Sunday, March 20, 2016

Washington Capitals Recap: A NO-Point Night: Penguins 6 - Capitals 2

The Washington Capitals do not lose often, but when they do, they often leave no doubt.  The Caps lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 6-2, on Sunday night, the seventh time in 15 regulation losses this season in which they lost by three or more goals.  Pittsburgh scored early, and they scored late to offset a mid-game push by the Caps as the Caps lost their third consecutive road game.

It was a case of the Penguins getting contributions from the unexpected portions of their lineup.  Bryan Rust got the Pens off and running mid-way through the first period when he took a spin-o-rama pass from Tom Kuhnhackl, deked goalie Braden Holtby to the ice, and tucked the puck around Holtby’s left pad to make it 1-0, 8:33 into the first period.

Less than two minutes later, it was 2-0.  When the puck squirted free from a scrum at the left wing wall in the Caps’ zone, it ended up on the stick of Sidney Crosby, who threaded a pass between two Caps defenders to Trevor Daley pinching in on the right side.  Daley kicked the puck to his stick, leaned in, and lifted a backhander over Holtby’s glove, off the near post, and into the back of the net to make it 2-0 at the 9:59 mark.

That would do it for the scoring in the first period, and the Caps would make a game of it in the second.  Jason Chimera got the Caps on the board less than two minutes into the period on an odd play.  With the puck sliding into the Penguins’ end, Chimera and Daley were in a race to chase it down.  Chimera got a step on Daley, and seeing this, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury tried to poke check the puck out of harm’s way.  He got a stick on the puck but managed only to bat it off Chimera’s helmet, from which it ricocheted into the net to make it 2-1 just 1:18 into the period.

Washington tied the game late in the period when Jay Beagle collected a loose puck inside his blue line and fed the puck up to Andre Burakovsky behind the Penguin defense after stepping out of the penalty box.  With nothing but clean ice in front of him, Burakovsky skated in and snapped a shot under the left arm of Fleury to make it 2-2 at the 15:12 mark.

If the Caps could have gotten out of the period with no further scoring, things might have been different.  They didn’t, and they weren’t.  On the next shift the Penguins took the lead back.  Tom Kuhnhackl made lemonade out of lemons for what would be the game-winning goal.  After getting knocked off the puck by Justin Williams, he was more or less left alone as the puck found its way to Matt Cullen, who found Kuhnhackl all alone in the right wing circle for a one-timer that beat Holtby to make it 3-2 with 4:06 left in the period.

The third period was all Penguins.  Cullen scored a goal of his own 3:46 into the period when he snuck behind the Caps’ defense, took a pass from Kuhnhackl, and chipped a shot that rolled up and over Holtby to drop into the net to make it 4-2. 

Less than four minute later the Pens put an end to the competitive portion of the game when Sidney Croaby tacked down a puck that floated into the Caps’ zone and backhanded a pass to Chris Kunitz skating down the middle.  Kunitz rifled a shot off the post and behind Holtby to make it 5-2, 7:18 into the period and ending Holtby’s night.

Pittsburgh ended the scoring on a power play 13 minutes into the period on one-timer by Justin Schultz, his first as a Penguin, that sailed past the glove of Philipp Grubauer. 

Other stuff…

-- The hockey gods giveth, and the hockey gods taketh away.  Evgeny Kuznetsov had three assists against Nashville on Friday night.  He was a minus-4 in this game, the worst plus-minus game of his career to date.

-- The six goals allowed by the Caps is the most allowed to an opponent in any game this season.  They allowed five goals on five occasions.

-- Until tonight, the Caps had a single misconduct penalty on their team penalty record for the season.  Mike Weber and Daniel Winnik made it three with the misconduct penalties they took in the third period.

-- Washington had a season-low 18 shots on goal. It was the second game this season in which they recorded fewer than 20 shots, the other one a 19-shot performance on December 3rd in a 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.  It was just the third time in 13 games that the Caps lost when recording fewer than 25 shots on goal.

-- This was just the second game this season in which the Caps lost by four or more goals, the other coming against San Jose in a 5-0 decision on October 13th.  If you are wondering, the club record for fewest losses by four or more goals in a season is one, set twice – once in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season and again in 2014-2015.

-- In the “records you don’t want” department, this was the 16th time in Braden Holtby’s career he allowed five goals in a game.  That ties him with Brent Johnson and Clint Malarchuk for third-most in Caps history, behind Don Beaupre (43) and Olaf Kolzig (84).

-- By the end of this game, the “Jay Beagle Experiment” appeared to be over.  The top line was once more Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie.

-- This was an odd game in terms of penalties.  It was the first time this season that two Capitals recorded more than 10 minutes in penalties in a single game.  It was also the first time this season that a player other than Tom Wilson was the one recording more than 10 minutes.  Mike Weber finished with 19 penalty minutes, while Daniel Winnik finished with 14 minutes in penalties.

-- The Caps had just two shots on goal from defensemen, and they came from two defensemen one might not have anticipated.  Mike Weber and Nate Schmidt had one shot apiece.

-- The possession battle was a bit strange.  Take away special teams, where the Penguins had an 11-2 advantage in shots, and the shots on goal were relatively even, 20-16 in favor of Pittsburgh.  At a more discrete level, the 5-on-5 shot attempts favored the Pens, but only by a 37-34 margin overall.  It was close among the periods, too.  Pittsburgh had a 16-12 edge in the first period, but the Caps had a 12-11 advantage in the second.  The teams were 10-10 in the third period (numbers from

In the end…

If it wasn’t the Penguins, one could chalk this up to it being a bad, but essentially meaningless game late in a regular season that is all but settled for the Caps.  And truth be told, this one might mean more to fans than to the players, whose sights might be trained on April more than they are on the last dozen games of the regular season.  But it was the Penguins, and that matchup will always have meaning on some level.  This was the fourth time since the 2004-2005 lockout that a Capitals-Penguins game was settled by four or more goals, the Penguins winning their third such game.  It that respect, one should be thankful it does not happen often.  On the other, let’s hope the next one, at least one ending in the Penguins’ favor, doesn’t happen for quite some time to come.

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 23

Week 23 was a typical week for the Washington Capitals.  After a California trip in Week 22 that was a bit disappointing, the Caps shrugged it off, won two games with solid efforts, and resumed their march into the franchise record book. 

Record: 2-0-0

The juggernaut rolls on.  Week 23 was a light week, but it was the tenth week in which the Caps did not lose a game in regulation and the eighth in which they did not lose at all.  In doing so, the Caps achieved several things.  They became the fourth 50-win club in team history when they opened the week with an overtime win against the Carolina Hurricanes, tying the 1985-1986 and the 2008-2009 clubs in wins.  They became the first team in the Eastern Conference in the post-2004-2005 lockout era to win 50 or more games in a season three times, doing it as the fourth-fastest team to 50 wins in NHL history (69 games, matching the 1975-1976 and 1976-1977 Montreal Canadiens).  They also clinched a playoff spot with that win, the 26th playoff berth in franchise history.  When the Caps knocked off the Nashville Predators on Friday, they became the third-winningest team in club history. 

Offense:  3.00/game (season: 3.16 /game; rank: 2nd)

The Caps spread their offense around in Week 23 like cream cheese on a bagel.  Five different players shared in the six goals scored for the week, and five other players shared in the seven assists.  Ten different players sharing in such low scoring, given the number of games in the week, was a study in balance.  Then there was the balance of the expected and the unexpected, and the things that should be expected by now, but apparently aren’t, at least by opponents.

As for the expected, there was the overtime goal by Alex Ovechkin to give the Caps a 2-1 win over Carolina to open the week.  It was his 87th game-winning goal of his career, most in the NHL since he entered the league in 2005-2006 (Daniel Sedin: 68).   It was also his 17th overtime goal, also a league best since he came into the league (Daniel Sedin: 14). 

Then there was the unexpected.  If you had Daniel Winnik to lead the team in goals for the week, you probably still have your March Madness bracket intact.  Winnik recorded his first two goals as a Capital in the 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators to end the week.  It was the fourth two-goal game of his career and his first since he recorded a pair with the Anaheim Ducks in a 5-4 win over the Calgary Flames on January 21, 2013.

As for what should be expected by now, but rarely seems to be, there was Evgeny Kuznetsov and the back pass from behind the opponent’s net.  Usually it is the result of Kuznetsov circling counter-clockwise behind the net and snapping a pass back in the direction from which he came for a tap-in. Against the Predators, with the score tied at a goal apiece, Kuznetsov played a variation on the theme, circling clockwise behind the Nashville net and backhanding a pass to the trailing T.J. Oshie, who whacked the puck in for what would be the game-winning goal.  Kuznetsov also set up the game-winning overtime goal against Carolina by Alex Ovechkin from behind the net, which has become the last place you want to see Kuznetsov if you are an opponent.

Defense: 1.00/game (season: 2.30 /game; rank: 3rd)

The Caps held opponents under 30 shots on goal in both games of Week 23, extending their streak of such games to three and making it the fifth straight game in which they held an opponent to 30 or fewer shots.  The two games holding opponents under 30 shots made it a total of 40 such games this season for the Caps, the eighth-highest total of sub-30 shot games allowed this season.

The nice thing about a week like this one is no one gets singed too badly in the goals-scored against tables.  No Capital was on ice for more than one goal against for the week.

Possession-wise, it was a better week than it looked for the Caps.  Overall, the Caps finished the week just under 50 percent in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (49.7 percent).  But that was entirely a product of third-period outcomes, specifically in the Nashville game in which the Caps took a 4-1 lead less than a minute into the period.  Looking at the results by period, the Caps were 59.7 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 in the first periods of the two games, and they were 56.4 percent in the second periods of games.  That they were 32.4 percent in the third periods of games is a function of that old notion of “score effects (numbers from”

Goaltending: 0.99 /.957 (season: 2.19 / .923 / 2 shutouts)

Braden Holtby had fine timing this week.  As the Caps head into their last dozen or so games of the regular season, he looked like the Braden Holtby who threated to run away and hide the Vezina Trophy in the 2015 portion of the season.  Allowing a goal in each game of the week made it the first time he allowed fewer than two goals in consecutive games since he held the Montreal Canadiens to a single goal and shutout the Buffalo Sabres back on December 26th and 28th.  It was the third time in four games that he allowed a single goal, his record over those games being 3-0-1, 1.68, .933.  Compare that to his 1.86 goals against average and .934 save percentage over the 2014 portion of the season.  If Holtby is shaking off his mid-winter lull and getting back to his “2015” level of performance, that is a bad sign for the rest of the league.

Power Play: 0-for-6 / 0.0 percent (season: 23.2 percent; rank: 2nd)

The power play went dark for Week 23, and it was not pretty.  Against the eighth- and 20th-ranked teams in the league in penalty killing, the Caps went 0-6.  It was not because of luck.  Washington managed only five shots on goal in 9:03 in power play time.  None of those shots came in their only power play chance against Carolina, the fourth time this season that they were held to a single power play opportunity and sixth time they were held to fewer than two chances.  They are 3-2-1 in those games.

Going 0-for-5 against Nashville was the fourth time this season that the Caps had five or more power play chances and came up empty.  They are 2-2-0 in those games.  They did get two power play shots on goal from Alex Ovechkin, but in coming up empty he finished the week without a power play goal in his last ten games.

Penalty Killing: 4-for-5 / 80.0 percent (season: 84.1 percent; rank: 4th)

The penalty killers had a decent week, made better by having to deal with so few shorthanded situations.  And, what situations they did face they handled rather efficiently.  The penalty killers allowed just five shots on goal in 8:57 of shorthanded ice time.  The one goal scored was a scorer’s goal, a case of Nashville’s Filip Forsberg picking the side of a Mike Ribeiro screen opposite the one goalie Braden Holtby was peeking around to locate the shooter.  What they did not do, and what they have avoided all season, is allowing teams to pile up power play goals within games.  Only twice this season have the Caps allowed more than one power play goal in a game, fewest in the league.  It happened against Columbus in a 5-4 Gimmick loss on January 2nd and again against Florida in a 5-2 loss on February 2nd.

Faceoffs: 58-for-102 / 58.9 percent (season: 49.7% / rank: 19th)

It was a good week in the circle for the Caps.  Washington won both games overall, and they dominated in the ends, winning more than 60 percent of their draws for the week in the offensive (62.9 percent) and defensive (65.7 percent) ends.  It was an especially good week for Evgeny Kuznetsov, who went 21-for-31 for the week (67.7 percent).  Marcus Johansson (55.6 percent) and Nicklas Backstrom (52.2 percent) also finished the week over 50 percent among Caps taking at least ten draws.

Goals by Period:

Scoring first period goals has been a problem for the Caps lately.  In going 0-for-2 in first periods in Week 23 they went their second consecutive week without scoring a goal in the first period of a game.  The Caps have now gone seven straight games without scoring a first-period goal, the last time they did so being when they scored a pair in a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 2nd.

They made up for that by dominating the second period, outscoring Carolina and Nashville by a combined 4-2 margin.  When couple with the fact that the Caps held both teams without a goal in the first period, they could work their late-game charm, winning their sixth game in overtime this season and winning their 34th game when leading after two periods, tops in the league.

In the end…

Week 23 was the 20th winning week for the Caps this season, evidence of the consistency with which they have performed this season.  They did it by beating a good possession team in Carolina and beating a Nashville team that had just one loss in regulation in 17 games, since they lost in regulation to the Caps on February 9th. 

The Caps enter the last dozen games of the season looking to maintain focus and build on the things that served them so well over the first 60 games of the season – balanced scoring, solid goaltending, effective special teams.  In Week 24 they will get a chance to do so against two teams in the playoff mix (Pittsburgh and St. Louis), and two other teams in their last gasps in fighting for their playoff lives (New Jersey and Ottawa).  It should be a good test.

Three Stars:

  • First Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (0-4-4, plus-3, two game-winning assists, fourth three-assist game of the season (tied for first in the league), 67.7 percent on faceoffs)
  • Second Star: Daniel Winnik (2-0-2, plus-2, two goals on two shots against Nashville)
  • Third Star: Braden Holtby (2-0-2, 0.99, .957)

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 71: Capitals at Penguins, March 20th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

For the 43rd time in the Alex Ovechkin/Sidney Crosby era, the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins will go head-to-head in the regular season, meeting Sunday evening at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.  The Caps have a 19-18-5 record against the Pens, 2-1-0 this season. 

The Caps are looking to add to that win total, coming off a 4-1-1 record over their last six games.  Over those six games the Caps have rediscovered defense and goaltending, holding opponents to a single goal in each of the four wins and allowing 13 goals overall while scoring 14 of their own.

The Penguins are, if anything, hotter than the Caps, bringing a five-game winning streak into this contest.  The Penguins are doing it with defense as well, holding opponents to two or fewer goals in four of the five games in their winning streak and limiting opponents to just 21 goals over their last 12 games.

Pittsburgh has outscored their opponents, 17-9, over their five straight wins, led in goal scoring by Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby with three apiece.  Kunitz is enjoying a bit of good fortune after some struggles putting the puck in the net.  Before he potted three goals in the Pens’ last five games, he had gone five games without one and had only two over an 11-game stretch.  As it is, he still is not the goal-scorer he was two seasons ago when he had 35 goals in 78 games.  Over the past two seasons he has a total of 32 goals in 143 games, 15 of them coming in 69 games this season.  In 27 career games against Washington, Kunitz is 9-8-17, plus-7.

Crosby does not only have points in each of the five games of the Penguins’ current winning streak, he has points in 11 straight contests (6-12-18, plus-11).  In 33 games of the 2016 portion of the season, Crosby is 22-25-47, plus-17.  He has reasserted himself as the most dangerous offensive force in the league, and it matters to the Penguins that he maintains that position.  Pittsburgh is just 10-14-2 in 26 games in which Crosby did not record a point.  When he scores a goal, though, the Pens are 18-3-2.  He has had his struggles lately against Washington, though, and it is consistent with the change behind the Washington bench.  In seven games over two seasons against the Adam Oates-led Caps, Crosby was 4-11-15, plus-7, in seven games.  Over the last two seasons, facing a Caps team led by Barry Trotz, Crosby is 1-1-2, minus-5, in seven games.  In 36 career games against Washington, Crosby is 18-34-52, plus-2.

Marc-Andre Fleury got the win in goal in Philadelphia on Saturday, so it is uncertain if he will get the call against Washington on Sunday night.  If he does, the Caps will be facing a goalie that is having an impressive stretch run.  In his last 16 games, Fleury is 11-4-1, 1.98, .929, with one shutout.  It is one of his best seasons in one respect.  His .935 save percentage at 5-on-5 is the second-best of his career, topped only by his .939 save percentage at 5-on-5 in 2007-2008.  What he has not done this season, oddly enough, is impress at 5-on-5 on home ice.  Among 31 goalies with at least 750 minutes at 5-on-5, Fleury has a save percentage of .932, which ranks 14th in that group (numbers from  He is 18-11-2, 2.50, .929, with three shutouts in 32 career appearances against the Caps.

Here is how the teams compare overall:

1.  One of the persistent mysteries in the NHL is how a team with as many gifted offensive players as the Penguins has such unimpressive power play numbers.  The Penguins rank 19th overall in power play efficiency, which is the obvious way of looking at the problem.  Another is their ability to dominate games with their power play.  They have power play goals in 33 games this season, tied for 13th most in the league and only three fewer than the Caps.  But they have just seven multiple power play goal games, tied for 17th in the league and six fewer than the Caps, who are tied for first with 13 such games.

2.  On the other side of the special teams coin, the Penguins are quite effective.  They rank fifth overall in penalty killing and have allowed a power play goal in just 28 games this season, tied for fourth-fewest in the league.  If the Caps can pierce the Penguins here, it would be important.  Pittsburgh has the 19th-ranked winning percentage in the league when allowing a power play goal (.393/11-14-3).

3.  If the Penguins take a lead into the second intermission, it is the surest predictor of a Pittsburgh win.  The Penguins are the only team in the league with a perfect record when leading after 40 minutes (32-0-0).

4.  Pittsburgh has a very good scoring defense, seventh in the league overall at 2.44 goals per game.  It is their consistency by period that stands out – 57 goals allowed in the first period of games, 56 in the second, and 56 in the third.

5.  Pittsburgh has been a good, if not quite dominating possession team on home ice.  At 5-on-5 they rank ninth overall in Corsi-for (53.3 percent), eighth in score-adjusted Corsi-for (52.5 percent).  If there is something odd in their numbers, given their reputation for offensive depth, it is in the total number of events per 60 minutes on home ice.  Pittsburgh ranks 16th in shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 for both teams (110.0).  They are especially adept at limiting opponents’ chances, allowing the ninth fewest shot attempts per 60 minutes on home ice (51.4; numbers from

1.  The Capitals penalty kill has been very good all season, ranking fourth in the league overall (84.1 percent).  They have been able to do this, in part, by preventing teams from piling up power play goals within games.  Only twice this season have the Caps allowed more than one power play goal in a game, fewest in the league.  It happened against Columbus in a 5-4 Gimmick loss on January 2nd and again against Florida in a 5-2 loss on February 2nd.

2.  The Caps appear to be in another power play slump.  After starting March with power play goals in each of their first three games to extend a streak of game with power play goals to five, they are just 2-for-17 in their last six games (11.8 percent).

3.  This is going to be a battle between teams that do not score first in games.  Only seven teams have opened the scoring fewer times than the Caps (32).  One of those teams is Pittsburgh (31).

4.  Two is the magic number for the Caps, as in goals allowed.  In games in which the Caps allow two or fewer goals they are 40-1-1, the best record in the league in such games.

5.  The Caps do a good job limiting opponents’ shooting on the road, allowing the tenth-fewest shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (54.1).  What they do not do is generate a lot of activity of their own, ranking 17th in shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 on the road (52.1; numbers from

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh:  Kris Letang

Since the 2007-2008 season, his first full season in the NHL, Kris Letang is one of five defensemen who has appeared in at least 500 games, posted 75 or more goals, recorded 300 or more points, and is plus-40 or better.  The others in that group are Zdeno Chara, Brent Seabrook, Mike Green, and Drew Doughty.  Since missing ten weeks of the 2013-2014 season after suffering a stroke, Letang has rebuilt his game to resume his position as one of the best offensive defensemen in the game.  Last season he recorded 54 points in 69 games, the best points-per-game mark he had (0.78) since he had 0.82 points per game in the 2011-2012 season.  This season he has been even better with 53 points in 60 games, third in the league among defensemen in points per game (0.88) and the second best mark of his career, topped only by his 1.09 points per game in 35 games of the abbreviated 2012-2013 season.  He is 4-9-13, plus-6, over his last 15 games.  Against the Capitals over his career, Letang is 4-6-10, minus-14, in 25 games.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom wears the number “19” for the Capitals, but “18” has been a number featured prominently in his career.  Backstrom has 18 goals this season.  He had 18 goals last season.  He had 18 goals the season before that.  He has had 18 goals in four of his last five full season (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season), and the one season he did not, in 2011-2012, he missed 40 games to injury.  Getting to 18 was a chore this season.  He went 18 games (there is that number again) without a goal after he hit 17 before he got to 18 against the Los Angeles Kings on March 9th.  If there is an odd thing about Backstrom’s goal scoring lately it is that each of his last three goals came in Capitals losses, overtime losses to Philadelphia and the Kings, and a loss to Florida.  The last time he scored a goal in a Caps win was January 19th in a 6-3 win over Columbus.  In 32 career games against Pittsburgh, Backstrom is 3-30-33, plus-2.

In the end…

Since Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench as head coach for the Penguins, the club is 24-14-5.  Over that same span, the Caps are 31-8-3.  In March, the Caps are 6-2-1 while the Pens are 7-3-0.  These are teams on similar trajectories, but not necessarily on similar levels.  The Penguins have done well since Evgeni Malkin left the lineup with an upper-body injury that will keep him out until late-April, winning four in a row in his absence.  But is it a team that can succeed with Sidney Crosby figuring in half of the team’s scoring (eight of 17 goals in their five-game winning streak), or will the lack of scoring diversity present a problem? 

On the other hand, the Caps are getting contributions from up and down the lineup.  It was three assists from Evgeny Kuznetsov and a pair of goals from Daniel Winnik against Nashville, Justin Williams and Alex Ovechkin getting goals in an overtime win over Carolina, three different players getting goals and six different players getting assists when the Caps erased a three-goal deficit in the third period against Los Angeles to grab a standings point.

Pittsburgh is hot, but the Caps are deeper and more consistent.  They have not lost consecutive road games in regulation since early November.  They won’t break that string in Pittsburgh.

Capitals 2 – Penguins 1