Sunday, December 18, 2016

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 10

The Washington Capitals entered Week 10 playing well with little reward for it in the standings, looking up at four teams in the Metropolitan Division, despite a 16-7-3 record.  When Week 10 ended, the Caps found themselves with another good week in the win-loss department (but not quite as good as it looked…we’ll get to that) and this time, a little in the way of advancement in the standings, jumping over the Philadelphia Flyers into fourth place in the division and within the two games in hand they hold over the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the division. 

Record: 3-1-0

The Caps did finish the week with a 19-8-3 record, but it might surprise Caps fans to know that Week 10 was just the second time this season that they had a winning week for a second consecutive week, the first time since Weeks 1 and 2.  They opened the week with three straight wins, extending a winning streak to a season-long six games, their longest streak since stringing together nine straight wins last season in Games 28-36, December 12-30.

But here’s the thing.  The three wins with which the Caps opened the week came against teams that finished the week non-qualifiers for the postseason.  The loss to the Montreal Canadiens to end the week came at the hands of a team they might face in the postseason.  Through ten weeks and 30 games, the Caps have done a good job beating up on the weaker teams in the league, going 14-3-1 against teams that would not qualify for the playoffs.  However, their 5-5-2 record against teams that are currently playoff qualifiers should give no one a sense of comfort that this team is destined for a deep playoff run.  On a more ominous note, three of the five losses in regulation came by at least three goals (two of them at home), while three of the wins were of the one-goal variety, two of them in overtime.  Then again, there are more than 50 games remaining to establish themselves as a team to be feared in the postseason.

Offense:  2.75/game (season: 2.67 /game; rank: 14th)

While the Caps did not enjoy as prolific a week on offense that they did in Week 9, they did have another balanced week.  Seven players shared the 11 total goals scored, and 14 skaters recorded points.  Justin Williams led the way in goals scored with three.  To that number he added an assist, giving him points in all four games for the week and extending what is a good scoring run of late.  Williams is 5-2-7 in his last seven contests.  Matt Niskanen led the club in points for Week 10, going 2-3-5, one of his goals being the game-winner in the 4-2 win over the New York Islanders, and one of his assists coming on the goal that sent the game against the Carolina Hurricanes to overtime, where the Caps won in the trick shot competition.

One of the things that the Caps didn’t do on offense in Week 10 was score first. Only in their 3-0 shutout win over the Vancouver Canucks to open the week did the Caps score the game’s first goal.  The Caps came into the week having opened the scoring in 19 of 26 games and made it 20 of 27 in the win over Vancouver (sending their record to 15-3-2 when scoring first).  Giving up the first goal in the last three games of the week dropped them into a tied for second-fewest instances of allowing the first goal (10, with Montreal), one more than the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Defense: 1.75/game (season: 2.13 /game; rank: 3rd)

The Capitals have become known as a team with a quick-strike offense in recent years, but what should not be lost this season is that the team is among the best in franchise history in limiting their opponents’ offense.   The seven goals allowed by the Caps in Week 10 dropped their scoring defense to 2.13 goals against per game, third-best in the league and a number that is far and away the best they have had since the 2004-2005 lockout (in 2010-2011 and 2015-2016, they averaged 2.33 goals against per game). 

Part of that is limiting opponent opportunities.  In Week 10 the Caps limited opponents to 30 or fewer shots in all four games, only the Carolina Hurricanes reaching the 30-shot mark, and that coming in overtime (the Caps held them to 25 shots in regulation).  It is part of a year-long trend for the Caps as one of the best clubs in stifling opponents’ chances in recent memory.  They have held opponents to 28.1 shots on goal per game, sixth-fewest in the league this season and the second-fewest the team has allowed in the post 2004-2005 lockout period (2007-2008: 27.5).  The stinginess shows up in their 5-on-5 play, too.  The 51.64 shot attempts per 60 minutes is the fifth-fewest in the league through Week 10 and the second fewest in the post 2004-2005 lockout period (2007-2008: 47.91; numbers from

Goaltending:   1.73 / .932 / 1 SO (season: 2.02 / .927 / 3 SO)

It is a remarkable week when one goal sticks out, but in a week where goaltending was very good and, at times, excellent, this one goal stands out:

It was one of those things were a lot of little things went wrong from the drop of the puck on a faceoff – losing a battle in the corner, letting the puck carrier get position and an open skating path, no one supporting the play as it unfolded behind the Caps’ net – but the big thing was a garden variety wraparound with the goalie hugging the post hitting the heel of the goalie’s stick and caroming into the net.  It was not a typical goal scored on Braden Holtby, and when you look at his week (2-1-0, 1.35, .945, one shutout, even with that goal), it makes the goal look stranger in context.  If there was a better part of Holtby’s week, it was that he did not allow a third-period goal on 25 shots faced over three games.  And, with the .945 save percentage for the week, Holtby climbed into the top-ten in save percentage among 36 goalies facing at least 400 shots (.925).

Philipp Grubauer got the other start, that coming in the third game of the week, against the Carolina Hurricanes.  Although it was not among his best performances of the season; it was only the second time in seven appearances he allowed more than two goals.  However, it was good enough to get the Caps to overtime against the Hurricanes, and he did shut out Carolina on five shots in the extra time, then stopped two shooters in the freestyle competition to secure his fifth win.  Grubauer finished the week with 198 shots faced this season.  With two more, the Caps would have been the only team in the league with two goalies facing at least 200 shots with save percentages of .925 or better (Holtby: .925; Grubauer: .934).

Power Play: 5-for-13 / 38.5 percent (season: 19.6 percent; rank: 12th)

Week 10 found the Caps continuing their march up the league rankings on the power play.  After Week 5, the Caps were stuck at 12.5 percent for the season and ranked 24th.  With the 5-for-13 week in Week 10, they are 14-for-57 over the last five weeks (24.6 percent) and have climbed into 12th place overall with a 19.6 percent conversion rate. 

Week 10 saw the Caps finished with highs in goals for a week (five) and conversion rate (38.5 percent) for the season.  That’s what one gets for scoring power play goals in each of the week’s games, extending their streak to five straight games with a power play goal and seven of their last eight contests.

Four different Caps shared in the five power play goals: Alex Ovechkin (2), Matt Niskanen, Justin Williams, and Nicklas Backstrom.  The shots on goal were not extraordinarily efficient (18 shots in 20:36 of power play ice time), but they were spread around.  Eight Caps accounted for the 18 shots on goal, seven of those players recording at least two each, and Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson getting three apiece.

Penalty Killing: 14-for-15 / 93.3 percent (season: 84.0 percent; rank: 7th)

That 93.3 percent kill rate on power plays faced is a good number.  Facing 15 shorthanded situations is not a good number.  It is the fourth time in the last five weeks that the Caps faced more than ten shorthanded situations, and while the efficiency is there (86.4 percent penalty kill over the last five weeks), there is the matter of eight goals allowed.  That only the Carolina Hurricanes, a team that finished the week eighth in power play efficiency, was the only team to score a power play goal against the Caps says something about the Caps effectiveness, but then again, Vancouver and the Islanders are bottom-five power play teams, too. 

The problem remains volume.  The Caps are only tied with the Florida Panthers for 15th most shorthanded situations faced through ten weeks (100 apiece), but 59 of them have come in the last five weeks (3.69 per game versus 2.93 per game in the first five weeks).  If there was one thing that stands out on the penalty kill this week it is the Caps’ efficiency.  They held the four opponents to a total of 14 shots in 27:21 of shorthanded ice time (0.51 shots per minute), held Vancouver and Montreal to one power play shot apiece, and almost unbelievably held the Canucks without a power play shot on goal on their first four power plays and for the first 9:23 of power play ice time for Vancouver before recording their only shot on goal.  If “will over skill” is a thing, here is where it is in full flower.

Faceoffs: 117-for-246 / 47.6 percent (season: 50.6% / rank: 11th)

It was not a poor week in the faceoff circle as much as it was uniformly unimpressive.  The Caps hit the 50 percent mark once in four games and only topped that mark in the neutral zone for the week.  In the offensive zone (47.0 percent) and the defensive zone (44.2 percent), things were comparatively grim.  Among those Caps taking at least ten draws for the week, only Nicklas Backstrom (54.9 percent) and Jay Beagle (60.3 percent) finished over 50 percent).  Lars Eller (30.3 percent) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (35.6 percent) had rather forgettable weeks in this phase of the game.

Then there is the matter of faceoffs taken after penalties, and here there was an odd pattern.  The Caps won three of four faceoffs immediately following an opponent penalty in the first two games of the week, but they went just 1-for-5 in draws immediately after an opponent taking a penalty against Carolina and Montreal.  If losing a draw costs a team on the power play 20-30 seconds, the Caps left some time on the table in the last two games of the week, one an extra time win, the other a loss.

Goals by Period:

Week 10 was a week in which the Caps finished games strong on offense, with five goals scored in the second and third periods of games, respectively.  Conversely, there was the first period of games, in which the Caps finished the week a minus-2 in goal differential.  The three first period goals allowed was unusual for their volume and frequency (one allowed in each of the last three games of the week).  The Caps came into the week leading the league in fewest first period goals allowed (10), and they left it leading the league in that number (13), but the fact that the Caps did so is what made a 30 percent increase in that number in one week so unusual.

In the end…

The Caps finished up their third four-game week of the season in Week 10, the second time they finished in the winning column (they were 4-0-0 in Week 4).  Still, only two teams in the league – the Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets – have played in fewer games than the 30 the Caps completed through Week 10.  That means the Caps have games in hand, but those will have to wait.  The immediate task facing the Caps is a two-game week in Week 11 featuring games against divisional rival Philadelphia and a club against which the Caps might find themselves fighting for a wild-card spot, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It will not be as easy a week as the one the Caps just completed, at least in quality of competition.  The Caps made hay against comparatively weaker teams in Week 10, but they still show evidence of struggling against teams at their competition level.  Part of the problem is not getting much offensive push against better teams.  Through 30 games, the Caps have played 12 contests against currently playoff-eligible clubs.  In nine of those games the Caps had fewer than 30 shots on goal.  In 18 games against teams below the postseason cut-off, the Caps recorded 30 or more shots 10 times.  The Caps seem to have the defensive part of the game managed well.  They need to pose a more persistent threat on offense against better teams than they have displayed so far, and they get a chance to do that in Week 11.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Justin Williams (3-1-4, even, seven shots on goal, three hits, five blocked shots, 4-for-8 on faceoffs)
  • Second Star: Braden Holtby (2-1-0, 1.35, .945, one shutout)
  • Third Star: Matt Niskanen (2-3-5, plus-3, one game-winning goal, seven hits, four blocked shots)