Sunday, January 18, 2015

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 15

For the Washington Capitals, Week 15 was one of the good and the bad.  Well, more like the good, then the bad.  It was a week of endings and beginnings.  And here is how it unfolded.

Record: 2-2-0

For the first time since Week 8, the Capitals did not have a winning week.  They did not have a losing week, either, so their record of nine straight non-losing weeks remains intact; the Caps have had only two losing weeks this season (Weeks 4 and 6).  The week was split into parts, the first of which featured a pair of wins to give the Caps a 14-1-4 record over 19 games dating back to a 2-1 win At Carolina on December 4th.  The long run enabled the Caps to go from 10-10-4, in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and 11th place in the Eastern Conference, 13 points out of the top spot, to 24-11-8, third place in the division and fifth in the conference, only three points out of the top spot.

The happy times came to an end in Nashville, where coach Barry Trotz’ return to where he coached for 15 seasons was spoiled by the Predators, 4-3.  The Caps then lost their second game in regulation for the first time in more than six weeks, dropping a 5-4 decision to the Dallas Stars, dropping the Caps five points behind the New York Islanders for first place in the Metropolitan Division and six behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. 

As it is, the Caps finished Week 15 with 24 wins through 45 games.  Last season they did not win their 24th game until Game 53 of the season.

Offense: 2.50/game (season: 2.93/game; rank: 10th)

It was a strange week on both sides of the puck, but since this is the section on offense we will deal with that first.  The Caps scored a total of three goals in the first two games of the week and won, while they scored seven goals combined in the last two games of the week and lost.  As it was, seven Caps shared the ten goals scored.  By itself, this is not a bad result, even if the total was below the Caps’ per-game average for the season.  The problem was balance.  Alex Ovechkin had four of the ten goals, while six Caps registered a goal apiece.

None of the goals came from defensemen, although they did combine for seven assists; Matt Niskanen, Mike Green, and Karl Alzner with a pair apiece.  Carlson and Green are interesting studies after Week 15.  The former, with his one assist in four games, finished the week tied for fourth among defensemen in total points (32, with Philadelphia’s Mark Streit).  Carlson’s plus-14 rating ranked him tied for seventh among defensemen in that statistic.

On the other hand, Green is in a terrible shooting slump.  Having started the season with three goals in his first five games on 12 shots on goal, Green has one goal in his last 32 games on a total of 69 shots, a 1.4 percent shooting percentage.

Defense: 2.50/game (season: 2.49/game; rank: 10th)

On average, it was an average week in terms of scoring defense.  It was how the Caps got there that was something other than average.  It was not the shots on goal, at least on a total shots basis.  The Caps allowed a total of 53 shots on goal in the two wins to start the week (allowing only one goal), and they allowed 56 shots in the last two games of the week (allowing nine goals).

It wasn’t the possession number, at least overall at 5-on-5.  In the first two games of the week the Caps had a combined 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage of 57.2.  It was actually better in second half of the week, 58.5 percent in the two losses.

OK, so then how did possession number behave in close score situations?  They behaved the same way, only more pronounced.  In the first two games of the week the Caps has a Corsi-for at 5-on-5 percentage of 62.3 in tie-game situations; in the last two games of the week it was 75.0 (all numbers from  If you are looking for problems in the Caps as the week ended, one might have to look elsewhere than defense, at least systemic defense, at even strength.

Goaltending: 2.53, .908, one shutout (season: 2.44 / .914 / 4 shutouts)

The week started spectacularly for the Caps and Braden Holtby in goal.  Against Colorado and Philadelphia to open the week, Holtby allowed one goal on 53 shots, a .981 save percentage, including a shutout of the Flyers, his fourth shutout of the season.   Against Nashville in the third game of the week, Holtby was not as sharp.  He was beaten on a goal from long range that he got a piece of on its way through, and he was beaten on a one-timer for Nashville’s third goal, a shot he had been gobbling up in his long run of success (or maybe we had all been spoiled by Holtby’s persistent ability to smother difficult shots).

For the last game of the week, Justin Peters began the 2015 portion of his season, hoping that it would be better than the 2014 portion.  He saw his first action in goal since he played the first and third periods of a 6-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on November 29th.  It did not go well.  Not that it was all Peters’ problem.  The Caps fell behind the Dallas Stars, 3-0, before the game was 25 minutes old, getting behind the eight ball early when the Stars scored a power play goal in the third minute.  There were too many instances of the Caps giving up advantages in numbers – 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 – deep in their own zone that made life difficult for Peters and the Caps.  However, there were not very many momentum-changing saves, either.  When it was over, Peters’ record in his last five appearances was 1-3-0 (one no-decision), a 4.48 goals-against average, and a .836 save percentage.  The Caps are going to need better numbers than that from their backup going forward.

Power Play: 3-for-11 / 27.3 percent (season: 24.1 percent; rank: 4th)

It is testimony to just how efficient the Caps’ power play has been this season that the team could be tied for the fifth highest number of power play goals in the league this season (32) while having the eighth fewest number of power play opportunities (133).  Week 15 was no different.  The Caps had just 11 power play chances in four games, not far off their chances per game rate for the season.

They did have a good week on the man-advantage, posting their second straight week over 20 percent.  It was the first time that the Caps posted consecutive weeks over 20 percent on the power play since Weeks 2 and 3, part of a three week opening to the season over 20 percent.

The Caps were an efficient group on the power play, converting three of 18 shots on goal in 14:25 of power play ice time.  The balance, or lack of it, was not unexpected.  Alex Ovechkin scored two of the three power play goals on four shots; the rest of the team had one goal (Marcus Johansson) on 14 shots.

However, the power play did have a bizarre aspect to it.  The Caps scored two power play goals against Nashville in a 4-3 loss.  It was the fifth time this season that Washington recorded two power play goals in a game.  Their record in such games is 1-2-2, and they have lost four in a row since they scored two power play goals in a 4-0 win over Boston in Game 2 of the season.

Penalty Killing: 11-for-14 / 78.6 percent / (season: 79.3 percent; rank: T-21st)

At this point in the season, the penalty killers are who they are.  That is not a compliment to this team.  For the eighth straight week the Caps finished the week with a season penalty killing rate under 80 percent.  They have been alternating over the last five weeks penalty killing rates under and over 80 percent.  In Week 15 they were under, killing 11 of 14 shorthanded situations (78.6 percent).  It was a typically “meh” week.  The Caps allowed opponents 26 power play shots on goal in 21:26 of power play time.

It is hard what to make of the Caps penalty kill.  On the one hand they have allowed just 216 shots on goal in 246:27 of total shorthanded ice time.  On the other, they have allowed 30 goals on those 216 shots, a .861 save percentage.  Either the Caps are allowing too many quality scoring chances on the opponents’ man advantage, or they are going to have get better netminding when shorthanded.

Even Strength Goals for/Goals Against: 7-7 / even (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 1.10; rank: 12th)

The Caps won the even strength goal differential in the first half of the week, 2-0, and won both games.  They lost the second half of the week, 5-7, and lost both games.  That’s a bit simplistic, but even strength is where it is at in terms of success, and the Caps’ success was mixed (or more precisely, split) in Week 15.

The Caps out-shot their opponents by a 108-80 margin for the week and won each game in the even strength shot battle.  In that sense, it seems a little odd that the Caps only split the week in wins and losses.  It wasn’t even as if the Caps were getting swamped early in the games they lost so as to create score effects later.  They held Nashville even in even strength shots in the first period of their game (eight shots apiece), and they outshot Dallas, 7-5, at even strength in their 5-4 loss to the Stars.  It was something of an odd week at even strength. 

Faceoffs: 161-263 / 61.2 percent (season: 51.3 percent; rank: 10th)

It was a good week in the circle for the Caps.  They won all four games and won all three zones for Week 15.  They were even better in the ends of the ice than their 61.2 percent mark for the week would suggest.  Washington was 59-for-92 in offensive zone draws (64.1 percent) and 56-for-88 in defensive zone draws (63.6 percent).  None of the six Caps taking more than ten draws for the week finished under 50 percent, and three of those Caps finished over 65 percent – Troy Brouwer (80.0 percent on 20 draws), Eric Fehr (72.5 percent on 40 faceoffs), and Jay Beagle (66.0 percent on 53 draws).  Fehr’s week was marked by a 15-for-16 effort against Dallas.

Goals by Period:

Ten goals for, ten goals against.  The Caps lost the first and third periods of the week, won the second.  That is more a reflection of how the week ended than how it began, the Caps falling into multi-goal deficits against Nashville and Dallas, tying the game, then faltering late.  It was a bit odd for the Caps to allow four third period goals.  Coming into the week they has allowed only 33 third period scores all season (0.80/game).  As it is, they still have allowed the tenth-fewest number of third period goals in the league (37).  For the moment, that suggests that Week 15 was a bit of an anomaly in the Caps’ period-by-period defense.

In the end…

Teams aren’t going to win 32 of every 38 available standings points forever, and that streak came to an end for the Caps this week.  As it was, the Caps ended up playing four one-goal games (eight of the Caps' last ten decisions have been by one goal, a 4-2-2 record).  For the glass half-full sort of mindset, one could say that the Caps were a couple of third period let downs away from a 4-0 week.  From the glass half-empty perspective, the cracks around the edges of their game finally gave way at the end of the week, one that might have been an 0-4 week but for some great goaltending by Braden Holtby.

The Caps have one more job before taking a week off for the All-Star break, and that is to beat Edmonton on Tuesday night at home.  That should be a pretty good indicator of whether the Caps suffered a bump in the road in Week 15, or if they are in a slump.  In that sense, Week 15 had a “what might have been” aspect to it, but it also leaves fans with a “what’s next” side to it as well.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Alex Ovechkin (4-1-5, plus-2, one game-winning goal, two game-tying goals, 19 shots on goal)
  • Second Star: Braden Holtby (2-1-0, 1.68, .940, one shutout)
  • Third Star: Nicklas Backstrom (1-4-5, 53.4 percent faceoffs, six blocked shots)

A NO-point night -- Game 45: Stars 5 - Capitals 4

For the second straight night, the Washington Capitals spotted an opponent a multi-goal lead.  For the second straight night, the Capitals clawed their way back to tie the game.  For the second straight night they gave up two third period goals.  For the second straight night, the Capitals lost a one-goal game.

On Saturday night, it was a 5-4 loss to the Dallas Stars, leaving the Capitals without a point on their short two-game road trip.  Dallas got started early, courtesy of a power play when Nicklas Backstrom was sent off for holding just 100 seconds into the game.  Dallas broke down the Capitals’ penalty killers at the Washington blue line, and Jason Spezza was able to fling a pass cross ice to Tyler Seguin who was all alone.  Seguin cut in and beat goalie Justin Peters to start the scoring.

Dallas scored again in the first period, this one coming late in the period when Erik Cole deflected a Jyrki Jokipakka drive to make it 2-0, Stars, at the first intermission.  When the Stars took a 3-0 lead barely four minutes into the second period on a goal by Spezza converted what was a 3-on-1 break for the Stars after a turnover by the Caps at the Dallas blue line, it looked as if it would be an early end to the competitive portion of the evening.

Just 1:17 after the Spezza goal, Eric Fehr started the Caps’ comeback.  It started when Brooks Laich chipped the puck up the wall and out of the defensive zone.  Joel Ward picked up the puck in the neutral zone and headed up ice.  Fehr darted in from the weak side and was in position to receive a nice saucer pass from Ward.  Taking just an instant to settle the puck, Fehr snapped it past goalie Kari Lehtonen to get the Caps on the board.

The Caps made it 3-2 just after a power play expired 16 minutes into the period.  The Stars let Matt Niskanen skate out of the Caps’ end and all the way into the Dallas end before he was challenged.  When finally challenged by two Stars, Niskanen nudged the puck to his left where Andre Burakovsky was gliding in.  Burakovsky took one step and rifled a shot over Lehtonen’s glove to make it 3-2 at the second intermission.

Washington made it all the way back just 21 seconds into the third period when an Antoine Roussel shot from the left point was blocked by Nicklas Backstrom.  The puck caromed into the neutral zone where Alex Ovechkin picked it up in stride.  Ovechkin skated in alone on Lehtonen, deked him to the ice, and tucked the puck inside the near post past Lehtonen’s left pad to tie the game at three apiece.

That would be the high point of the game for the Caps. Dallas scored two goals 16 seconds apart, Roussel making up for the Ovechkin goal with his 11th of the year when he got up from being knocked down by Backstrom, headed to the net, and put in a loose puck from the edge of the crease.  Jamie Benn gave the Stars some insurance 16 seconds later when he converted a Tyler Seguin pass off a 3-on-2 rush. 

Dallas would need that insurance.  Backstrom got the Caps back within a goal with 3:26 left in the contest.  After pinning the Stars in their own end, Ovechkin circled out on the left side and snapped a pass to the middle that Backstrom one-timed past Lehtonen.  That would be as close as the Caps would get, though, falling to the Stars by a 5-4 margin.

Other stuff…

-- The second consecutive loss was the first time the Caps lost consecutive games since losing to Toronto and Vancouver in the last game of November and the first game of December.

-- Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and an assist to give him his second straight multi-point game.  It was his 14th multi-point game of the season and third time he did it in consecutive games.

-- How is this for a first period… outshoot the opponent, 8-7… out-hit the opponent, 13-7... win 17 of 24 faceoffs (including 13 of the first 15).  Dallas had a pretty good first period.  Oh, you say that was the Caps?  Oh…

-- Speaking of faceoffs, Eric Fehr was a monster in the circle.  He won 15 of 16 draws.  It made Backstrom’s 15-for-23 look almost pitiful by comparison.

-- It won’t happen often, but Joel Ward led the team in shots for the game (seven) and attempts (eight, tied with Alex Ovechkin).

-- Ovechkin’s goal (his 25th of the season) made it 11 goals in his last 14 games.  He is two goals behind Dallas’ Tyler Seguin for the league lead.  And that brings this to mind.  Ovechkin is 25-16-41, plus-12, with five game-winning goals.  The New York Rangers’ Rick Nash is 26-15-41, plus-15, with four game-winning goals.  A week ago, the New York Post’s Larry Brooks was touting Nash as a Hart Trophy (MVP) winner.  Does that mean Ovechkin should be a finalist? 

--  Andre Burakovsky broke a six-game goalless streak with his tally in the second period.  He had four shots on goal, a season (and career) high in a single game.  It was only his second multi-shot contest in his last 14 games.

-- Speaking of four shots on goal, that was the total that Mike Green had for the game.  He did not find the back of the net on any of them.  It continued a disturbing trend for Green.  He has one goal on 69 shots (1.4 percent) over his last 32 games.

-- When Brooks Orpik found himself on ice for the first three Dallas goals, he had been on ice for eight consecutive goals by opponents, dating back to the second period of the Caps’ 2-1 win over Colorado last Monday.

-- Justin Peters allowed five goals on 26 shots in his first appearance since November 29th and first start since November 15th.  In his last five appearances Peters is 1-3-0 (one no-decision), 4.48, .836.  Caps fans might note that Philipp Grubauer returned to action for the Hershey Bears on Saturday night after missing almost three weeks to injury, allowing four goals on 25 shots in a 5-4 overtime win over the Albany Devils.  One wonders if (when) he will get a seat on the bench (or a start) with the Caps.

In the end…

What is particularly disappointing about the loss is that a win would have meant the Caps being tied with Pittsburgh in standings points in the Metropolitan Division and, had they won without benefit of trick shots, wins in regulation and overtime.  However, the little things that had been creeping into the Caps’ game over the last several outings came out against the Stars, most notably too many defensive breakdowns that resulted in 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 situations in front of their goaltender.  In that respect, it was not all on Justin Peters for Dallas scoring five goals.  Nevertheless, one does not like to see a comeback from three goals down or scoring four goals in a game go to waste, especially by giving up two goals less than 20 seconds apart after tying the game, taking almost all of the air out of the Caps’ rising balloon of momentum.  It was only the second time this season that the Caps scored four or more goals in regulation time and lost in regulation, the other being a 6-5 loss to Arizona on November 2nd (Peters was in net for that game as well). 

That the Caps are 12-2-1 when scoring four or more goals speaks to the unusual nature of this game.  But here is the thing.  Look at those three losses.  Peters started two of them (both regulation losses) and relieved Braden Holtby in one (a 6-5 shootout loss to San Jose on October 14th).  In two of those games (San Jose and Dallas), the Caps fell behind by 3-0 scores (Holtby allowed the three goals against San Jose) before mounting furious comebacks.  On the one hand, it is hard to count the Caps out of games, even when they fall behind by more than one goal.  On the other, they cannot afford to have Braden Holtby tearing off 20-25 consecutive game streaks because their backup goalie is getting lit up like a Christmas tree.  Right now, based on Saturday’s result, this might be the biggest issue the Caps have.