Sunday, February 01, 2015

A NO-Point Night -- Game 50: Blues 4 - Capitals 3

After 50 games, there are some things you see in a team that you like, and there are others you see that you don’t.  There were aspects of both on display as the Washington Capitals played their 50th game of the season, dropping a 4-3 decision to the St. Louis Blues at Verizon Center.

It was a battle of teams on streaks, the Blues having won four in a row and not having lost in regulation time ten games (9-0-1).  The Caps came into the game not having lost in regulation time on home ice in ten straight games (8-0-2).

St. Louis opened the scoring just 2:34 into the game after Jay Beagle took a slashing penalty to put the Blues on a power play.  Alex Steen darted in from the right win faceoff dot to pounce on a rebound to give the Blues the first lead of the contest.  For the Caps, who came into the game with a 1-13-6 record when scored upon first, it was a bad sign. 

Alex Ovechkin evened the game mid-way through the period with a power play goal of his own in a case of, if at first you don’t succeed, try again.  After having a one-timer from the left wing circle turned aside by goalie Brian Elliott, the puck was worked around the perimeter until it came to Ovechkin for another one-timer attempt.  This one found the back of the net past Elliott’s blocker, and the game was tied, remaining so as the teams went to the first intermission.

Steen would break the tie in the 12th minute of the second period when he walked between defensemen Brooks Orpik and John Carlson, and received a pass from T.J. Oshie.  Steen’s first attempt from point-blank range was stopped by goalie Justin Peters, but Peters could not cover the loose puck, and Steen slid it into the back of the net to make it 2-1, Blues.

Ovechkin tied it once more less than three minutes later on what was a fine play by Nicklas Backstrom to set him up.  After Jay Bouwmeester picked up a puck left for him behind the cage by Elliot and skated out, he was challenged by Ovechkin and threw a pass off the wall in an attempt to clear the zone.  Backstrom intercepted the puck just as it reached the blue line and threw a pass across his body to Ovechkin.  From the left wing circle, Ovechkin snapped a shot past Elliott on the far side, and the game was tied once more.

Less than two minutes after that goal, St. Louis regained the lead it would not relinquish.  A pinballing puck found its way onto the stick of Dmitrij Jaskin, who snapped it past Peters’ right pad to make it 3-2 heading into the second intermission.  It was another bad sign for the Caps, who were one of four teams in the league not to have won a game when trailing at the second intermission this season (0-9-2).

Vladimir Tarasenko scored what would be the game-winning goal in the seventh minute of the third period, converting a 2-on-1 break with Steen, blasting a one-timer past Peters’ glove to make it 4-2, Blues. 

Karl Alzner added to his career-best goal-scoring total with his fourth goal of the season.  Taking a pass from Mike Green at the left point, Alzner held the puck, then worked himself for a shooting angle clear of Marcel Goc, who was guarding him.  With Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Tom Wilson all in front screening Elliott, Alzner’s floater of a shot caught Elliott by surprise, sailing past his glove to get the Caps within a goal at 4-3 at the 12:28 mark.

That would be as close as the Caps would get, though.  The Caps would get only three more shots on goal, all of them turned aside by Elliott, and the Caps lost their second straight game and sixth in their last seven contests, 4-3.

Other stuff…

-- Ovechkin became the fifth player in NHL history to score 30 or more goals in his first ten seasons in the NHL, joining Mike Bossy, Mike Gartner, Wayne Gretzky, and Jari Kurri on that list.  Gartner did it in his first 15 seasons, stopped only by the 1994-1995 lockout that reduced the season to 48 games.  He had 30-plus goal seasons in each of the two seasons that followed.

-- With his two goals, Ovechkin has 15 in his last 15 games.  It was his fourth multi-goal game in his last seven games, and his three points was his fifth multi-point game in his last seven contests.

-- Nicklas Backstrom had a pair of assists, giving him four multi-point games in his last seven contests and 16 for the season.  He is tied for fourth in the league in multi-point games this season, behind Jakub Voracek and Ovechkin (17 apiece), and Ryan Getzlaf (18).

-- Mike Green had a pair of assists, his fourth multi-point game in his last seven contests and 11th of the season.  He is tied with Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang for the most multi-point games by a defenseman this season.

-- If your backup goaltender is struggling, you probably do not want him facing a lot of shots.  St. Louis recorded 40 shots on goal against Justin Peters, the first time the Caps gave up 40 or more shots since November 7th, when the Caps yielded 40 shots on goal in a 3-2 win in Chicago over the Blackhawks. 

-- The Caps have to be concerned about their basic defense in one respect.  The Caps have allowed four goals or more in five of their last seven games, the other two being shutouts in regulation time by Braden Holtby.

-- St. Louis was credited with 35 hits on the game, half of them by two players – Ryan Reaves (10 in just 12:17 of ice time) and Steve Ott (7).

-- Odd stat…the teams combined for a credited ten giveaways.  Three of them were by goaltenders (Peters: 2, Elliott: 1).

-- With four goals on the season now, Karl Alzner has matched the total of his last three seasons, combined.

-- Score effects… the Caps had 16 of 18 skaters with positive Corsi plus-minus when trailing by two goals.  When tied, they had three skaters with positive Corsi plus-minus.  If you’re playing along at home, that’s not too good.

In the end…

After 50 games, Alex Ovechkin is back on top of the goal scoring race, and Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are making important contributions on the offensive side of the puck.  Those are things Caps fans see that they like.  On the other hand, the Caps can’t win when scored upon first, can’t win when heading into the third period behind on the scoreboard, and can’t seem to win one-goal games, which is a real problem since they play so many of them (32, most in the league but with the sixth worst winning percentage).  Obviously, these are things that Caps fans don’t like.

At the end of the weekend, the Caps find themselves in eighth place in the Eastern Conference.  They have an eight-point lead on ninth-place Florida, but the Panthers hold three games in hand.  It does not take long for the collars to get a bit tight.  And, this one-goal game trend is not something that the Caps are handling particularly well, having lost their last six one-goal decisions (0-4-2).  The Caps have only four standings points in their last seven games, and it is not getting easier.  Washington hosts the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, then get yet another back-to-back set of games to end the week.  What is a pinhole prick in the balloon letting out air could pop pretty quickly unless the Caps find a way to reverse some worrisome trends they have forged over their first 50 games.

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 17

For the Washington Capitals, Week 17 was one spinning their wheels, not an uncommon occurrence on the slippery roads of winter, but something to be avoided on the hockey rink in January in a tough division race.  As even as it was for the week, it could have been much more…could have been.

Record: 1-1-1

The Caps were a coat of paint away from making it a 2-1-0 week, at the very least.  Three times in the second period of their 1-0 overtime loss to Montreal, Capital shooters hit iron with Alex Ovechkin, Joel Ward, and John Carlson playing the chimes for the Caps (Montreal had one of their own shots ping out, one by P.K. Subban in the third period off the same iron).  A poor third period did them in against Columbus to start the week, but even there the Caps almost made up three two-goal deficits.  At the end of the week, though, it was their third straight .500 week in standings points.

Offense: 2.33/game (season: 2.92/game; rank: T-8th)

It was not so much the goals themselves as the deployment of players that stood out this week.  The audition for a winger to play alongside of Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin continues.  In the first game of the week Andre Burakovsky got the call and scored a goal (secondary assist to Backstrom), then sat for the last two games of the week.  Eric Fehr and Tom Wilson got some time, but the bulk of the even strength time on the top line in the last two games of the week featured Jay Beagle skating with the big guns.  Backstrom (an assist) and Ovechkin (a goal) had one point apiece in the last two games.  Yup…the audition continues.

Defense: 1.67/game (season: 2.47/game; rank: T-8th)

Odd week.  In the two losses the Caps had positive Corsi values in both games (plus-10/53.1 percent combined), while they were underwater in their 4-0 win over Pittsburgh (minus-5/47.3 percent).  Even tied or leading by one-goal against the Penguins, the Caps were well under 50 percent (minus-10/41.9 percent).  They did a credible job managing shots, allowing an average of 29 per game for the week, none of them ending with more than 30 shots against.  They allowed fewer than ten attempts in five of the nine regulation periods for the week.  The Caps did an especially good job of denying teams from getting pucks all the way through from long range against Montreal, allowing only four of 22 shot attempts from defensemen on net.

Goaltending: 1.65 / .943 / 1 SO   (season: 2.42 / .915 / 5 shutouts)

Braden Holtby found himself in a bit of a slump, allowing four goals in three consecutive games (including against Columbus to open Week 17), the first time he allowed four or more in three straight games since allowing four in each of three games to end October and begin November.  However, he was superb in the last two games of the week, allowing one overtime goal on 57 shots.  The down side of all of this is speculative, but the fact is that Holtby has appeared in 31 of the Caps’ last 32 games.  Is it making a difference?  Not yet, if one looks at those 31 appearances in ten-game segments (11 for the last one).  In the first ten of those 31 games, Holtby was 6-3-1, 2.34, .923.  In the second ten he was 6-1-3, 2.06, .930, with two shutouts.  Finally, Holtby was 6-2-3, 2.07, .929, with two shutouts in his last 11 games.  It is tempting fate to lean on him so hard, but so far it has not yet degraded his game.

Power Play: 1-for-11 / 9.1 percent (season: 23.3 percent; rank: 4th)

Week 17 was the worst week of the season for the Caps to date.  One goal on 24 shots in nine opportunities.  A lot of that was Carey Price, who stopped all 11 power play shots he faced in Montreal’s 1-0 overtime win over the Caps to end the week.  In one respect, 24 shots on goal in 20:52 of power play time is not bad from an efficiency standpoint.  It was an odd week, shooting-wise, in one respect.  In the games against Columbus and Pittsburgh to start the week, the Caps had 14 shots, and they came from the guys the Caps would have wanted shooting the puck – Alex Ovechkin (6), Mike Green (4), Nicklas Backstrom (3) accounting for 13 of the 14 shots over those two games.  In the game against Montreal, the shot profile was almost entirely different.  Ovechkin had two, but the others came from Joel Ward (3), John Carlson (2), Brooks Laich (2),and Troy Brouwer (1).  The top power play unit was nullified very effectively by the Canadiens, making things that much easier for Carey Price.

Penalty Killing: 12-for-12 / 100.0 percent / (season: 81.0 percent; rank: 18th)

On the other side of the special teams ledger, the Caps had their best record of the season.  It was their first perfect performance since Week 7 and fourth of the season.  The 12 power plays killed is the most for the Caps in a perfect week this year.  It is part of a longer streak of penalty killing success that the Caps have had – 40-for-45 over their last 12 games (88.9 percent).  It was an efficient, as well as effective week for the Caps.  They allowed only 13 shots in 22:09 of shorthanded ice time.  Their performance against Pittsburgh in the middle game of the week was excellent.  Even with Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup, the Caps allowed only two shots (both by David Perron) in 6:09 a man short.  A goaltender often needs to be a team’s best penalty killer, but in Week 17, the skaters killing off penalties did a fine job.

Even Strength Goals for/Goals Against: 6-5 / even (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 1.12; rank: T-9th)

The Caps got behind the eight-ball early in the week in getting outscored at even strength by a 4-2 margin against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but they reversed that in the 4-0 shutout of the Penguins, scoring three even strength goals in that contest. That the Caps would allow only one even strength goal on 50 shots in the last 137:48 of the week, and that one at 4-on-4 in overtime to Montreal speaks to the discipline the Caps have been able to display on defense as well as excellent goaltending.  As for that 4-on-4 goal, it was only the second one allowed by the Caps this season.

Faceoffs: 85-171 / 49.7 percent (season: 51.2 percent; rank: 10th)

It was an even week overall for the Caps, but it was not that way in the game-by-game or underlying results.  Overall, the Caps struggled in the offensive zone for the week, winning only 24 of 55 faceoffs (43.6 percent), offsetting a winning week in the defensive end (32-for-62/51.6 percent) and the neutral zone (29-for-54/53.7 percent).  The Caps had a big night against the Penguins in the middle game of the week (39-for-63/61.9 percent), but they were well under 50 percent in the other two games (43.4 percent against Columbus, 41.8 percent against Montreal). 

Goals by Period:

It was slow start this week in the first period for both the Caps and their opponents.  Alex Ovechkin scored the only goal for the Caps in the opening frame for the week, getting the Caps started just 4:50 into their 4-0 win over Pittsburgh in the middle game of the week.  Washington held all three opponents without a first period goal.  The second period was a different story, and it was told in two parts.  There was the second period shootout against Columbus in which the Blue Jackets scored three times, twice getting out to two-goal leads with the Caps scoring twice themselves to inch to within a goal.  The Caps used the second period against Pittsburgh to purchase some insurance in the form of another Ovechkin goal to put the Caps ahead, 2-0.  The third period had the bad and the good (and the bad).  Against Columbus the Caps scored once in the third period, but only after the Blue Jackets went out to their third two-goal lead of the game.  Against the Penguins the Caps sealed the deal with two third period goals.  In the game in Montreal to end the week, one goal would have been enough in the third period, but they came up dry on 10 shots, then failed to record a shot in overtime in their 1-0 loss to the Canadiens.

In the end…

How thin the margin is between success and a week spent treading water.  A one-goal loss and an overtime loss was the difference between going 3-0-0 and going 1-1-1.  The Caps have been doing that a lot lately.  In their last three weeks, all of which were .500 weeks, all five losses were by a single goal, two of them in extra time.  Two of their three wins were by that margin as well.  No team has played as many one-goal games as the Caps (31), and Colorado is the only one to have played as many.  Eleven of their last 13 games have ended in one-goal decisions (4-3-4), making the 4-0 whitewashing of the Penguins an especially welcome outcome. 

However, if the Caps are going to be playing like this, so close to the margin, they are going to have to do better.  They have the sixth-worst winning percentage in one-goal games (.387/12-9-10), they have the third-most extra time losses (10), only Colorado has more overtimes losses (7) than the Caps (6), and Washington has yet to win a game when trailing at the second intermission this season (0-9-2).  That is not a formula for success in the last ten weeks of the season.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Braden Holtby (1-1-1, 1.65, .943, 1 shutout)
  • Second Star: Alex Ovechkin (2-0-2, even, 19 shots on goal, 34 shot attempts, seven hits)
  • Third Star: Brooks Laich (0-1-1, even, 15:15 avg. ice time, 10 shots on goal, 11 shot attempts, eight hits, seven blocked shots)

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 50: Blues at Capitals, February 1st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals close their second back-to-back set of games in a week when they host the St. Louis Blues this afternoon at Verizon Center.  The Caps will be getting right back on the horse, so to speak, after a gut-wrenching 1-0 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre yesterday.

The Caps ran into a hot Montreal team yesterday, a club that had won four straight entering the contest.  They will do the same when they face the Blues, also winners of their last four contests.  In fact, St. Louis has not lost in regulation in their last ten contests (9-0-1).  They are doing it in a fashion that reflects their coaching. 

Ken Hitchcock coaches teams that are difficult to play against, limiting shots and goals, and fashioning a physical approach.  In their 9-0-1 run, the Blues have allowed a total of 19 goals and an average of 24.8 shots per game.  Only twice in that stretch have they allowed more than two goals in a game.

On the other hand, the Blues’ offense has been something to behold over this streak.  St. Louis has scored 42 goals over the ten games, including a pair of seven-goal efforts at the expense of the San Jose Sharks.  Fourteen players share in the 42 goals, and 18 skaters have recorded points.  The goal total is impressive, but it is heavily weighted among four players.  David Backes leads the charge with eight goals in his last ten games, including a four-goal effort against the Arizona Coyotes on January 6th.  T.J. Oshie has seven goals in the 9-0-1 run, while Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Steen have six apiece.

Schwartz is perhaps the least known of this foursome to Capitals fans.  Now in his fourth season with St. Louis, Schwartz is developing into quite a goal-scorer.  Two years ago he finished with seven goals in 45 games, and last season he had 25 goals in 80 games.  This season, with 17 goals in 41 games, he is on a pace to finish with 31 goals for the season.  He does not have much exposure to the Caps in his brief career to date.  In three games against Washington, Schwartz is 1-1-2, plus-1.

While the goal scoring has come largely from the forwards in St. Louis’ recent success, the defense has contributed in stoking the fire.  Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo each have seven assists in the Blue’s last ten games.  Shattenkirk also contributed two goals.  He is second among the league’s defensemen in total scoring (42 points), trailing only Calgary’s Mark Giordano.  His 32 assists leads all NHL defensemen.

While the Blues were saying goodbye to goalie Martin Brodeur on the ice and welcoming him to the front office, Brian Elliott was adding to his resume in solid fashion over the past ten games.  Elliott made eight appearances, compiling a record of 6-0-1 (one no-decision), 2.04, .919, with two shutouts.  Elliott has three shutouts this season, and they are something of a reflection of the system in which he plays.  In none of them did he face more than 27 shots, and he faced and average of 22.7 shots in the three games.  Elliott is 5-2-0, 3.19, .881 in nine career appearances against Washington.

Here is how the teams compare overall:

1.  St. Louis has a very respectable goals against average among their goaltenders (2.34).  Their combined save percentage of .913 is not especially impressive, although Elliott’s .943 save percentage at even strength is the best in the league among goalies playing in at least 20 games (note: Carey Price, who shut out the Caps yesterday, is second at .942).

2.  The Blues are the only team in the league with a goal differential of plus-8 or better in all three periods of games this season.  They are a plus-8 in the first period, plus-11 in the second, and plus-15 in the third.

3.  Only four teams so far this season have more wins by three or more goals than the Blues (11), and only four teams have a better winning percentage in such games (.688/11-5).

4.  The Blues have the best winning percentage among Western Conference teams against the East (.706/12-3-2) and are 8-1-0 against the Metropolitan Division.  They have not lost to a Metropolitan Division team since dropping a 3-2 decision to the New York Rangers on Opening Night.

5.  St. Louis is third in the league, behind Montreal and the Caps, in winning percentage when scoring first in games (.815/22-4-1).  Only five teams have a better winning percentage when scored upon first than the Blues (.429/9-9-3).

1.  Going into Sunday’s games, only five teams have played fewer home games than the Caps (23).  As a team that is 8-0-2 in their last ten home games, having so many home games coming over the next ten weeks is something that could bear dividends later in the season.

2.  Even when they are not playing one another, the Caps and the Penguins seem joined at the hip.  Going into Sunday’s games, the Caps and Penguins have identical numbers of goals scored (143) and goals allowed (121) in 49 games apiece.

3.  In their 8-0-2 record over their last ten home games, Washington has out-scored opponents by a 29-17 margin.  They have not been doing it by limiting shots (294 for, 295 against), but their special teams have been very good: 8-for-32 (25.0 percent) on the power play, 34-for-38 (89.5 percent) on the penalty kill.

4.  Note that shooting percentage for opponents in the Caps’ last ten home games (.058).  Goaltending, meaning Braden Holtby, has been superb.  Holtby appeared in all ten games, compiling a record of 8-0-2, 1.68, .942, with two shutouts.

5.  No team has more extra-time losses this season than the Caps (10, tied with Florida).  Six of those losses have come in overtime.  There, Holtby’s save percentage of .778 is fifth worst among goalies appearing in at least 20 games.  Not that four losses coming while shorthanded has anything to do with it, eh?

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

St. Louis: Vladimir Tarasenko

Over his first 36 games, Vladimir Tarasenko was on a pace to finish with 50 goals.  Over his last 12 games, though, he has a total of two goals and is without one in his last five contests.  One might say he is shooting in bad luck, scoring those two goals on a total of 43 shots (4.7 percent).  On the other hand, it might be the pendulum swinging the other way after a hot first 36 games (17.9 percent on 22-for-123 shooting).  Still, he is on a pace to be only the second Blues player to finish with more than 40 goals (41) since Brett Hull was lighting things up for St. Louis in the mid-1990’s (Brad Boyes has 43 in 2007-2008).  Here is your fact of the day… Tarasenko does not have a goal on the road since December 6th against the New York Islanders, nine games and counting.  In two career games against Washington he does not have a point.

Washington: Brooks Laich

As we noted in our post-game recap of the loss to Montreal Brooks Laich had a solid game – four shots on goal, five hits, three blocked shots, drew three penalties (one coincidental) and plus-13 in Corsi at 5-on-5.  It would be nice to get a bit more offensive production from him (no goals in his last ten games), but playing as he did yesterday, if he can continue it, is an important part of the sort of game the Caps play under Barry Trotz.  It is especially important against an opponent such as St. Louis, which plays such a heavy game itself.  Laich is 1-2-3 in eight career appearances against the Blues.

In the end…

With any team on a streak, you can see the streak coming or going before they start or end.  In the case of the Blues, on a ten-game points streak, you might be seeing the end coming from the results of their last two games, both Gimmick wins, one against a struggling opponent (Carolina).  Still, it is a club against which it is very hard to score (two or fewer goals allowed in five of their last six games).  The Caps have a tough task ahead, made tougher by 63 minutes of grind-it-out hockey against Montreal on Saturday afternoon with one point to show for it.  But the Caps have become a team that is hard to score against themselves (well, as long as Braden Holtby is in goal).  It might be a boring affair on Super Bowl Sunday, but if it ends in a win, that’s fine with us.

Capitals 2 – Blues 1