Sunday, March 15, 2015

A TWO-Point Night -- Game 70: Capitals 2 - Bruins 0

The Washington Capitals salvaged the last game of their five-game home stand in fine fashion, shutting out the Boston Bruins, 2-0, on Sunday night.  It was the second shutout in as many games against the Bruins this season for the Caps.

At the offensive end it was a record-setting night.  It was fitting in one respect, odd in another.  Mid-way through the first period, Brad Marchand took a roughing penalty when he retaliated against Tom Wilson for Wilson’s hit on Ryan Spooner in open ice.  With the Bruins down a man, the Caps worked the puck around to Alex Ovechkin for a one-timer.  It went wide on the short side, but Troy Brouwer recovered it behind the Boston net.  Brouwer reset the play, sending the puck around to Nicklas Backstrom, who fed John Carlson at the top of the offensive zone.  Carlson one-timed the puck through a maze of bodies and past goaie Tuukka Rask to give the Caps a 1-0 lead. 

The assist by Backstrom was his 419th as a Capital, passing Michal Pivonka for the franchise record in assists.  The fitting part of it was Backstrom earning the assist on a power play; the odd part of it was that it was not Ovechkin finishing the play.

There would be no more scoring in the first period, but there would be some in the second, courtesy once more of a defenseman.  Nate Schmidt recorded his first goal of the season for the Caps when he capitalized on a fortuitous bounce.  Backstrom sent the puck around the end boards and along the right wing wall where Tom Wilson ran it down.  Wilson threw the puck at the net, but the shot was blocked by Zdeno Chara.  The puck caromed off Chara’s shin pad directly to Schmidt just inside the Bruins’ blue line.  Schmidt teed it up and let fly with a slap shot that deflected off the Bruins’ Gregory Campbell and past Rask to make it 2-0.

After that it was up to the Capitals to button things up in their own end and Braden Holtby to stand tall in goal.  Both he and the Caps did just that, and the Bruins were blanked by the Caps for the second time this season, 2-0.

Other stuff…

-- Nicklas Backstrom finished the game with two assists, giving him 420 for his career (tops in Caps history), 53 for the season (tops in the league), and his 16th game with two or more assists (tops in the league).

-- Tom Wilson had an effective game from the right wing of the first line.  He had an assist, was plus-1, had two shots on goal (three attempts), six hits, and drew a penalty that resulted in a power play goal.

-- Holtby’s shutout was his eighth, breaking a tie for second place he shared with Montreal’s Carey Price.  He is one behind Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury.

-- Holtby’s win was his 33rd of the season, lifting him into a tie with Olaf Kolzig (twice – in 1997-1998 and in 2002-2003) for the fourth-most wins in a season for a Capitals goaltender.  Next on the ladder with the third-most wins in Caps history for a goaltender is Jim Carey’s 35 wins in 1995-1996.

-- More Holtby… The shutout reduced his season goals against average to 2.17.  If it holds up for the remainder of the season, it would be a franchise record for lowest GAA.  Olaf Kolzig holds the record with a 2.20 goals against average in 1997-1998.

-- No Capital taking more than one faceoff won more than 50 percent of the draws he took. Brooks Laich was the only one to reach 50 percent (6-for-12).

-- Heavy teams play heavy games.  Both teams were credited with more than 30 hits, the Caps winning that duel, 33-31.  Twelve Cap skaters and 13 Bruin skaters were credited with at least one hit.  What might have been the best “hit,” though, was not credited.  As Milan Lucic was trying to track down a loose puck beneath the Caps’ goal line, Braden Holtby beat him to it, and for good measure hip checked Lucic into the end boards as he was sending the puck around the wall.

-- The 38 shots on goal was quite a change from the first time the teams met in Game 2 of the season back in October.  In that one, the Caps managed only 21 shots but scored four goals.  Low shot or high shot totals, the Caps have been Boston goalie Tuukka Rask’s personal nightmare.  The loss left his career regular season record against the Caps at 1-5-3, 3.00, .893.

-- There was one power play chance for the Capitals in this one, making it three times in their last eight games in which they were held to a single power play opportunity.  It was the 11th time this season that the Caps have been held to one or no power play chances, and their record in such games is 6-5-0.

-- Chris Conner had an interesting game, and perhaps not in the best of ways.  In his debut as a Washington Capital, he skated just 7:32 and took two minor penalties, but he did have an excellent scoring chance that required a superb glove save by Rask to keep from hitting the back of the net.

In the end…

It was not flashy, but that’s what playoff hockey looks like, and this looked like playoff hockey.  These two teams do not play against one another very often, but it seems there is no love lost between them nevertheless. 

Braden Holtby remarked after the game in an interview on national television that his father instilled in him the idea that it is alright to have a bad game, just don’t have two in a row.  Holtby struggled against Dallas in his last start, the first time he had been pulled in a game he started since Game 3 of the season.  He did not allow it to become two off nights in a row, as he was sharp throughout. 

At the other end, Nicklas Backstrom had quite a night…or is that a “quiet” night?  How often does a player set a franchise record and do it was quietly and efficiently as Backstrom did on this night?  Backstrom appears poised to break the 60-assist barrier for the fourth time in his eight year career.  If he does, he would be just the third player in the league to do so four times in that eight year span (Henrik Sedin and Joe Thornton are the others) and just the 16th player to do it four times in any eight year period in the history of the league (although Sidney Crosby could beat him to that 16th to do it spot).

They were two fine performance from two players who do not get as much attention, perhaps, as they should.  But they are players who will be absolutely essential to any success the Caps have as the rest of the season unfolds.

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 23

Week 23 was not kind to the Washington Capitals.  It extended a disconcerting trend, one of alternating good and bad weeks.  Since Week 18, the Caps have alternated winning and losing weeks, Week 23 being the second winless week in the last three.  It is not the sort of trend one would want to see as the season heads into it final weeks.

Record: 0-2-0

Week 23 was the second week in the last three that the Caps failed to secure a win.  They are 11-9-0 since setting off on this on-again/off-again alternating weeks of good and bad trip over the last six weeks.  The Caps have not beaten a playoff-eligible team since they took down the New York Islanders in a Gimmick on February 21st.  They have not beaten a playoff-eligible in regulation or overtime since they beat Winnipeg, 5-1, on February 19th.  You could say that the Caps haven’t played very many playoff-eligible teams since that win over the Islanders – three teams in nine games.  True, but the Caps are 0-3-0 in those games and 3-6-0 overall in those nine games.  Week 23 just added to the slump.

Offense:  1.50/game (season: 2.90/game; rank: 7th)

It was a poor week at the offensive end of the ice for the Caps, especially for the guys who have been here a while.  Evgeny Kuznetsov led the team in scoring for the short week, going 1-2-3 in the two games.  Curtis Glencross had one of the other two goals, while Andre Burakovsky added an assist. That’s two rookies and the new guy from Calgary doing their part.  After that, Alex Ovechkin had a goal but had his four-game goal scoring streak stopped against the Dallas Stars to close the week.  Joel Ward had a goal, but otherwise the third line was not heard from.  Troy Brouwer had an assists, and that was it from the second line.  It was not a good week for the guys on offense.

Defense: 3.50/game (season: 2.44/game; rank: 7th)

One of the things that has become common to playing playoff-eligible teams is the Caps being out-shot.  When the Rangers out-shot the Caps by a 31-29 margin on Wednesday, it was the fourth straight game that Washington was out-shot by a playoff-eligible team.  And, the two games in Week 23 in which the Caps were outshot overall, It made it four games in five overall in which the Caps were out-shot and six in seven in which they allowed 30 or more shots.  The only interruption in either of those streaks was the Caps out-shooting the woeful Buffalo Sabres, 45-17, on March 7th.

Illness and injury threw the Caps’ defensive pairs into turmoil, forcing the team to mix up the first pair (with Brooks Orpik out) and the third pair (with Mike Green out) for the game against the Rangers to start the week.  Green returned for the game against the Stars, but there were still after-shocks.  As it was, John Carlson, who was paired with Nate Schmidt in place of Orpik at even strength and with Tim Gleason on the penalty kill, ended up being on ice for five of the seven goals scored against the Caps in Week 23.

Possession was an odd thing, not all that surprising in a week of light work where variations can be magnified in small populations of games.  The Caps had a 53.1 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 overall, a product of out-attempting the Rangers, 52-34, at 5-on-5 in the game to open the week.  In close score situations, that Corsi-for number was a lot different: 38.6 percent.  What accounts for the difference?  The Caps out-attempted the Rangers, 31-7, at 5-on-5 overall in the third period of their 3-1 loss, which does not show  up in the “close score” number.

Goaltending: 3.56 / .887 (season: 2.38 / .917 / 7 shutouts)

The news this week in this category boils down to a single number: 33:54.  That was the ice time logged by Braden Holtby against the Dallas Stars before he was relieved by Justin Peters, having allowed four goals on 22 shots in the Caps’ 4-1 loss.  It was the first game that Braden Holtby was pulled early after starting the game since he was relieved after giving up three goals on seven shots in 9:34 of work in a 6-5 loss to the San Jose Sharks on October 14th.  He had gone 55 consecutive starts without being relieved (he relieved Justin Peters for a period in a 6-2 loss to Toronto last November 29th).

Holtby has been slipping lately.  Since winning three in a row and allowing just four goals on 85 shots in mid-February, he is 3-6-0, 2.63, .913, with one shutout (two of the wins came against the imploding Maple Leafs and the ghastly Sabres).  If it is a slump, that is one thing.  Slumps have two phases – a downward one and then an upward one when one emerges from it.  If it is his workload showing, that might be a different matter.

Justin Peters got mop-up duty against the Stars, his first work in almost a month.  He stopped all nine shots he faced in almost 24 minutes of work, the third straight appearance in which he stopped at least 90 percent of the shots he faced (.915 save percentage overall) after having a string of five straight appearances in which he failed to meet that 90 percent standard.

Power Play: 1-for-6 / 16.7 percent (season: 24.6 percent; rank: 2nd)

The Caps came into the week on a power play tear, going 6-for-10 over their previous six games dating back to the third period of their 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh on February 25th.  The Caps made it 7-for-11 when they scored on their first power play of Week 23 in the 3-1 loss to the Rangers.  That would do it for the week on the man advantage, though. 

The Caps wrapped up the week shooting blanks on their last five power plays.  Overall they finished with one goal on six power plays, converting that single goal on ten shots in 10:25 of power play ice time.  The efficiency for the week, and the week itself, might have been less disappointing if not for a single one of those shots.  On a 5-on-3 power play against the Rangers, with New York holding a 2-1 lead, Nicklas Backstrom took a nifty through-the-top-of-the-crease feed from Joel Ward and had an open short side at which to shoot.  His wrister was gloved down by Ranger goalie Cam Talbot, and the threat passed, the Caps’ best chance to make it a game.

Penalty Killing: 6-for-9 / 66.7 percent (season: 81.0 percent; rank: 16th)

It started well enough for the Caps killing penalties in Week 23.  They we perfect in three shorthanded situations against the Rangers.  It fell apart against the Dallas Stars.  The Stars scored on their first power play, scored on the front half of a double minor penalty to Joel Ward, then scored on what was their  fourth power play 14 minutes into the second period, taking a 4-1 lead and ending the competitive portion of the game.

Part of the problem against the Stars was luck (the first power play goal was a deflection off Curtis Glencross’ skate), poor positioning (Tyler Seguin could have written an opera with the time he had to set up to take a slap shot from the left wing circle), and fate (the Stars scored on a 2-on-1 rush after Eric Fehr shot wide on a good shorthanded scoring chance).

As it was, the Caps allowed three goals on 13 shots in 15:37 in shorthanded ice time.  It was not as much an inefficient week (shots per minute of shorthanded ice time) as ineffectiveness that might have been a product of unfamiliarity.  John Carlson and Tim Gleason were a pair victimized twice by Dallas extra-man goals.

Even Strength Goals for/Goals Against: 2-4 / minus-2 (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 1.08; rank: 13th)

It was not the what, but the when.  Four even strength goals allowed is not an awful week, but allowing three of them to the Rangers in the first game of the week, while getting none of their own, sank the Caps in the first game in the week.  And, allowing just one was not enough in the second game of the week when the penalty kill was being shredded.

At the other end, Curtis Glencross and Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the only even-strength goals for the Caps in Week 23.  Kuznetsov’s was technically an even strength goal, although it was scored with the Caps’ net empty for a sixth attacker late in the 4-2 loss to Dallas.  It was hardly a surprising result, give that the Caps were out-shot by a 35-19 margin in the first and second periods of the two games for the week (only one even strength shot from Alex Ovechkin in the first two periods of the two games).  That kind of anemic production at evens did as much as anything to ruin the week for Washington.

Faceoffs:73-130 / 56.2 percent (season: 51.6% / rank: 9th)

Well, there was one good thing about the week, and it was largely wasted.  The Caps dominated faceoffs in all three zones.  It was largely due to Eric Fehr, who had a monster week in the circle, if a meek one (no points) in the two games this week.  Fehr was 22-for-29 overall (75.9 percent) and was well over 50 percent in each of the three zones – 70.0 percent in the offensive zone, 66.7 percent in the defensive zone, and 90.0 percent in the neutral zone.

Nicklas Backstrom had what for him was an off week.  He managed only 16 wins in 37 faceoffs, coming out on the losing end in each of the three zones (44.4/42.9/42.9 in the offensive, defensive, and neutral zones, respectively).

Goals by Period:

The Caps took it in the teeth in the first and second periods of games for the week.  They took a 2-1 deficit to the locker room at the first intermission of both games.  The Caps being a team that entered the week with a 2-9-4 record when trailing after one period, that was not a good sign in either game.

The Caps could not make up for it in the third period, recording only a late extra-attacker goal in the 4-2 loss to Dallas.  It was another example of a thin week on offense for the Caps.

In the end…

Do you remember those B-movie adventure flicks when some poor unsuspecting soul would wander into a pool of quicksand and be slowly, inexorably sucked into its pit?

The Caps have that look at the moment (minus the shrieking).  They are not awful, but they are slowly slipping in the standings, making things a lot more suspenseful than fans would like. 

The schedule to close the season does the Caps no favors, either.  Six of the Caps’ last 13 games are at home, and the schedule is sprinkled with teams that are currently playoff eligible or closing on the Caps for that position: Boston twice, the New York Rangers twice, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Nashville, Montreal, Detroit, and Ottawa.  If the Caps continue as there are, there is still time for them to sink under the quicksand.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (1-2-3, even, nine shots on goal, 11 shot attempts, five hits)
  • Second Star: Alex Ovechkin (1-1-2, seven shots on goal, 21 shot attempts, ten hits)
  • Third Star: Justin Peters (9-for-9/1.000 save percentage in 23:56)
The stars were a bit dimmer this week…