Sunday, January 03, 2016

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 12

Week 12 for the Washington Capitals was an example of the old notion of “what have you done for me lately?”  The Caps had their 11th winning week in 12, widened the lead in their division (from 10 to 12 points) and the Eastern Confernce (from 10 to 11 points), and yet by week’s end they looked like a tired, depleted, leaky group more than they did the team with the second best record in the league. 

Record: 2-1-1

The Caps came into Week 12 with a seven-game winning streak and a schedule of four games against teams that were a combined 42-53-12, none of the three teams they would face having winning records.  On paper, it looked like a good bet that the Caps would extend their streak to 11 games and establish an all but insurmountable distance between themselves and their closest division and conference pursuers in the standings.

A couple of solid wins over the Buffalo Sabres in a home-and-home series to open the week only fueled the sense that Week 12 would be a happy one, but the Caps lost two centers in the second contest against the Sabres.  Nicklas Backstrom sat out the third period after absorbing a bit hit on his last shift of the second period, and Jay Beagle sustained a hand injury that required surgery and will keep him out of the lineup for six weeks.  Backstrom came back to play in the last two games of the week, but for a team already missing both defensemen on its top pair – John Carlson and Brooks Orpik – and now a center who could play decent defense and win a lot of faceoffs, the four game week took its toll in the end.

Offense:  3.25/game (season: 3.13 /game; rank: 2nd)

The Caps had a good week in the offensive end of the rink, but it could have been better.  Washington faced four goaltenders (three of them backups) who started their games against the Caps with a combined record of 21-28-8, 2.74, .905.  Then they faced a third-string goalie – Columbus’ Anton Forsberg – making his first appearance of the season in overtime of a 4-4 game, and they failed to score on him despite the benefit of a 4-on-3 power play.

Overall, there was a lack of balance in the week as well.  Of the 13 goals scored, Alex Ovechkin had four of them, bringing his season total to 21, lifting him into fifth place in the league in goals, just a hat trick behind the Dallas Stars’ Jamie Benn.  Eight other Caps shared in the other nine goals, Marcus Johansson the only Cap of that group with two goals for the week.

If there were surprises in Week 12 for the Caps on offense, they came in the collection of players who had assists.  Tom Wilson tied for the team lead in that area with three helpers in four games, giving him 11 on the year (his career high is 13, set last season).  Matt Niskanen tied Wilson for the team lead with three assists for the week, bringing his total for the season to 14.  Of note is the fact that Niskanen recorded assists in each of the last three games of the week, and two of those assists came on the power play as he took over responsibility on the top power play unit for the injured John Carlson.

Defense: 2.50/game (season: 2.16 /game; rank:1st)

It was not a bad week for the Caps in terms of shots against, the team holding opponents to fewer than 30 shots in two of the four games.  It was not as if the Caps faced stiffs in that department as the Buffalo Sabres, who the Caps faced twice, and the Carolina Hurricanes ranked 13th and 14th in shots per game at week’s end (the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were held to 29 shots, rank 21st) .

Then there was the subtle problem. With John Carlson and Brook Orpik on the shelf with injuries, Niskanen and Karl Alzner were moved up a rung to the top pair this week.  By the end of the week they had performed relatively well, Alzner being the only one of that pair to have been on ice for a goal against at 5-on-5 (and it was just one).  But it was Niskanen and Alzner on the ice with the clock approaching one minute in regulation and the Columbus net empty when Brandon Saad got behind them both to score the game-tying goal in the Caps’ 5-4 Gimmick loss to end the week.  Niskanen averaged more than 28 minutes of ice time for the week, Alzner almost 24 minutes, and they looked to be dragging a bit at the end.

Possession was an issue for the Caps in Week 12, again.  This week’s profile looked different though.  Overall, the Caps out-attempted opponents at 5-on-5 to a Corsi-for percentage of 52.3.  However, they were plus-22 in 5-on-5 attempts in the second Buffalo game of the week, minus-4 over the other three games.  And, their close score Corsi was a poorer 48.2 percent, plus-14 against Buffalo in that second of the home-and-home games and minus-23 otherwise.

Goaltending: 2.22 /.929 / 1 shutout (season: 2.02 / .927 / 2 shutouts)

Goaltending was another case of what looked like a good week overall until one got down to the particulars, especially at the end of the week.  Braden Holtby took the first two games of the week, the home-and-home set against Buffalo, and allowed just two goals on 58 shots (a .966 save percentage), winning both games and pitching a shutout in the first of the two games.

Holtby and Philipp Grubauer split the last two games of the week, going 0-1-1, 3.39, .892.  What was more disturbing was the save percentage in the third period of those last two games: .778 (14-for-18).  Was this a case of opponents getting better opportunities against a depleted and fatigued defense, was it a blip on an otherwise fine goaltending ledger for the season, or was it evidence of an emerging slump that might be a case of poor possession chickens coming home to roost?

Power Play: 3-for-10 / 30.0 percent (season: 25.6 percent; rank: 2nd)

The Caps had a good week on the man advantage for the most part, part of a run that has them converting 33.3 percent of their opportunities (9-for-27) over the last three weeks.  But not everything was unicorns and accordions here, either.  The Caps played four games and had just ten power play opportunities.  They had none against Carolina in a 4-2 loss, the second time this season they were not awarded a power play opportunity.  They had only one chance in the game in Buffalo to start the week.  More than half of their opportunities (six) and two of their power play goals for the week came against Columbus.  Overall, the Caps finished the week tied for the tenth-fewest power play opportunities per game (3.08).

What chances the Caps had, they fared well., to a point  They finished the week with three goals on 23 shots (13.0 percent shooting) in 17:01 of power play time (1.35 shots per minute).  More than a third of the shots came from Alex Ovechkin (8), but he did not record any of the three power play goals.  Marcus Johansson, Jason Chimera, and T.J. Oshie recorded the goals for the Caps.  The blot on the record was the power play in overtime against Columbus to end the week in which they shot 0-for-6 against a third string goalie (Anton Forsberg) on their way to a 5-4 freestyle loss.

Penalty Killing: 11-for-13 / 84.6 percent (season: 84.7 percent; rank: 5th)

Week 12 was a solid week for the penalty killers, part of another good three week run (27-for-31/87.1 percent).  That the Caps finished the week a plus-one in special teams despite a special teams index (power play plus penalty killing percentages) of 114.6 was not a problem of the men manning the shorthanded responsibility.  One might have liked finishing the week with less time spent killing penalties, the Caps skating 18:20 in shorthanded situations, 6:49 more than they spent on the power play.  But they made up for it with killing off penalties in an efficient manner, allowing only 17 shots on goal in that 18:20 of shorthanded ice time (0.93 shots per minute).

It would have been a lot better week without the last game of the week.  In their first three games of Week 12, the Caps killed all 10 shorthanded situations they faced and held opponents to 15 shots in 18 minutes of shorthanded ice time (0.83 shots per minute).  In that last game of the week, against Columbus, the Blue Jackets scored on both of their power play shots on goal and went 2-for-3 in 1:10 of power play ice time.

Even Strength 5-on-5 Goals for/Goals Against: 9-7 / plus-2 (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 1.43; rank: 1st)

It was a good week overall, but it was better early than it was late at 5-on-5.  The Caps opened the week scoring both of their goals at evens in the shutout of Buffalo. After that it was break-even, splitting four 5-on-5 goals with the Sabres in their second game, going minus-1 in the 4-2 loss to Carolina, and going plus-1 in the 5-4 trick shot loss to Columbus.

It says something that a week in which the Caps had a 1.29 goals-for/goals-against ratio at 5-on-5 results in a drop in that number for the season.  It also hints at what might be a regression in that number if it starts to align more closely with possession numbers that are still an issue, an issue made more important by the injuries the team is dealing with at the moment.

Faceoffs: 111-for-241 / 46.1 percent (season: 49.5% / rank: 21st)

It was a bad week in the circle for the Caps.  They were under 50 percent in all four games and in all three zones for the week.  It was worse for missing Jay Beagle for the last two-plus games of the week after he suffered a hand injury.  Beagle was his typical efficient self, going 14-for-21 before he was sidelined.  The rest of the club was 44.1 percent, worse in the offensive end (42.3 percent) and the defensive end (43.3 percent).  Michael Latta was the only Cap taking more than ten draws for the week who finished over 50 percent (13-for-23/56.5 percent).

Goals by Period:

Third periods were not kind to the Caps in Week 12. The five goals allowed over the last three games after the shutout of Buffalo were double the goals allowed over the first two periods of games for the week and constitute 20 percent of the total goals allowed by the club in the third period of games this season before Week 12 (25).  As it is, the Caps are still the only club in the league to allow 30 or fewer goals in all three regulation periods this season.  Only four other teams have allowed 30 or fewer goals in two of the regulation periods this season.

In the end…

A 2-1-1 week looks better when the “2” comes at the end of the week and is something to build on.  When the week ends with a pair of losses, ending the Caps’ consecutive games streak without suffering back-to-back losses at 37 games, and to a pair of struggling teams, no less, it is cause for some concern. 

As the Caps embark on Week 13 and the last three games of their five-game road trip, they are facing their biggest challenge of the season – fight through the injuries that have depleted their defense and shortened the depth chart at center, and solve the persistent possession numbers problem they have had for more than a month.  If they do neither, the burden on goaltending becomes more acute and the likelihood of continued success diminished.

Three Stars:

  • First Star: Alex Ovechkin (4-0-4, plus-1, 26 shots on goal, 53 shot attempts; 10 shots on goal against Buffalo; 22 shot attempts against Columbus)
  • Second Star: Braden Holtby (2-0-1, 1.95, .931, one shutout)
  • Third Star: Marcus Johansson (2-2-4, plus-1, power play/game-winning goal, personal season high seven shots on goal against Buffalo).

Washington Capitals Recap: A ONE-Point Night: Blue Jackets 5 - Capitals 4 (OT/Gimmick)

The Washington Capitals ended 2015 by seeing one streak come to an end.  They started 2016 seeing two more streaks come to an end as they dropped a 5-4 trick shot decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night.

It was an odd game from the start.  Dmitry Orlov took a slashing penalty less than 90 seconds into the contest, and Jack Johnson set off the cannon at Nationwide Arena just eight seconds later when he pounced on a loose puck from in close to the right of goalie Braden Holtby.  Keep this goal in mind, we will get back to it.

It was a Capitals power play that led to the tying goal just under six minutes later.  It was almost a replica of the Columbus power play goal.  T.J. Oshie won a faceoff to Matt Niskanen at the right point.  Niskanen slid the puck to Nicklas Backstrom, who started a set play, passing the puck down to Marcus Johansson at the goal line extended.  Johansson relayed the puck to Oshie in the slot, and Oshie one-timed it past goalie Curtis McElhinney to tie the game.  It came eight seconds after the faceoff win by the Caps.

The teams exchanged goals again later in the first period.  Columbus grabbed the lead back when the Caps could not clear their own end.  Alexander Wennberg held off Nate Schmidt along the right wing wall, a battle that seemed to mesmerize the Caps, because as it was going on, Brandon Saad worked his way between the hash marks all alone.  He took a feed from Wennberg, faked Holtby to the ice, and snapped the puck in at the 7:56 mark.

Jaosn Chimera tied the game less than four minutes later on another Caps power play.  He set himself up at the top of the crease, getting and holding inside position on Jack Johnson as the Caps were working the puck around the perimeter.  Finally, Evgeny Kuznetsov fired the puck toward the net, and Chimera redirected it past McElhinney to tie the game at 11:47 of the first period.

The second period went comparatively calmly on the scoreboard, the Caps getting the only tally late in the period.  It was a case of basic hockey done well.  Zach Sill stated the scoring sequence by feeding the puck from his blue line to Chimera, who chipped it deep into the Blue Jackets’ zone.  Chimera followed up on the puck with hard pressure on Justin Falk, who was trying to chase down the biscuit at the end wall.  Falk was pressure by Chimera to throwing the puck back around the wall, where it was picked off by Tom Wilson.  From the corner, Wilson spied Marcus Johansson cutting to the net.  He fed the puck in front, and Johansson steered it past McElhinney to make it 3-2 heading to the last 20 minutes.

Columbus tied the game in the fifth minute of the period on a strange goal.  While on a power play, Ryan Johansen took a cross-ice feed from David Savard, then slid the puck to Jack Johnson just inside the blue line.  As Johnson wound up to fire a slap shot, Brooks Laich went one way, and Nate Schmidt went another out of the path of the shot.  In one sense it might have given Braden Holtby a better look at it, one the other, the shot seemed to explode on Holtby who did not react in time to stop the puck sailing low and through his pads.

Evgeny Kuznetsov restored the Caps’ lead less than a minute later on a delightful give-and-go with Tom Wilson.  Kuznetsov skated through the middle and slid the puck to Wilson as he crossed the blue line.  As Kuznetsov continued his advance to the net, Wilson feathered a delicate pass past the stick of Johnson to him, and Kuznetsov did the rest, faking McElhinney to the ice and sliding the puck past his left pad at 5:27 of the period.

Given the way the season has gone for the Caps to that point, fans might have been forgiven for thinking the Caps would lock things down and get out with a win.  They didn’t lock things down quite tightly enough.  With the clock ticking down to one minute in regulation, and the Blue Jacket net empty, Brandon Saad took a long feed from Jack Johnson, broke in on Holtby, and snapped a backhand past Holtby’s glove to tie the game a 4-4.

The came overtime, which might have been a Twilight Zone episode to be wedged into the marathon showing on cable television this weekend.  Just 55 seconds into the overtime, McElhinney fell awkwardly in his crease without having been touched, bending his knee beneath him at a painful angle.  He could not continue, and it was up to Anton Forsberg to take over in the Columbus goal with the teams skating at 3-on-3.

A little more than a minute after the goalie exchange, the Blue Jackets took a slashing penalty, Brandon Dubinsky to the box.  So, the Blue Jackets were down to their number three goalie (Sergei Bobrovsky still out with an injury), the Caps – the second-best power play in the league – were on a 4-on-3 power play, and a player averaging almost two minutes of penalty killing ice time per game was in the box.  This would be a slam dunk, right?

It was at that Point that Anton Forsberg turned into Georges Vezina, Ken Dryden, and Patrick Roy, all rolled into a Blue Jacket goalie sized jersey.  The Caps recorded eight shot attempts on the power play, six of them on goal.  None of them crossed the goal line.  Columbus escaped disaster and even ended up with a power play of their own to close out the last half minute of regulation, but the teams would go to the Gimmick.

In the freestyle phase of the competition, T.J. Oshie undressed Forsberg in the opening round, the goalie biting on the backhand fake like it was a dog being offered a soup bone by his owner.  Oshie ended up with nothing but an open net in which to slide the puck, and again it looked like it would be a slam dunk for the Caps. 

The only thing that got slammed was the door, though, as Forsberg held firm against Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, giving Columbus the chance to recover and get goals from Dubinsky and Johansson to upset the Caps, 5-4.

Other stuff…

-- About that first Jack Johnson goal.  The play started with the Caps shorthanded and the faceoff in their own end.  Nicklas Backstrom, who has been struggling a bit on faceoffs lately, took the draw and lost it cleanly to Ryan Johansen, setting in motion the events that led to the goal eight seconds later.  If he was healthy, does Jay Beagle – a 58.4 percent performer in the circle – take that draw? Then there was the second Columbus goal.  Orlov was caught following Scott Hartnell into the corner, and Nate Schmidt was hung up along the wall on the same side, leaving no defensemen to clog the route Brandon Saad took to take a pass and score from in close all alone.

-- Consider these two sets of four numbers – 27:25, 25:40, 28:25, and 32:04; 26:23, 20:24, 22:56, and 25:42.  Those are the ice time logs over the past four games for Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner, respectively.  Those four games were played without John Carlson, who joined first defensive pair partner Brooks Orpik on the bench with an injury.  Niskanen skated 32:04 in this game, including a whopping 8:02 on the power play in place of Carlson.  Alzner, who gets no appreciable power play time as a rule, led the team in even strength ice time (25:04).   It is little surprise that it was Alzner that Saad snuck behind to break into the Caps zone on the last game-tying goal, and that it was Niskanen who could not quite close the distance to get his stick on Saad’s shot.  Those two are getting too many minutes at the moment.

-- Old diesel engines used to take forever to warm up, and that was what Alex Ovechkin’s game looked like in this one.  He did not record his first shot attempt until the 9:27 mark (blocked by Ryan Murray).  That late entry into the game in the offensive end was the first of what would be ten consecutive shot attempts that would not reach the goaltender (seven blocked, three misses).  He did not get his first shot on goal until the 10:03 mark of the third period.  In that last 10:03 and five minutes of overtime he recorded six shots, one shot blocked, and another five misses.

-- Braden Holtby allowed more than three goals in a game for the first time in almost two months.  The four goals he allowed broke a personal streak of 21 appearances in which he did not allow more than three goals (including one in which he allowed three in 29 minutes against Tampa Bay before he was relieved by Philipp Grubauer).

-- This was the first time this season that the Caps scored three or more goals in a game and lost.  They are 20-0-1 in those games now.

-- This was the first time this season that the Caps lost a game when leading after two periods.  They are still one of one of 11 teams that has not lost a game in regulation when leading after 40 minutes, and they remain tied with the Dallas Stars for the top spot in wins when leading after two periods (19).

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov recorded his fourth two-point game in his last seven contests.  He is 3-4-7 over those games.

-- Marcus Johansson recorded his third multi-point game in his last seven contests, going 3-5-8 over that span.

-- Tom Wilson had his second two-point game in a week.  He is 0-5-5 in his last five games and is now within two assists of tying a career best (13) set last season.  He also broke a four-game streak in which he took penalty minutes.

-- The Caps did just about everything right.  They outshot the Blue Jackets, 33-29. They had more power play chances (six) than Columbus (3).  They got points from eight different players, and the four goals were scored by four different players, so score on for balance.  They were out-Corsi’ed at 5-on-5 (48-42), and they lost the faceoff battle (36-29)…they didn’t get everything right. 

In the end...

The Caps did get enough right that they should have won this game, especially when presented with the advantages of a goalie making his first appearance of the season in the most difficult of moments – replacing an injured goalie in a 3-on-3 overtime.  Add in the power play that the Caps were awarded in the extra session, and this should have ended differently.  That it did not, ending the Caps’ streak of games without consecutive losses this season at 37, might now be cause for some concern.  The Caps can sponge some of that away when they take on the Bruins in Boston on Tuesday, but at the moment the injuries have peeled back the curtain to show a club that still has issues in their fundamental numbers, making it less capable of pulling out wins when the goalie has an off night.