Saturday, March 28, 2015

A NO-Point Afternoon -- Game 75: Predators 4 - Capitals 3

The Washington Capitals dropped a 4-3 decision to the Nashville Predators on Saturday afternoon in a game that could, from the Capitals’ perspective, be viewed as sloppy and a bit alarming as the club tries to get into a playoff frame of mind as the season winds down.

An evenly fought first period over the first half of the first period broke in Nashville’s favor just over nine minutes into the game when Mattias Ekholm scored the game’s first goal.  It was a breakdown in motion for the Caps.  The scoring play started when Gabriel Bourque cleared the puck out of the defensive zone for the Predators.  The puck made it to the Capitals’s blue line where Curtis Glencross tried to settle it, but Glencross lost his footing, and the puck found its way to Ekholm’s stick.  He skated in, and with Mike Green playing of him a bit too far, Ekholm skated across the crease and flicked a backhand shot that beat goalie Braden Holtby on the glove side to make it 1-0.

Mike Fisher doubled the Predators’ lead just over two minutes later.  With Karl Alzner having lost his stick as a Nashville power play was ending, the Predators managed to maintain pressure in the Caps’ end.  A shot by Filpi Forsberg was stopped by Holtby, but the puck bounced out to Fisher in the left wing circle.  His shot through a maze of bodies found the back of the net, and it was 2-0.

Three minutes after that, Forsberg had a goal of his own.  Mike Ribeiro fed Forsberg skating through center ice, and Forsberg carried it into the Caps’ zone.  A wrister from the left wing circle beat Holtby cleanly, and it was 3-0, Holtby finding his day done after just 14:47 of work.

The Caps made a game of it in the second period on a pair of goals by Troy Brouwer.  The first of them came just 19 seconds into the period when Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne’s attempted clear around the wall was foiled by Matt Niskanen at the blue line.  Niskanen threw the puck at the net where Evgeny Kuznetsov settled it and fired a shot on Rinne.  The puck did not find its way through, but it did find its way to Brouwer at the edge of the right wing circle, and with Rinne down he lifted it over the sprawled goalie and in, making it 3-1.

Brouwer scored again in the eighth minute as the Caps were shorthanded.  A Roman Josi pass to Forsberg exiting the Nashvill zone was not controlled by Forsberg, and Brooks Laich collected the loose puck at the red line.  Laich skated into the Nashville and slid the puck to Brouwer entering on his right.  Brouwer took one step and fired a shot that Rinne might want back, the puck darting past his left pad making it 3-2 7:32 into the period.

The Caps would get no closer.  Mike Ribeiro restored the two goal lead for Nashville mid-way through the period when Forsberg beat Brooks Orpik to a loose puck in the corner to relief goalie Justin Peters’ left. He backhanded the puck into the middle where Ribeiro redirected it in, making it 4-2 at 11:56 of the second period.

The Caps got back within a goal in the first minute of the third period, Mike Green one-timing a feed from Niskanen from the left-wing circle.  Rinne closed the door from there, however, turning away the Caps’ last nine shots of the contest, and Nashville had a 4-3 win to sweep the season series.

Other stuff…

-- Braden Holtby had gone 55 straight starts without being pulled in a contest before he was relieved in a 4-2 loss to Dallas on March 13th.  His latest streak of not being pulled from games lasted five games before being relieved just 14:47 into Saturday’s game.  It was his first no-decision since he had one in the first game from which he was pulled this season, a 6-5 loss to San Jose on October 14th.

-- Justin Peters allowed only one goal on 14 shots in relief of Holtby, but he was tagged with the loss.  In his last four contests he has stopped 88 of 96 shots (13 of 14 against Nashville) for a respectable .917 save percentage.

-- On a day when the Caps struggled early and often, Troy Brouwer ended up a plus-3, his best such mark in a game this season and his best as a Capital.  The last time he was a plus-3 was in a 7-2 win over San Jose when he played for the Chicago Blackhawks back on November 25, 2009.  His second goal of the game was his 20th, making it two straight seasons with 20 or more goals and three in his nine-year career.

-- Six of one, a half dozen of the other…shots and hits, that is, for Alex Ovechkin.  No points, though, the first time he has gone three or more games without a point since mid-December.

-- Nicklas Backstrom has also gone three games without a point and in this game failed to record a shot on goal for the third time in his last six games.  He does not have a goal since February 19th, a streak of 16 games and counting.

-- John Carlson had four shots, 12 shot attempts, and 23 minutes of ice time. He was also charged with five giveaways.

-- The Caps punished the Predators physically, if hits are an indicator.  They were credited with 45 hits to 17 for the Preds.  Brooks Orpik had ten of his own.

-- Filip Forsberg recorded his first three-point game for Nashville since he recorded a goal and a pair of assists in a 4-3 loss to St. Louis on November 13th.

-- The four even strength goals allowed by the Caps was the first time they allowed four goals at even strength since January 27th in a 4-3 loss to Columbus.

-- The Caps went 0-for-3 on the power play, their fourth straight game without a power play goal, their longest such drought since going four straight without a power play goal, November 14-20.

In the end…

Nashville is a very good team, but on a day when the Predators were missing elite defenseman Shea Weber and the Boston Bruins were beating the New York Rangers to close put more pressure on the Caps in the standings, this had to be considered an opportunity passing them by.  They simply dug themselves too deep a hole too early and got less-than-needed games from the guys who need to play big at this time of year – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Holtby   Perhaps they were looking ahead to the Sunday afternoon game in New York against the Rangers, but at this point looking ahead at all is an invitation to looking ahead to tee times in April.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 75: Predators at Capitals, March 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals look to make it five wins in their last six games as they wrap up their abbreviated two-game home stand against the Nashville Predators on Saturday afternoon.  This will be the Caps’ last contest against a Western Conference opponent this season, unless they should advance to the Stanley Cup final. The Caps come into this contest with a 12-12-3 record against the West this season, a 6-7-0 record against the Central Division, and an 0-1-0 record against the Predators, having lost a 4-3 decision in Nashville on January 16th when the Preds overcame a 3-2 deficit with two goals in the final five minutes of the contest to take the victory.

Nashville comes into this contest with something of a rocky 2015 portion of the season, although the Predators seem to be righting themselves at the right time.  Their streaks since the new year began look like this:
  • January 3 – 16: 6-0-1 (ending with the win over the Caps)
  • January 17 – 30: 1-2-2
  • February 1 – 17: 8-1-0
  • February 19 – March 17: 4-9-2
  • March 21 – 26: 3-0-0
That 22-12-5 record overall has left the Predators at the top of the Central Division and with the second best record in the conference (46-21-8/100 points), one point behind the Anaheim Ducks (47-22-7/101 points).

Nashville has struggled on the road recently, even through their streaks, posting a 3-4-0 road record in March.  In those seven games the Predators have been outscored, 17-11, and their special teams have not been very special.  The power play is 2-for-24 in the seven road games (8.3 percent), while the penalty kill is 15-for-21 (71.4 percent).

Scoring has come hard for the Predators on the road in March.  Only once in seven away games have they recorded more than two goals, and only Paul Gaustad has more than one goal for the Predators in those seven games.  Those two goals doubled Gaustad’s total for the season, the four goals being a career low for a season in which Gaustad played in at least 50 games.  In 24 career games against the Capitals, he is 2-2-4, plus-5.

Taylor Beck is in his first full season with the Predators after being taken in the third round of the 2009 entry draft.  He also happens to be Nashville’s leading scorer on the road in March with four points (1-3-4).  It is something of an unexpected outburst from Beck, who for the season is 7-8-15.  He is something of a road warrior, though.  Of his seven goals, five have come on the road, and 11 of this 15 points have been recorded outside of Tennessee.  He has appeared in just one game against the Caps so far in his career, finishing without a point.

Perhaps lost in the hoopla that surrounds the season of Montreal goaltender Carey Price, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne is putting together a season that would appear to make him a contender for one of the other finalist spots for the Vezina Trophy.  Rinne is tied with Price for most wins by a goaltender (40), is third in goals against average (2.08), is fifth in save percentage (.927), and has four shutouts.  His .935 save percentage at even strength is fifth among goaltenders appearing in at least 20 games this season.  He has done his part on the road for the Predators in March, although his record does not reflect it.  He is 3-3-0 in March road games with a 2.02 goals against average and a .929 save percentage.  In one of the odd instances of the Caps-Predators rivalry, Rinne has appeared against the Caps only once in his career, that coming in November 2011.  He made 39 saves in a 3-1 win in Nashville.

Here is how the teams’ numbers compare overall:

1.  Nashville is something of a slow starter in games, having scored only 54 goals in the first periods of games this season.  They do close with a rush, though.  Of their 200 goals scored in regulation, 146 of them (73 percent) have been scored in the final 40 minutes.

2.  Only the New York Rangers have a larger ratio of goals scored to goals allowed at 5-on-5 this season (1.37:1) than the Predators (1.31:1).  The Rangers have a goal differential of plus-44 at 5-on-5, while Nashville has one of plus-41 (the Caps are plus-7).

3.  The sweet spot for beating Nashville is the two-goal decision.  The Predators have the third-best winning percentage in one-goal games (.674/29-6-8), and they have the third-best winning percentage in games decided by three or more goals (.667/12-6).  In two-goal games they are 5-9 (.357 winning percentage).

4.  Those first period goal totals suggest that Nashville is not an especially adept team at front-running, but watch out if they do get out to leads.  They have scored the first goal only 32 times in 75 games, the seventh-fewest amount of first-goal games in the league.  However, when scoring that first goal, Nashville is 26-2-4, their .813 winning percentage third-best in the league.  Similarly for first period leads, the Predators have led after 20 minutes just 22 times in 75 games, 12th fewest in the league.  They are, however, 19-1-2 in those games, their .864 winning percentage ranking third in the league.

5. Nashville’s possession performance in March road games has been very different in 5-on-5 situations overall and 5-on-5 close score situations.  Overall, the Predators’ Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages at 5-on-5 are 50.2/49.4.  In close score situations those percentages jump: 55.0/53.6.

1.  Nashville does not score much in the first period of games, and the Caps are stingy in allowing goals in the first period of contests.  Only five teams have allowed fewer first period goals than the 50 allowed by Washington (of course, Nashville recorded one of those goals in the first meeting of the clubs).  The Caps have, however, been a bit less stingy at home, allowing 25 goals in the first period of 37 home games (12th-fewest in the league).

2.  If PDO is, in part, “puck luck,” the Caps don’t seem to have it late in games at home.  They have a 5-on-5 PDO at home of 101.9 in the first periods of games (seventh-best in the league), and a second period 5-on-5 PDO of 101.6 (eighth).  The third period falls off – 98.3 (23rd).

3.  The Caps have won four of their last five games, but they have not been doing it with offense.  In those five games they have only 11 goals, and their power play is 3-for-11 (but 0-for-8 in the last three games).  They have played on the margin, too, winning two games in extra time and another by one goal.

4.  Washington still needs to improve on those one-goal games, though.  The Caps rank 18th in one-goal game winning percentage (.452/19-13-10).  Decisions by more than one goal are not a problem (21-11, including a league best 12-4 record in games decided by three or more goals).

5.  In their recent five-game run of good fortune, the Caps’ possession numbers have been generally solid.  At 5-on-5 overall their Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages are 56.0/54.6.  In close score situations they are 55.3/53.9.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Nashville: Seth Jones

Learning to play defense for a defenseman in the National Hockey League is a process, not an instant mix in which you just add talent, even for a fourth overall pick like Seth Jones.  Last season – his rookie year in the NHL – Jones was on ice for 76 goals against in 77 games (1,511 minutes played).  Only Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba was on ice for more goals against among rookie defensemen (77).  This year, in 75 games, Jones has been on ice for only 56 goals against (1,466 minutes played).  He has managed this improvement with almost identical offensive numbers: 6-19-25 last season, 6-18-24 this season.  It is the difference between being a minus-23 last season (last among rookie defensemen) and being a plus-6 this season.  Jones is 1-1-2, plus-3 in two career games against the Caps.

Washington: Joel Ward

Joel Ward has never scored a goal against his old team, either before he joined the Predators when he played for Minnesota (he never faced Nashville as a member of the Wild) or since joining the Capitals (no goals in five games).  Of more immediate concern, Ward has gone seven straight games without a goal, and he has just seven in his last 52 games dating back to November 28th (an 11-goal season pace).  It is a symptom of the lack of secondary scoring the Caps have had.

Ward has been something of a slow finisher in the regular season over his career.  In the last ten games of each of his six full seasons before this one, he had six goals in the 60 games.  Getting more production out of Ward – and the bottom nine forwards generally – will be key in whether the Caps advance to the post season or find themselves coming up short.  Ward is 0-1-1, minus-1, in five career games against Nashville.

In the end…

The playoffs start early for the Caps.  Despite holding a five-point lead over both the Ottawa Senators and the Boston Bruins for one of the two wild-card playoff spots, the Senators hold a game in hand and, more important, the schedule to close the regular season is sprinkled with playoff-eligible teams throughout for the Caps.  It starts today against the Predators.  Fortunately for the Caps, history would appear to be on their side.  Washington holds a 7-2-0 all-time record against Nashville at Verizon Center and have a four-game home winning streak against the Preds.  It seems likely to be a game that fans of the game within a game – goalie vs. goalie – will like, but one that will feature little offense.  Pekka Rinne will be hard to solve, but a power play goal, a deflection, and an empty netter might be the formula here.

Capitals 3 – Predators 1