Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 29: Capitals at Penguins, December 14th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals end their three-game road trip on Monday night with their second meeting of the season against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The Caps, who lost the first meeting of the clubs by a 3-1 margin at Verizon Center on October 28th, visit Consol Energy Arena in the Steel City for the first time this season.

The Capitals come into this contest with the best ten-game record in the league at 8-1-1 over their last ten contests.  And to the point of this contest, the Caps will visit Pittsburgh tied with the Montreal Canadiens for the second most standings points earned on the road so far this season (19 points).

On the other side of the contest, the Penguins will debut Mike Sullivan as their new head coach.  Mike Johnston was relieved of his head coaching duties on Saturday along with assistant Gary Agnew.   Sullivan has 170 games of regular season coaching experience at the NHL level with the Boston Bruins (70-56-23 with 15 ties) and the Vancouver Canucks (2-4-0).  He was 18-5-0 with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL before his promotion.

Sullivan inherits a challenge and an enigma.  The Penguins came into this season with the highest of expectations following a summer in which they obtained Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs in one of the more complicated deals in recent NHL history.  The thinking was that Kessel, as natural a goal scorer as there is in the NHL (not named “Ovechkin” or “Stamkos”), paired with Sidney Crosby, the premier playmaker of his generation, would create an offensive juggernaut that nothing outside of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army would be able to neutralize.

It has not happened.  Crosby, Kessel, and Evgeni Malkin, who among them averaged 0.43 goals per game over the course of their careers before this season, averaged ust 0.33 goals per game among them through 28 games before the firing of Johnston.  Crosby had been especially mysterious in his performance.  In ten seasons before this one he never averaged less than 1.09 points per game (last season, which was still good enough to lead the league).  Through 28 games this season he has just 19 points in 28 games (0.68 points per game), his point total tied for 79th in the league (through Saturday’s games).  It is not a bad group with which he finds himself tied, a group that includes Corey Perry, Filip Forsberg, and Thomas Vanek, among others, but it is not a neighborhood with which he is too familiar over the course of his career.  Crosby is 18-33-51, plus-2, in 34 career games against Washington.

Kessel simply has not been the difference maker he was expected to be when he was obtained last summer.  His nine goals have come in eight games, and the Penguins have a record of 5-3-0 in those contests.  Of note with regard to this contest, Kessel is 2-6-8, minus-1, in 14 home games this season and his long goal in a win came back on October 20th against the Florida Panthers.  He has only two points (both goals, both coming in a 5-1 win over the San Jose Sharks on December 1st) in his last seven games.  Kessel is 7-14-21, minus-2, in 31 career games against the Capitals.

Malkin is the only one of the trio within a time zone of his expected level of play to date.  He is on a pace to finish the season with 38 goals, which if achieved would be his third-highest goal total in ten seasons.  He is also on a pace to finish with 76 points , which would be his highest point total since winning the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer with 109 points in 2011-2012.  With Malkin, the issue is his ability to stay in the lineup.  He has not yet missed a game this season, but he has not played an 82-game season since 2008-2009, and he missed 52 games over the last three seasons entering this one.  He can score points in bunches – he had a stretch of seven games  at the end of November and starting December in which he had four multi-point games and went 8-5-13 – but he can go absent for stretches, too.  He has one point and is a minus-5 over his last four games.  Malkin is 9-34-43, plus-2, in 30 career games against Washington.

Here is how the teams compare overall:

1.  Kris Letang and Olli Maatta are the two defensemen expected to carry the mail in the offensive end for the Penguins.  They are one-two, respectively, in points from the blue line this season.  They have also missed nine games between them this season.  Over the last season-plus Maatta has missed 68 of 110 games.  Letang has missed 139 of 319 games over the last four-plus seasons.  Maatta is expected to play in this contest, while Letang is expected to miss up to two weeks with an upper-body injury.

2.  Special teams success could be an important factor in this game for the Caps. Pittsburgh is 9-2-2 in games in which they recorded one or more power play goals, 6-8-1 in games in which they were shut out with the man advantage.  On the other side, the Penguins are 10-3-2 in games in which their penalty killers were perfect, 5-7-1 when they were not.   The Penguins have not won a game in regulation this season when they were blanked on the power play and gave up at least one to the opposition (1-6-0, the win coming in a Gimmick).

3.  Total shots allowed do not seem to be much of a factor in Penguin wins and losses.  When allowing 30 or more shots they are 8-5-3, and they are 7-5-0 when allowing fewer than 30 shots.   Shots taken is another matter.  Pittsburgh is 9-4-2 when recording 30 or more shots, 6-6-1 when they do not.

4.  The Penguins have not won consecutive games in almost a month (November 17th against Minnesota and November 19th against Colorado).  Since then they are 3-3-3.  Over those nine games, Malkin (6-3-0) and Crosby (3-6-9) lead the team in points, so they might be emerging from their slumber.  The surprise there is that it is Chris Kunitz who leads the club in assists over those nine games (seven).

5.  For their considerable offensive talent, Pittsburgh has struggled with possession this season.  They rank 22nd in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 overall (48.4).  They are not much better in other variations of the metric – 20th in score-adjusted Corsi (48.3) and 19th in close score situations (48.3; numbers from

1.  Five of the last seven  Capitals wins in this series have come via shutout:
  • February 6, 2011: 3-0, Michal Neuvirth (22 saves at Washington)
  • February 21, 2011: 1-0, Michal Neuvirth (39 saves at Pittsburgh)
  • January 11, 2012: 1-0, Tomas Vokoun (30 saves at Washington)
  • December 27, 2014: 3-0, Braden Holtby (31 saves at Pittsburgh)
  • January 28, 2015: 4-0, Braden Holtby (27 saves at Washington)

2.  Washington leads the league in winning percentage when scoring first in games (.933/14-1-0).  They are fourth in winning percentage when opponents score first (.462/6-5-2).

3.  Only two teams have allowed fewer power play goals on the road than the Capitals (7).  Pittsburgh and the Anaheim Ducks have allowed six power play goals apiece on the road.

4.  The multi-goal game watch continues for Alex Ovechkin.  He has one goal in 14 games this season, over which the Caps have an 11-3-0 record.  What might be more surprising is the 9-3-2 record the Caps have in games in which he does not score a goal (including a loss in the only game he missed this season).

5.  The Caps might have the best ten-game record in the league at the moment (8-1-1), but they are not doing it the “right” way.  Their possession numbers continue to lag – 47.0 percent Corsi-for overall, 48.9 in score-adjusted Corsi-for, and 46.9 in close score situations (

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh:  Marc-Andre Fleury

Marc-Andre Fleury has had two different seasons in goal for the Penguins thus far.  In the first, covering his first 11 appearances, he went 7-4-0, 1.74, .939, with two shutouts.  Then, beginning with a four-goals-allowed performance against Calgary on November 7th, he has gone 6-5-2, 2.61, .919 over his last 13 appearances.  In those first 11 appearances he allowed more than two goals just three times.  He has done so seven times in his last 13 appearances.  He does, however, seem to be coming out of that funk.  Fleury allowed two goals in each of his last three appearances (with just a 1-1-1 record), stopping 85 of 91 shots (.934 save percentage).  Fleury is 18-10-2, 2.45, .917, with three shutouts in 31 career appearances against Washington.

Washington: Nate Schmidt

Nate Schmidt logged his first fight in the NHL in the Caps’ 2-1 win over Tampa Bay on Saturday.   More important, he has been logging heavy minutes since Brooks Orpik went down to an injury November 10th.  In 14 games since then, Schmidt averaged a shade over 20 minutes a game.  Compare that to last season when Schmidt averaged 13:53 over 39 games.  This game could be a special challenge for Schmidt give the depth of skill the Penguins have at forward.   In those 14 games since Orpik went down, Schmidt has maintained a ability to log good possession numbers (50.6 percent Corsi-for overall, 51.9 percent in score-adjusted Corsi-for).  He has grown into his expanded responsibilities.  He has appeared only once against the Penguins without recording a point.

In the end…

This game provides a trifecta of challenges for the Caps.  First, Washington is likely to get the Penguins’ undivided attention in a way perhaps the Arizona Coyotes, for example, might not.  The effort should be there for the home team.   Then there is the fact that this is the last road game of the three-game road trip, coming as it does after the dads and mentors have gone their separate ways.  The Caps will have to maintain their focus.  Then there is the wild-card of the new coach taking over in his first game with the new club.  That might inspire his players to impress. 

Whatever the challenges, though, the Caps have played with what appears as a less emotional, more clinical consistency of play.  They have not allowed distractions to be distractions.  There is little reason to think that will change in this game.

Capitals 3 – Penguins 1

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 9

For the Washington Capitals, Week 9 looked good from the perspective of wins and losses, but it had an odd flavor about it, like milk that is about to turn bad.  It’s still palatable, but it really needs to be replaced by something fresher, something better.

Record: 2-1-0

Nine weeks are in the books, and the Caps have eight winning weeks, two four-week winning streaks sandwiched around a .500 week.  And finally, after relentless pursuit of the Montreal Canadiens, the Caps are poised to overtake the Montreal Canadiens for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.   At the end of Week 4 the Caps found themselves seven points behind the Canadiens, who have occupied the top spot in the East all season to date.  The Caps whittled that to five points in Week 5 and maintained that distance in Week 6.  It was down to four points after Week 7, then three points after Week 8.  Now, it is down to one point, and the Capitals have three games in hand on Montreal.  As it is, only the Dallas Stars have earned more standings points per game to date (1.53) than the Caps (1.50) among the league’s 30 teams.

Offense:  1.67/game (season: 2.96 /game; rank: 5th)

It was a weak week in the offensive end of the ice.  While the Caps won both games in which they scored more than one goal, they barely did it, scoring two against Detroit in a 3-2 Gimmick win and two in a 2-1 win over Tampa Bay to close the week.  It is part of what matches the Caps worst goal-scoring drought of the season – six goals in their last four games (six goals over Games 8-11 in late October and early November). 

Part of the problem was getting shots on goal.  The Caps managed 81 shots on goal for the week, but almost half – 40 of them – came in the 3-2 Gimmick win over Detroit to open the week.  Breaking it down another way does not make it look any better.  The Caps scored two goals on their first 36 shots (5.6 percent) in the win over the Red Wings, but then went 3-for-45 (6.7 percent) over the rest of that win and the two games that followed.

Alex Ovechkin was the only Capital to record more than one goal in Week 9 (two).  He did it on 14 shots, but was held to one shot against Tampa Bay, just the second time this season he was held to one shot (in a 3-2 win At Montreal on November 3rd).  Justin Williams had a goal eight shots, Jay Beagle had one on two shots, and Evgeny Kuznetsov had a goal on eight shots.  That’s five goals on 32 shots (15.6 percent), but the rest of the club went 0-for-49.

Defense: 2.33/game (season: 2.21 /game; rank:3rd)

The Caps came into Week 9 in the unusual position (for this season) of having allowed more than 30 shots on goal in four consecutive games and six of eight after having done it only once in their first 17 games.  The team returned to a sense of normalcy in the first two games of the week, giving up just 23 shots to the Red Wings to open the week and just 26 in the 4-1 loss to Florida in the middle game of the week.

It was a mixed week, though.  The Caps gave up 36 shots on goal to Tampa Bay to end the week, and there were broader issues with regard to shot attempts.  The 47 shot attempts at 5-on-5 recorded by Detroit in the first game of the week and the 62 (yes…62) shot attempts at 5-on-5 against Tampa Bay are the eighth-highest and top number of shot attempts allowed, respectively, so far this season at 5-on-5.  It made for a brutal week in the Caps’ underlying numbers.  They managed a Corsi-for percentage of just 39.2 overall.  The score-adjusted (44.9) and close score (44.0) numbers were somewhat better, but it did not salvage the week in that area (numbers from

Goaltending: 1.99 /.929 (season: 2.06 / .924 / 1 shutout)

It was a good week overall, but more specifically, Braden Holtby continued putting up very good, bordering on spectacular numbers.  Holtby appeared in two games in Week 9, stopping 56 of 59 shots (.949 save percentage) and posting a 1.44 goals against average.  He finished the week at or near the top in a number of categories: wins (18/1st), goals against average (1.91/1st), save percentage (.930/4th), even strength save percentage (.940/5th among goalies appearing in at least 15 games).  And, he was remarkable consistent, period to period.  He was 18-for-19 in the first periods of his two games (.947 save percentage), 16-for-17 in the second periods (.941), and 20-for-21 in the third periods (.952).

Philipp Grubauer got the call for the middle game of the week in the 4-1 loss to Florida.  He played in a bit of bad luck in that game, giving up a goal that was deflected out of mid-air, another on a 2-on-1 break, and another on a power-play one-timer.  On the other hand, it was the fourth time in five appearances he has allowed three or more goals and the third time in five games he finished with a save percentage under .900.

Power Play: 1-for-12 / 8.3 percent (season: 23.3 percent; rank: 3rd)

Week 9 was the worst week of the season of any win which the Caps had 10 or more power play opportunities.  In fact it was the worst such week for the Caps since Week 21 last season, when they also went 1-for-12.  It was not for lack of efficiency in one respect.  The Caps recorded 22 shots in 18:51 of power play ice time (1.17 shots per minute).  It was the 1-for-22 shooting (4.5 percent) that was the problem, much as shooting was for the week as a whole.

It was not even the “who” getting the shots that was the problem.  Alex Ovechkin had almost a third of the shots (seven), connecting once for the only man advantage goal of the week.  There was balance among the other seven skaters to record power play shots on goal, only two of them finishing with as many as three (Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov).  Perhaps it was the lack of defensemen getting pucks to the net; John Carlson (2) and Matt Niskanen (1) accounted for only three of the shots on goal.  Whatever it was, it was another dimension to what was a barren shooting week for the Capitals.

Penalty Killing: 9-for-11 / 81.8 percent (season: 83.5 percent; rank: 8th)

On the other side of special teams, the penalty killers were good, not great in Week 9.  First, the good.  The Caps held opponents to 11 shots in 17:32 of shorthanded ice time (0.63 shots per minute), including a full two-minute 4-on-3 power play in the 3-2 trick shot win over Detroit in the opening game of the week (the only shorthanded situation they faced in that game).

On the other hand, there were the 11 shorthanded situations the Caps faced.  It was the first time since Week 2 that they faced more than ten such situations in a week.  It was a bit uncharacteristic for a club that still managed to finish the week tied for the fourth-fewest number of shorthanded situations faced this season (79, with Calgary).

There was also the “who” as far as the goals scored is concerned.  Florida and Tampa Bay finished the week with the 12th and 22nd ranked power plays, respectively.  Even given the fact that the goals allowed were on the road, the Caps did not allow power play goals to elite power plays.

Even Strength 5-on-5 Goals for/Goals Against: 4-5 / minus-1 (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 1.33 ; rank: T-2nd)

The 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning saved the week for the Caps as far as even strength goal scoring is concerned.  Going into that game the Caps had been outscored, 5-2, at evens.  But even though the Caps outscored the Lighting, 2-0, at even strength to get to a minus-1 for the week, they were steamrolled on shots, Tampa Bay recording 31 shots on goal at even strength to 16 for the Caps.  And no, that was not – or certainly not entirely – a case of score effects.  The Caps were outshot 11-6 at evens in the first period, held to nine apiece in the second, before being outshot 11-1 at even strength in the third period.

Faceoffs: 92-for-189 / 48.7 percent (season: 50.3% / rank: 11th)

It was not a good week for the Capitals in the faceoff circle.  They were under 50 percent for the week, under 50 percent in two of the three games, and under 50 percent in two of the three zones overall for the week.  It was another case of two different ends and two different outcomes in Week 9.  In the offensive end of the ice the Caps struggled with an overall winning percentage of 41.3 percent (26-for-63).  It was just the opposite in the defensive zone where Washington finished with a 55.7 percent mark (39-for-70).

The Caps managed their best against the 20th-ranked Detroit Red Wings, winning 55.2 percent of their draws in the first game of the week.  It does not explain how the Caps could finish with a 45.9 percent winning percentage against the 21st-ranked Florida Panthers.

Individually, those who took more than ten draws by and large struggled, too.  Nicklas Backstrom (49.3 percent), Evgeny Kuznetsov (35.4), and Michael Latta (46.2) finished under 50 percent.  Only Jay Beagle (66.7 percent) had his head above water for the week.  And here is a weird stat.  Only one team in the league has won fewer even strength faceoffs than the Caps (New Jersey).  And, only two teams have lost fewer (San Jose and Carolina).

Goals by Period:

The best to be said as far as the distribution of goals by period was that they were balanced among the three period.  The other side of it is that the Caps were outscored in the second and third periods, by one goal in each.  The third period was a bit disturbing on the goals allowed side.  Three goals scored in the three games (two by Florida – one an empty netter – and one against Tampa Bay) represented 15 percent of the total the club allowed over their first 25 games of the season (20).  It was a case of not quite locking down the last 20 minutes in a way the team had done in those first 25 games.  As it is, the Caps are still eighth in the league in third period goals allowed.  And, the Caps are the only club in the league ranking in the top ten in goals allowed in each of the three regulation periods.

In the end…

The Caps passed the one-third mark of the season in Week 9.  With 20 wins in 28 games they matched their fastest-to-20 club record, set in 1991-1992 (20-8-0).  It has not been pretty lately, though.  The Caps’ possession numbers are poor compared to their season start, they have been slipping in the little things like faceoffs, and their scoring offense has dried up.  They are depending entirely too much on goalie Braden Holtby, and while he certainly shows no signs of slipping on his part, it would be nice if starting in Week 10 for others to pick up their game and shoulder more of the burden.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Braden Holtby (2-0-0, 1.44, .949)
  • Second Star: John Carlson (0-2-2, even, 54.0 score-adjusted Corsi-for percentage).
  • Third Star: Jay Beagle (1-0-1, even, 24-for-36 on faceoffs, one bloody nose)