Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 45: Capitals at Stars, January 17th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals continue their brief road trip in the Central Division with a trip to Big D to visit the Dallas Stars on Saturday night.

Dallas has had a rough time trying to kick start their season, and it is getting late in the game for the Stars to find their rhythm.  They started the year well enough, going 4-1-2 in their first seven games, but then slid into a ditch, losing seven in a row (0-5-2) before snapping their skid on Veterans Day.  They then went 5-3-0 to get back to .500, and followed that up by losing four in a row (0-3-1) to undo that good work.  There have been winning streaks since then (two four-gamers) and a losing streak (also a four-gamer) that puts them at 19-17-7 as they prepare to host the Caps, five points behind the Los Angeles Kings for the second wild card playoff spot.

The immediate concern of the Stars is to stop the bleeding of a 1-3-2 record in their last six games after they pasted Arizona and Minnesota by a combined 13-1 margin.  Over these last six games the Stars scored only 16 goals (compare that to the 13 in two games; the inconsistency is a reflection of their season) but allowed 22 (3.67/game).

Offensively, the best that can be said is that the Stars have had roster balance in scoring.  Ten players share in the 16 goals scored, and three of them – Erik Cole, Ales Hemsky, and Trevor Daley – have three apiece.  There are 21 players sharing points, Hemsky leading with five on two assists added to his three-goal total.

Conspicuously absent among the scoring leaders in this six-game stretch are Tyler Seguin (0-2-2) and Jason Spezza (1-3-4).  Both are mired in their own brand of scoring slump.  Spezza does have points in four of his last six games and five of his last eight contests, but he is applying the points with an eye dropper.  He has not had a multi-point game since December 13th, when he had a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win over the New Jersey Devils.  That is his only multi-point game over his last 35 contests dating back to October 25th.  One could say he has been consistent – points in 18 of those 35 games (5-14-19) – but he also has just one goal in his last 14 games, too.  He has had a good career at the Caps’ expense, though.  In 32 career games against Washington, Spezza is 10-21-31, minus-2.

Seguin, on the other hand, is shooting in some terrible luck lately.  Tied for the league lead with Steven Stamkos and Rick Nash with 26 goals, he has one goal in his last 11 games on 46 shots, a 2.2 percent shooting percentage.  Think of it as regression, in a way.  Over his first 32 games, Seguin had 25 goals on 131 shots, a 19.1 percent shooting average.  As it is, he is still posting his best overall shooting percentage of his career in five seasons (14.7 percent) and is still on an overall pace for 50 goals.  Seguin is 3-2-5, even, in 13 career games against Washington.

On the other side of the puck, goaltending has been an issue in the 1-3-2 skid over the Stars’ last six games.  Neither Kari Lehtonen (0-1-2, 4.40, .856) nor Anders Lindback (1-2-0, 2.91, .897) have been effective.  It is not as if the goalies have faced a barrage of shots, either.  The Stars allowed an average of 29.2 shots a game, but even here Dallas’ inconsistency comes through.  Twice in those six games the Stars allowed 38 or more shots; three times they allowed fewer than 25 shots.  And it is not as if either Lehtonen or Lindberg have found themselves in a deep slump in these six games.  Neither is having a memorable year. Lehtonen’s .904 save percentage for the year so far is his lowest in 11 seasons in the NHL.  The same holds true for Lindback’s .875 save percentage; it is his lowest in five seasons (and in fact, his save percentage has dropped in each of his five seasons: .915, .912, .902, .891, .875).

Here is how the teams compare overall:

1.  Dallas does best in games played close.  They are 11-4-7 in one-goal decisions, but they are 8-13 in games decided by more than one goal.

2.  Beware the second period with the Stars.  No team has more second period goals scored than the Stars – 60, almost half of their total of 130 goals scored this season.  And, they have a plus-12 goals differential in the middle frame.  The flip side of that is the third period.  The Stars have a minus-15 goal differential in the third period, owing to the fact that only four teams have scored fewer third period goals this season (Buffalo, Carolina, New Jersey, and Arizona).

3.  The Stars have had the pleasure of more power play opportunities on home ice than any team in the league (97).  They have not been especially effective in converting their bounty; they are tied for 13th in total power play goals scored at home (15).

4.  The Stars more than make up for any power play deficiencies they have with the puck with their 5-on-5 play.  Only Tampa Bay (107) has scored more goals at 5-on-5 than Dallas (98).

5.  Teams are never out of games against Dallas.  Only four teams have worse winning percentage when scoring first than Dallas .545/12-7-3).

1.  The loss to Nashville was a rare occurrence for the Caps over their last 20 games (14-2-4), but the one-goal loss was the Caps’ 15th in 27 one-goal decisions this season (12-7-8).  They have the eighth-worst winning percentage in the league in such decisions.

2.  The Caps outshot the Predators on Friday night, 34-30, and lost.  This is not unusual over the whole season.  The Caps are 9-9-4 when outshooting opponents, 11-3-4 when outshot.  Their winning percentage when being outshot (.611) is second-best in the league (Anaheim: .625).

3.  Washington allowed the first goal against Nashville in the loss.  That made the Caps 1-11-5 this season when trailing first, the worst winning percentage in the league (.059).

4.  The two power play goals scored on three chances against the Predators on Friday night lifted Washington into second place in power play conversion rate (24.6; St. Louis: 25.7).  However, it was the first time that the Caps recorded two power play goal in a game since they went 2-for-2 against the New York Islanders on November 26th.  They had gone 22 straight games without a multi-man advantage goal game.  They still managed a 19.7 power play in those 22 games (13-for-66).

5.  Allowing two third period goals to Nashville was a somewhat rare occurrence for the Caps.  Even with the two goals allowed, Washington has allowed the eighth-fewest third period goals in the league (35).  The two third period goals allowed to Nashville was the first time the Caps allowed a pair of third period goals since (stop us if you’ve heard this) their 4-2 loss to the Rangers on December 23rd.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Dallas:  Jamie Benn

Jamie Benn was on a nice little run, points in five of six games (2-4-6), until he came up empty in his last two games.  In the second of them he was shut out from scoring a goal despite recording six shots on goal.  It is the shots that command some attention here.  There seem to be nights when Benn is firing on all cylinders (he has four or more shots on goal in five of his last 12 games), and there are nights when the firing pin seems to have been removed (one or no shots in three of those games).  That has the faint look of an opportunistic shooter, unlike the “shoot from the rafters” approach of an Alex Ovechkin.  He has not been taking great advantage of the opportunities presented, though.  Benn has only two goals in his last 11 games (on 29 shots, a 6.9 percent shooting percentage).  Benn is 1-4-5, plus-5, in five career games against the Capitals.

Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov

When all is said and done, and Evgeny Kuznetsov’s NHL career is over, he might look back on this season as a hard, but useful learning experience in the ways of the NHL.  His rookie season has not gone as planned.  Included in the Calder Trophy discussion at the start of the year, Kuznetsov has just 15 points in 42 games.  That is still tied for tenth among rookies, and if Kuznetsov had not spent as much time as a fourth liner as he has, that total and his ranking might both be higher.  He comes into this game with just one point in his last nine games and has no goals in his last ten contests.  He has had the occasional burst of production (he has four three-game point streaks this season), and the Caps could use another to maintain a consistent secondary scoring pace of production.  He has just one appearance against the Stars, that one without a point.

In the end…

Job One for tonight’s game…don’t let one loss become two.  The Caps have not lost consecutive games since dropping decisions to Toronto and Vancouver on November 29th and December 1st, respectively.  That is the only time in the last two months that the Caps lost consecutive games in regulation, speaking to a consistency of effort that is a large part of their game at the moment.  The variable here is likely to be Justin Peters, who could get his first start since the 6-2 loss to Toronto on November 29th (one in which he allowed two goals on six shots in the first period, was pulled, then returned in the third period to allow another goal on five shots).  Peters had a respectable 1.51 goals against average and a .948 save percentage in two conditioning appearances with the Hershey Bears, an encouraging sign.  It makes for an interesting challenge for the Caps as they end their two-game road trip.

Capitals 4 – Stars 3

A NO-point night -- Game 44: Predators 4 - Capitals 3

When trading leads, it’s best to make sure you are the one taking the last one, of course.  That detail was missing last night in the Washington Capitals’ 4-3 loss to the Nashville Predators.  James Neal scored the game-winner for the Predators with less than two minutes left to send the Caps to their first regulation loss of 2015 and ruining Caps' head coach Barry Trotz' return to Nashville, where he coached the Predators for 15 seasons.

Before that, however, the teams played a version of anything you can do, I can do better.  Nashville opened the scoring in the first period when Braden Holtby got a glove on defenseman Seth Jone’s drive from the right point, but not enough to keep the puck from fluttering into the net.  Less than two minutes into the second period, Nashville upped the lead to two goals on a benevolent nod from the hockey gods.  Victor Bartley sent a shot toward the Washington net.  Mike Fisher got the blade of his stick to redirect the shot, but the redirect was going wide, at least until it ended up square on the tape of Neal’s stick.  All that remained was for Neal to deposit the puck into the empty net behind goalie Braden Holtby.

Less than two minutes after the Neal goal the Caps started mounting a comeback.  It was a Cap standard, Nicklas Backstrom from the right wing wall sliding a pass to Karl Alzner, who then found Alex Ovechkin low in the left wing circle for a one-timer that beat goalie Carter Hutton cleanly to make it 2-1. 

It took less than three minutes after Ovechkin’s first goal for Ovechkin to tie the game, this time on a power play.  With Mattias Ekholm out on a tripping call, Marcus Johansson steadied an uncooperative puck along the right wing wall and backhanded it out to Troy Brouwer.  Brouwer to Green, then Green to Ovechkin in the left wing circle for another one timer that deflected off the shaft of Hutton’s stick into the top of the net, and it was a tie game.

Early in the third period the Caps took their first lead of the game on another power play.  This time it was Marcus Johansson taking a feed from Backstrom at the crease to Hutton’s left, turning, and taking two whacks at the puck from in close, the second sliding past Hutton’s left pad to make it 3-2.

Nashville returned the favor to the Caps late in the period.  With John Carlson off on a tripping call, the Predators tied the game on a power play on a goal by Ekholm.  That left it up to the Predators and Neal in the last two minutes. Matt Niskanen was holding the puck looking for a passing lane to his partner, Brooks Orpik, on the opposite side of the ice.  Backing away from Neal to find that lane, Niskanen probably regrets not having spun a pass back along the wall and around to Alzner.  Instead, he tried to thread a pass past Neal, but Neal intercepted it and found himself alone on Holtby.  Neal snapped a shot past Holtby’s left pad, and the Predators had the last lead change, the last lead, and the 4-3 win.

Other stuff…

-- The two goals by Ovechkin represented his sixth two-goal game of the season and lifted him into a tie for fourth in the league in goals. 

-- Mike Green had a pair of assists, his seventh multi-assist game of the season.  Green is tied for 12th among defensemen in assists, despite his having played in only 36 games, six to eight fewer than most of the players ahead of him.

-- Nicklas Backstrom had two assists to give him 13 multi-point games this season and points in four of his last five games.

-- The loss was the first in regulation for the Caps in a game in which they outshot an opponent (34-30) since dropping a 4-2 decision to the New York Rangers on December 23rd.  That happened to be the Caps’ last regulation time loss until last night.

-- Every Capitals had a shot on goal except Michael Latta, who in 8:15 of ice time did not register a shot attempt.

-- That Flip Forsberg had five shots on goal and eight shot attempts was not especially unusual.  You might think that his being credited with four hits for the Predators was as well, but he is fifth on the Predators in that statistic.

-- Brooks Orpik was on ice for all four Nashville goals and none of the Caps’ goals.  Account for a power play goal against, and that is the arithmetic to get one to a minus-3.

-- Troy Brouwer had an assist, won seven of nine faceoffs…and was on ice for the first and last Predator goals (anyone for the Caps on ice for the last goal not named “Niskanen” needs to have their “minus” expunged).

-- Niskanen had a very quiet night until the thrilling (for Predator fans) conclusion.  22 minutes and change, one shot on goal, no points, two blocked shots, a hit…oh, and then a giveaway.

-- The four goals allowed was the first time that Braden Holtby allowed four goals in regulation since the 4-2 loss to the Rangers on December 23rd.  He had a win-loss record of 7-0-2 until last night’s loss.  Moral…stop giving up four goals. 

In the end…

The Caps had at least one standings point all sewed up.  It came down to a late mistake that wiped out some good work by the Caps to come back against a team that had only three losses in 20 games in their own building going into last night’s game.  Would Pekka Rinne allowed fewer than three goals to the Caps?  Maybe.  As it was, the Caps pushed the home team to the brink before the Predators escaped with their seventh straight win on home ice. 

The job now is to keep “one” from becoming ”two,” losses that is, and the Caps get to address that matter tonight against Dallas.  Get right back on the horse…fitting, that, in Texas.