Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 21: Jets at Capitals, November 25th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals end the pre-Thanksgiving portion of their season on Wednesday night when they host the Winnipeg Jets at Verizon Center in the first meeting of the teams this season. 

The Capitals come into this game having posted the second-best 20-game record in team history.  Their 14-5-1 record is surpassed only by their 15-5-0 record to open the 1991-1992 season.  There are two important difference between that 1991-1992 club and this one.  The more recent version of the Caps reached the 20-game mark without having lost consecutive games. 

Not so, the 1991-1992 club, which lost consecutive games in Vancouver to the Canucks and in Winnipeg to the original incarnation of the Jets after an 8-1-0 start.  That leads into the second difference between the clubs, the Caps having swept their western Canada trip this season, defeating Vancouver, the Calgary Flames, and the Edmonton Oilers, while the 1991-1992 club lost two of three on their western Canada swing, beating only the Edmonton Oilers in the first game of that trip.

The current incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets arrives in Washington giving thanks that November is almost at an end.  The Jets are 3-7-1 in 11 games this month, and while they seemed to be climbing out of their downward spiral with a pair of wins last week in consecutive games against Vancouver and Arizona, they dropped a 4-1 decision in Colorado against the Avalanche, a team the Caps defeated by a 7-3 margin last Saturday.

Winnipeg’s problem this month has been that they do not travel well.  The Jets are 1-5-1 in seven road contests and have lost five in a row (0-4-1).  Those games have not been close for the most part.  In being outscored, 33-15, over those seven road contests this month.  Four of the losses have been by multi-goal margins, three of them by three or more goals.  And, their special teams have been borderline awful.  The power play is 1-for-22 in seven road games this month (4.5 (percent), while the penalty kill is 24-for-31 (77.4 percent).

If not for Bryan Little playing on the road portion of the Jets’ schedule this month, they would be a quite a bind.  Little has four of the Jet’s 15 goals in road games this month and seven points overall, both numbers leading the team.  The November spurt in away games this month has left Little something of a road warrior.  He is 7-4-11 in 12 road games this season, 2-5-7 in 10 games at home.  He is 11-6-17, even, in 38 career regular season games against the Capitals.

Dustin Byfuglien is next on the team in road goal scoring this month.  The 11-year veteran has a pair of road goals this month and six goals overall this season.  If there is an odd aspect to his offensive profile this season it is the absence of multi-point games.  Last season, Byfuglien had nine multi-point games in his last 44 contests of the season.  This season he has points in 11 of his 22 games (of his eight of his 12 road games), but all of them were single-point games.  Byfuglien is 5-7-12, minus-7, in 23 career regular season games against Washington.

Blake Wheeler does not get a lot of attention when it comes to listing the top right wingers in the NHL, but if you look at the list of right wingers who, since the 2010-2011 season, have averaged at least 0.75 points per game (minimum: 200 games), there is Wheeler, one among ten such right wingers. He is actually even more productive since being sent to the Winnipeg Jets (then the Atlanta Thrashers) with defenseman Mark Stuart by the Boston Bruins for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik in February 2011.  In 334 games since arriving with the franchise he is averaging 0.82 points per game.  This year he has 22 points in 22 games, one of three right wingers averaging at least one point per game (Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko are the others).  Wheeler is 5-8-13, plus-2, in 27 career games against the Caps.

Here is how the teams compare overall:

1.  Dustin Byfuglien has more goals (six in 22 games) than the rest of the defensive corps combined (four in 110 combined man-games).

2.  Only New Jersey has scored the first goal of a game fewer times (six) than the Jets (seven).

3.  Only Montreal has more shorthanded goals scored this season (five) than Winnipeg (four).  It’s a good thing, since the Jets are tied for the most power play goals allowed this season (19, with Boston).

4.  The Jets can make a team pay at 5-on-5.  Only two teams in the west have more goals scored at 5-on-5 than Winnipeg (39) – St. Louis (41) and Dallas (45).

5.  Winnipeg is a rather good possession team on the road, at least better than their record suggests.  They have a Corsi-for in all situations of 50.7 percent, seventh in the league.  They rank 10th in score-adjusted Corsi-for (51.2) and 12th in close score situations (50.0; numbers from war-on-ice.com).

1.  The Caps have had an odd pattern of late.  Over their last eight games they have alternated games with a power play goal and games without one.  If the pattern holds, they will have at least one in this game.

2.  The Caps have had six power play chances in two of their last eight games.  They had five such games all of last season.

3.  Washington has the largest positive shots on goal differential in the league -- plus-5.1 per game.

4.  The Caps are one of six teams that are perfect for the season when leading at the intermissions.  They are 5-0-0 when leading at the first intermission, 8-0-0 when leading after two periods.

5.  One home possession number than could use some shoring up... Corsi-for in close score situations.  The Caps' 50.5 percent ranks just 16th in the league (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Winnipeg:  Michael Hutchinson

Last season, the Winnipeg Jets could not settle on just who was their number one goaltender.  Ondrej Pavelec got 50 appearances, but when the backup – Michael Hutchinson – gets 38 games without significant injury losses for the other goalie (Pavelec lost six games in March to a lower body injury), there are some unresolved issues at the position.  Well, things have taken a turn.  Pavelec is out until January with a “significant" knee sprain (undoubtedly another specie of “lower body injury”),” and Hutchinson will be the number one netminder for the foreseeable future.  He has not responded particularly well.  His record in November is 1-4-1, 3.62, .873.  The problem is that Hutchinson’s backup is Connor Hellebuyck, who has yet to appear in an NHL game and has only 68 games of pro experience, all in the AHL. Hutchinson, if called upon, would be making his first NHL appearance against the Caps.

Washington: Jay Beagle

Jay Beagle is something of a good luck charm for the Capitals this season.  He has points in six games (3-4-7), and the Caps are 5-0-1 in those games.  And it is not as if it is a new experience.  The Caps were 15-0-1 in the 16 games in which he registered a point last season.  Washington was 6-0-2 when Beagle recorded a point in 2013-2014.  The last time the Caps lost a game in regulation when Beagle recorded a point was back on January 27, 2013, a 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers when Beagle had an assist on the only goal.  Since then, Washington is 30-0-4 when Beagle puts a crooked number on the score sheet.  He is 1-1-2, plus-1, in 12 career games against the Jets.

In the end…

The turkey will undoubtedly taste better on Thursday with a win on Wednesday.  And for the Caps, getting served a team that has had as much difficulty on the road as the Jets, not to mention the inexperience in goal they will present, makes this a game that the Caps should win.  It offers a particular opportunity for Washington to find some success on its power play against a team that has allowed at least one power play goal in six straight games overall (19-for-28 on the penalty kill – 67.9 percent) and in five of their last seven road games.  A win would give the Caps their longest winning streak since a five-game streak in mid-October.  We’re thinking it’s going to happen.

Capitals 4 – Jets 2

Washington Capitals: 20 Games In, Then and Now

The Washington Capitals are 20 games into the season.  It is their second-best 20 game start in club history, their 14-5-1 record eclipsed only by a 15-5-0 start in 1991-1992.  We will not bore you with the details of how that 1991-1992 season unfolded (hint: poorly*).  This is a time to compare this fine 20-game start with last year’s.  First, let’s take a look at a team-wide level as some selected metrics comparing this year to last:

It certainly looks as if the Caps are more comfortable with the systems and approaches of head coach Barry Trotz than they were at this time last season when it was all still new to them.  Improving by almost a third of a goal a game in scoring offense, whittling the goals against by more than 15 percent, and expending the goal differentials from a plus-0.15 to a plus-0.85 are sure-fire ways, at the high level of metrics, to improve the 20-game performance by eight points, year-to-year.

That 0.85 positive goal differential is especially interesting, not only because keeping score is the object of the exercise.  The 2009-2010 Capitals, the gold-standard for regular season performance in the post 2004-2005 lockout era, had a plus-1.05 goal differential.  That team did it with overwhelming offense.  This team does it with balance.

They also do it at 5-on-5, a weakness in this club at this point last season.  The 1.29 goals-for/goals-against ratio at 5-on-5 is a 43 percent improvement on last season, and the Caps rank third overall in that metric among the league’s 30 teams.

The special teams are not a lot different, looking at the special teams index (power play plus penalty killing percentages), but they got to their respective 20-game marks in different ways.  The power play is a bit less efficient than it was last season, a reduction of 4.4 percentage points from this time last season, and that is largely a product of the odd drop-off in power play production by Alex Ovechkin (four power play goals through 20 games last season, one so far in 20 games this season).  If he had the same four power play goals this season as last, all other things equal, the Caps’ power play would be almost the same 25.8 percent) as last year’s at this point (25.4 percent).

On the other hand, the penalty kill has improved in two important respects.  First, there is the efficiency aspect of it. The current version, with a 2.9 percentage point improvement over last season, is ranked fifth in the league (through Monday’s games).  The second item is in the shorthanded instances faced.  The Caps are down by eight from last season, a 12.9 percent reduction.  Not having to face as many shorthanded situation not only lowers the number of opportunities for opponents to take advantage of man advantages, it allows the Caps more time to work at 5-on-5, where they have been very effective.

What is a bit odd in the team-wide numbers is the possession statistics.  Score-adjusted Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages are not much different this year than last (numbers from war-on-ice.com).  Both sets of numbers are on the good side of 50 percent.   In an odd way, the lack of change here but the improvement of other numbers (goals-for-goals against ratio, for instance) might reflect a better understanding or roles and responsibilities this time around that influence the Caps’ ability to finish plays rather than just run them.

On an individual level, it is interesting to take a look at the top dozen scorers for the Caps this season who are returnees from last season (you will notice a noteworthy absence here, but we will get to that):

(click for larger image)

For this group, as a group and as individual, it is another case of what a difference a year makes.  Eight of the 12 have improved on their 20-game goal scoring performance over last season, although there are effects of differences in games played, year-to-year, among the players at the low end of the list (Wilson, Laich, Orpik, and to a lesser extent Burakovsky).  Eight players improved on their point totals (the same caveat about games applying).  The difference in plus-minus is dramatic, a 53-point improvement as a group, nine of the individuals improving on last year’s 20-game values.  Even shots on goal represents a group improvement, although one thing that is interesting is that Marcus Johansson, who adopted a “shoot-first” mentality to start last season, is off a bit on his shots on goal from last year’s 20-game start.

The possession numbers, reflected in score-adjusted Corsi-for percentages at 5-on-5 are broadly better.  Ten of the 12 players saw their numbers improve, last year to this, and in the case of Wilson and Laich there might be the effect of numbers of games played affecting the results (both missed a number of the first 20 games last season).

The one returnee not accounted for among the individuals is Evgeny Kuznetsov.  No Capitals has improved so dramatically, year-to-year, as has Kuznetsov.  Through 20 games last season, of which he appeared in 19, he was 1-5-6, plus-2, with 23 shots on goal.  This season those numbers are 7-14-21, plus-10, with 38 shots on goal.  Here is the thing, though.  His score-adjusted Corsi-for percentage is marginally lower this season (50.9) compared to last (51.6; numbers from war-on-ice.com).  You might consider this the change in quality of linemates and ice time.  Last season, he had more than 15 minutes of ice time only three times in 15 games.  This season it is 19 times in 20 games.  And, getting a lot of first line minutes with Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie has not hurt.  If there is a difference among the skaters this season for the better, Kuznetsov is it.

At the other end of the ice, consider the year-to-year performance of goalie Braden Holtby:

A slow start last year has not been repeated this season.  His 12 wins is tied for the league lead (through Monday’s games).  Among goalies with 500 minutes played, Holtby is second on goals against average and tenth in save percentage.  He has allowed three or fewer goals in 15 of 16 appearances, two or fewer in 12 of them.  Compare that to last season when he allowed four or more goals in three of 15 appearances through 20 games and allowed three in just 9:34 before being pulled in a 6-5 shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks.  Perhaps more impressive is his rebound control – not shots, but rebounding after taking a loss on his ledger.  He was good after losses over the first 20 games last season: 6-1-1, 1.98, .928, but that is also seven instances of having to rebound from a loss.  This season, there have been fewer instances of having to rebound from a loss he sustained, but in those less frequent instances he has been extraordinarily stingy, a 1.25 goals against average and a .953 save percentage.

In the end…

Any way you look at it, this 20-game version of the Washington Capitals is quite an improvement over last season.  And if there is any validity to the idea that you get an idea of a team’s personality after 20 games, what Caps fans have is a very good team, but they knew that already.  What is more pleasant to consider is that they are much better than they were at a comparable stage last season, and there might be more improvement to come.

*  The Caps finished the 1991-1992 season with a 30-22-8 record in their last 60 games (it was an 80-game season), then took a 3-1 lead in games in their opening round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, blasting the Pens by a 7-2 margin to put them on the brink of elimination.  However, the Caps then dropped the last three contests of the series, all by multi-goal margins.  It was the first time the Caps were eliminated from the playoffs by the Penguins after taking a 2-0 or 3-1 lead in games.  It would not be the last.