Sunday, March 22, 2015

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 24

In Week 24 the Washington Capitals found themselves at the top of that roller coaster on which they have been riding over the last seven weeks.  A heavy workload (four games) and a good record (3-1-0) left the Caps on the brink of making reservations for the playoffs. On the brink does not mean circling the dates on the calendar in pen, though, not just yet anyway.

Record: 3-1-0

This was the Capitals’ fourth three-or-more win week in their last seven weeks.  The difficulty with that is that the club keeps alternating such weeks with those in which they have one or fewer wins.  This was a satisfying week in that the Caps started the week by salvaging a disappointing home stand with a gritty shutout win over the Boston Bruins, a team that had been closing on the Caps for the first wild card spot in the playoffs, then following up that win with a pair of road wins.  The trick shot win in Buffalo was scarier than it probably should have been, but then again, the Caps have not won a game in regulation in Buffalo since February 2011 and were 2-2-1 in Buffalo (both wins in extra time) since that win.  It has not been the easiest place in which to earn a win.  The Caps then won their first game ever at Xcel Center in Minnesota before dropping a 3-0 decision to Winnipeg to close the week.  That loss was disappointing for its intensity level, but in the larger picture, the week went well.

Offense:  2.00/game (season: 2.85/game; rank: 7th)

It was a light week at the offensive end of the ice, even accounting for the fact that the fourth game of the week ended in a shutout against the Caps.  It was one of those “on the one hand, on the other” sorts of weeks. 

On the one hand, the Caps opened the week facing a goalie – Boston’s Tuukka Rask – who was 6-1-1, 1.59, .950, with one shutout in his previous eight appearances.  On the other, the Caps had been Rask’s personal tormentors over his career, Rask struggling with a 1-4-1, 3.13, .883 career record against the Caps.  The Caps got a goal in each of the first two periods and groundout a 2-0 win over Rask.

On the one hand, the Caps faced a Sabres team that had been leaking goals all season and had traded both of their goaltenders away.  On the other, as we noted, the Caps have not had much success recently in Buffalo. They fell behind twice by a goal, took a lead, but could not add to it, relying on the trick shot phase for a win.

On the one hand…well, there is no such thing in the game against Minnesota.  Wild Goalie Devan Dubnyk had allowed as many as three goals in a game just once in his previous 14 appearances.  The Caps scored two goals less than a minute apart in the second period against Dubnyk, added one in the third period, and pinned on Dubnyk just his sixth loss in regulation in 28 decisions with the Wild.

In the last game of the week the Caps came out fairly well, but slowly had the air leak out of their balloon, several shots hitting iron further frustrating the club before they finished against Winnipeg shut out.  It was the fourth time the Caps were shut out this season.

As it was, eight goals was a light week for the Caps, made lighter by the fact that half of the goals came from Alex Ovechkin (two) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (two).  Only one other goal came from a forward (Curtis Glencross).

Defense: 2.00/game (season: 2.41/game; rank: 6th)

The Caps’ defense was probably good enough to win all four games in Week 24.  The shots allowed was an average week of sorts (29.8 allowed per game), but it was possession numbers that were noteworthy.  Washington won the possession battle in each game and overall.  Their 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentages were north of 50 percent in each game and for the week was 56.6.  Those trends were maintained in close score situations with the Caps winning each game and finishing the week with a Corsi-for percentage of 55.3.

That is where the fickleness of hockey makes its appearance.  Consider two goals, both in the game against Buffalo.  One occurred when an innocent enough backhand shot by Cody Hodgson was stopped by goalie Braden Holtby, but the puck popped straight up into the air.  When it came down it did so on Holtby’s back, then trickled over the goal line.  The second goal (Buffalo’s third, and the game-tying goal) came on a redirect by Johan Larsson of a shot from the point.  Redirects involve some measure of skill (and, in this case, some measure of poor defensive positioning to allow Larsson position to execute the play), but they involve some measure of luck given the respective shapes of the puck and a hockey stick.  If a floating puck lands at Holtby’s feet instead of on his back; if a redirect goes just wide of instead of just inside the post, the scoring defense numbers look more like the possession numbers.

It was a difficult week for John Carlson.  He was on ice for four of the seven non-empty net goals scored against the Caps, although he skated in iffy circumstances.  For example, it was his partner, Nate Schmidt, who was victimized by Larsson’s game-tying goal in the Buffalo game.  On the other hand, he could not fight his way around Larsson on Tyler Ennis’ power play goal on a give-and-go that gave the Sabres their first goal in that game. 

Joel Ward also found himself on ice for four goals against (including the empty netter scored by Winnipeg).  As it was, every Capital skater dressing in Week 24 found themselves finishing the week with at least one goal against having been scored while they were on the ice except Chris Conner, who managed to avoid that problem in the two games he played.

Goaltending: 1.72 / .941 / 1 shutout (season: 2.34 / .918 / 8 shutouts)

Another week, another Braden Holtby production.  Holtby took all the minutes for the Caps in Week 24 and played very well overall as the top line numbers above suggest.  By period he was fine as well, posting save percentages by period all in excess of .920 (.921/.949/.947/1.000).  He finished the week in the league’s top ten in wins (35/3rd), goals against average (2.18/7th), save percentage (.924/8th), and shutouts (8/3rd).  He is 11th among goalies appearing in at least 20 games in even strength save percentage (.930).  The one area in which Holtby had issues this season – shootout save percentage – was one in which he was perfect for the week.  He came into the week with a .667 save percentage in the trick shot phase (the league average is .700), but he turned away all three attempts to seal the Caps’ 4-3 Gimmick win over Buffalo.

Power Play: 3-for-10 / 30.0 percent (season: 24.9 percent; rank: 2nd)

The Capitals certainly have dialed up their power play in March.  Coming into Week 24 they were 6-for-14 (42.9 percent) in six games.  They actually fell back a bit in Week 24, going 3-for-10 (30 percent).  What made the week a bit stranger was that Washington converted each of its first three power play opportunities of the week before going 0-for-7 in their last two games.  The odd thing about the week, and the three goals, is that none of the goals – none of the points, in fact – were recorded by the league’s leading power play goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin.  Nicklas Backstrom, who finished the week tied with Ovechkin for second in power play points in the league, managed only one assist among the three goals scored. 

As it was, there were three different power play goal scorers for the Caps – John Carlson, Curtis Glencross, and Evgeny Kuznetsov.  It was Matt Niskanen who had the only multiple assist week on the power play (two).

As one might expect from the results, the efficiency of the power play broke into two pieces for the week.  In the first two games the Caps were 3-for-3, scoring three goals on seven shots in just 3:48 of power play ice time.  In the last two games the power play was 0-for-7, failing on all seven shot attempts in 13:15 of man advantage ice time while allowing a shorthanded goal in a 6-on-4 situation late in the 3-0 loss to Winnipeg.

Penalty Killing: 11-for-13 / 84.6 percent (season: 81.2 percent; rank: 17th)

Week 24 was a good, if not great week for the Capitals. The odd part of it was that the power play goals were scored by Buffalo (30th in the league in power play efficiency/29th at home) and Minnesota (27th overall/14th at home).  Not that Boston (19th overall/25th on the road) or Winnipeg (14th overall/17th at home) are especially prolific on the man advantage, but it was a bit of an odd week on the PK. 

It was not a bad week, efficiency-wise, but it might have been better.  The Caps gave up two goals on 24 shots (score one for goaltending on the penalty kill, a .917 save percentage) in 22:34 of penalty killing ice time.  Fourteen of those 24 shots (seven apiece) were recorded by the low-ranked Sabres and Wild in just over nine minutes of ice time.  You never know who it is you are going to struggle against in this game.

Even Strength Goals for/Goals Against: 5-5 / even (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 1.06; rank: 14th)

It would have been a pretty good week but for that Winnipeg game.  The Caps were outscored, 2-0, at evens against the Jets to leave them even for the week.  It was a deceptively poor sort of result in Week 24 for the Caps, who out-shot their opponents at even strength by a 110-93 margin and out-attempted them by a whopping 227-173 at even strength (5-on-5, 4-on-4).

The problem seemed to be more on the offensive end, where the Caps shot to just a 4.5 percent efficiency rate at evens for the week.  And there was the goal scoring.  Alex Ovechkin had a pair of even strength goals (both against Minnesota), and Evgeny Kuznetsov had one.  That did it for the forwards.  Mike Green and Nate Schmidt added one apiece from the blue line.  Secondary scoring was more a rumor than a fact at evens in Week 24.

Faceoffs: 109-224 / 48.7 percent (season: 51.5% / rank: 10th)

This was not a particularly good week for the Caps in the faceoff circle.  They were one win over .500 in the offensive end (43-for-85), and they lost both the defensive zone (36-for-73) and the neutral zone (30-for-66) for the week.  Further, it was the guys taking the heavy workload who had off weeks for the most part.  Among Caps taking at least ten draws, Nicklas Backstrom finished the week over 50 percent (51.5) on the strength of winning in the ends (56.7 percent in the offensive zone, 64.7 percent in the defensive zone).  Otherwise, Troy Brouwer (43.3 percent), Eric Fehr (44.2 percent), Evgeny Kuznetsov (44.9 percent), and Brooks Laich (47.4 percent) struggled.

Goals by Period:

While the week finished even overall for the Caps – eight goals scored, eight allowed – the periods were a bit of a different story.  The Caps lost the first (2-3) and third (2-3) periods, but won the second periods (4-2).  It was not as if the Caps were giving up an inordinate number of shots in the first or third periods.  Not counting empty net shots, the Caps allowed 38, 39, and 38 shots in the first, second, and third periods, respectively.

As it is, though, the Caps are the most consistent team in the league in one respect, unchanged from when the week began.  Washington is the only team in the league with a goal differential of plus-10 or better in each period in the 2014-2015 season to date (plus-10, plus-13, plus-11, in the first, second, and third period, respectively).

In the end…

Sure, a perfect week would have been nice.  As it was, the Caps ended their homestand on an up-note, then they went off and won two of three on the road.  In a sense, the road loss was unexpected since it was Braden Holtby taking the loss in Winnipeg, a city in which he had never lost as a Capital (4-0-0, 1.22, .962, with two shutouts against the Jets).

The Caps started the week tied with Boston in standings points and holding the second wild card spot, six points ahead of ninth-place Florida.  At week’s end the Caps held the first wild card spot, four points ahead of the Bruins.  They were just two points behind Pittsburgh for third place in the Metropolitan Division and four points behind the New York Islanders.  In that sense, Week 24 was a good week, further solidifying the Caps’ playoff position.

The season has now come down to less than a month and fewer than ten games for the Caps.  If one was inclined to play that “if they go…” game, then if the Caps go .500 in standings points over their last nine games they will finish with 97 standings points.  In that instance, Ottawa would have to earn 14 points over their last 11 games to catch the Caps, 15 points to pass them, assuming the Senators, with 31 wins in regulation and overtime, cannot catch the Caps in that category (Washington has 35 such wins).  And even with that, the Bruins would need 13 points in their last ten games to catch the Caps to earn the other wild card spot.  We are now at the points where it would take a most unlikely coincidence of events to keep Washington out of the post season.

But not impossible.  There is still work to do.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Matt Niskanen (0-3-3, minus-1, 24:09 average ice time, seven blocked shots)
  • Second Star: Braden Holtby (3-1-0, 1.72,  .941, 1 shutout)
  • Third Star: Alex Ovechkin (2-0-2, even, 1 GWG, 21 shots, 52 shot attempts, nine hits)