Friday, October 06, 2017

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 2: Canadiens at Capitals, October 7th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals break the seal on the home portion of their 2016-2017 season on Saturday night when they host the Montreal Canadiens at Capital One Arena.  This is the second time in four seasons that the Caps opened at home against Montreal, the previous instance – the only other time the Caps faced the Canadiens in a home opener – being a 2-1 Gimmick loss to open the 2014-2015 season.

The Caps are coming off a come-from-behind, 5-4 Gimmick win over the Ottawa Senators, a contest in which Alex Ovechkin recorded his 18th career hat trick.  Montreal also won their season opener in a Gimmick, Jonathan Drouin potting the game-deciding trick shot in a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. It was also a come-from-behind affair for the Canadiens, who twice fell behind the Sabres by a goal.

The Caps won last season’s series in an odd fashion, winning both games played at Bell Centre in Montreal (by scores of 4-1 and 3-2), but they lost the only contest at Capital One Arena (then Verizon Center), 2-1.

The Canadiens have had, if not quite as long as the Caps, a string of postseason frustrations of their own.  Since they won the Stanley Cup in 1993, they have reached the postseason only 15 times in 23 seasons, and since reaching the Eastern Conference final in 2014, failed to get out of the second round in their two playoff appearances in three seasons since.  They will try to improve upon that in Claude Julien’s second season in what is his second tour as Montreal head coach He began his NHL head coaching career with Montreal serving from 2003-2006).  Strangely enough, his winning percentage as a coach is worst behind the Canadiens’ bench (.552) than it was in either of his two other postings, with Boston (.614 over ten seasons, including a Stanley Cup in 2011) and New Jersey (.646 in his only season with the Devils).

1.  Montreal had a strange penalty profile last season.  They were one of only four teams (along with San Jose, Edmonton, and Anaheim) to be charged with at least one of every category of penalty: minor, major, misconduct, game misconduct, match, and bench.

2.  If possession on power plays means something, Montreal did a poor job in starting power plays with it.  Only one team in the league had fewer than the 189 power play faceoff wins than Montreal had last season (Columbus had 178).  Then again, the Canadiens had the fourth-fewest power play opportunities in the league (229).

3.  The Canadiens had the best winning percentage in the league last season when trailing games after two periods (.314) on a record of 11-20-4.

4.  If the Capitals had their challenges scoring at 4-on-4 last season (they did not have a 4-on-4 goal in the regular season), Montreal was not far behind.  The Canadiens had one such goal.  They did, however, do a better job in disallowing 4-on-4 goals yielding two to the Caps’ four.

5.  Extra time was good to the Canadiens last season.  They had the second-highest number of overtime goals (11) while allowing seven (tied for tenth).  Added to their 3-2 record in the Gimmick, Montreal was 14-9 in extra time games.  They were 33-26 in games settled in regulation.

1.  The Capitals trail the all-time series against Montreal, 69-71-5, with 17 ties.  However, consider the Caps went their first five seasons without a win over the Habs (0-30-2).  The Caps have not lost a season series to Montreal since the 2006-2007 season, when they lost three of four games to the Canadiens.  Over the last ten seasons the Caps are 23-8-4 against Montreal overall and 9-6-2 at home.

2.  Last season the Caps won two of three games against Montreal and outscored them, 8-5.  Nicklas Backstrom had three of the goals, one in each game.  No other Capital had more than one in the season series.

3.  Evgeny Kuznetsov recorded his fourth career game-deciding trick shot in the win over Ottawa, tied with Matt Hendricks for fourth-most in Caps history (Ovechkin leads with ten).

4.  Backstrom (3-1-4) and Alex Ovechkin (1-3-4) led the club in scoring against Montreal last season.

5.  It would surprise no one that Alex Ovechkin is the Caps’ all-time leader in goals scored against Montreal (23 in 42 games).  What might be mildly surprising is that he is tied for the franchise lead in assists against the Habs, and not with Nicklas Backstrom.  Ovechkin and Mike Gartner have 21 assists against the Canadiens as Capitals.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Montreal: Carey Price

If Braden Holtby is not the best goaltender in the NHL (you Sergei Bobrovsky fans notwithstanding), Carey Price seems the likely owner of that description.  Since he arrived in the NHL in 2007-2008, he is one of four goaltenders to appear in at least 200 games, post a goals against average of 2.40 or lower, record a save percentage of .920 or better, and put at least 30 shutouts on his resume (Holtby is in that group, too).   After appearing in just 12 games of the 2015-2016 season, due to a knee injury, Price rebounded smartly in 2016-2017, finishing eighth in goals-against average (2.23), 12th in save percentage (.923), while posting three shutouts and 37 wins (minimum: 1000 minutes).  It was a performance good enough to earn him a finalist spot in the voting on the Vezina Trophy for the league’s top goalie (he finished third, behind Holtby and the winner, Bobrovsky).  Price had a rather typical, for him, season against the Caps in 2016-2017, going 1-2-0, 2.69, .911.  It was entirely consistent with his career record against the Caps of 6-11-4, 3.03, .900, with one shutout.  He has been better in Washington, though, going 4-3-1, 2.23, .926 in eight appearances in D.C.

Washington: Braden Holtby

In recent years, the Washington-Montreal match-up has had a subtext to it, that being the Braden Holtby-Carey Price match-up.  And Holtby has not lacked for success against the Canadiens.  Holtby has a sparkling 10-1-2, 1.62, .941 record in 14 games against Montreal, with a pair of shutouts added to that line.  The odd part of that line is how little of it has come at home.  Holtby has only five appearances against Montreal on home ice, where he is 2-1-1, 2.00, .923. 

What Holtby will be competing with to extend his mastery over the Canadiens is his propensity for slow season starts.  Coming into this season he was 2-3-2, 3.50, .881 in seven “first games” of his season.  While he improved generally in his “second games” – 4-2-0 (one no-decision), 2.73, .915, with one shutout – his cannot be called a “Holtby-like” level of performance in those games. In his first appearance of the 2017-2018 campaign, Holtby was, unfortunately, true to form, even if he did get the win – 28 saves on 32 shots (a .875 save percentage). 

In the end…

When two elite goalies lock horns, things might come down to a moment, a mistake, or a mental lapse.  The Caps had more than a few against the Ottawa Senators in the 5-4 season opening win (note: Ottawa scored four or more goals just 19 times last season, 24th in the league).  Hopefully, it was an example of the Caps working out some early season kinks as they fold a number of new ingredients into the recipe.  If it is an indicator of the level of support Holtby will get over the course of the season, or for too much of the early part of it, it will be a hard season ahead.  This game might be a decent test, the Caps facing a team that ranked just 15th in scoring offense last season, tied for 18th in scoring offense on the road.  Additions such as Jonathan Drouin and Alex Hemsky might make the Canadiens a more formidable offense, but the Caps need to button things up.

Capitals 4 - Canadiens 2

A TWO-Point Night: Washington Capitals -- Game 1: Capitals 5 - Senators 4 (OT/Gimmick)

The Washington Capitals opened their 2017-2018 season with a 5-4 Gimmick win over the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Center on Thursday night.  It was a game in which the Caps never led until Evgeny Kuznetsov buried the game-winner in the trick shot competition after the teams ended regulation and overtime tied at 4-4.

First Period

That the two teams would skate short shifts in an up-and-down manner was hardly surprising as both teams were trying to get their regular season legs.  But less than seven minutes in, Chris Wideman took a pass from Derick Brassard as he was entering the offensive zone.  Skating down the wall to the edge of the right wing circle, Wideman flipped a shot at the Washington net that eluded a maze of bodies and caught goalie Braden Holtby by surprise, the puck sneaking under his left arm and over the goal line to give the Senators the early lead.

Brett Connolly tied the game less than two minutes later on what football fans might recognize as a “hook and ladder” play.  Matt Niskanen did a fine job to keep a clearing attempt from getting over his head, settled the puck, and sent it at the Senator net, where Lars Eller was camped.  Eller, with his back to the goalie, bump passed the puck back out to Brett Connolly, who leaned into a shot that beat goalie Craig Anderson cleanly, tying the game at 1-1 at the 8:07 mark.

The Caps had another chance when facing an Ottawa power play, Alex Chiasson getting in alone on a break on Anderson, but Anderson dropped his right knee to foil an attempt at the five-hole, and the period ended with the teams tied.

Second Period

The Caps blundered into giving up the first goal of the middle frame when John Carlson could not move the puck out of his own end any deeper than the center red line.  Ottawa went on the rewind, Mark Stone picking up the puck outside the penalty boxes and flipped it to the middle to Derick Brassard.  Gaining the offensive zone, Brassard skated in, then left a semi-drop pass for Stone filling in behind, and Stone snapped the puck past Holtby to make it 2-1, Ottawa, at the 6:52 mark.

Holtby kept the Caps in it late in the period when he foiled a back-door feed to Johnny Oduya pinching in on the weak side.  Holtby got his right pad to the post just in time to stop the attempted redirect.

A goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov on the power play late in the period was washed out, as T.J. Oshie was whistled for playing the puck with a high stick before feeding Kuznetsov for the score.

Third Period

Derick Brassard gave the Senators a two-goal lead when the Senators caught the Caps flustered in their own end.  Matt Niskanen made an uncharacteristic blunder, trying to clear the puck up the middle and out of the zone.  Bobby Ryan picked off the attempt and circled in toward the Caps net.   He could not control the puck well enough before he was too deep, but he did manage to sweep the puck in front from below the goal line.  Brassard was there to bat the puck in, and it was 3-1, barely two minutes into the period.

Then, fans were reminded that while Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, and Connor McDavid might be on the rise as the next generation of goal scorers, there remains one Alex Ovechkin.  Two minutes after the Brassard goal, the Caps forced the Senators into a turnover in their own end, the puck ending up on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s stick.  From the edge of the paint to the left of Anderson, Kuznetsov found Ovechkin in the left wing circle, and Ovechkin wasted no time snapping the puck past Anderson on the far side to make it 3-2, 4:15 into the period.

Just over a minute later, Ovechkin tied the game by finishing a play he started.  He muffled a clearing attempt by Zach Smith at the blue line, and Jakub Vrana picked up the loose puck.  He circled through the left wing circle and fed Kuznetsov below the circle on the other side. With the defense sliding to Kuznetsov, he fed Ovechkin coming down the slot, and Ovechkin buried the puck to tie the game at the 5:38 mark.

After Mark Stone scored in the seventh minute to restore the Ottawa lead, Ovechkin completed the hat trick.  It was a greasy goal of sorts, born out of some hard work along the boards by all three forwards on the top line.  Vrana started it by stopping a shot around the end boards in the corner to Anderson’s right.  Kuznetsov jumped in to try to spring the puck free, and it squirted out into the left wing faceoff circle.  There, Ovechkin used his body to fend off Nate Thompson, and he managed to get off a snap shot that snuck through Anderson to tie the game once more at the 10:48 mark.

Extra Time

Ottawa had the better of the opportunities in the five-minute overtime, outshooting the Caps, 6-3, but neither team could convert, and the game went to the Gimmick.  Bobby Ryan and Ovechkin exchanged scores, leaving things to the third round and the game on the stick of Kuznetsov.  Circling slowly to his left, Kuznetsov reached the hash marks, then snapped a shot past the stick of Anderson, and the Caps had their season opening win, 5-4.

Other stuff…

-- Opening Night sometimes means the mix of adrenaline and the early stage of the season means shots aren’t placed as neatly as they might be later in the season.  The Caps had 19 shot attempts in the first period, but seven were blocked, and six others were misses.  That left six shots on goal.

-- Alex Ovechkin had no shot attempts in the first period and skated less than six minutes.  If getting him off and running was to be hoped for, those first 20 minutes didn’t do it.  He was much more active in the second period with six shot attempts, two on goal.  Alas, no points.  It was all prologue to a third period in which he recorded a hat trick in the span of 6:33 of the period on three consecutive shots.

-- Ovechkin recorded his 18th career hat trick, most in the NHL since he came into the league in 2005-2006 (Eric Staal has 13). 

-- Now, here is an Ovechkin hat trick fact to chew on.  Those 18 hat tricks are the most in the NHL since…get this, the 1993-1994 season.  Since then, he shares the top spot with Peter Bondra and Pavel Bure.

-- The Caps enjoyed a 43-28 edge in total shot attempts through 40 minutes, yet trailed 2-1.

-- Jakub Vrana had three chances on his first shift of the second period, all turned away by Anderson. Vrana had four shots on goal on that first shift of the second period, but did not have another shot on goal over the 4:50 he skated over the remainder of the period.

-- The top line was the top line.  Ovechkin (3-0-3), Vrana (0-2-2), Evgeny Kuznetsov (0-3-3) recorded 12 of the team’s 28 shots and had 20 of the team’s 62 shot attempts.

-- No one took over the blue line slot opposite John Carlson in training camp, and Brooks Orpik assumed the role more or less by default.  If only for the opener, there were ominous signs.  That pair was on the ice for three of the Senators’ four goals, and both finished minus-3.

-- We noted in the prognosto that season openers have not been kind to Braden Holtby.  Consider the trend a continuing one.  While he was left out to dry a few times and had to come up with some fine saves, especially in overtime, he did allow four goals on 28 shots.  Stopping the last 12 shots over the third period and overtime (five saves were on a Senator power play) was a welcome sight, though.

- There was good and bad on special teams.  The bad…five Ottawa power plays (the Caps were 13-5-0 in games when they allowed five or more power play opportunities last year, but five of the wins came in extra time), including one in overtime.  The good news…the Caps shut them out.

In the end…

Sometimes, a team will win with balance, with a lot of players finding their way onto the score sheet.  Other times, the top players will do the heavy lifting.  And then there are the times when the star comes through in a pinch.  When the Caps fell behind, 3-1, early in the third period, they looked a little like road kill, given the suffocating style the Senators play and would likely deploy in the last 18 minutes.  But the top line played like the top line, and Alex Ovechkin served notice that perhaps last season’s 33 goals was an aberration.  Getting almost ten percent of last year’s total was a fine way to start the season, and while there were kinks and hiccups in the Caps’ game – and even Ovechkin’s early on – the captain came through when needed.