Friday, April 29, 2016

Capitals vs. Penguins: Takeaways and Throwaways from Game 1

Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins is in the books.  And what a game it was.  You really don’t want to throw any of it away; you just want to watch it a few times to get some richer context and more nuances with each viewing.  But this is the space in which we do have those takeaways and throwaways, so let’s get to them.


  • When the Caps scored first in this game, it was a good sign.  Recall that the Caps had the best winning percentage in the league when scoring first in games during the regular season (.895/34-2-2).  They came into Game 1 with a 3-0-0 record in playoff games this season when scoring first.  Winning their fourth such game was a healthy sign, if for no other reason that the business-like approach in the regular season has (at least for one game into the second round) carried over into the postseason.
  • Andre Burakovsky recorded his first point of this postseason, his first playoff point since recording a pair of goals in Game 4 of last season’s second round series against the New York Rangers.  Breaking the nine-game streak without a point is, Caps fans hope, a turning point.  Pittsburgh does not pose the physically punishing obstacles that Philadelphia did in Round 1, and if Burakovsky finds this pace and style more to his liking, it should give some depth to the Caps’ offense.
  • Hits are something of an arbitrary statistic.  It is defined as an instance in which a player initiates contact with an opponent so as to result in the puck carrier losing possession of the puck (it does not require a change in possession).  It sounds simple, but it’s like the strike zone in baseball.  Every umpire has a different one, and every official scorer sees “hits” with different sets of eyes.  All that nonsense aside, the 43-29 edge the Caps had in hits does reflect what appears to be part of the plan, to use their superior size to burden the Penguins physically.  Of the 18 skaters for Pittsburgh, 15 of them absorbed at least one hit (Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, and Sidney Crosby were spared).  Of the 43 hits, 21 were inflicted on defensemen, Kris Letang taking the most of that group and of the team as well (six).  This probably had little influence on the results of Game 1, but the accumulation of hits in Games 2, 3, and so on, could have an effect.
  • Jason Chimera recorded an assist, but perhaps as important, he had four shots on goal.  Remember that he failed to register a single shot on goal over the last four games of the first round series against the Flyers and had only two shots in all (both in Game 2, in which he scored his only goal of the postseason).  Getting him into the scoring mix is something that the Caps enjoyed in the regular season, and they need to see him doing the same in this round.
  • Braden Holtby has spent a lot of his postseason career tending goal in some bad luck.  Oh sure, he is now the career leader in playoff game wins for the Caps (21, passing Olaf Kolzig last night), but consider this.  Last night was the first time in 20 postseason games played at the Verizon Center in which Holtby allowed more than two goals in a game and won.  That’s right.  It was the sixth time in his postseason career in which Holtby allowed three or more goals and the first time he won.  And he did it matching the second-highest number shots he ever faced in a home playoff game (45).  Only in the triple-overtime 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 3 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semi-finals did he face more (49).


  • Andre Burakovsky was moved off the second line in favor of Marcus Johansson again, but it didn’t cure whatever it is that ails that second line.  Johansson, Justin Williams, and Evgeny Kuznetsov combined for three shots on goal (all by Williams), six shot attempts (four by Williams, two by Johansson), won just five of 14 faceoffs (all of them taken by Kuznetsov), and all of them had a Corsi-differential at 5-on-5 of minus-10 or worse.
  • We like the physical edge Tom Wilson brings to the game, but he is getting right up against that edge where it can be a liability.  He did manage to pull Evgeni Malkin off the ice with him on coincidental minor penalties in the second period, which is an exchange the Caps would happily take.  But the hit on Conor Sheary was, depending on which team’s colors you wear, a hockey play gone bad (if you wear red) or dirty (if you wear black and Vegas gold).  It’s not so much the hit on Sheary, per se, as much as it is an indication that Wilson is getting outside of his game somewhat.  It is a fine line between getting under a team’s skin and just running around.  It is something he is still learning.
  • Dmitry Orlov is in a bad place right now with decision-making.  It’s got to be hard on the coaches to know what to do with him, because he is a talented young defenseman.  But his almost getting it right in defending Nick Bonino on a rush (right up until he tried to poke the puck away from Bonino, allowing the Penguin to walk around him when Orlov missed) is the sort of mistake that can be catastrophic in close or low scoring games.  That the Penguins scored on that play – neither Caps defenseman being near the scoring play because Orlov and Nate Schmidt got tangled up – might have been overshadowed by the T.J. Oshie hat trick and the win, but it cannot be ignored.
  • The 45 shots on goal recorded by Pittsburgh is the second highest number of shots on goal by the Pens against the Caps in the postseason history of this rivalry, topped only by the 65 shots on goal Pittsburgh recorded in Game 4 of their series in 1996 when the Pens won, 3-2, in the fourth overtime.  That is way too many shots allowed, even if you want to argue Braden Holtby had good looks at most of them.  It tied the highest number of shots on goal recorded by a Pens team this year, set back on December 14th…against the Caps (a 4-1 Washington win).
  • We said in the prognosto that the Caps do not want to get into a track meet with this team.  Well, they did, and it might have been lucky they were not burned in Game 1.  The Caps allowed 66 shot attempts by the Penguins at 5-on-5, the most allowed by the Caps in any game this season.  That they had 63 of their own (tied for seventh most this season) mitigates this to a point, but matching Pittsburgh attempt for attempt, especially at high volumes, might not be the way to beat this team over a seven game series.

In the end…

The only thing that matters now is winning.  Whether is it pounding the puck and winning the Corsi battle, getting a wink from the hockey gods, or sunspots, winning is the bottom line on a one line balance sheet.  And the Caps have one win.  Trouble is, winning the first one is hardly new to the Caps over the history of this postseason rivalry, and the Pens are neither very successful in Game 1’s or in playoff overtimes in their recent history.  It suggest that the Caps are going to have to find a higher level of performance to get to “four” before the Penguins in this series.  There were some good signs on that score in Game 1, but there are some serious issues (second line, third defensive pair) that need to be addressed and improved as the teams go to Game 2.

Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

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