Saturday, October 31, 2015

Washington Capitals Recap: A TWO-Point Night: Capitals 2 - Panthers 1

When the Washington Capitals were winning six times in seven games to open the 2015-2016 season, they did it with overwhelming firepower, posting five wins by multi-goal margins.  So, we know they can pound teams with offense.  This weekend we found that they can grind games out, too.  The Caps posted their second consecutive 2-1 decision, downing the Florida Panthers by that margin on Saturday night.

Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the game-winner3:44 into the extra session when he took a pass from Dmitry Orlov at the far edge of the right wing circle, circled out through the middle of the ice, faked a pass to Alex Ovechkin crossing behind him, curled in and fired a low shot between the pads of goalie Al Montoya.

It was a sudden end to what had been a rather dull affair, long stretches of inconsequential action interrupted by odd goals. The Panthers got the first of them in the third minute of the second period as a Caps power play was ending.  Alex Ovechkin fired a slap shot off the foot of Panther defenseman Alex Petrovic, the puck rebounding to the stick of Dave Bolland just inside the Panther blue line.  He skated out with Jussi Jokinen on his right.  As Bolland reached the Caps line, he tried to feather a pass to Jokinen heading down the middle.  The bouncing puck eluded Jokinen’s first swipe at it, but he caught it flush on the second try and sent it over goalie Philipp Grubauer’s left shoulder for a 1-0 Panther lead.  Petrovic, who was still lying in a heap in his own end when Jokinen scored, got an assist.  Probably the most painful assist he will have in his career.

That goal stood up for almost 20 minutes.  In the third minute of the third period, Justin Williams won a battle for the puck along the right wing wall and walked it out into the right wing faceoff circle.  He sent a pass out to Ovechkin in the high slot, and Ovechkin did what he does – fired the puck.  The puck was deflected in front, and before Montoya could smother it, Jay Beagle jumped in to tap it off Montoya’s left skate and in to tie the contest. 

The play was reviewed by the on-ice officials after Florida coach Gerard Gallant, who felt that Williams interfered with Montoya as he was cruising across the top of the crease, exercised his coach's challenge.  The officials went to the tablet to review the play…and review the play…and review the play…and finally concluded that the goal was good.  That would be all the scoring until Kuznetsov ended things on a high note for the Caps in overtime, 2-1.

Other stuff…

-- The play leading to the Kuznetsov goal looked a lot like the “read option” play in football.  Think of it this way.  Kuznetsov took the “snap” from Dmitry Orlov and walked the puck down the line.  He faked a “handoff” to Ovechkin that froze the defense for an instant.  It created an opening on the “edge” of the line that Kuznetsov could exploit to break free and move in for the score.

-- For the second straight game, the Caps were involved in a coach’s challenge on a goal.  Both times, the goal was allowed, the Caps splitting the decisions for the weekend.  And we are no clearer tonight on what the criteria are for affirming or rejecting a challenge than we were before the weekend.

-- Kuznetsov was awarded the game’s first star.  Sure, he was the star of overtime, but of the game?  He had one shot attempt in the regulation portion of the game and was moved off the top line.  In 32:30 of regulation ice time for the weekend, he had one shot attempt, four hits, a giveaway, a takeaway, and won 14 of 26 draws.  It was not a great weekend, although we will take happy conclusions like the one on Saturday.

-- More often that it merits, people will look at a goalie stopping 26 of 27 shots in an overtime win and say, “if not for [insert name of goalie], the game would have been over long ago.”  It was true on Saturday night for the Caps, though.  Philipp Grubauer – who really should have been the first star of the game – kept the Caps from embarrassing themselves with the opportunities the Panthers were getting in deep against the defense.  He was a perfect 8-for-8 on Florida power play shots.

-- Speaking of power play, there will be an all-points bulletin issued for the Caps' version of it soon.  After going 0-for-2 against Florida, Washington is now 0-for-7 over their last three games and 2-for-16 over their last six games.  They have been held without a power play goal in 13 of their last 21 regular season games dating back to last year.

-- Alex Ovechkin recorded two shots on goal (none at even strength).  It is the first time he has been held to two shots or fewer in consecutive games since a four-game stretch early last season, October 18-26.  The Caps went 2-2-0 in those games.  Ovechkin went 81 games without consecutive games with two shots or fewer.  He did have eight shot attempts, making it 20 in two nights.  Of that total, nine of them were misses.

-- Of five Capitals taking more than one faceoff, Chandler Stephenson was the only one coming out on the losing side of the ledger.  He was 0-for-4.

-- Some arenas score hits differently than others.  In Florida, they appear to be generous.  The teams combined for 69 hits, and of the 35 recorded by the Caps, only Dmitry Orlov and Justin Williams were not credited with any.  Kuznetsov led the team with four.

-- A slow start plagued the Caps once more.  On Friday night, Washington did not record its first shot on goal until the 6:36 mark against Columbus.  Against Florida, the first shot on goal was recorded at the 6:54 mark.

-- For the fifth time in ten games, John Carlson recorded more than 25 minutes of ice time.  He skated a season high 28:19.

In the end…

It was by no means pretty, but not all wins are beauty pageants.  The glass-half-full version of this game is that the Caps won in spite of not playing very well for many stretches of the game.  Too often, the Caps coughed up the puck in dangerous places and allowed the Panthers chances. That Philipp Grubauer was a pool of calm (note: not "clam," as in a previous version) in goal – and aggressive when need be to challenge shooters – was encouraging after he allowed four goals on 23 shots in his first appearance of the season. 

Still, the Caps struggled against a team playing with its backup goaltender and without its leading scorer (Jaromir Jagr).  They get a couple of days off to work some things out before heading to New York to take on the Rangers on Tuesday in a game that could be for the Metropolitan Division lead.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 10: Capitals at Panthers, October 31

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals, fresh off their 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, jet out of town for a Saturday night meeting in South Florida where the Florida Panthers will be waiting.  The Panthers will be coming off their own game the night before, having lost by a 3-1 margin to the Boston Bruins.  Florida will have the advantage of playing both sides of their back-to-back games at home.

Before heading into their weekend set of back-to-back games, the Panthers put together a fairly impressive trio of games against Western Conference opponents.  They dropped a 3-2 decision in Chicago to the Blackhawks, then the roared back (get it?) with a pair of wins – a 6-2 thumping of the Stars in Dallas and a 4-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche last Tuesday.

Over those three games in which the Panthers recorded a dozen goals, the points burden was borne primarily by Vincent Trocheck, who recorded two goals and three assists to have a hand in almost half the Panther goals.  Trocheck, now in his third – and first full – season with the Panthers after being drafted in the third round in 2011, was tied for second on the team in goals (4) and points (9) going into the weekend. He leads the team in power play points (2-3-5).  He has a goal in his only previous appearance against the Caps, and he should be considered dangerous.  His hometown is Pittsburgh.

Reilly Smith chipped in a goal in each of the Panthers’ wins heading into the weekend. Smith, another third round draft pick (by Dallas in 2009), is already on his third franchise (Boston between stops in Dallas and Florida), despite the fact that he will not turn 25 years of age until next April.  The right winger has one assist in six career games against Washington.

So, you are a goalie with a 2.01 goals against average and a .939 save percentage.  You also have a win-loss record of 3-3-1. You are Roberto Luongo, Florida Panther goaltender.  This is Luongo’s seventh season with the Panthers, split into two tours of duty.  In 399 career games with the club he has a .921 save percentage, but his goals against average is 2.61, and his record is 145-183-55.  He has faced an average of 33 shots per game as a Panther.  The phrase “lack of support” comes to mind.  He has yet to allow more than three goals in any game so far this season, but allowing three seems to be a problem.  He has losses in all three games when allowing three scores (one in overtime).  And for good measure, he also has a 1-0 loss on his ledger this season. He does give the Caps fits, though.  In 36 career games against Washington, he is 20-10-0, 2.29, .926, with two shutouts.  He is also a real hoot on Twitter.

Here is how the two teams compare in their numbers heading into Friday’s games:

1.  Florida is one of only four teams with a positive goal differential per game of 1.0 or more (3.10 goals for per game, 2.10 goals against per game).

2. The Panthers are a very efficient shooting team.  They rank seventh in team shooting percentage (10.9 percent), and there are five players currently shooting at 20.0 percent or better (Connor Brickley, Vincent Trocheck, Jaromir Jagr, Reilly Smith, and Quinton Howden).

3.  Getting off to good starts against the Panthers is difficult.  They are tied for third in fewest first period goals allowed (5).

4.  Conversely, Florida will make teams pay in the third periods of games.  They are tied for fourth in most goals scored in the third period of games (14).

5.  When they are good, they are very good.  Four of Florida’s five wins to date have been by three or more goals.
1.  Last season, the Caps were 9-17-6 in games in which they scored two or fewer goals.  With last night’s 2-1 win over Columbus, the Caps are 1-2-0 in such games this season.

2.  The power play, one of the presumed strengths of the team, is 2-for-14 (14.3 percent) over their last five games.

3.  Washington is the only team remaining in the league for which every penalty assessed so far has been a minor penalty.  They have been whistled for 33 infractions, all minor penalties.

4.  This year’s version of the Capitals is less “heavy” than last year’s, at least to the extent they are credited with hits.  They have been credited with the fourth fewest number of hits in the league (193).  Only San Jose, Minnesota, and Carolina have fewer.

5.  Philipp Grubauer is likely to get the start in goal tonight for Washington.  In his brief career to date, he is 4-5-2, 2.80, .915 in 12 road appearances.

The Peerless' Players to Ponder

Florida: Jaromir Jagr

In hockey terms, Jaromir Jagr is old.  How old?  He is probably a Hall of Famer based on his record in Pittsburgh alone: 806 games, 439 goals, 1,079 points.  But since then he has played in another 753 games in the NHL.  There are only 93 other active players in the league with that many career games played.  There are 244 players having dressed for games this season who were not born when Jagr took the ice for the first time in the NHL on October 5, 1990.  Oh, and about that October 5, 1990 debut.  It was against, who else, the Capitals.  Who else made their NHL debut in that game?  Peter Bondra.  He retired in 2007.  If Jagr appears in 74 games this season, he will rise to fourth all-time in games played after the age of 40 (Gordie Howe, Tim Horton, and Chris Chelios would still rank ahead of him).  Another full season, and there would be only Chelios ahead of him.

What is even more confounding is his production.  He leads the Panthers in goals (six, before Friday’s game), points (10), and shooting percentage.  If there is one concession to his age, it is that he averages only 15:16 in ice time per game.  And it is not a case of a big burst in one game; Jagr has points in six of the nine games in which he played going into Friday’s game with Boston.  He is still dangerous.  While Caps fans might think that he has been particularly hard on the Caps, that is more a product of his Pittsburgh years.  With 90 career points in 78 games (30-60-90), his career 1.15 points per game against Washington is just 16th among the 30 franchises in points per game.

Washington: Marcus Johansson

Marcus Johansson was born on October 6, 1990, the day after Jaromir Jagr made his debut in the NHL.  With all the attention paid to Alex Ovechkin’s five-game goal streak to start the season, Evgeny Kuznetsov’s hat trick/five-point game, the additions of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, and the emergence of John Carlson among the elite performers among NHL defensemen, it is easy to overlook a player line Johansson.

He is one of nine Caps at the moment who has recorded five or more points (2-3-5).  His plus-3 is third on the team (going into Friday’s game), and he is playing with his usual discipline with respect to the rule book (no penalty minutes).  Since he came into the league in 2010-2011, Johansson is one of four players who has appeared in more than 300 games, recorded more than 50 goals, and has been charged with fewer than 50 total penalty minutes (Loui Eriksson, Ryan O’Reilly, and Michael Grabner are the others).  He has been neither flashy nor extraordinarily prolific.  He has been solid, a fine complementary player on a team with a full complement of top-six forwards.  In 18 career games against Florida, Johansson is 3-8-11, plus-2.

In the end…

The Caps played a tough 60-minute game last night, now head on the road.  Even for elite athletes, this can be a difficult situation, especially against a team with a surprisingly effective offense such as Florida's (even if Jaromir Jagr is held out another game with a lower body injury).  Add in the fact that the Caps will be giving number one goalie Braden Holtby a breather, and this is a game that can be dangerous.  It will put a premium on playing smart, on playing efficiently.  The Caps have become just such a team from the early evidence this season. 

Capitals 3 - Panthers 2