or more.  Four players – Derick Brassard, Dan Boyle, Mats Zuccarello, and Kevin Hayes – had three assists to lead the club.  Hayes and Brassard led the team in overall points with five apiece (both went 2-3-5).

The Overall

Here is how the Capitals and the Rangers compare in their regular season numbers overall:

Who’s Hot?

For the Caps, Evgeny Kuznetsov.  He comes into this series with three goals and an assist out of the Islander series, and overall he is 8-9-17, plus-5, over his last 24 games dating back to March 5th.

For the Rangers, it would be Derick Brassard. He led the team in goal-scoring in the first-round win over the Penguins, potting three of the Rangers’ 11 goals of that series.  He has seven goals in his last 13 games dating back to March 29th.

Who’s Not?

For the Capitals, it would have to be Curtis Glencross.  He did not have a point in the Islander series and dressed for only four games.  He does not have a goal in his last 15 games (one assist over that span) after recording four in his first seven games with the Caps after being obtained from the Calgary Flames.

For the Rangers, it might have to be (at the risk of awakening the hockey gods) Martin St. Louis.  He has been streaky of late.  St. Louis went seven games without a point to end February and begin March before going 3-5-8 in his last nine games to close the regular season.  He had but one assist in the five-game first round series against Pittsburgh.  Oh, that nine-game stretch to close the regular season?  It opened and closed against the Caps; St. Louis had a goal in the first game and two assists in the last one.

Random facts to impress your friends and annoy your enemies…
  • Nineteen teams finished ahead of the Rangers in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 in the regular season (49.5), a number includes 13 of other 15 teams reaching the post season (Montreal and Calgary finished behind the Rangers). By way of comparison, the Caps finished 13th overall (51.4, ninth among the 16 playoff teams; numbers:
  • Since the two became teammates, Alex Ovechkin averages more assists per game (0.51) than Nicklas Backstrom (0.48) in the post season.
  • If I told you Dan Girardi has played more post season games than any Ranger in club history, would you believe it?  True (94; Walt Tkachuk played in 93).  Alex Ovechkin is the only active Capital in the top ten in post season games played in club history (tenth with 65, one more than Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green).
  • For the Caps, scoring more than four goals against the Rangers in regulation in a post-season game is rare.  Washington has gone 39 post season games against New York without doing so, dating back to a 7-1 win over the Rangers in Game 3 of the 1990 Patrick Division Final (the Caps won the series, 4-1).  You might remember that year as being the “Druce on the Loose” year (he had two goals and two assists in that game).
  • Mike Green is the Capitals’ all-time playoff leader in power play goals (6).  Not that this is a big list.  Only 12 defensemen in Capitals history have scored power play goals in the post season.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

The big “battle within the battle” is going to be Alex Ovechkin againt Henrik Lundqvist, the irresistible force against the impenetrable object.  But that won’t be the only one.  There are other players who might be heard from.

Washington: Jason Chimera

Some guys have a knack against one team.  In baseball back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Detroit Tiger pitcher Frank Lary was known as “Yankee Killer” for his 27-10 record against them (he was 101-106 in his career otherwise).  For the Washington Capitals, Jason Chimera seems to have knack for tormenting the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist.  In 19 playoff games against the Rangers with the Caps, Chimera is 6-4-10 (4-10-14 in 31 career playoff games otherwise).  What is more, three of those six goals were game-winners.  Chimera did not exactly burn out the red light behind opposing goaltenders to finish the 2014-2015 regular season; he had only two goals in his last 27 games, both of them against (who else) the Rangers in a 5-2 win on March 29th, including the game-winner.

New York: Chris Kreider

Chris Kreider might be a good fit for the clandestine service.  For a big man (6’3”, 226) he can disappear at times. In the first round series against the Penguins, Kreider had one point (the game-winning goal a Ranger 2-1 win in Game 3).  It is part of a longer run in which Kreider has only that single point over his last eight games dating back to April 7th.  When he is on, though, he can be a monster.  Despite his size, his speed can be breathtaking, and he can produce in bunches.  Before this eight-game points drought, Kreider was 4-6-10 over his previous nine games.  Of course, that was preceded by a stretch in which he went 1-2-3 over ten games.  You get the point.  Let’s hope Kreider does not, scoring-wise that is.  In eight career regular season games against the Caps, Kreider has just one assist.  He had a goal and an assist in the Rangers’ seven-game series win over the Caps in 2013.

In the end…

For the second straight series the Caps have to contend with a team whose style can cause them difficulties.  The Rangers are, like the Islanders, a team that uses speed and crisp playmaking to generate offense in waves.  The difference is, the Rangers are perhaps better at it and certainly more experienced.  The real difference from that series to this, however, is that the Rangers have a world-class goaltender, whereas the Islanders had what amounted to a “Cap killer.” 

Henrik Lundqvist has been sharp since returning from a neck injury late in the season, and he is more than capable of dominating a series over its seven-game length, if it should come to that.  If there is an Achilles heel for the Rangers, it is that they have been living off their PDO (tops in the league at 5-on-5 in the regular season) much more than their raw possession numbers.

If the Caps can fight the Rangers to a draw in the possession battle, a combination of their superior power play and their physical style can grind down the Rangers.  The Rangers have a deeper team in terms of talent, but as Capital fans are acutely aware, a talent advantage does not always translate to four wins in seven games.  This series is where the Ranger’s flirtation with failure based on their possession numbers catches up with them.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Eastern Conference Quarterfinal - Game 7: Capitals 2 - Islanders 1

Coming into their opening round playoff series against the New York Islanders, the Caps skated in 209 post season games in franchise history.  In 29 of those instances the Caps played to a 2-1 decision, winning only nine times and losing on 20 occasions. Of those nine wins by a 2-1 margin, only one came against the Islanders, back in Game 3 of the Patrick Division finals in 1985.  Twice they lost to the Islanders by that score, both times also taking place in that 1985 Patrick Division final that the Caps would lose in five games.

The Caps and Islanders added to that history by splitting a pair of 2-1 decisions on their way to a split of the first six games in their first-round series. The teams went into Game 7 just as close overall, each team having scored 14 goals in the series.  When the first period of Game 7 ended scoreless, it seemed assured that the Caps and Isles would play this one close, perhaps to yet another 2-1 decision.  That did not bode well for the Caps.

There was another memory lurking about this game, that being one of the most famous post season games in NHL history, the "Easter Epic" four-overtime game of April 18-19, 1987.  That might have ended in another 2-1 decision, that one in the Caps' favor, but the Islanders scored with just 5:23 left in regulation time to send the game to overtime and, eventually, history as the Islanders escaped with a 3-2 win early on Easter morning in 1987.

This one was resembling that game long ago more and more as the time ticked on.  In 1987 the Caps dominated the first period in shots, 15-5; last night it was 11-3 for Washington.  The second period was more of the same, the Caps holding a 21-7 edge in shots over the first 40 minutes last night, while in 1987 the shot meter read "25-10," Capitals, at the second intermission.

In 1987 it was a late first period goal that put the Caps on top; last night it was a late goal by Joel Ward in the second period.  It would be the Islanders tying things up with a goal by Frans Nielsen last night that slithered through Braden Holtby's pads, not altogether unlike the goal that Pat Flatley snapped through Bob Mason's pads on that April night in 1987.

The Caps regained the lead last night on a spectacular individual effort by Evgeny Kuznetsov, who darted off the right wing wall, leaving Nielsen in his wake, then skating across the high slot, underneath the late coverage of Brock Nelson.  Eluding Nelson's attempted sweep check, Kuznetsov held the puck for what seemed like minutes, waiting for goalie Jaroslav Halak to commit.  When he did, Kuznetsov fired high, just in time to deny defenseman Johnny Boychuk a chance to fill in behind Halak to block the open net.

It was a rookie scoring in a big moment, just as Grant Martin, playing in what would be his only career NHL playoff game, did when he scored to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead in Game 7 of the 1987 series against the Isles.

All that was left was for the Islanders to find their big moment, a moment authored by a player accustomed to the spotlight as Bryan Trottier was when he tied that Game 7 long ago.  One might have expected a John Tavares moment at that point, but for the Islanders it would be a moment that never came.

If anything, Tavares would be the example of what might be, not a new chapter in Capitals history, but an entirely new volume.  Tavares would not get a chance to be that hero for the Islanders, the player who would send the game further into the night.  The Capitals would hold him without a shot attempt in the game.  In fact, after the Kuznetsov goal the Capitals would hold the Islanders to a single shot on goal, a harmless 60-footer from Boychuk with 4:46 left.

In the end, the lasting image of this game will be Kuznetsov's celebration of his game winning goal.  There might be one more symbolic, though, and it came in the dying seconds.  The Islanders were desperately trying to gain control of a loose puck at the top of the Capitals' defensive zone.  Battling them for control was Nicklas Backstrom, held off the score sheet for the third straight game in this series, but who did so many of the little things that needed to be done.  He had one more as time was about to expire.  He kicked the puck loose, out of the reach of the scrambling Islanders, and out of the zone, giving rise to the image of the Capitals kicking away a lot of frustration and disappointment, writing the first chapter of what one hopes will be a new and happier narrative of Capitals hockey.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Desperate Times Call for...The General

Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a hockey game by taking a penalty for his team. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard take a penalty for his team. Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about the Caps not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the contest, is a lot of horse dung. Caps traditionally love to fight. All real Caps love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball player, the toughest boxer. Caps fans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Caps play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost...and laughed. That’s why Caps have never lost and will never lose a game. Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Capitals.

Now... hockey club is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, checks as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for NHL Network don’t know anything more about real hockey games than they do about fornicating.

We have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit and the best men in the world. You know, by God I actually pity those poor bastards we’re going up against. By God, I do. We’re not just going to check the bastards, we’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to tape the blades of our sticks. We’re going to hit those lousy Senator bastards by the bushel.

Now, some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you'll chicken out under fire. Don't worry about it. I can assure you that you will all do your duty. The Islanders are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Check them into the boards. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's'll know what to do.

Now there’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We’re not holding anything. Let New York do that. We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We're going to hold onto him by the nose and we're going to kick him in the ass. We're going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we're gonna go through him like crap through a goose.

There’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home. And you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you, "what did you do in the great National Hockey League," you won’t have to say, "Well, I shoveled shit in DC."

Alright now, you sons-of-bitches, you know how I feel. Oh...and I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle – anytime, anywhere.

...That’s all.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Washington Capitals -- Game 7: Law of Averages or the Curse of LaFontaine?

Over the first 12 seasons in the history of the Washington Capitals franchise, the Caps had never played in a Game 7 of a seven-game playoff series.  In 1987 that changed.  Washington took a three games to one lead over the New York Islanders in their Patrick Division semifinal series in that post season but could not close out the Islanders in either Game 5 or Game 6.  Game 7 would be the first Game 7 played by the Caps and the first on home ice.

As any Caps fan knows, that Game 7 in 1987 ended in excruciating fashion when Pat Lafontaine scored 8:47 into the fourth overtime to complete the comeback by the Islanders and send the Capitals on a journey of despair that has lasted almost 30 years. 

In all that time since that first disappointment, only the Boston Bruins have played more Games 7 on home ice (13) than have the Capitals (9).  No team having played more than five Games 7 on home ice in that time have a worse record than the Caps’ 2-7 record.  No team has a worse goal differential (minus-13).  No team has allowed more goals against overall (30, tied with Boston).  No team has allowed more power play goals against (7).

If the Caps’ “homes” over the last 28 years of post seasons -- in Landover and Washington -- were subjected to inspection, they would be condemned as uninhabitable.  The “home ice advantage” for which teams work so hard over the course of a season has meant next to nothing, an overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers in 1988 and a thrilling 2-1 win over the New York Rangers in 2009 being the only interruptions in the unremitting disappointment that has been Game 7 on home ice for the Capitals.

Here is the history in a table:

So, here we are on the eve of the Caps’ tenth post season Game 7 on home ice in club history.   They are where they began this trek, facing the New York Islanders.  Through 28 years, nine playoff series, two cities (Landover and Washington), three captains, and four coaches, the Capitals and their fans have known little joy when the horn sounded or the final goal was scored in a Game 7 on home ice.  A win on Monday night will not sponge away all the disappointment of those seasons past.  But it will make a dent in it -- a big one.  We are left to see if the ghost of Pat Lafontaine still lurks over this franchise, or if the Capitals can start writing a new history at the expense of a team who wrote the first chapter in the one that haunts them still.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Eastern Conference Quarterfinal - Game 6: Islanders 3 - Capitals 1

Here we go again.  For the eighth time in their last ten post season series, the Washington Capitals will play a Game 7.  That fate was sealed when the Capitals lost what might have been the final NHL game at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum this afternoon, 3-1, to the New York Islanders.

For the fifth time in six games in this series the Islanders opened the scoring.  This time it came less than seven minutes into the game when John Tavares collected a loose puck just outside the Capitals’ blue line, skated into the Caps’ zone, backing off defenseman John Carlson.  He then cut to the middle and fired a shot across his body that caught goalie Braden Holtby leaning the wrong way as the puck sailed short side to give the Islanders the 1-0 lead.

That lead held up for most of the rest of the period, through two Washington power plays. However, the third power play in the period proved to be the charm for the Caps just before intermission.  John Carlson started and ended the scoring play.  He started it by sending a long pass from his own end to Troy Brouwer at the Islanders’ blue line.  Brouwer skated in and snapped a shot that goalie Jaorslav Halak stopped but could not control.  The puck bounced out to Alex Ovechkin in the left faceoff circle, and he found Carlson drifting in on the right side.  From the top of the right wing faceoff circle Carlson let fly with a shot that beat Halak with just 4.3 seconds left in the period.

That did it for the scoring until the third period when the Islanders broke through.  John Tavares skated into the Capitals’ zone and carried the puck deep.  He was met behind the Caps’ goal line by Ovechkin and Karl Alzner, who separated him from the puck.  Ovechkin searched for the puck, but it slid around the boards to Nick Leddy along the left wing wall.  He found Nikolay Kulemin darting down the middle, and when Kulemin took the pass he had only Holtby to beat.  He took Leddy’s pass and curled the puck around Holtby’s right pad to give the Islanders the lead they would not relinquish with 9:27 left. 

Cal Clutterbuck added an empty net goal with 52.6 seconds left to send the Islander fans home happy and with a winning memory of what could be their last visit to Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders winning by a 3-1 margin and forcing a Game 7 on Monday night in Washington.

Other stuff…

-- In the post-2005 lockout era, this was the third time that the Caps lost a Game 6 on the road with an opportunity to close out the series.  In the other two instances – against Montreal in 2010 and against the New York Rangers in 2013 – the Caps lost Game 7 at home.

-- This was the third time in the series in which the Caps outshot the Islanders (39-38), the first of those games that the Caps lost.

-- Alex Ovechkin was on ice for all four goal scored in the game.  That, of course, is not a good thing in that he was on ice for all three goals against.

-- The Caps had a 40-33 edge in the faceoff circle, but that is somewhat deceiving.  Jay Beagle accounts for the margin, going 15-for-19 (78.9 percent).

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov had six shots on goal, giving him 13 in his last two games and 20 for the series.  He is second to Ovechkin (27) in shots on goal.

-- Tom Wilson, who has been a physical presence in this series, skated only seven shifts and 3:41 in this game.  A third of that came on one shift in the second period (1:12).

-- This was the first time that the Capitals scored a power play goal in a playoff game and lost since they dropped a 3-2 overtime decision to the New York Rangers in Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals, a game in which they went 1-for-4 with the man advantage.  The Caps had gone five straight games with a win when scoring a power play goal.

-- Despite the loss, Braden Holtby’s save percentage inched up ever so slightly.  Saving 35 of 37 shots (.946 for the game) left him at .945 in five games in the post season, fourth in the league.

-- John Carlson had 11 shot attempts for the game to lead all players for both teams.  He is fourth among NHL defensemen in shots on goal in the post season (17).

-- The Caps killed the only Islander power play they faced, making them 13-for-13 in this series, the only team to have a perfect penalty kill in the first round.

In the end...

If practice makes perfect, the Capitals will come out on top on Monday night.  They will be playing their eighth Game 7 in the last eight years, their sixth on home ice.  Of their previous five Games 7 on home ice they have won just once, riding a late Sergei Fedorov goal over the glove of Henrik Lundqvist to beat the Rangers, 2-1, in 2009.  In the other four games the Caps were outscored by a 16-5 margin.

The Caps get a chance to drive a stake through the heart of the demon who made their lives miserable in one of those Games 7 – Jaroslav Halak -- who beat the Caps in Game 7 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinal as a member of the Montreal Canadiens.  The Caps will not have a grizzled veteran such as Sergei Fedorov to lead them in that quest.  No, this one is on the players who studied at the master’s knee when they beat the Rangers back in 2009.  It is their turn as veterans to lead now.  For Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, their time has come.  We will see if they are up to that challenge.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Caps Win! -- Some More Thoughts on Game 5

You can read our recap of the Washington Capitals' 5-1 win over the New York Islanders in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series here, but here are few more fun facts to impress your friends to start your day...

-- This was the 16th time in the Alex Ovechkin/Nicklas Backstrom era in which the neither Ovechkin nor Backstrom scored in a post season game.  The win made the Caps’ record in such games 4-12. 

-- The five goals in a win was the first time the Caps scored more than four goals in a playoff win on home ice since beating the Montreal Canadiens, 6-5, in overtime of Game 2 of the 2010 Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov’s two goals was the first time a Caps rookie scored twice in a post-season game since Marcus Johansson had a pair in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers on April 20, 2011.

-- Jay Beagle won seven of 12 faceoffs last night.  By itself that is not overwhelming, but he is third in faceoff winning percentage among all NHL skaters in the post season (62.0 percent).  Nicklas Backstrom is fifth (59.8 percent).

-- The 41 shots on goal for the Caps was the first time they cleared 40 shots in a playoff game that ended in regulation since they recorded 42 shots on goal in Game 7 of the 2010 Eastern Conference quarterfinals, a 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens and goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who they torched for five goals last night.

-- The Caps have held opponents to fewer than 30 shots on goal at Verizon Center for six consecutive games (the Islanders had 23 shots last night).  The last team to hit the 30 shots on goal mark on Capitals ice was the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference quarterfinals, a 3-1 Capitals win.

-- Brooks Laich’s goal was a particularly welcome occurrence.  He had not scored a post season goal since May 7, 2012, in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers.  It was only a six-game streak without a goal, owing to Laich’s injuries in 2013 and the Caps missing the post season in 2014, but it seemed like a long time.

-- Karl Alzner is tied for sixth among defensemen in points in the post season (3), tied for first in goals (2).  He leads all defensemen in shooting percentage (40.0).

-- No team has allowed fewer third-period goals than the Caps in the post season (1).

-- The Caps are 8-3 in series in which they won Game 5.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Things to Think About After Four Games

Four games into their first round playoff series, the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders are tied in games won, 2-2.  Though they are even, one would not say that they got to their position in the same fashion.  For the Capitals, one can see what they have done well and, just as important, what they need to do better.  For example…

-- Scoring at even strength.  The Islanders have ten goals in this series, nine of them scored at five a side, the other into an empty net.  On the other side, the Caps have seven goals in the series, six at full and even strength, one on the power play.  A 5-on-5 goals scored/goals allowed ratio of 0.78 (11th among 16 playoff teams) is not a lasting recipe for success.  They need to do better here.

-- Shots.  We have long been of a mind that shots matter.  In the Islanders, the Caps are facing a team that finished second in the regular season in shots per game (33.8, second to Chicago’s 33.9).  The Caps have shaved a couple of shots off that average in the first four games, the Islanders averaging 31.8 shots per game (ranked seventh).  The total shot attempts favor the Islanders, but not by as large a margin as one might think for a team whose principle traits include speed and possession.  New York is averaging 64.4 shot attempts per 60 minutes in the series, while the Caps are averaging 62.1 attempts per 60 minutes.  It is an area that could stand improvement for the Caps, but the situation here is not of the dire sort.

-- Forward scoring.  The Caps have seven goals from forwards in this series.  That is a bit disappointing, but the problem here is the utter lack of balance.  Nicklas Backstrom has half of the goals from forwards (three), Alex Ovechkin has a pair, and Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera have one apiece.  Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, Jay Beagle, and Evgeny Kuznetsov all are averaging more than 15 minutes of ice time a game through four contests, and none of them have scored.  Ward has a pair of assists, and Beagle has one among that quartet, but the Caps have to start getting production out of the second and third lines in this series.

-- Power play.  The best power play in the league this season (25.3 percent) is getting few chances (seven in four games, tied for fewest among 16 playoff teams) and is converting at barely half the regular season rate (14.3 percent/11th).  The Islanders have been able to muffle the Caps’ man advantage, allowing only 11 shots on goal in 12:54 of Capitals power play ice time.  And that has been a product of limiting the shots on goal from Alex Ovechkin, who has four of those 11 shots on goal for the Caps.

-- Penalty killing.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the special teams divide, the Caps are the only team (knock on wood) with a perfect penalty killing record in the post season.  The Caps are 10-for-10 over the four games.  In getting to that mark they allowed the Islanders 20 shots on goal in 20 power play minutes.  A big part of that has been holding the Islanders’ top power play goal scorers – John Tavares (13) and Brock Nelson (10) – to a minimum of shots.  Nelson has four power play shots in the four games, and Tavares did not register his first power play shot on goal until Game 4 (he finished with two).

-- Momentum.  This is a feature that one might be prone to viewing through rose-colored lenses, but consider this.  The Islanders outscored the Caps by a 7-2 margin over the first 94:09 of the series, a 4-1 win in Game 1 and a 3-1 lead they took in the second period of Game 2.  Since then, the Caps have outscored the Islanders by a 6-3 margin over the last 157:15 of the series.

-- Best of three.  Home cookin’ isn’t an advantage if the cook can’t boil water.  On paper, the Caps should have an advantage.  But be careful here.  The Caps were 6-6-0 in their last 12 games of the regular season, and in the post-2005 lockout era they are just 17-16 in playoff games at Verizon Center (1-1 in this series).  It is the Caps' inability to win on home ice that is arguably the biggest source of disappointment in their post season record since the 2005 lockout.

In the end…

The Caps – both this team and as a franchise – have been here before.  Twice since the 2005 lockout the Caps have returned home to a Game 5 having split the first four games of a series.  In 2009 they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-3, in overtime on an own goal:

In 2013 the Caps won Game 5 against the New York Rangers, 2-1, in overtime at Verizon Center, courtesy of Mike Ribeiro:

We would just as soon the Caps make quick work of the Islanders in this contest, but there are things that the Caps need to work on to make that happen and take a stranglehold in the series.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

One for Our Backy...and One More for the Road...

Eastern Conference Quarterfinal - Game 4: Capitals 2 - Islanders 1 (OT)

The Washington Capitals ground out a hard 2-1 win on the road last night to even their playoff series against the New York Islanders at two games apiece. For the second straight game it took extra time to settle the affair, this time the ending being happier for the Caps.

It was Nicklas Backstrom who settled things 11:09 into the first overtime on one of the stranger plays of the series. It started with a faceoff in the Islanders’ end to the left of goaltender Jaroslav Halak. Neither Backstrom nor John Tavares could win the draw cleanly, but Backstrom was a bit quicker on the second pull, directing the puck to Alex Ovechkin at the edge of the circle. Ovechkin got a shot off, but it was muffled by Tavares, whose stick appeared to break as a result. The puck went to the corner where Joel Ward beat Johnny Boychuk to it and slid it up the boards to Backstrom. From there, Backstrom skated the puck up the wall with Tavares in his wake. Tavares had to drop his broken stick, and he tried to push Backstrom off the puck. That failed to work, and the push created separation between the two, giving Backstrom room to fling a shot at the Islander net. Ward created enough of a screen on Halak that the goalie never saw the shot coming from the right point, and the puck sailed past his blocker to give the Caps the win.

Before Backstrom’s highlight, the teams exchanged first period goals. Alex Ovechkin scored what would be the Caps’ first first-goal of the series 13:06 into the opening frame. Off a Backstrom faceoff win in the Islanders’ end, John Carlson threw the puck at the net looking for a rebound. Instead, Ovechkin skated across the slot as the puck was going through and redirected the puck past Halak’s blocker to give the Caps the lead.

New York tied the game with just 12.6 seconds left in the period when Casey Cizikas put back a rebound of a Cal Clutterbuck shot that knuckled just enough to give goalie Braden Holtby difficulty in directing the rebound out of harm’s way. That would do it for the scoring for more than 50 minutes, until Backstrom would end things in happy fashion for the Caps and send the series back to Washington tied, the Caps regaining the home-ice advantage.

Other stuff…

-- Nicklas Backstrom, who had gone 24 consecutive games without a goal, now has a goal in three consecutive games in this series. It is the first time he scored goals in three consecutive games since going three straight, March 16-20, 2014. It is the first time he scored goals in three consecutive games since he had a three-fer against Pittsburgh, May 6-9, 2009 in Game 3-5 of that series.

-- With his two-point night, Backstrom took over the league scoring lead for the post-season (3-3-6).

-- Alex Ovechkin also had a two-point night, his first multi-point game in the post season since he had a goal and an assist in a 4-3 loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 3 of their opening round series in 2012.

-- Ovechkin had 18 of the Caps’ total of 66 shot attempts and eight of their 30 total shots on goal. Backstrom had five shots and eight shot attempts, giving the duo 13 of 30 shots and 26 of 66 attempts.

-- The Islanders won the possession battle again, at least in terms of shots and attempts, out-shooting the Caps by a 37-30 margin and out-attempting them, 88-66.

-- For the second time in this series the Caps were awarded only one power play. Only St. Louis, with six power play chances so far, has fewer power play opportunities than the Caps (7) in the post season.  Oddly enough, the Caps won both games in which they were held to a single power play opportunity.

-- The Caps got the overtime winner, but they managed only a single goal in regulation, the sixth time in seven games they were stuck on that number in regulation against goalie Jaroslav Halak.

-- The game might have turned in a 7:12 span of time in the second period.  The Caps took three minor penalties, giving the Islanders six minutes in power play time.  The Caps put on a clinic killing off all three penalties, allowing the Islanders six power play shots, seven in all over that 7:12 span of ice time.  It ran the string of consecutive power plays nullified to ten in this series and 13 overall, dating back to the regular season finale against the Rangers.

-- It was a tale of two zones for Backstrom on faceoffs.  He was 7-for-11 in the offensive zone (63.6 percent), 1-for-8 in the defensive zone (12.5 percent).

-- Braden Holtby had another fine game, stopping 36 of 37 shots.  Among goalies appearing in more than one game, he is second in save percentage (.943) to Chicago’s Scott Darling (.969).  He is the only goalie having appeared in more than one game whose save percentage against the opponent’s power play is 1.000 (19-for-19).

In the end…

If the Caps win this series, that 7:12 span of time killing penalties on the road could very well be viewed rightly as the turning point.  It took the wind out of the Islanders’ sails, the New Yorkers recording only 16 shots on goal in the last 40:25 of the game following that sequence. 

At the other end, the Caps fulfilled the adage that at this time of year the stars have to play like stars.  Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin did it in ways that are not at the top of their signature moves list, Ovechkin with a greasy little redirect from the slot and Backstrom with a whip-like shot from long range through a clot of bodies hassling the goaltender.

It was a case of winning by any means possible, by going outside the box to find a way to win.  At this time of year, the easy, tried-and-true recipes do not always and, in fact, less frequently work.  Teams and players have to find other ways – harder ways – to find success.  The Caps did that and took their home ice advantage back.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Eastern Conference Quarterfinal - Game 3: Islanders 2 - Capitals 1 (OT)

The Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders met on Sunday afternoon to break a 1-1 series tie in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.  It took extra time to break that tie, but precious little of it as the Islanders scored 15 seconds into overtime to take a 2-1 decision and a 2-1 series lead over the Caps.

The game held to form in one important respect in that the team that dominated the possession numbers skated off with a win.  The Islanders did just that from the drop of the puck, dominating in shots in the first period, 16-5 overall, and in shot attempts, 29-13.  If not for the effort of Caps goalie Braden Holtby, who returned to action after missing Game 2 to illness, the game might have been over early.  Holtby stopped all 16 shots he faced to allow the Caps to escape to the first intermission in a scoreless tie.

It would be the Islanders breaking on top, though, when Lubomir Visnovsky wired a shot from the top of the right wing faceoff circle that Kyle Okposo redirected past Holtby to make it 1-0 12:37 into the second period.

The Caps were unable to solve Islander goalie Jaroslav Halak in the first 40 minutes, but they broke through late in the third period.  Nicklas Backstrom started the scoring sequence from behind the Islander net.  He chipped a pass to Mike Green backing through the right wing circle, Green returning the puck to Backstrom circling out and around the faceoff circle in Green’s wake.  Backstrom curled out to the high slot where he fired a shot that snaked its way through a maze of bodies screening Halak and into the back of the net to tie the game with 6:06 left in regulation.

That did it for the scoring in the 60 minutes of regulation.  But on a day that was the 28th anniversary of the end of the four-overtime “Easter Epic” between these teams, extra time would end in a blink.  Johnny Boychuk fired a shot into the Caps’ end that was gloved down by Holtby, who swept the puck off to John Carlson in the corner to his right.  Carlson received the puck and in one motion sent it up the right wing boards, but not out.  Nick Leddy kept the puck in at the blue line and fired it toward the cage from the point.  Nikolai Kulemin tried to redirect the puck past Holtby, but Holtby managed to steer the puck off to his right.  As luck – Caps luck – would have it, the puck ended up on the tape of John Tavares who snapped it back behind Holtby’s back and into the far side of the net to give the Islanders a 2-1 win on the scoreboard and a 2-1 lead in games.

Other stuff…

-- The end in overtime is always like a thunderclap, but in this instance it was a lot of little things that went wrong for the Caps and right for the Islanders in those 15 seconds of overtime.  There was John Tavares beating Nicklas Backstrom on the draw to open the overtime (Backstrom was 5-for-13 against Tavares on draws for the game).  There was John Carlson’s no-look sweep of the puck up the boards into traffic.  There was Joel Ward along the wall, unable to deflect the puck up and out of the zone past Nick Leddy.  There was Brooks Orpik getting a stick on the rebound of Kulemin’s redirect that Holtby kicked out, forcing Holtby to kick his right pad out once more and sending the puck down the goal line to his right.  There was Carlson neither getting a body on Tavares nor tying up his stick before Tavares got his shot off.  There was Holtby, leaving just enough room off the near post after having to defend the puck twice in bang-bang fashion for Tavares’ shot to sneak through.  It was a sequence that you couldn’t duplicate, but one that could loom large in this series.

-- The Islanders held a 64-45 advantage in shot attempts at 5-on-5, a 31-22 advantage in scoring chances (numbers from 

-- Alex Ovechkin finished with 14 of the Caps’ 57 shot attempts overall.  He was held, however, to just three shots on goal.  He has one goal on 15 shots and 36 shot attempt in three games.  13 of those shot attempts were blocked, nine of them in this game alone.

-- This was the first time this season that Braden Holtby faced more than 40 shots in a game (he saw 40 shots in a 3-2 win over Chicago on November 7th). 

-- Every Islander skater recorded at least one shot on goal.  Every Capital skater recorded at least one hit.

-- Eric Fehr skated two shifts and just 1:19 before going out with an upper-body injury.  It appeared to be a re-injury of his shoulder, a problem for Fehr over the late stages of the regular season.  Marcus Johansson went out late in the first period when he appeared to have taken a skate blade to his calf, but he returned for the second period and finished the game.

--  Secondary scoring means secondary effort.  Troy Brouwer: one shot attempt (one shot); Evgeny Kuznetsov: two shot attempts (one shot); Jason Chimera: no shot attempts; Jay Beagle: no shot attempts.

-- On the other hand, 16 of the Caps’ 57 shot attempts came from the defense, nine of them on goal.  Brooks Orpik was the only defenseman not to register a shot on goal.

-- A statistic you do not want to see associated with Nicklas Backstrom.  The Islanders have nine goals in this series; Backstrom was on ice for six of them, including the game-winner in this game (but as an observer, not a culprit, except for losing that draw to open overtime).

-- The Caps returned to that whole “one goal” thing against Jaroslav Halak.  He has held the Caps to a single goal in five of his last six games against Washington.

In the end…

The Islanders outplayed the Caps over more and over longer stretches of this game, particularly early in the contest, than vice versa.  In that respect the result is not surprising.  However, this was a game that was lying in plain sight, waiting to be stolen.  There is nothing to suggest that panic is in order, but on the other hand the Caps have been asleep at the start of games twice in three contests.  And now they have to deal with the possibility of the loss of a valuable, versatile forward in Eric Fehr. 

Falling behind two games to one, losing a forward to injury, letting a chance to steal a game get away, uneven play from the big guns, inconsistent production from the secondary scorers.  A team often has to deal with adversity and overcome it on their way to a deep playoff run.  Well, this is what adversity looks like for the Caps.  We will see if they deal with it any better than they have in past playoff seasons when they take the ice for Game 4.

Game 3...The Canary in the Coal Mine?

The Washington Capitals have played 33 "Game 3's" in their post season history (in seven-game series).  It is a point in a series in which the Caps have not been very successful.  Of those 33 instances, they lost 23 times.  And in those series in which they lost Game 3, their series record is 6-17.

Washington has lost Game 3 in each of the last five post season series in which they played, winning two of those series (in five games against the New York Rangers in 2011 and in seven games against the Boston Bruins in 2012).  They lost Game 3 three times in those last five instances, going on to lose in a four-game sweep to Tampa Bay in 2011, then twice losing in seven games to the Rangers (in 2012 and 2013).

Winning Game 3 is kinder to the Caps.  In the ten instances in which they won Game 3 in a playoff series, the Caps have a 5-5 record in the series.  The thing here is, the Caps have only two Game 3 wins out of 13 Games 3 played since they beat the Buffalo Sabres in Game 3 of the 1998 Eastern Conference final and went on to defeat the Sabres in six games to advance to the team's only Stanley Cup final.  They defeated the Rangers in Game 3 of their 2009 meeting, the Caps going on to win the series in seven games.  The Caps beat the Montreal Canadiens in Game 3 of their 2010 series, but it was the Canadiens who would advance, winning that series in seven games.

One thing that fans might count on, the game will be close.  Six of the last seven Games 3 played by the Caps were one-goal games, one of them a three-overtime loss to the Rangers in 2012.

Decades of history are not the best predictor of results today; after all, many of these players had not been born when the Caps lost Game 3 of the 1984 Patrick Division final to the New York Islanders (a series the Islanders won in five games). would be a lot better winning this game than losing it, but you knew that already.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Play Hungry

In Game 1 against the New York Islanders, the Washington Capitals played passively in a curiously quiet arena.  Game 2 was another matter.  The team was hungry for a win, and the fans were in full-throated roar.  The recipe was hardly complicated...

Fifty-nine hits in 60 minutes.  The Capitals treated the Islanders like raw meat.  And there is they key going forward...stay hungry.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Eastern Conference Quarterfinal - Game 1: Islanders 4 - Capitals 1

Well, that didn’t go so well, did it? 

The Washington Capitals opened their 2015 post season by laying an egg, dropping a 4-1 decision to the New York Islanders at Verizon Center on Wednesday night, ceding home ice advantage to the Isles and putting themselves in a hole to start their first round series.

The Islanders scored early, scored late, and stifled the Caps in between.  Brock Nelson took care of the early scoring off a neutral zone turnover by the Caps, taking a feed at the Caps’ blue line from Josh Bailey, skating down the right side, and firing a shot past goalie Braden Holtby’s glove that Holtby might want to have back.  The Islanders had a 1-9 lead 6:06 into the game.

The Caps evened the game late in the period on fine efforts by Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson.  Laich applied pressure below the Islanders goal line prying the puck away from goalie Jaroslav Halak, then outdueling Nick Leddy for the loose puck, sliding it out to Johansson stepping down the right wing.  Johansson took the pass in stride and wired a shot past Halak’s blocker, and it was 1-1 with just 56.3 seconds left in the first period.

That would do it for the Caps on the scoreboard.   At the other end, the Islanders got a pair of second period goals, the first from Ryan Strome less than four minutes into the period.  John Tavares beat Michael Latta cleanly on a faceoff from the left wing circle in the Caps end.  He pulled the puck back to Strome who wasted no time snapping a shot over Holtby’s right shoulder to give the Islanders a 2-1 lead. 

Mid-way through the period the Isles added some insurance.  With the Islanders applying heavy pressure in the Caps’ end, they worked the puck to the front of the net where it squirted out to Holtby’s left.  Josh Bailey got two whacks at the puck the second one sufficient to nudge it under Holtby and just over the line before Karl Alzner could sweep it out and under Holtby.

The Islanders got an empty net goal from Brock Nelson, his second goal of the game, with 1:20 left to give the visitors their final 4-1 margin.

Other stuff…

-- The possession numbers favored the Islanders, who out-attempted the Caps, 65-55 overall.  It really was not that close.  In close score situations at 5-on-5, the Isles held a 36-18 advantage in shot attempts and a 13-8 advantage in scoring chances (numbers from

-- Rough night for the defensive pair of Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner.   Niskanen was on ice for all four goals against, Alzner for three.  Niskanen’s Corsi plus-minus at 5-on-5, close score situations, was minus-11, Alzner’s was minus-10.

-- Only one Capital – one – managed to finish as high as “even” in Corsi plus-minus at 5-on-5 close.  Alex Ovechkin finished even and was the only Cap with a “plus” Fenwick number in those situations (plus-4). 

-- Until tonight, Braden Holtby’s record in first games of a playoff season was 2-0, but more important was his .970 save percentage.  Tonight, three goals on 26 shots (.885).

-- That one faceoff loss by Latta sticks out on a night that otherwise was kind to the Caps in the circle.  Latta was 7-for-9 overall, while the team went 39-for-62 (62.9 percent).

-- Twenty five shots on goal is not enough volume against Halak, and what made it worse was that Ovechkin had almost a third of those attempts (eight).  The other 17 skaters shared 17 shots, only Joel Ward having as many as three.  Ovechkin finished with 13 of the Caps’ 55 shot attempts.

-- The Caps had a lot of contributions on offense from the defensemen this season, but not against the Islanders.  That carried over into this game.  No points from defensemen, only five shots on goal.  John Carlson had five shots blocked.

-- It might not be the best time to bring this up, but Halak’s save percentage in the last four post season games he faced the Caps is .975 (155-for-159).  He has gone four straight playoff games against the Caps allowing a single goal.

-- Maybe the plan is to tenderize the Islanders.  The Caps were credited with 46 hits (the Islanders had 36).  Brooks Orpik had nine of them for Washington.

-- in the post 2004-2005 lockout era, the Caps are 2-3 in series when dropping the first game, 1-2 when dropping the first game at home.

In the end…

Keep telling yourselves, “it’s first to ‘four,’ not first to ‘one.’”  But the fact is that this series probably is going to turn on possession.  If the Islanders can dominate the possession numbers, it is evidence that the Caps’ “heavy” game is not being applied effectively.   In that context, what Caps fans might look for is the extent to which the steady application of such a “heavy” game wears down the Islanders before they can get to “four.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Capitals vs. Islanders

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals begin their march to the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night when they host the New York Islanders at Verizon Center.

The Caps and the Islanders have a rich history of playoff meetings, the teams having met six times in the post season:
  • 1983 Patrick Division Semifinal - Islanders win best-of-five, 3-1
  • 1984 Patrick Division Final – Islanders win best-of-seven, 4-1
  • 1985 Patrick Division Semifinal – Islanders win best-of-five, 3-2
  • 1986 Patrick Division Semifinal – Capitals win best-of-five, 3-0
  • 1987 Patrick Division Semifinal – Islanders win best-of-seven, 4-3
  • 1993 Patrick Division Semifinal – Islanders in best-of-seven, 4-2
Younger Caps fans, be advised.  Before the Pittsburgh Penguins perpetrated their version of grief on the Caps, there were the Islanders.  The Caps have never beaten the Isles in a seven-game series.  In all three best-of-seven series the teams played, the Caps won Game 1.  They took a three-games-to-one lead in 1987 before losing the series in the most excruciating manner imaginable:

But this will be the first meeting of the clubs in the post season in 22 years.  Of more recent relevance, the teams met four times this season, each club holding serve twice on home ice with three of the games decided in extra time:

The series might have been close on the scoreboard, but there are two things to note in the summary stats.  First, the Islanders have dominated the shots and shot attempts – 28 percent more shots on goal in the four games, 23 percent more shot attempts.  Second, special teams have been kind to both clubs, at least in terms of their respective power plays, both clubs converting more than 30 percent of their chances.  On that last point, the Caps suffered a problem consistent with one with which they had to deal all season – lack of power play opportunities.  Despite a better conversion rate than the Islanders, the Caps lost the special teams battle, 4-3.

In terms of individual scoring, the Caps have the usual suspects – Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom – leading the list.  The Islanders, on the other hand, have spread things around a bit more.  Overall, eight Islanders scored goals in the four-game season series, while 17 skaters recorded points.  For the Caps, eight players have goals (a third of the total coming from Ovechkin), and 15 players have points.  What the Islanders have been able to do, to an extent, is limit Ovechkin’s shots on goal.  He had 36 shot attempts in the four games, but 16 on goal, slightly lower than his 4.88 shots per game for the season overall.

Goaltending for each club is consistent with their season, at least in the workload.  Braden Holtby played every minute of the four games for the Caps. Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson split the duties for the Islanders, Halak recording both wins for the Isles, Johnson taking both losses.  The heavy shot volumes by the Islanders took a toll on Holtby’s goals against average and save percentage, both among the worst he posted against any Eastern Conference team this season.  Conversely, Halak has a respectable goals against average, but his .906 save percentage suggests a weakness at the most important position in a short series.

In terms of the teams’ overall performance this season, here is how they compare:

Who’s hot?

The Caps were 9-3-1 in their last 13 games of the regular season.  Only five times in those 13 games did they allow more than two goals.  Four of those occurrences came in the four losses, all four times the Caps falling into a 0-3 deficit.

Who’s not?

The Islanders came limping into the post season.  They went 6-8-5 in their last 19 games and did not win consecutive games at any point in that span of games (four of the extra time losses came in the Gimmick).  Scoring goals was a challenge.  They had a four game losing streak in that run in which they scored a single goal in each game, and they had a three-game losing streak in which they scored two goals or fewer.

Random facts to impress your friends and annoy your enemies...
  • Getting a lead matters, to a point.  The team that scored the first goal won three of the four games in the season series.  Only in the last game, when Anders Lee opened the scoring for the Islanders in a 4-3 overtime Caps win, did this not hold true.
  • Three times in this series the Islanders held a dominating shot and shot attempt advantage (Games 1, 3, and 4 of the season series).  However, all three of those games went to overtime.  In the one game in which the Caps held an advantage (Game 2), the Caps won going away, 5-2, scoring the game’s last three goals.
  • The Caps enjoyed significant contributions from the blue line offensively over the course of the season.  Not so much in the season series against New York, with one notable exception.  Of the Caps defensemen likely to play in this series, John Carlson and Mike Green each recorded an assist over the four games.  Neither Karl Alzner nor Brooks Orpik recorded a point.  On the other hand, Matt Niskanen went 1-4-5 in the four games (Tim Gleason did not appear against the Islanders as a Capital this season).
  • Power plays figured heavily in the outcomes of two games in this series.  Both Islander wins came in extra time on power plays, when the space available in a 4-on-3 advantage was greater than in 5-on-4 situations in regulation time.
  • The Caps outscored the Islanders, 6-2, in the third period of the four games in the season series.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

It is a given that if the stars – Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares – do not perform to their capabilities, the opponent is likely to advance.  But what players for each team that lack that kind of star power have to step up their game?

New York: Josh Bailey

In the four games against the Caps this season, Josh Bailey had one assist and was minus-1, despite averaging almost 17 minutes a game.  It was a curiously underwhelming performance given that Bailey finished the season with 15 goals (one below his career best in 2009-2010) and 41 points (a career high).  He comes into the post season without a goal in his last 11 regular season games and one in his last 15 contests.  He is 3-6-9, minus-4, in 27 career regular season games against Washington.

Washington: Mike Green

The Caps did not get much in terms of offense from its defense against the Islanders this season, with the exception of Matt Niskanen, and that largely the product of a three-assist game in the Caps’ 5-2 win last November 28th).  If the Caps can get more production out of the blue line and soften up the Islanders, the path to the second round of the playoffs becomes somewhat easier.  Green started showing signs of his old goal-scoring prowess late in the season.  He had five goals in his last 12 regular season games after recording only five goals in his first 60 games of the season.  He does not dominate the ice time he did in his younger days, but his one power play goal for the season was his lowest total in any season since his first full year – none in 70 games of the 2006-2007 season.  Green is 4-11-15, minus-2, in 27 career games against New York

In the end…

This series might just boil down to a trade-off between two questions.  Can the Caps dominate special teams?  Can the Islanders dominate the shot meter?  If the Caps can answer the first question in the affirmative and keep the Islanders from doing the same with the latter question, they win.  If the reverse is true, if the Islanders dominate the shot meter and keep the Caps from doing damage on their power play, they will advance. 

Where this series tilts is suggested by the season series.  Even when dominating the shot meter, the Islanders could only manage to drag things out into extra time.  When the Caps negated that advantage, they dispatched the Islanders with room to spare.

Those questions will turn on how the goaltenders can perform against the other team’s strengths.  In that regard, the Capitals have an advantage.  This is not 2010, and this Jaroslav Halak is not that Jaroslav Halak.