Friday, October 16, 2015

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 4: Hurricanes at Capitals, October 17

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals conclude their four-game season-opening home stand when they host the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night.  Capitals fans will be forgiven for wondering which team will show up for this contest, what with having dispatched the New Jersey Devils by a 5-3 margin in the season opener, looking like lost puppies in the rain in a 5-0 shutout at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, and then dismantling the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday by a 4-1 margin.

As for the Hurricanes, no one thought they would be very good, and in the early going they are performing beneath expectations.  Carolina will bring an 0-3-0 record into this game, getting outscored by a 10-5 margin in the process.  Their power play is weak (1-for-13/7.7 percent), their one goal coming in the final three seconds of a 4-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings.  Their penalty kill is average (6-for-7/85.7 percent), owing what success it has to the few instances in which it has been called upon.  At even strength, the Hurricanes have been outscored, 9-4, and an 0.44 5-on-5 goals-for to goals-against ratio is not a foundation for success.

Only one Hurricane player has more than one point through three games.  That would be Justin Faulk (1-2-3), who is likely to be one of the very few bright spots this season on which Carolina can build going forward.  Still just 23 years old, Faulk has 265 games of NHL experience in his pocket, and he is growing into a minutes-eater.  He has averaged almost 24 minutes per game over his career to date and is averaging 25:57 in three games so far this season (fifth among defensemen in the league).  Faulk is first in his 2010 draft class among defensemen in career goals (34) and second in points (121, to Cam Fowler with 150).  He is 2-6-8, even, in 18 career games against Washington.

If Faulk is an up-and-comer for the Hurricanes, Eric Staal represents the other end of the spectrum. He is by far the dean of the club in terms of service.  His 849 games played with the club is by far the most (no other current Hurricane has played as many as 350 games with the team), and he is the fifth-oldest player on the roster at age 30 (he will turn 31 at the end of this month).  More to the point, Staal has a lot of fine memories with the club, including a Stanley Cup championship in 2006, but with the Hurricanes in rebuilding mode and Staal’s contract expiring with the club at the end of this season, his greatest value might be what he can fetch in return from a trade next February.

To say that Staal is in decline would not be completely fair, given the team around him the past few years, but his production is trending in that direction.  From 53 points in 48 games three seasons ago (1.10 points per game) to 61 in 79 games two seasons ago (0.77) to 54 in 77 games last season (0.70), it is a downward pointing arrow for which he might need a change of scenery to reverse. 

What Staal has been against the Caps is a reliable point-per-game producer overall (68 points in 68 career games). But even here there have been signs of slowing down.  He was 2-0-2 in four games against Washington last season and did not record a goal in five games against the Caps the previous year (he did have five assists).  What he does not yet have in three games so far this season is a point at 5-on-5.  He scored late in the Hurricanes’ 2-1 loss to the Nashville Predators in the season opener, but that goal came with Carolina goalie Cam Ward pulled for a sixth attacker.

Speaking of Cam Ward, here is another player who might be worth more at auction than in the lineup.  A Stanley Cup-winning veteran, like Staal, Ward has never really come all that close to fulfilling the promise that early career championship suggested. In nine seasons since, Ward has never had a goals against average lower than 2.40 (last season,18th in the league among goalies appearing in at least 41 games, but his career best), nor has he had more than one season with a save percentage above .920, that lone season coming in 2010-2011 (.923). 

Further, Ward has not been much of a minutes-eater as number one goaltenders go.  Only four times in his career has he appeared in more than 60 games, and only six times has he logged more than 3,000 minutes.  He has appeared in two games so far, allowing six goals on 44 shots (3.08/.864) in two losses.  Against the Caps, Ward is 16-13-4, 2.60, .919, with four shutouts over his career.

Here is how the teams compare in their numbers from last season:

1.  Carolina is coming to Washington to play the back-half of back-to-back games, flying in from Detroit after their Friday night game.  Since Cam Ward is expected to start that game against the Red Wings, the goaltending duties could fall to Eddie Lack in the Saturday night contest in Washington.  Lack was obtained from Vancouver in trade at the NHL draft last June for a pair of draft picks.  The native of Sweden is 34-31-9, 2.44, .916, with six shutouts in 83 career appearances in the NHL.  He is 0-1-0, 4.10, .810 in one appearance against Washington, a 4-3 loss to the Caps in March 2014.

2.  Jeff Skinner, he of the widely circulated and always amusing tantrum against the Caps in November 2011…

…is now the second-longest tenured Hurricane player with 339 games played.  At the age of 23.

3.  Jordan Staal is something of an interesting case when it comes to, of all things, postseason awards.  In six seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he earned votes in each season for the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward, twice placing in the top-ten and once as high as third.  In his first season with Carolina, he finished 29th in Selke voting, and in the three years since…crickets. Has he gotten worse, or was the voting a product of the quality of team around him? 

4.  Carolina is second in the league – not second-worst, second in the league – in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (57.5 percent, just behind Los Angeles with 58.1).  In close-score situations, though, that number drops to 52.9 (numbers from Still good (10th in the league), but you can see trouble in the future.

5.  Carolina has not received the goaltending it needs in recent years.  They have not had a goalie play in at least half the team’s games and finish with a save percentage above .910 since Cam Ward posted a .915 save percentage in 68 games in 2011-2012.  It looks as if they will struggle to do it this year, too.  Neither Ward nor Eddie Lack are above .900 so far.

1.  The four-game home stand to open the season ties for the longest such home stand to open a season in Capitals history, matching a four-game home stand to open the 1980-1981 season (the Caps went 2-1-1 in the days when they had ties).

2.  Alex Ovechkin has as many goals as Troy Brouwer.  Bet this is the last time this season we type that sentence.

3.  Alex Ovechkin has as many goals as Matt Niskanen.  See previous item.

4.  The Caps already have four defensemen with points.  Not bad considering last season they had eight, and two of them were traded for one another (Jack Hillen for Tim Gleason).

5.  Washington is 23rd in Corsi-for percentage in close-score situations (46.2), just ahead of Arizona (numbers from  They can do better.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Carolina: Noah Hanifin

Through Thursday’s games, Carolina defenseman Noah Hanifin is one of just five players taken in the 2015 NHL draft last June to dress for an NHL game so far this season and the only defenseman to do so.  He has not exactly been babied in his introduction the NHL, averaging more than 17 minutes a game in the early going.  It has been a quick rise for the rookie, having gone from St. Sebastian’s High School in 2012-2013 to the US National Team Development program the following season, to the Boston College Eagles last season, to the NHL this season.  Hanifin recorded his first NHL point – an assist on Carolina’s first goal – in the Hurricanes’ 4-3 loss to Detroit last Saturday.  Hanafin is the youngest defenseman in the league (almost a full year younger than Florida’s Aaron Ekblad) and will be making his first appearance in Washington.

Washington: Brooks Laich

There are 13 Capitals with points through the team’s first three games.  Of the eight who do not, there are names you expect to see – rookie Chandler Stephenson (who has played in just one game), fourth liner Michael Latta, new guys Taylor Chorney and Sean Collins.  One name there is just disappointing – Brooks Laich.  Sure, it is early, and there are a lot of guys in the league without a point in their first few games, some of them quite well known

Still, after spending so much time over the past several seasons trying to rehabilitate himself from a chronic groin problem, fans are anxious to see Laich return to something resembling the player he was a half dozen years ago.  It is hard to do getting fourth-line minutes (he is 10th of 14 forwards in ice time per game), but getting contributions from Laich going forward are going to be helpful in whatever success the Caps enjoy this season.  It might be that he does it purely as a defensive forward (he is leading the team in penalty killing ice time).  You do what you have to do, and in Laich’s case it might not show up in the production numbers. He has had some success against Carolina, going 9-9-18 in 50 career games.

In the end…

The Caps have alternated good and bad games out of the gate.  If the pattern holds, they would lay an egg at center ice against the Hurricanes.  Carolina has been doing nothing but that so far, though.  They have yet to score first in a game, they have yet to take a lead into the first intermission.  The Hurricanes have trailed at the second intermission in all three games to date.

That brings us back once more to the whole “sticking to the script” idea.  Line 17 in the script says, “no taking bad teams lightly” (okay, we made that up).  And, Carolina can score, at least on paper, with the Brothers Staal, Justin Faulk, and Jeff Skinner in the lineup.  What the Caps should not lack for in this game, even if Nicklas Backstrom’s season debut is put off another game, is offense.  Carolina’s goaltending and defensive depth just is not very impressive.  That should make for an early evening for the competitive portion of the game, so long as the script is being stuck to…or however you’re supposed to end that sentence.

Capitals 5 – Hurricanes 1

A TWO-Point Night: Capitals 4 - Blackhawks 1

If the Caps played out a dark fantasy of life without Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on Tuesday in their 5-0 shutout loss to the San Jose Sharks, they displayed what makes them bona fide contenders for a championship this season in their 4-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night.

The Caps were skilled, balanced, focused, and steady.  It started early, even before T.J. Oshie opened the scoring mid-way through the first period.  The Caps outshot the Blackhawks, 6-0, before Oshie lit the lamp for his first goal as a Capital at the 8:48 mark.  With Viktor Tikhonov in the penalty box for an interference call, the Caps needed just 17 seconds to covert the power play opportunity.  Playing the “axle” spot in the Caps’ 1-3-1 formation, Oshie one-timed an Evgeny Kuznetsov pass from the right wing wall past goalie Scott Darling, and the Caps were off and running.

Chicago picked up the offensive pace in the second period, but it was John Carlson who would score the period’s first and only goal.  Taking a Stan Galiev pass at the blue line with his back to the net, Carlson spun and fired a long-range shot that beat Darling on the long side past his blocker.

Matt Niskanen gave the Caps a 3-0 lead early in the third period when he took advantage of the Blackhawks paying too close attention to Marcus Johansson circling out from behind the Chicago net.  Niskanen filled in the high slot, Johansson found him, and Niskanen buried the shot to give the Caps a three-goal lead.

Chicago got that one back barely a minute after the Caps’ goal celebration ended, courtesy of Viktor Svedberg, but that would be as close as the visitors would get.  Alex Ovechkin rounded out the scoring when he snapped a shot from a near-impossible angle at the Chicago goal line off a Kuznetsov feed to make it a happy night for Caps fans.

Other stuff…

-- As prolific a goal scorer as Alex Ovechkin is, this is the first time he recorded goals in the first two games he played since 2012-2013.  He finished that abbreviated season with 32 goals in 48 games (a 55-goal pace).

-- Oshie scores, Ovechkin scores, two goals from defensemen.  But don’t forget the two primary assists from Evgeny Kuznetsov, who looked at home in that spot in the middle of the top line.

-- Marcus Johansson is quietly putting together a nice start to the season. A game-winning goal in the opener and two assists in this game.

-- Unlike Tuesday night, the Caps jumped on Chicago early.  At 5-on-5 they had 20 shot attempts in the first period to nine for the Blackhawks.

-- With the Caps holding the most dangerous lead in hockey – a two-goal lead – they held the Blackhawks without a shot on goal for 7:34 late in the third period, adding Ovechkin’s goal during that span to seal the outcome.

-- Tom Wilson continues to impress in the early going as a more rounded player.  He did not record a point in this game, but in 16:35 in ice time he had three shots on goal, three hits, two blocked shots, and no fights.

-- Chandler Stephenson dressed for his first NHL game.  While his baptism was short (nine shifts – fewest on the team – and 8:43 in ice time), he won five of six faceoffs.

-- John Carlson is certainly getting the chance to expand his role with the departure of Mike Green.  He skated more than 25 minutes for the second straight game.  It was the first time he did that since Games 71 and 72 last season.

-- Braden Holtby played perhaps his most solid game of the young season.  He was not severely tested over long stretches, but he made the stops he had to make when he needed to make them.  The goal he allowed might have been a bit of bad luck as Viktor Svedberg’s initial shot was blocked by T.J. Oshie, but the puck dribbled past Oshie’s leg, allowing Svedberg to step around and get another whack at it.

-- The game within a game…no two players faced off more against one another in this game than Jay Beagle against Jonathan Toews.  Both are accomplished performers in the circle.  They took 12 draws against one another, splitting them right down the middle at six apiece.

In the end…

Sure, the Blackhawks played the night before (and it showed in the third period), and they put their backup goalie out there.  Still, the Caps shut the big guns down.  Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews had but one shot on goal apiece.  If Viktor Svedberg is getting almost a fifth of the shot attempts (10 of 55), it is probably good defense being applied in other places. 

What is perhaps the best takeaway from this game is the business-like effort.  The Caps went out to play a solid game in all three zones and did precisely that.  This, Caps fans, is what “sticking to the script” is going to look like.  Don’t get too “down” over a loss like Tuesday night’s shutout.  Go out and do your job the next night.  They did their job well in this one.