Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: Eastern Conference Semifinal, Capitals vs. Penguins

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

With the Philadelphia Flyers now in the rear-view mirror, the Washington Capitals will focus their attention on a familiar menace in the Eastern Conference semifinals – the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Both the Caps and Penguins dispatched fellow Metropolitan Division foes in Round 1, the Penguins sending the New York Rangers into the off-season in five games.  It is a series that has familiar history about it, just not recent history.  It should make for an interesting prognosto…

Washington Capitals (56-18-8) 
Pittsburgh Penguins (48-26-8)

If you looked at the high-end optics of their respective series, you might conclude that the Pittsburgh Penguins had a much easier time of it defeating the New York Rangers in Round 1 than the Washington Capitals had in ousting the Philadelphia Flyers.  Ah, but appearances can be deceiving.  What is not deceiving is…


If of the days of the week Wednesday is “hump day,” then its equivalent in the Stanley Cup playoffs is the second round.  “Hump Round,” if you will.  The first round has the novelty of a new playoff season and the attendant excitement that goes with it.  The third round has the anticipatory factor of the Stanley Cup final if you win.  And the Stanley Cup final…well, what explanation is needed?

The second round, though, is a slog.  The blush of a new playoff season is gone, and you are really too far away from the final for thinking about who your opponent might be or whether you might win.  For the Washington Capitals, “hump round” has an entirely different connotation. This is the 12th time in franchise history that the Caps reached the second round of the postseason.  In their previous 11 appearances they lost nine times.  Four of those nine series losses came in seven games, including three of the last four second round series played by the Caps.  Two of those nine losses came to the franchise they will face this time around, the Penguins.

The second round is that slog where the hopes of Capital Nation have gone to die, but…

History, Part 2

The second round is a place that the Penguins have not frequented often since their Stanley Cup win in 2009, at least not as often as a perennial pick to be on a short list of Stanley Cup contenders might like.  This is the fourth time in the past seven seasons that the Penguins advanced to the second round.  Only once did they pass this point, beating the Ottawa Senators in five games in the 2013 conference semis.  But the mutual frustration of the second round does not end here.  There is also the matter of…

History, Part 3

Coaching.  This is Barry Trotz’ 17 season behind an NHL bench as head coach, his ninth trip to the postseason.  Three times in his previous eight appearances his teams reached the second round of the playoffs, the last three times his teams reached the postseason, in fact (two with the Nashville Predators, one with the Caps).  He has never taken a team past this point.  But hey, this was the first season a Trotz-led team won a divisional title, so there is that, if you are hanging your hat on a new historical narrative.

As for the other side, this is Mike Sullivan’s second trip to the postseason in his head coaching career.  His 2004 Boston Bruins were eliminated in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens in seven games after taking a 3-1 lead in games.  The oddity is that this is the first time Sullivan has reached the second round as either a coach or a player (six times as a player his teams were eliminated in the first round, once as a Boston Bruins in the 1998 playoffs to the Caps in Washington’s march to their only Stanley Cup final).

The coaches are not what give this series its historical flavor, though.  It is…

History, Part 4

The rivalry.  “Rivalry,” if you consider it being one being dominated by the other.  Until the teams met for the first time in the postseason in 1991, the Caps had already been tormented in the playoffs by the New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and Philadelphia Flyers, all of whom beat the Caps in one or more series as a lower seed.  But nothing prepared Capitals Nation for what would unfold starting in 1991.  In eight postseason series since then, ending in 2009, the Penguins faced the Caps eight times, winning seven of those series, four times after falling behind by two games, three times in seven games, each of them after falling behind by two games, twice after falling behind three games to one.   When facing elimination, the Penguins have an all-time record of 8-1 against Washington.

But that was then, and this is now, and that brings us to…

History, Part V

The teams played five times this past regular season.  Pittsburgh won three times, the Caps won twice.  Here is the tale of the tape:

You can pretty much throw this out, there being a fair number of “on the one hand…on the other” examples here…
  • On the one hand, the Pens won the season series, if you look at it from their perspective (wins and losses).  On the other, the Caps split the season series if you look at it from theirs (a standings point perspective).
  • On the one hand, the Pens won the season series, but the Caps won the series counting only those games for which Mike Sullivan was behind the Penguin bench (2-1-1).  And on another hand (three hands?)…the Pens split with the Caps with Sullivan behind their bench (2-2 on a win/loss basis).
  • On the one hand, the Caps won two games in which their Corsi-for at 5-on-5 was under 50 percent.  On the other hand, they lost two games when they were over 50 percent.
  • On the one hand, the Caps have held the Penguins’ power play in check.  On the other hand, their own power play has been similarly ineffective.

We think you get the point.  But let’s get to the here and now, and that means…

Know Your Enemy by Knowing His Enemy

The Caps played the Flyers in Round 1, while the Penguins played the Rangers.  The Caps took six games to subdue the Flyers, while the Pens finished off the Rangers in five.  The Rangers finished ahead of the Flyers, but were eliminated sooner.  Ergo, the Penguins are better…right?  Well, not so fast.

The Rangers finished only three points behind Pittsburgh in the final regular season standings, but their last 25 games tell a less flattering story.  The Rangers finished with a respectable 14-8-3 record in their last 25 games (a 102-point pace, roughly that over their entire 101-point season).  However, they split 16 decisions against teams that would qualify for the playoffs (three of the eight losses coming in overtime).  Further, their goals for/goals against was a combined plus-1.

And, it gets worse.  Their special teams were uneven, the power play finishing those last 25 games with a fine 20.9 percent conversion rate, but the penalty kill just at 81.4 percent.  Possession was the killer, though, and was the biggest vulnerability the Rangers had.  Over their last 25 games the Blueshirts were out-shot, 816-658, a whopping minus-6.3 negative differential per game. 

The shot attempts were no better.  New York was out-attempted at 5-on-5 over their last 25 games by an average of 8.5 attempts a game, registering a Corsi-for of just 45.3 percent (numbers from war-on-ice.com).  To give you an idea of just how bad that is, only one team in the league finished with a worse Corsi-for than that over the entire season (Colorado: 44.2 percent).

Facing a team that built a late-season record on something of a mirage, given the record against a higher quality of competition and their abysmal possession numbers, but Penguins should have feasted.  And they did, as the five-game series win in which they outscored the Rangers, 21-10, attests.

But it was not as if Pittsburgh dominated in the underlying numbers in that series, either.  Once, in a 3-1 Game 3 win, did the Penguins muster a Corsi-for at 5-on-5 overall above 50 percent.  Three times in the series there were under 45 percent, and they finished the series with a Corsi-for overall of 45.3 percent.  Their score-adjusted value was slightly better (47.7 percent), but it is still the fifth-worst ranking of 16 teams in the first round.

Compare this to who the Caps faced in the first round.  The Flyers became the “it” team that a number of pundits picked to give the Caps a rough time, if not win the series outright.  And why not?  Philadelphia finished 16-9 in their last 25 games (three losses in extra time, two of them in a Gimmick), 9-4 against teams that would reach the postseason (one of the losses in a Gimmick).  They had a plus-12 goal differential overall in those games (not counting shootouts).  Both their power play (20.2 percent) and penalty kill (86.9 percent) were good.

Their shots and possession numbers were very good as well.  The Flyers out-shot their opponents overall over their final 25 games by an average of 32.7 to 27.7 per game.  They out-attempted opponents at 5-on-5 by a 49.2 – 44.2 margin per game, a Corsi-for overall of 52.7 percent.

So, how did that work out for the Flyers against the Caps in Round 1?  The Caps out-shot the Flyers, 31.0 – 25.8 per game.  They out-attempted them at 5-on-5 by a 46.8 to 40.5 margin per game, their 53.6 percent Corsi-for being fifth-best among the 16 teams in the first round, and if anything their score-adjusted Corsi-for was better – 54.3 percent, third-best among the 16 teams in the first round.  More important, they outscored the Flyers, 14-6, one of the Philadelphia goals being an empty netter.  The Caps actually scored a higher percentage of the total goals in their first-round series (70.0 percent) than Pittsburgh did in its (67.7 percent).

Still, history is history, and the big thing about history is…


Sid versus Ovi.  The Kid versus the Great 8.  Crosby versus Ovechkin.  Somewhere in there, there will be 19 other players dressing on any given night for each team, but the early narrative will be centered on the two top players. 

Sidney Crosby has re-asserted himself as, if not clearly the best player on the planet, then on a very short list.  He finished the regular season tied for seventh in goals scored (36), and he has not had a season with more goals scored since his only 50-goal season (51 in 2009-2010).  And, he had 85 points, good for third in the league.  If there was an odd feature about his season, though, it is that for which he gets most of his praise – playmaking.  On a per-game basis, Crosby had the worst season of his career in assists (0.61 per game).  And, there might be a warning in that.  In that 2009-2010 season, Crosby took matters into his own hands much more often (those 51 goals were 12 more than in any other season), but his Penguins only lasted two rounds.  Sure, that might be a stretch, but this season the Penguins were 22-3-2 in the 27 games in which he scored a goal, 26-23-6 in games in which he did not.  This is a Penguin team that depends on his goal-scoring as a feature of their success.

On the other side is Alex Ovechkin.  Fifty-goal season…again.  That makes seven times in ten full seasons he reached that threshold (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season in which his 32 goals in 48 games was a 55-goal pace).  However, like that minus-35 season he had a couple of years back that made him the only player since the league began recording plus-minus as a statistic (1967-1968) to finish a season with at least 50 goals and a minus-35 or worse, Ovechkin finished this season as the only player in NHL history to record at least 50 goals and have as few as the 21 assists with which he finished the season.  He is the only player in league history to finish a full regular season with at least 50 goals and fewer than 30 assists three times.  However, the Caps are not as dependent on Ovechkin’s “other” skill (in this case, “playmaking”) as the Penguins seem to be on Crosby’s.  Sure, the Caps were 15-2-1 when Ovechkin recorded an assist this season, but they were 41-16-7 when he didn’t, too.

Ovechkin and Crosby were conventionally productive in unconventional ways, which means that others have to be heard from, starting with…

Best Supporting Actors

Nicklas Backstrom finally got some of the recognition that eluded him up to this season.  He was named to the mid-season All-Star Game, his first career appearance.  Some might say the honor was overdue, but understated production has been Backstrom’s hallmark since he came into the league.  Whether or not one subscribes to the notion that his numbers are a product of Alex Ovechkin’s ability to finish (chicken…egg…tomato…to-mah-to), he is among the finest set-up men of this era.  Since he came into the league in the 2007-2008 season, only two players have more assists than the 477 recorded by Backstrom – Henrik Sedin (518) and Joe Thornton (515).  The three are much closer on an assists-per-game basis, Backstrom with 0.73 to Thornton’s 0.74 and Sedin’s 0.76 (Crosby leads all players with 0.83 per game). 

That said, there is a blemish on Backstrom’s history – the postseason.  In his first three postseasons with the Caps, Backstrom went 12-18-30, plus-13, in 28 games.  Then, for reasons mysterious, his production dried up in the playoffs.  In four postseasons leading to this year, he was just 6-15-21, minus-3, in 43 games.  Coming into this postseason, getting a more productive Backstrom seemed to be on a short list of to-do items for the Caps to make a deep run.  He got off to a good start in that regard with two goals (including the series-clincher) and five assists in six games while going plus-2.  In that sense his performance aligned better with his career production.  His personal Corsi-for overall at 5-on-5 this postseason (52.3) is eight years and counting in which he has been over 50 percent.

On the other side is Evgeni Malkin.  He might have more attention paid him by fans and the media than Nicklas Backstrom, but not much, really.  He has won the big trophies – Calder (top rookie), Ross (top scorer), Pearson (outstanding player), and Hart (most valuable player) over the course of his career, and of course, the big prizes, the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy (postseason most valuable player).  But he is, and always will be, so long as Sidney Crosby plays in Pittsburgh, the best supporting actor in that production.

Malkin would no doubt rank higher on the performance metrics – goals, assists, points, plus minus (both in total and per game) – but for one nagging thing.  His ability to stay in the lineup has been a question mark for some seasons now.  Since appearing in all 82 games of the 2008-2009 season, Malkin has appeared in as many as 75 games just once (75 in 2011-2012) and has missed 77 of 294 games over the past four seasons.  His ability to remain healthy (he missed ten games to a lower body injury in February and another 15 to an upper body injury in late March and April) is going to be essential for the Penguins to advance.  The reason lies in his performance in the post season over the years.  He is 44-74-118, plus-6, in 105 career playoff games, and in six of his nine postseasons (including this one to date: 2-5-7 in four games) he has been a better than a point-per-game player.

But as good as the leading men and best supporting actors are, these teams also have…


If there is a similarity in these teams, it is in their next-level production among the forward lines.  For the Caps, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Marcus Johansson, and Justin Williams went a combined 102-162-264, plus-74.  On the other side, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, and Carl Hagelin went 91-118-209, plus-76.  While that difference between the groups seems large, it might be narrowed somewhat by the fact that Hagelin played in only 37 games (with 27 points) after acquired from Anaheim in trade last January.

In the playoffs so far, the Penguins’ depth has been a bit more productive, their five players going 9-6-15, plus-2; while the Caps’ quintet is 3-10-13, minus-3.  And, both teams have suffered from lack of expected production from portions of their respective groups.

For the Caps, Kuznetsov and Burakovsky were largely neutralized in the first round series against Philadelphia, combining for a single point (a goal by Kuznetsov in Game 3.  And Justin Williams was slow out of the gate, recording a pair of assists and a team-worst minus-4. 

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, did not need production from Hagelin and Kunitz, which is a good thing, because they didn’t get it.  Those two combined for a single point (a goal by Hagelin in Game 5 against the Rangers).  Kessel had something of an odd series in the opening round.  While he did finish with three goals and six points, all of his goals and two of his three assists came on power plays.

You could say that both teams’ next level forward had good seasons but somewhat uneven postseasons to date, which brings us to…


At the offensive end, it is the superb production of Kris Letang for the Penguins (16-51-67, plus-9, in 71 regular season games) versus the comparative balance of the Caps with three defensemen – John Carlson (39), Matt Niskanen (32), and Dmitry Orlov (29) – with more points than the Pens’ second-ranked defenseman (Trevor Daley with 22 points in 53 games) – and Karl Alzner right behind with 21 points. 

The postseason scoring from the blue line has followed a similar pattern for the Penguins, with Letang leading the way with five points and with the only goal from a defenseman so far (in Game 3 against the Rangers).  The Caps’ pattern among the defensemen are somewhat similar – Carlson with six point in six games and all three goals by Caps’ defensemen, two points apiece from Niskanen and Alzner. 

Each team would like to shake a defenseman loose from slow starts thus far.  For the Pens, Olli Maatta did not record a point in five games, despite getting the third-highest amount of ice time (18:27 per game).  Maatta still has not returned to the productive level of his 2013-2014 rookie season (9-20-29, plus-8, in 78 games), perhaps a product of the health and injury issues he endured in the 2014-2015 season, but he was 6-13-19, plus-27, in 67 games in the regular season. 

For Washington, getting some more offense from Dmitry Orlov would be nice, but this comes with a caveat.  So far, Orlov has one point (an assist) in six games. But he has yet to be on ice for a goal scored against the Caps this post season, the only defenseman playing three or more games so far who can say that.  That sort of trade-off is one that the Caps might cheerfully take in this series.

But as good as the defensemen will have to play – at both ends of the ice – this series might come down to…


Imagine a goaltender in your organization who, in his first 97 regular season and playoff games as a pro, went 61-26-5, 1.86, .935, with 19 shutouts.  And that the other goalie in the series is the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top netminder.

The former is Matt Murray, who has been something of a revelation for the Penguins in his brief tour through the organization at the AHL and NHL level.  He would not be in the position of starting this series against the Capitals absent a concussion suffered by Marc-Andre Fleury on March 31st against Nashville, his second of the season (he suffered on against Los Angeles on December 11th).  leury is still experiencing intermittent symptoms, and his return to the ice remains uncertain.

That will leave the netminding duties to Murray for the foreseeable future.  But this might not be as dire as one might normally think in this setting.  While Braden Holtby and Philadelphia’s Michal Neuvirth were engaged in a 180-foot version of “can you top this” goaltending feats of wonder (finishing second and first, respectively, in goals against average and save percentage in the first round), Murray was doing just fine, finishing his first round body of work fourth in goals against average (1.33) and save percentage (.955).

If Caps fans think Murray’s lack of experience is a minus, consider that Holtby had only 21 games of regular season experience with the Caps before he was thrust into a starting role in 2012 after injuries shelved both Caps goalies – Tomas Vokoun and Neuvirth (Murray has 13 games of regular season experience at this level).  And Holtby finished that postseason with a 1.95 GAA and a .935 save percentage in 14 games.

What Caps fans might be hoping for here is not that Murray channels the younger Holtby, but perhaps the younger Semyon Varlamov.  Caps fans might recall that Varlamov had just six games of regular season experience in 2008-2009 when he relieved Jose Theodore early in the first round series against the New York Rangers.  Varlamov was spectacular in that first round, going 4-2, 1.17, .952, with two shutouts.  It was the second round – against the Penguins – that did him in.  Under a relentless barrage of pressure, Varlamov went 3-4 with a goals against average of 3.74, a save percentage of .898, and was relieved early in the second period of the deciding Game 7 after allowing four goals on 18 shots in a 6-2 Caps loss.

At the other end, Braden Holtby has been next to impenetrable in the postseason for some time now.   Over his last 17 postseason games, he is 10-7, 1.32, .954, with three shutouts.  In 11 of those 17 games he allowed one or no goals.  Over the span of Capitals history, 18 goalies have appeared in postseason games.  Holtby is second on that list in career postseason goals against average (1.76), and the goalie ahead of him (Bob Mason: 1.75) appeared in just four games for the Caps.  His save percentage of .940 stands alone at the top of the franchise list, and his four shutouts ranks second to Olaf Kolzig (six).  In the modern era of hockey (post 1967-1968 expansion), Holtby is the only goaltender in teh NHL to have appeared in at least 25 postseason games, post a goals against average under 1.80 (1.76), and record a save percentage of better than .930 (.940).

But when all is said and done about the usual suspects…

Is there an “X-Factor” for either team?

For the Capitals, we keep coming back to Mike Richards.  He has more points against the Penguins over the course of his career (32 in 47 games) than he does against any other team, except the New York Islanders (36 in 46 games).  He did not have a point in six games against the Flyers in the first round and is without a point in his last 11 games overall.  But his role here might be of the sort that does not show up in the box score, or in the more sophisticated analytics, either.  He is going to be a part of the penalty killing rotation that will have to be effective for the Caps to have a better chance of victory.  He is third among forwards in hits so far in the postseason, and his ability to antagonize could be a factor in preventing the Penguins from generating momentum.  There are a lot of points at which Richards can be a factor in this series, and he is sufficiently versatile player to make his presence felt at any of them.

On the Pittsburgh side, it might be an old familiar face.  Eric Fehr has not had as productive a year as he or Pens fans might have hoped for this season.  His eight goals in 55 games is his least productive year in goal scoring since he had just two in 35 games for the Winnipeg Jets in 2011-2012.  But half of those goals this past regular season came shorthanded.  If the Caps power play is going to be productive, it had better be disciplined, too.  Fehr can make them pay at the other end of the ice.  And, he has already done something in this postseason that he never accomplished as a Capital in 37 postseason games with the club.  His goal to open the scoring in a 5-0 Game 4 win over the Rangers was his first career playoff game-winning goal.

In the end…

You will not have to look far to find a pundit picking the Pens to prevail over the Caps in this series, if not to win the Cup outright.  In a way, their season looks a bit like their 2009 run to the Cup.  Fire a coach at mid-season who stifled the creativity of the club, bring in a new coach who prefers the up-tempo style, make a sustained run up the standings.  That’s nice as far as it goes, and in fact, in one important area this team might be even better than that 2009 club.  Over the entire season, that 2009 club was not an especially good possession club (48.4 percent score-adjusted Corsi-for at 5-on-5), while this one is (53.0 percent).

But that series with the Rangers still sticks in our minds.  The Pens faced a club that was a shell of its former self, one that stumbled to the finish line of the regular season and was never a very good possession team over any significant stretch of it.  Still, the Pens came out on the short end of the possession numbers, and they were under 50 percent in scoring chances generated at 5-on-5 (45.5 percent).  Sure, five games…small sample.  But you have the information you have, and in some respects it is revealing.

What it reveals is that the Caps do not want to get into a track meet with this team.  It would seem the Pens would be happy to trade chances in an up and down game and take advantage of their significant level of skill.  Pittsburgh did have a 53.4 percent edge over the Rangers in high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

Both teams have special teams indexes (power play plus penalty killing percentages) over 125, the Pens at 128.2, the Caps at 125.4.  But those percentage are not those on which this series might turn.  There is one number that jumps off the page with respect to the Caps: 4.8.  That is their team shooting percentage at 5-on-5 so far in the postseason.  Only the Flyers (2.6) and the New York Islanders (4.3) are worse.  The Caps have too much depth of skill for that to continue indefinitely. 

Between the difference in quality of their opponents in the first round (given their respective late-season performance), the more battle-tested goalie in the postseason, the improving possession numbers (and conversely the mysterious difficulty the Pens had with the Rangers in that regard), this should be an entertaining series, but one in which the Caps will ultimately go where they have gone just twice before in franchise history – the conference finals.

Capitals in 6

hoto: Patrick Smith/Getty Images