Friday, November 03, 2017

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 14: Capitals at Bruins, November 4th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals, who have played eight of their first 13 games this season on the road, head back out on that road on Saturday night when they visit TD Garden in Boston to face the Bruins in a battle of teams tied in standings points (13) in the Eastern Conference.

Washington has been a better than .500 team on the road so far with a 4-3-1 record, but they have persistently alternated wins and losses through their eight road contests so far. Given that the Caps lost their last road game, a 2-1 loss in Calgary to the Flames, Caps fans might be hopeful for a continuation of the trend, at least through Saturday.

Boston is coming off a 2-1 win on home ice over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday. That win is part of the Bruins’ own odd pattern of alternating wins and losses on home ice since they beat the Nashville Predators at TD Garden on Opening Night. Given the win on Thursday, one might thing it one more element pointing to a Caps win.

If Boston is going to snap the pattern and win a second straight home game, they might need more balanced scoring than they are getting. Of the 32 goals scored by the Bruins in 11 games so far, 14 of them have been scored by the duo of Brad Marchand (eight) and David Pastrnak (six). Marchand is really one of the underrated goal scorers of recent years. Since the 2013-2014 season he is in the top ten in goals scored (133), more than Corey Perry (131), Phil Kessel (115), Jeff Carter (111), James Neal (111), and Rick Nash (108), among other notables. Five of his eight goals this season have been scored on TD Garden ice, although the Bruins are just 2-0-2 in the four games in which he recorded those goals. Marchand scored his 200th career goal in the Bruins’ 4-3 Gimmick loss in Columbus to the Blue Jackets on October 30th. He is 7-7-14, minus-6 (the worst career plus-minus he has against any team), in 23 career games against the Caps.

Pastrnak, on the other hand, is continuing a rather impressive early-career arc in terms of goal scoring. He had 10 goals in 46 games of his 2014-2015 rookie season, and then he followed it up with 15 goals in 51 games the following season. Last year, he jumped to 34 goals in 75 games. That performance led, after some off-season tension, to a six-year/$40 million contract. With six goals in 11 games this season, Pastrnak is on a pace for 45 goals this season, although one wonders if his 19.4 percent shooting percentage (a career high to date) is sustainable. He has hit a dry spell, going without a goal in each of his last four games. He did have a three-assist performance in that 4-3 trick shot loss to Columbus on October 30th, though. In six career games against the Caps, Pastrnak is 1-3-4, minus-4.

If there is a bit of a surprise for the Bruins, it might be hometown native defenseman Charlie McAvoy. Born in Boston, drafted by the Bruins 14th overall in 2016 out of Boston University, he got his baptism under fire in last spring’s postseason, going 0-3-3, minus-2, in six games against the Ottawa Senators. This season, the rookie leads Bruin defensemen in points (1-7-8) and is third among rookie defensemen in the league overall, trailing only Tampa Bay’s Mikhail Sergachev (4-7-11) and New Jersey’s Will Butcher (0-11-11). He had a four-game points streak over the October 14-21 period, but he has just one assist in his last four games, and he does not have a goal since he recorded his lone goal of the season on Opening Night in the Bruins’ 4-3 win over Nashville. This will be his first career appearance against the Caps.

1.  If the Capitals are having issues shooting the puck (and they are), Boston is in the same predicament. The Bruins rank 28th in the league in shots on goal per game (29.3), although they do show signs of improvement, averaging 31.2 shots over their last six games.

2.  The Bruins do not work or play well with others. Their 13:32 in penalty minutes per game is third in the league (through Thursday’s games), and they are tied with the Dallas Stars with seven major penalties (seven fighting majors tops the league).

3.  Giveaways and takeaways are in the eye of the beholder, but the beholders have the Bruins among just eight teams in the league with a positive takeaway-to-giveaway ratio (1.34-to-1).

4.  Boston might be in a transition of sorts. They have already dressed seven rookies this season, four of them – forwards Anders Bjork, Sean Kuraly, and Jake DeBrusk; an defenseman Charlie McAvoy – playing in all 11 games so far. Five rookies (that group of four plus Danton Heinen) have contributed nine of the team’s 32 goals so far.

5.  Whether it is injuries or rotation, the Bruins have gone through a lot of skaters so far. There have been 27 skaters dressing for Boston through 11 games. They had 30 skaters dress over 82 games last season.

1.  The Capitals have been docked for 10 or more penalty minutes in nine games so far. Only Nashville (10) and Chicago (11) have topped ten minutes more often. Only twice in 13 games have the Caps been charged with fewer penalty minutes than their opponent. They had four the Maple Leafs’ six in a 2-0 loss to Toronto, and they had six the Islanders’ eight in the 4-3 win over New York on Thursday night.

2.  Whatever the Caps are doing with their power play on the road, they need to bottle it and bring it back to Capital One Arena. The anemic 5.3 percent home power play (30th of 31 teams) stands in stark contrast to the 31.8 percent road power play (fourth in the league). But wherever they deploy it, they need to do it more often. They are tied with New Jersey for the ninth-fewest power play chances overall (41), and despite their road-heavy schedule rank only tied for 15th in road power play opportunities (22).

3.  On the other side of special teams, the Caps were perfect killing penalties in their first two games this season, going 9-for-9. Since then, they are 32-for-46 (69.6 percent). They are 22-for-26 in wins this season (84.6 percent), 19-for-29 in losses (65.5 percent). Either get better killing penalties, or avoid taking them.

4.  The Caps scored first against the Islanders and won. Not surprising. Washington is 3-0-1 when they scored first in games this season, 3-6-0 when they allowed the first goal.

5.  The Caps need to do a much better job of dictating play and putting teams away when they are ahead. Letting the Islanders tie the game in the third period is just one example of the failure to do that this season. Here’s another – the Caps are last in the league in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 when leading (38.14), the only team under 40 percent in that situation in the league.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Boston: Tuukka Rask

Tuukka Rask occupies an interesting place in the history of Boston Bruins goaltending. He is fourth on the franchise’s all-time list in wins (206). Each of the three goalies ahead of him – Tiny Thompson (252 wins), Frank Brimsek (230), and Gerry Cheevers (229) – are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.   It is not too much to think that he will be second on this list well before season’s end (he averaged 35 wins per season over the last four years). And since he came into the league in 2007-2008, Rask is the only goaltender playing at least 5,000 total minutes with a goals against average under 2.30 (2.25), a save percentage over .920 (.922) and at least 30 shutouts (38). Yet, he has been a Vezina Trophy finalist as the league’s best goalie only once, winning the trophy in 2013-2014.

He does seem to be slipping just a touch, though. After going 36-15-6, 2.04, .930, with a league-leading seven shutouts in that Vezina-winning season, Rask’s goals against average has jumped around (2.30, 2.56, and 2.23 last season), while his save percentage has deteriorated (.922, .915, .915). He did have a career high eight shutouts last season, but on the flip side, only six goalies allowed five or more goals in more games than the five games it happened to Rask. He has struggled against the Caps, going 1-9-5, 3.07, .889, with his lone win coming by shutout.  

Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Evgeny Kuznetsov has not been a fast starter when it comes to goal scoring.  Last season he scored his first goal in Game 4, but he then went nine games without one.  He had just two goals in his first 18 games.  The previous season he went without a goal in his first six games before recording a hat trick against the Edmonton Oilers.  The year before that he had one goal in his first 20 games.  There seems to be a pattern.  He went his first nine games without a goal to start this season before getting three in two games against Vancouver and Edmonton on the western Canada trip.  That all three of those goals came on the road should not be considered unusual.  Of his 56 career goals, 32 of them were scored on the road, only 24 in Washington.

The Caps could indulge a slow start from Kuznetsov in the goal scoring department over the past few years, given the Caps’ depth in scoring.  This season, as the number one or the number 1-A center, depending on how you see Nicklas Backstrom’s role, his setting up Alex Ovechkin for scoring chances is important, but with fewer goal-scoring options up and down the roster, they can’t come at the expense of converting the chances that come his way to light the lamp.  Kuznetsov is 3-8-10, plus-8, in 10 career games against the Bruins.

In the end…

This game presents an interesting opportunity for the Capitals. The contest against the Bruins represents the last game in which has been a difficult early season schedule for the Caps. It is their 14th game, nine of them coming on the road. And, if you look at the teams they have faced, they played Tampa Bay (an overtime loss to the league’s top team in the standings), New Jersey (a win against the fourth-place team league-wide), Pittsburgh (sixth), Ottawa (a win against the seventh-place team), and Toronto (tenth). Five of their 13 games to date have been against some of the best in the league. Now, they have a chance to escape this part of the schedule with a record over .500 with a win against the Bruins. All other things equal, there are worse places to be (Glendale, Arizona comes to mind, or if you’re looking at preseason contenders, Edmonton).

After this game, the Caps will be home for eight of their remaining 12 games in November. But to get to that oasis in the early season schedule, they will have to beat a team that they might be battling all season for a playoff spot. Getting a win on their ice would give the Caps an advantage in that long battle.

Capitals 3 – Bruins 1

A TWO-Point Night: Washington Capitals -- Game 13: Capitals 4 - Islanders 3

The Washington Capitals opened their November schedule on much happier terms than they closed the month of October, rebounding from their month-ending 2-1 loss at the Calgary Flames and breaking a three-game home losing streak with a 4-3 win over the New York Islanders.  The teams traded goals back and forth with the Caps getting the last, game-winning goal late in the third period.

First Period

It did not take the Caps long to get a taste of home cooking.  Taylor Chorney opened the scoring for the home team just under six minutes into the contest, cleaning up what looked like a broken play.  Lars Eller skated the puck into the Islanders’ zone on the left wing and spied Chandler Stephenson coming late in support through the right wing circle.  Stephenson could not handle the pass for a one-timer, but he did get control of the puck and sent it back out to Chorney at the top of the zone.  Chorney fired through a maze of bodies, and the puck eluded goalie Jaroslav Halak at the 5:55 mark to give the Caps a 1-0 lead.

John Tavares, in whose glow these days the sun would look dim, scored his tenth goal in his last six games at the 13:01 mark to tie the game.  It was the product of gritty effort on his part on a New York power play, working his way to the top of the paint to nudge a loose puck through the pads of goalie Braden Holtby and just over the goal line.

Eller restored the Caps’ lead three minutes later on a play that looked like the same one that resulted in the first Caps goal, only with roles reversed.  Stephenson skated the puck down the left side, and as he reached the far edge of the left wing faceoff circle sent the puck across to Eller for a one-timer.  Eller, unlike Stephenson on the first goal, got good wood (or composite) on the puck, sending it under Halak’s left pad for the lead the Caps would take to the first intermission.

Alex Ovechkin, Lars Eller, and Jay Beagle led the Caps with two shots apiece. Evgeny Kuznetsov was a perfect 4-for-4 on faceoffs.  John Carlson had four shot attempts, three of them blocked, and Ovechkin tied him with four.  Tavares had four shots on goal to lead the Isles, part of the 14-11 edge the visitors had in shots on goal in the period.

Second Period

The teams traded power plays over the first ten minutes, the Caps getting a pair of man advantages and the Islanders getting one.  Neither team scored, though.  That came in the latter half of the period.  New York tied things up on a power play, Anders Lee redirecting the puck through Holtby’s pads at the 16:18 mark.

Alex Chiasson untied the game 12 seconds after the Lee goal, taking a pass from John Carlson, skating down the right wing, and blasting a shot over the right pad of Halak on the far side to give the Caps a 3-2 lead at the second intermission.

Jakub Vrana led the Caps with two shots on goal apiece; Dmitry Orlov and Vrana had three shot attempts.

Third Period

The Islanders outshot the Caps, 9-0, over the first 6:45 to start the final period.  They scored on their 10th unanswered shot when Anders Less scored his second goal of the game when he settled a shot from Thomas Hickey at his feet, and defenseman Madison Bowey on his hip, he spun and snapped a shot past Holtby’s right pad to tie the game, 3-3, seven minutes into the period.

The game looked as if it would go to extra time, but Eller put that thought to rest with less than four minutes left.  John Carlson started the play, turning with the puck around the back of his own net and send a pass off the right wing boards and up to Tom Wilson in the neutral zone.  Wilson took a hit to make a play, sliding the puck over to Eller heading up ice with speed. He skated into the Islanders’ zone and made it to the top of the right wing circle where he fired a shot that beat Halak cleanly over his glove at the 16:30 mark.  Braden Holtby made it stand up, and the Caps had their 4-3 win.

Other stuff…

-- The win was the second on home ice this season for the Caps, their first since their 6-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens in the home opener on October 7th.

-- The Islanders out-shot the Caps, 16-2, in the third period and 38-19 for the game.  It was the 11th time in 13 games that the Caps allowed an opponent at least 30 shots, the eighth time they allowed 35 or more shots (and third game in a row).

-- With two goals and an assist, Lars Eller recorded his first three-point game as a Capital.

-- The Caps were credited with ten hits in the game, nine of them coming from three players: Devante Smith-Pelly (four), Tom Wilson (three), and Brooks Orpik (two).

-- Nathan Walker returned to the lineup and had a clean line on his score sheet (no shot attempts, no hits or blocked shots, no giveaways or takeaways, no faceoffs taken), but he was a plus-1, and he gets marks for guts for getting in Cal Clutterbuck’s face after taking a hit from the Islander.

-- The Caps had more shots blocked by the Islanders (20) than they managed to get to the net (19).  John Carlson had five of his seven shot attempts blocked.

-- The Caps won 32 of 52 faceoffs (61.5 percent).  Take away Nicklas Backstrom’s rough night in the circle (3-for-10), and it was 29 wins and 13 losses (69.0 percent).

-- This was the fourth time in their last ten games that the Caps allowed multiple power play goals to an opponent.  Over that span, the Caps’ penalty kill is 28–for-41 (68.3 percent).  And it is killing the Caps.  An indicator… Among 36 goalies appearing in at least five games this season, Braden Holtby is fifth in even strength save percentage (.942).  However, he is just 25th when the Caps are shorthanded (.859).  And it’s not like Philipp Grubauer is better (.848/29th).

-- Alex Ovechkin skated 20:08, making this the first time in three games this season that the Caps won when he skated more than 20 minutes.

-- The Caps are 5-on-5 were pretty much steamrolled by the Islanders.  Their 39.58 percent shot attempts-for overall (third-worst of 24 teams playing on Thursday night; numbers from and 34.29 percent when ahead (they never trailed) were grim numbers to behold.

In the end… 

Let’s face it.  A win is a win is a win, and they are never bad.  But neither are they always indicators that the team is playing well.  The Caps got fine individual efforts from Lars Eller, John Carlson, and Chandler Stephenson on Thursday night (all with multi-point games), but the defense is, to be charitable, unsettled, especially when shorthanded.  And the Caps are losing too many battles in close.  The first two Islander goals were scored from a combined official distance of 17 feet, and on the third Islander goal, Anders Lee treated Madison Bowey as an afterthought in getting position for a spin move and shot.  The Caps are not going to win as many games with skill as they might have in recent years.  They are going to have to do it by being technically sound and winning one-on-one battles, especially in the defensive zone.  That they bent, but did not break last night was a good sign, but they must get better if they are to start putting wins together in bunches.