Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 59: Canadiens at Capitals, February 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It is four wins and counting for the Washington Capitals, who will seek to extend their winning streak to five games when they host the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center on Wednesday night.  The Caps, already the hottest team in the league this season, currently have the best ten-game record in the league at 9-1-0 in their last ten contests.  Over those ten games they outscored their opponents, 33-24, although their special teams – specifically the power play – could use some work.  Over those same ten games the Caps are 5-for-35 (14.3 percent) with a man advantage, while the penalty killers are 32-for-36 (88.9 percent).

Meanwhile, the Canadiens are staring a spring without a playoff berth in the face.  What started as a very promising season, winning their first nine games (eight of them by multi-goal margins), was dealt a mortal blow when goalie Carey Price, the defending Vezina Trophy winner, suffered what would become what could be a season-ending knee injury.  Since that nine-game winning streak to open the season, the Habs are 19-27-5 and are in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, eight points out of a playoff spot and the team holding that last playoff spot having two games in hand on the Canadiens.

Montreal’s most recent misfortune is going 1-3-1 over their last five games after a three-game winning streak that provided a glimmer of hope that the season could be saved.  And, those five games have been largely ugly.  They gave up six goals to both Buffalo and Arizona in losses, and they have not scored more than two goals in any of their last four games.  Their power play has been efficient (3-for-12/25.0 percent) but lacked a volume of opportunities.  Their penalty kill gave everything they earned on the power play back (10-for-13/76.9 percent), perhaps saved by having few shorthanded situations to kill off.

The Canadiens have only 11 goals in their last five games, four players with two – Alex Galchenyuk, Sven Andrighetto, Brendan Gallagher, and Dale Weise.  Conspicuous by their absence are P.K. Subban (the Canadiens’ leading point producer) and Max Pacioretty (team leader in goals).  Subban has three points (all assists) in his last five games, in the midst of which he was subject to a post-game dressing down from head coach Michel Therrien for losing an edge and the puck to Colorado’s Jarome Iginla, who took it the other way for the game winning goal late in a 3-2 loss.  It was an odd thing to do on Therrien’s part, given that Subban had points in 17 of his previous 20 games (4-16-20).  Just one more bit of drama in a difficult season.  He is 1-4-5, minus-5, in 18 career games against the Caps.

As for Pacioretty, who was looking the wrong way when Iginla got behind him for that game-winning goal, he has just two goals in his last 14 games (including one in this recent five-game slide) and is a ghastly minus-14 over those 14 games.  He has just two “plus” games on the ledger in that span.  His 21 goals in 60 games is well off the pace he set in the previous two seasons when he recorded at total of 76 goals.  It is not a lost season for Pacioretty as much as one that has gone sideways on him.  He is 2-7-9, minus-2, in 22 career games against Washington.

Here is how the teams compare overall:

1.  Whoever scores first, it hardly seems to matter for the Canadiens, given how reliable scoring first is as a predictor of wins in the NHL.  Montreal has seven losses in regulation when scoring first; only six teams have more (a fact made worse by the knowledge that Montreal had that nine-game winning streak to start the year).  Only four teams have fewer wins when opponents score first than the four the Canadiens have, and they have the league’s sixth-worst winning percentage when allowing the first goal.

2.  Montreal has to score to win these days.  They are 16-1-0 when scoring more than three goals, but if they score fewer than three they are 6-24-3, three of those wins resulting in a third goal for scoring purposes in a shootout.  There aren’t many 2-1 wins in their results table.

3.  Speaking of shootouts, Montreal’s record in the Gimmick makes their record look better than it is.  They are 5-2 in the freestyle competition, all of the instances coming after Price’s injury.  Otherwise they are 14-27-3.

4.  The Canadiens have a respectable goal differential in the first period of games this season (plus-1) and the second period (plus-6).  However, their goal differential in the third period and overtime (minus-12) has sunk them.

5.  For all their troubles, Montreal is a good possession team.  They rank sixth in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 overall (52.7 percent) and are ranked third in away games (52.3 percent).

1.  “Four” is a magic number for the Caps.  They have not lost a game in regulation time when scoring the “pizza” goal (a reference to a local pizza promotion): 24-0-1, their only loss coming in a trick shot competition.  In fact, three goals is a pretty good measure of the Caps’ chances.  In games where they score three or more goals in regulation and overtime they are 33-1-2.

2.  If the Caps score a power play goal, it will be a good sign. They are 26-1-2 when scoring on the man advantage.  It is probably a better signal that preventing opponents’ power play goals.  Washington is 26-5-1 when shutting out opponents on their power play.

3.  Only one team has spent more time shorthanded in the first period this season than the Caps (123:58).  The Philadelphia Flyers have spent 128:24 shorthanded in the first periods of games.  At the other end, only three teams have spent less time killing penalties in the third period than the Caps (72:14) – the Minnesota Wild (71:52), the Calgary Flames (70:45), and the Carolina Hurricanes (64:03).

4.  The Caps’ 24 multi-goal wins are as many or more wins than the total win number for five teams (Buffalo, Columbus, Vancouver, Edmonton, and Toronto).

5. The Caps finished their 3-2 win over Arizona with their third straight game out-attempting their opponents at 5-on-5, reversing a three-game streak in which they were on the wrong side of 50 percent Corsi-for.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Montreal:  Tomas Plekanec

Tomas Plekanec is one of those under-the-radar guys who is effective without usually being included on a short list of the game’s top players.  In five of his last seven full seasons (not including the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season) he finished with more than 50 points, three times hitting or surpassing 60 points.  He would seem to be a lock to add to his total of 50-point campaigns this season with 44 points in 60 games (he is on a pace to hit exactly 60).  He is also a very durable player, missing just 12 games in his last ten seasons, including this one.  Something he does not have this season, and what the Caps would like to keep him from getting, is a shorthanded point.  He has recorded at least one shorthanded point in each of the last nine full seasons preceding this one (again, not counting the 2012-2013 lockout-shortened season).  He is 14-15-29, plus-3, in 39 career games against the Caps.

Washington: Nate Schmidt

It might be an odd thing to point out, but there are only two players in the league who have 13 or fewer points and a plus-14 or better – the New York Rangers’ Kevin Klein and the Caps’ Nate Schmidt.  Sure, you can say that the plus-minus is a product of hitching a ride on the best scoring offense in the league, but Schmidt has put together a solid year while assuming more responsibility (as all defensemen did) after Brooks Orpik went down to injury.  Schmidt is averaging 18:58 in ice time per game, a career high so far, and he has already appeared in 53 games, surpassing his previous high of 39 games last season.  Those 14 points are more than three times the number he put up last season (4), and he has already more than doubled his career best in blocked shots with 88 (he had 35 in 29 games in 2012-2013).  Schmidt comes into this game without a point in his last four games, and he is 0-2-2, plus-4, in five career games against Montreal.

In the end…

This is one of those games where fans will take notice if the Caps get up in the Canadiens’ faces early and stand on their throats, figuratively speaking.  Montreal is a severely weakened team without Carey Price, especially in goal where none of the other netminders taking the ice for them this season have a goals against below 2.50 or a save percentage above .905.  It has made their postseason prospects are bleak.  Meanwhile, the Caps have played games rather close over the last three weeks, but they have found themselves consistently on the right side of them.  If the Caps score early in this one, it could turn into a rout.

Capitals 4 – Canadiens 2

Washington Capitals Recap: A TWO-Point Night: Capitals 3 - Coyotes 2

Coming from behind to win games in the NHL is a hard thing to do, but the Washington Capitals are making a habit of it lately. On Monday night the Caps spotted the Arizona Coyotes the game’s first goal, then scored three before holding off the visitors in a 3-2 win at Verizon Center.

After a scoreless first period, Kevin Connauton got the Coyotes on the board in the second period when he took a pass from Tobias Rieder on a 3-on-2 rush, curled to the middle, and snapped a shot past goalie Braden Holtby’s glove 3:25 into the period.

The Caps evened the score on a power play less than three minutes later. With Martin Hanzal in the box for Arizona, Evgeny Kuznetsov circled out from the right wing wall, and with no passing options available called his own number, wristing a shot that seemed to handcuff Coyote goalie Louis Domingue, sneaking under the goalie’s left arm and trickling over the goal line to make it 1-1 at the 6:03 mark.

Washington broke the tie mid-way through the third period when Alex Ovechkin scored his league-leading 39th goal. Taking a pass from Justin Williams along the left wing wall, Ovechkin stepped out a took measure of his options. He chose a wrist shot that sailed past the leg of defenseman Jarred Tinordi, who tried to block the shot, and under Domingue’s right arm to give the Caps their first lead at the 8:17 mark.

Just 26 seconds later the Caps had a two-goal lead, but not without some controversy. Tom Wilson started the play by firing a one-timer from the right wing circle off a feed from Jason Chimera. Domingue gloved the puck down, but not cleanly. The puck dropped onto his pad, and then to the ice where Domingue slapped his glove on it. Wilson followed up his own shot, though, and poked the puck free. For a split second Domingue turned to the referee behind the net seeking a stoppage, but the puck was free for Mike Richards to snap it into the net from the low slot for a 3-1 lead and setting Domingue off onto a stick swinging fit against his own net.

Just one minute later the Coyotes made it interesting once more with Connor Murphy firing a long range shot from the right point that made its way through a crowd before eluding Holtby, but that would be as close as the Coyotes would get as the Caps won their fourth straight, 3-2.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps won their 44th game of the season. The 44 wins ranks tied for ninth in franchise history (with the 1999-2000 team), and the Caps still have 24 games left to play.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov extended his points streak to five with a goal and an assist. He is 9-25-34 in his last 27 games.

-- Mike Richards’ goal was his first as a Capital and his first since he recorded one with the Los Angeles Kings in a 7-6 overtime loss to the Nashville Predators on January 3, 2015.

-- Alex Ovechkin recorded an assist in addition to his 39th goal of the season. It is the first time he recorded assists in consecutive games since he had helpers on November 28th and December 3rd in wins in Toronto against the Maple Leafs and in Montreal against the Canadiens.

-- The Caps took it on the chin in the faceoff circle, winning just 33 of 74 draws (44.6 percent). Only T.J. Oshie among the Caps taking more than two draws won more than he lost (4-for-7).

-- This was the fifth straight game in which the Caps allowed the game’s first goal. The Caps raised their record to 15-9-4 in such games, the only team in the league with a winning record when allowing the first goal.

-- The win was the Caps 16th in their last 18 home games (16-1-1).  They are a league-best 23-4-2 at home.  No, they do not have a chance to set a record for home wins (the Philadelphia Flyers were 36-2-2 at home in 1975-1976), but they are on a pace to finish with the most home wins (33) in the post-2004-2005 lockout era.

-- It was yet another case of the Caps grinding a team down.  Arizona out-attempted the Caps in the first period at 5-on-5, 16-14, but the Caps had a 14-7 edge in the second period, and they out-attempted the Coyotes at 5-on-5 by an 8-6 margin before striking for two goals in 26 seconds in the third period.

-- Braden Holtby was sharper than he has been recently, especially in facing fewer than 30 shots.  Stopping 25 of 27 shots, it was the first time he faced fewer than 30 shots and had a save percentage above .925 (.926 in this game) since he stopped 25 of 27 shots in a 3-2 win at Boston against the Bruins on January 5th.  He had gone nine appearances facing fewer than 30 shots without posting a save percentage as high.

-- The Caps were six-for-six in killing penalties, tying the most shorthanded situations faced this season and the first time this season that they faced more than five shorthanded situations and killed them all.

In the end…

Another “not pretty but we’ll take it” sort of result.  This team is in a part of the season where they just seem to find a way to scratch and grind out wins when they do not quite have their “A” game.  The trick has been getting reliable contributions from names we recognize (in this instance Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Braden Holtby) and from names that do not show up as frequently (but change on a game to game basis), in this case Mike Richards and Tom Wilson.  It works for this club, well enough that they will have a chance to secure their sixth winning streak of five or more games on Wednesday when they host the Montreal Canadiens.