Sunday, November 27, 2016

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 7

Week 7 for the Washington Capitals was a busy week with four games and an holiday to boot.  The holiday part, as well as the traditional games the nights before and after Thanksgiving, were happy.  The games to begin and end the week were a good deal less so, and overall there were ominous signs in what would be a .500 week.

Record: 2-2-0

When Week 7 began, the schedule looked accommodating to the Caps.  They would play three of their four games on home ice, and three of their four opponents were outside the playoff eligibility window, only the St. Louis Blues being a playoff-caliber club as the week began. When it was over, the Caps handled the Blues, although not without some drama (we’ll get to that problem in a bit), and they subdued a Buffalo Sabres team missing arguably their best player in Jack Eichel, who has yet to dress for a Sabres game this season (high-ankle sprain).

It was the first and last games of the week that bedeviled the Caps. And in those games, an issue bubbled to the surface.  In the Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs, you have two relatively young teams (the two youngest teams in the league at the start of the season).  Both have a measure of speed with some skilled youngsters.  And, they are hungry, trying to rise to the competitive elite in the Eastern Conference.  That combination in both teams seemed to catch the Capitals at their lackadaisical worst, especially late in those games in which both the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs scored a pair of goals in wins.

Offense:  2.75/game (season: 2.71 /game; rank: 12th)

A 2.75 goals-per-game week is not bad when you consider that the Caps were missing their number two goal scorer as the week began in T.J. Oshie (eight goals).  On the other hand, the Caps did face two backups, both of whom they defeated (four goals on St. Louis’ Carter Hutton and three against Buffalo’s Anders Nilsson).  The managed only four goals combined against the number one goalies they faced for the week, Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Toronto’s Frederik Andersen, both losses.

What is more, the secondary scorers did not step up in Oshie’s absence.  Alex Ovechkin finished the week with more than a third of the team’s goals for the week (four of 11), three of them in a hat trick performance against the Blues, his 16th career hat trick.  Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson each had a pair, but after that, it was three goals in four games from the support troops.  One might explain that away with the fact that the Blue Jackets and the Sabres are, perhaps surprisingly, in the top ten in the league in scoring defense, but getting goals from six skaters and points from 12 skaters cannot be considered either prolific or balanced offense.

Defense: 2.75/game (season:  2.24/game; rank: 4th)

The 2.75 goals against per game number for Week 7 is not what one would consider good, but neither was it as bad as it looks.  Let’s do a little unpacking.  First, there were the two teams to whom the Caps lost. Columbus and Toronto, with all those precocious youngsters, are both top-five teams in scoring offense in the league.  What’s more, they made offense count when they had it.  Both Columbus and Toronto entered the week having lost just one game in regulation when scoring three or more goals, not exactly a rarity in the NHL (there were 22 such teams at the end of Week 7, including the Caps, who have yet to lose such a game), but when the week ended, both still had one regulation loss when scoring three or more goals as both did to the Caps.

Then there was the 5-on-5 aspect.  The Caps actually won the week in that regard.  In fact, they lost only one game at fives, 3-2 to the Maple Leafs to close the week.  They held Columbus even (1-1), and beat St. Louis (3-1) and Buffalo (2-1).  Holding three teams to a goal apiece at 5-on-5 is not, on its face, indicative of defensive or goaltending breakdowns.  But there is more to this, and we’ll bet to that…in a bit.

Goaltending:  2.78 / .904 (season: 2.09 / .924 / 2 SO)

If hockey games were 40 minutes, Capitals goalies would have been brilliant in Week 7.  All in all, Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer were 34-for-35 in the first periods of games (.971 save percentage) and 32-for-33 in the second period (.970).  That third period, though.  Grubauer was fine, allowing only one goal on 15 shots (.933), but Holtby was just 23-for-29 (.793). 

That pattern was reflected in the even strength goaltending as well.  Overall, Holbyt and Grubauer stopped 82 of 89 shots at evens (.921 save percentage), but that broke down into 53-for-55 in the first two periods (.964) but only 29-for-34 in the third periods of games (.853).

The bright spot was Grubauer, who stopped 32 of 33 shots overall in the Caps’ 3-1 win over Buffalo on Friday.  It was the fourth time in five games this season in which he allowed two or fewer goals, and it was the fourth time in those five games in which he posted a save percentage of .920 or better in a game.  When the week was over, the Capitals were one of two teams (Buffalo was the other) with two goalies having appeared in at least 300 minutes with a save percentage of .920 or better (Holtby: .920; Grubauer: .936).

Power Play: 3-for-13 / 23.1 percent (season: 15.6 percent; rank: 18th)

If there was a ray of sunshine in Week 7, the power play was it.  A 23.1 percent power play efficiency rate might not be all that impressive in the context of the Caps’ power play in recent seasons, but given its struggles so far this season and the absence of T.J. Oshie from the lineup for all four games, it was a good result.

It was hardly a result that Alex Ovechkin led the team in power play goals (two) and shots (seven) for the week, but it was Brett Connolly who scored the other power play goal and had four power play shots for second-most in Week 7. The Caps had eight different players record power play shots on goal for the week and managed 21 shots in all in 19:52 in power play ice time (1.06 shots per minute).

Penalty Killing: 13-for-17 / 76.5 percent (season: 82.6 percent; rank: 16th)

And they were doing so well, too.  After a five-week stretch over which the Caps went 42-for-48 (87.5 percent) on the penalty kill, they struggled in Week 7.  You could almost see it coming.  The four clubs the Caps faced in Week 7 all were in the top dozen power plays in the league with the Blue Jackets having the most efficient power play in the NHL.

The Caps’ penalty killers were not quite up to that challenge, allowing power play goals in three of the four games, blanking only Buffalo while allowing a pair to the league-leading Blue Jackets.  The Caps did themselves no favors, though, by having to skate off 17 shorthanded situations in the four games.  It was, by far, the most shorthanded situations faced in a week by the Caps this season (11 in three games in Week 6).

The Caps spent more than a full period of the week killing penalties (21:34), and it could have been worse.  The Caps allowed Columbus, the league’s best power play, only three opportunities.  A good thing, since the Blue Jackets converted two of those three opportunities on just three shots in only 2:25 of power play time.  As it was, the Caps allowed four opponents four goals on 24 shots on goal in 21:34 of shorthanded ice time.  It was not a good week.

Faceoffs: 128-for-248 / 51.6 percent (season: 51.1 percent / rank: 8th)

It was an uneven week in some respects for the Caps on faceoffs for the week.  They alternated games with better than 50 percent winning percentages (against St. Louis and Toronto) and less than 50 percent (against Columbus and Buffalo).  And, they were a better than 50 percent club for the week in the offensive zone, while losing more than 50 percent in the defensive end. 

Of four players taking more than ten draws for the week, three of them finished Week 7 better than 50 percent.  Nicklas Backstrom was 35-for-65 (53.8 percent), Lars Eller was 19-for-37 (51.4 percent), and Jay Beagle was 38-for-62 (62.3 percent).  Backstrom had a particularly odd week.  He was 17-for-26 in the offensive zone (65.4 percent) but just 4-for-17 (23.5 percent) in the defensive end.

Goals by Period:

Well, here we are “in a bit.”  The Caps allowed 11 goals for the week.   Only one of them came in the first period, only three of them in the second period.  But that third period…woof.  Seven goals allowed, four of them in the last five minutes of the period, three of them in the last two minutes of regulation time.  Sure, two of those goals scored the last two minutes came when the Caps held a 4-1 lead over St. Louis, but if Week 7 has a take away, it was the incomprehensible inability of the Caps to put games away and finish them strong, especially as one of the best scoring defenses in the league overall. 

It seemed as every game had its third period disappointment.  The Caps blew a 2-1 third period lead in losing to the Blue Jackets, 3-2. They allowed two goals in the last 75 seconds to turn a mini-rout into a nail-biter against the Blues.  They allowed the Sabres to claw within a goal before scoring a late power play goal to win, 3-2.  Then there was the third period goal scored by Toronto barely two minutes after a Nicklas Backstrom goal to get the Caps within 3-1 and threaten to make a game of it to close the week.  When it was over, the Caps were tied for having allowed the tenth-most third period goals for the season.  Of the ten other teams with whom the Caps are tied or who have allowed more third-period goals, nine of them are outside the playoff eligibility window.  This is not a good neighborhood in which to find oneself.

In the end…

Beating St. Louis was an encouraging sign for the Caps, defeating a club with the second-best record in the Western Conference and one that had been on a four-game winning streak.  The rest of the week was not confidence inspiring.  The Caps beat Buffalo, a team that they should frankly have dominated, the Sabres’ surprisingly efficient scoring defense notwithstanding.

The loss to Columbus, coming as it did a week after giving up and third period lead to lose in overtime, then doing it again (with the loss coming in regulation) was frustrating.  The loss to Toronto, even in the back-half, road-portion of a back-to-back set of games, seemed like the sort of game that the Caps would put away efficiently last season.

Then there is the third period goal problem.  Seven goals in four third periods for the week is a problem that needs to be corrected.  Quickly.  That is the kind of thing that can become a bad habit or a characteristic that could rear its ugly head at the most inopportune moments, like trying to close out a team in a series-clinching opportunity in the playoffs.

If Week 7 was not quite a going-through-the-motions sort of week, it looked a lot like a team that thought a little too much of itself and its confidence to turn on the afterburners when it counts.  That’s the sort of thing out of which .500 weeks are made.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Alex Ovechkin (4-2-6, plus-3, 16th career hat trick, one game-winning goal, 16 shots on goal, 31 shot attempts, six hits)
  • Second Star: Nicklas Backstrom (2-3-5, plus-2, 180th and 181st multi-point games of his career (tied Joe Thornton for fifth-most since Backstrom came into the league and third in Caps’ history), 53.8 percent on faceoffs)
  • Third Star: Philipp Grubauer (1-0-0, 32 saves on 33 shots in win over Buffalo on his birthday)