Sunday, December 03, 2017

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 9

The Washington Capitals had a light workload in Week 9 with just two games on the docket.  It was a test, nonetheless, as the two teams the Caps faced – the Los Angeles Kings and the Columbus Blue Jackets – were teams that finished the week among the top five teams in the league in standings points.  Both teams arrived in Washington on a bit of a roll, the Kings being winners of two straight when they faced the Caps (a streak that would reach four by the end of the week) and the Blue Jackets winners of eight of nine contests when they took the ice against Washington.  That the Caps split the games was not the best possible result, but neither was it the worst.

Record: 1-1-0

The Caps had a three-game winning streak on home ice against the Kings when Los Angeles arrived for the first game of the week, all of them multi-goal wins.  They had scored four or more goals against the Kings on home ice in five of seven games since the 2004-2005 lockout.  When Evgeny Kuznetsov scored barely four minutes into the game, it looked as if it might be more of the same.  It would not be however, as the Caps dropped a 5-2 decision to leave them with a 4-3-1 record against the Kings on home ice since that 2004-2005 lockout.

The Caps and the Columbus Blue Jackets had an interesting recent history going into Saturday’s contest.  Four of the previous five meetings between the clubs ended in one-goal decisions, the Caps holding a 2-1-1 record in those games.  That the teams ended in a one-goal decision, 4-3, the Caps winning by one marker after twice holding two-goal leads, should not be seen as a surprising outcome.

Offense:3.00 /game (season:2.89 /game, rank: T-18th)

When there are so few games in any given week, there are limited chances to add to the offensive statistics, but in recording six goals for the week, 12 different Capitals recorded points, 11 of them in the 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Evgeny Kuznetsov led the team in goals (three) and points (three) for the week.  The three goals increased Kuznetsov’ goal output by 50 percent over that with which he started the week (form six to nine) and boosted his team leading point total to 29.  Alex Ovechkin had a goal to keep pace with Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov at the top of the league’s goal-scoring rankings (19).  Alex Chiasson got his fourth goal of the season in Week 9, three of them on home ice, and Brett Connolly got his first goal on home ice this season and third overall.  John Carlson was the only Capital besides Kuznetsov with more than one point for the week, getting a pair of assists in the 4-3 win over Columbus.

Defense: 4.00 game (season: 3.07 /game, rank: 20th)

The Caps had a disappointing week on the defensive side of things.  Allowing eight goals in two games on home ice to teams that finished the week 14th and 20th in the league in scoring offense, one of those teams playing the back half of a back-to-back set of games (Columbus) has to qualify as a disappointment.  It was not quite as bad as that, though, as the Caps surrendered a pair of empty-net goals to the Los Angeles Kings in the 5-2 loss to open the week.

It was a mixed bag in terms of shot suppression for the week, the Caps holding the Kings to 27 shots and 53 shot attempts in the 5-2 loss, but allowing Columbus 35 shots on goal and 68 total attempts in the 4-2 win.  That Columbus game was especially confounding, given that upon taking a 4-2 lead early in the third period the Caps were out-shot, 17-2, and out-attempted, 33-8, over the last 18:52 of the contest.

The result was that the Caps slipped a bit in the shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5, from 48.32 percent to start the week to 48.04 (26th in the league) by week’s end.  That the Caps rank 29th in the league in this statistic when tied (44.66 percent; numbers form speaks to a need to develop a defensive identity before more of the season slips away.

Goaltending: 3.04 / .900 (season: 2.88 / .910)

Goaltending results continue to be uneven on a week-to-week basis.  Braden Holtby got the call in both games in Week 9, and the best that might be said was that he was consistent, allowing three goals in each game.  It was by no means a bad week, often bailing out an iffy defense in front of him, especially against the Blue Jackets when the Caps seemed unable to clear their own zone to save their lives.  In fact, the Columbus game was something of an object lesson in a goaltender being the guy on whom the results are hung, even when the goals are not necessarily an accurate reflection of his play in net. 

For example… there was the Artemi Panarin goal scored when the Columbus forward was left all alone on the left side of the ice for an uncontested one-timer. It was not a case of the sort of numbers advantage when Alex Ovechkin scores from there on a power play; it was with the teams at even strength, but the Jackets taking advantage of Matt Niskanen cheating up the slot to try to take a pass from a teammate that never came, leaving no defenseman on Panarin’s side of the ice.  There was Zach Werenski gifted with a loose puck that Holtby could not find in a maze of bodies, caught looking in another direction when Werenski scored.  And there was the spectacular glove save on Cam Atkinson with under four minutes to play that might have been, if not a game-changer, a game-saver.  It was not Holtby’s best week, but don’t make it seem like it was his worst, either.

The “save” of the week might have come from a non-goaltender.  With under two minutes to play and the Caps holding a 4-3 lead over Columbus, Pierre-Luc Dubois fired a shot that got under Holtby’s right arm, but hit him in the side.  The puck dropped behind him, off his skate, and lay in the crease.  Jay Beagle was johnny-on-the-spot to keep Panarin from getting a clean whack at the loose puck, spun, and shot the puck out of the blue paint and out of danger to preserve the lead and the win.

Power Play: 1-for-4 / 25.0 percent (season: 20.9 percent, rank: T-12th)

It was a light week on special teams in general for the Caps.  The four chances the Caps had in two games was their lowest total and average per game since they had three chances (no goals) in two games in Week 4.  The goal the Caps did score in Week 9 on the power play followed an old formula.  From the goal line, Evgeny Kuznetsov fed the puck to Nicklas Backstrom at the right wing wall, and then Backstrom moved it to John Carlson at the top of the offensive zone.  Carlson passed the puck across to Alex Ovechkin in “the office,” and Ovechkin’s wrist shot beat Sergei Bobrovsky on the short side past his blocker just ten seconds into the Caps’s man advantage.

In a light week, the Caps had just 6:10 in power play ice time and recorded just seven shots on goal.  T. J. Oshie was the only Cap to record as many as two power play shots on goal, both of those in the Caps’ loss to Los Angeles to open the week. Despite the light week in terms of opportunities, the Caps recorded a power play goal for the fourth consecutive week after consecutive weeks without one in Weeks 4 and 5.

Penalty Killing: 2-for-2 / 100.0 percent (season: 77.8 percent, rank: T-22nd)

The best thing about the Caps’ penalty kill in Week 9 that they did not have to kill penalties.  The two shorthanded situations faced was by far their lowest weekly total for the year, their Week 1 total of nine being the previous standard.  When they avoided any shorthanded situations against Columbus to end the week, it was the second time this season that the Caps did not face an opponent’s power play (they held the Edmonton Oilers without one in a 2-1 win on November 12th).

In the game in which they did face an opponent’s power play, they shut out the Kings on two chances over four minutes and allowed just two shots.  It would be hard to have a better week than this in terms of penalty killing management.

Faceoffs: 63-for-112 / 56.3 percent (season: 52.0 percent, rank: 6th)

It was another good week in the circle for the Caps overall, although it was a bit uneven.  The Caps dominated the neutral zone, winning 65.0 percent of their draws, and were good in the offensive zone with a 57.5 winning percentage.  They suffered in the defensive end, going 43.8 percent for the week, but that was a product of a weak effort against the Kings in the first game of the week.  It was an odd outcome, the Caps going just 2-for-11 in that game (18.2 percent), the 11 defensive zone draws being just half of those that the Caps took in the offensive end (14-for-22/63.3 percent).  That second period against Los Angeles was the only zone in the only game of the week that the Caps had a lower than 50 percent winning mark.

Among individuals, Jay Beagle led the club in winning percentage for the week (14-for-22/63.6 percent).  The week lifted Beagle into third place in the league rankings (60.3 percent) among 86 players having taken at least 250 draws.  Nicklas Backstrom also had a fine week (25-for-42/59.5 percent) to climb over 50 percent for the season (52.5 percent).  Evgeny Kuznetsov was the third Capital at 50 percent or better among those taking at least ten draws (9-for-18/50.0 percent), while Lars Eller finished under 50 percent in that group (9-for-20/45.0 percent).

Goals by Period:

The middle period did in the Caps this week.  Or more accurately, nine seconds of the second period of one game did them in.  But for that, it might have been a two-win week.  Half of the goals that the Caps allowed in the middle period of Week 9 came in the 5-2 loss to the Kings, turning a one-goal lead into a one-goal deficit that the Caps would not make up.

The two goals that the Caps allowed to Columbus in the second period of their game might have been just as disastrous but for the fact that the Blue Jackets scored them almost 13 minutes apart to make up what was a two-goal deficit to the Caps.

It was part of a disturbing pattern for the Caps that left them in the worst ten in goals allowed in both the second periods of games this season (29/9th-most) and the third periods of games (31/T-7th-worst).  That third period ranking, even if two goals against this week were of the empty net variety is especially disturbing since the Caps rank in the bottom ten in goals scored in the third period (23/tied for 9th-fewest).

In the end…

After Saturday’s game against Columbus, Caps forward Brett Connolly remarked, “That was a good team over there that we just beat.  It just proves that we can beat anyone.”  Head Coach Barry Trotz expanded on that, saying that “We’re playing some quality opponents right now. . . . Four of the five teams we’re up against in the next little while are four of the top five teams in the National Hockey League defensively. It’s hard to score on those teams. They either have an exceptional goaltender or a good system, or a real good defense. They have all those elements that make them really good. We have to work for our goals. Tonight, we jumped on them early and were able to use that to our advantage.”

Both have it right as an apt description for Week 9.  The Caps did face quality opposition, despite the light schedule, and they acquitted themselves pretty well.  Not that it makes their task going forward any easier.  The split in the two games left the Caps pretty much where they were to start the week – scrapping with five other teams for position in the Metropolitan Division (six teams are separated by five points) and fighting for every point to maintain at least a wild card spot in the standings (the Caps ended the week as the second wild card team, one point ahead of the New York Rangers).

The win to end the week for the Caps can serve as a springboard into Week 10, when they will wrap up their season-long five-game home stand against San Jose, Chicago, and the Rangers.  That would be a team against which the Caps often struggle (0-4-2 in their last six meetings on home ice and shut out in their last two meetings in that span), a team fighting for playoff positioning in the West (Chicago is currently one point behind Vancouver for the second wild-card spot), and a divisional rival against whom the Caps are fighting for their own playoff position (the Rangers).

The Caps are going to need that end of week boost heading into next week.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (3-0-3, even, 1 GWG, 5 shots on goal, 7 shot attempts, 50.0 percent on faceoffs, 63.6 percent shot attempts-for/individual at 5-on-5)
  • Second Star: John Carlson (0-2-2, minus-1, 5 shots on goal, 13 shot attempts, 3 blocked shots, 25:39 in average ice time)
  • Third Star: Jakub Vrana (0-0-0, plus-3, 4 shots on goal, 9 shot attempts, 62.0 percent shot attempts-for/individual at 5-on-5)

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