Sunday, January 07, 2018

A TWO-Point Night: Washington Capitals -- Game 42: Capitals 4 - Blues 3 (OT)

The Washington Capitals returned to the ice on Sunday afternoon after having four full days off from their schedule.  After some harrowing moments and iffy play through the middle stages of the game, they came back from a 2-1 second intermission deficit to beat the St. Louis Blues, 4-3, in overtime.

First Period

As might be expected, the Caps started slowly, recording a single shot on goal in almost 11 minutes to start the contest.  Nevertheless, they got on the board first on a pretty power play goal in the 14th minute.  Alex Ovechkin took a pass from John Carlson at the top of the left wing circle and wristed a shot at the net.  The puck was elevated, but Brett Connolly got the blade of his stick full on the sailing puck and redirected it past the left shoulder of goalie Carter Hutton to make it 1-0, 13:15 into the period.

That would be all the scoring mustered in the period, the Caps holding an 8-7 edge in shots on goal and a 20-16 edge in shot attempts.

Second Period

By the time the Caps registered their first shot on goal of the period, the Blues had the tying and go-ahead goal and 11 shots of their own.  Vladimir Tarasenko got the visitors on the board with a snipe from the high slot at the 1:18 mark of the period, and Alex Steen put the Blues on top on a power play, redirecting a Brayden Schenn one-timer off a feed from Alex Pietrangelo from the right wing circle at the 5:02 mark to make it 2-1.  For the record, the Caps got their first shot on goal of the period 9:30 into the frame, courtesy of Dmitry Orlov.

As it was, the Blues had a 17-6 edge for the period in shots on goal and a lopsided 30-15 edge in shot attempts.  Alex Ovechkin finished the period without a shot on goal; Jakub Vrana did not have a shot attempt.  Vrana was one of five Caps without a shot attempt through 40 minutes, Christian Djoos, Alex Chiasson, John Carlson, and Jay Beagle being the others.

Third Period

St. Louis did their best to milk the clock, even dodging a Caps power play early in the period.  But the Caps drew another penalty as the frame was reaching its half-way point, and the home side made them pay.  Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff to John Carlson at the right point, and Carlson fed Alex Ovechkin for a one-timer that beat Hutton high to the glove side to make it 2-2, at the 8:00 mark, three second after the power play was awarded.

Less than three minutes later, the Caps had the lead.  Getting a loose puck off a turnover at his own blue line, Lars Eller fed a cross-ice pass to T.J. Oshie.  Gaining the offensive zone, Oshie let fly with a shot that Hutton turned away to his right, but the rebound ended up on the stick of Eller, who sent a knuckling puck past Hutton’s blocker before he could push across and defend the near post.  The Caps had a 3-2 lead, 10:49 into the period.

St. Louis tied the game with under five minutes left on a goal by Carl Gunnarsson that hit something, someone, or was bent by a force field down and to the left of Holtby, bouncing into the net to make it a new game.  A game that carried into extra time where…


Braden Holtby kept the Caps alive over the first four minutes of the extra frame, turning away a pair of fine opportunities by the Blues, long enough for Nicklas Backstrom to win it.  Off what was a controversial turnover at the Caps’ blue line, the Blues claiming that a stick was slashed out of a teammate’s hands, Backstrom took a long feed from T.J. Oshie and broke in alone on Hutton, wristing a shot off Hutton’s right arm and into the top of the net at the 4:17 mark to win it, 4-3.

Other stuff…

-- This was the seventh game in the last nine in which the Caps went to extra time.  They are 5-2 in those games.

-- The Blues were 20-0-0 in games this season when they led after two periods.  Now, they are 20-0-1.

-- The overtime game-winner was Nicklas Backstrom’s first game-winning goal of the season.

-- Christian Djoos, Alex Chiasson, and Jay Beagle all did not have a shot attempt in this game.

-- This was the seventh time this season that the Caps scored more than one power play goal.  They went 2-for-4.  The four chances matched the fewest they needed to get at least two, duplicating the 2-for-4 they had against the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 4-3 overtime loss in Tampa on October 9th.

-- The Caps were out-shot, 34-33, by the Blues and were out-attempted, 66-64.  The Blues had 23 missed shots.

-- Four Caps had multi-point games: Backstrom (1-1-2), Ovechkin (1-1-2), John Carlson (0-2-2), and T.J. Oshie (0-2-2).

-- Dmitry Orlov was credited with the most hits for the Caps (four).

-- Jay Beagle was the only Caps to finish over 50 percent on faceoffs (64.3 percent/9-for-14).

-- This was the tenth straight game at home in which Braden Holtby allowed two or three goals (no fewer, no more).  He is 9-1-0 in those ten games, 2.62, .916.

In the end…

This was a game that could have gotten away from the Caps.  They started sluggishly, not surprising after getting four days off.  Then, the failed to take advantage of the Blues in the long-change period against a team playing the second of a back-to-back set of games.  What they had in the end was the big guys coming through – Alex Ovechkin to get the Caps started in the third period and Nicklas Backstrom to end it, wrapped around a nifty goal from Lars Eller.

And now, the Caps are 15-3-2 in 20 games since they were stuck at 11-10-1 back on November 22nd after an ugly 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames.  It is a good place from which to start a three-game home stand, the Caps now tied with the Vegas Golden Knights in home wins (17).  They will get to increase that total on Tuesday against the Vancouver Canucks.

Washington Capitals: Half and Half - Comparing Seasons at the Half-Way Mark, Part IV

The last part of the comparison of last year’s first half to this year’s focuses on the goaltenders.  It is a position that closely resembles that of pitchers in baseball or quarterbacks in football. They get a lot of the focus and probably too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they don’t.  But from first half to first half, how did the years compare for Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer?

The Tandem

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The Caps have been lucky in an important respect the last two years.  Many people thought the Holtby/Grubauer tandem was the best pair in the NHL last season, but of particular benefit to the club is that they were a tandem, the only goaltenders the Caps employed last season and this.  This is, so far, the third season in a row in which the Caps have employed two, and only two goaltenders, Holtby and Grubauer.  These three seasons are the only ones in the post-2004-2005 lockout era for the Caps when they used just two goalies.  The last time the Caps used just two goalies in a season before this pair was in 1999-2000 when Olaf Kolzig and Craig Billington split the duties.

As a pair, the two have combined for a goals against average and a save percentage that, frankly, is quite a fall-off from last season, the combined goals against average rising from 1.91 to 2.68 and the save percentage dropping from .931 to .915.  Not that these numbers are bad.  If they were ranked among the rest of the goaltenders in the league with at least 500 minutes, they would be almost smack in the middle, the GAA ranking 29th and the save percentage ranking 28th.

As one might expect, the pair has been victimized for bunches of goals more often this year over last.  So far this season, the pair has allowed three or more goals in a game 20 times versus 12 at this point last season.  Further, the goaltending tandem did not allow more than four goals in any game in the first half last season.  So far this season they have done so four times in 41 games with a high of eight (Grubauer in an 8-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on October 14th).  Conversely, the pair allowed one or no goals 15 times in the first 41 games last season with six shutouts.  However, so far this season that number is 11 with one shutout, and the Caps lost that game (1-0 to the New York Rangers in a Gimmick on December 27th).

Not that it has been their entire fault (this is the “too much blame” area).  As a pair, Holtby and Grubauer have faced almost 100 more shots at even strength this year over last (1,049 versus 958).  Yes, the goals allowed at evens are up (from 57 to 79), but it is still a heavier workload with which they must deal that dropped the ES save percentage from .941 last season to .925 this season.  The problem is more evident when the Caps are shorthanded.  The save percentage of the pair is almost unchanged from last season (from .873 to .875), but they have faced more than a third more shots on opponents’ power plays (from 145 last season to 196 this year), causing the goals to go up by a third (from 21 to 28).

But what might be most noteworthy is just how each goaltender has seen his numbers move in similar directions.

Number One

If there are two words to reflect the first half for number one goaltender Braden Holtby this season, they would be “shots matter.”  Holtby has logged more than 160 fewer minutes in the first half over last season’s first half (from 1954 minutes to 1793), but he has faced almost 60 more shots (from 906 to 962).  On a per-60 minutes basis it is the difference between facing 27.8 shots per 60 minutes last season and 32.2 this season.

The odd part of that shot increase is that it has not been as much a product of even strength increases as it is what he has faced when the Caps are shorthanded.  He has faced only six more shots at evens (779 versus 773).  However, he has faced 164 shots from opponents’ power plays versus 116 at a comparable point last season, an increase of more than 40 percent.  Holtby’s save percentage when the Caps are shorthanded is actually better than last year (.884 versus .853) but he has allowed two more goals (19 versus 17).  Meanwhile, his even strength save percentage has dropped quite a bit, from .943 to .926.

Facing so many shots on a night-to-night basis makes it difficult to keep opponents off the board entirely, and this is reflected in Holtby’s shutout numbers.  At this point last season he had five clean sheets on his record.  This season so far, none.

One area in which Holtby has improved a lot, and arguably entire to his credit and his coaches, is in the Gimmick.  Through the first half last season he allowed nine goals on 14 shots, a .357 save percentage, on his way to losing all four of his trick shot decisions.  This season he stopped eight of nine shots in the first half (.889) and won all three decisions on his record.

The Number One in Waiting

One of the subplots to this season is the question of whether Philipp Grubauer will finally become a number one goaltender after this season.  Somewhere else.  Grubauer is a restricted free agent with arbitration eligibility after this season.  In essence, this season is an audition with the possibility that he will be moved sometime between now and the NHL Draft next summer. 

So how has that audition gone?  It isn’t a clear, cut and dried verdict.  Grubauer struggled to open the season, going 0-2-1, 4.67, .850 in his first four appearances.  But since then, he has a goals against average of 1.86 and a save percentage of .936 with one shutout in nine appearances.  He is, once more, perhaps the best backup in the league.  Not that he has much to show for it in wins and losses.  In those nine appearances he is just 2-3-2.

Overall, comparing his first half over first half, this year and last, his numbers track with Holtby’s overall.  His goals against average is up by a similar margin (from 1.94 to 2.70), and his save percentage has dropped in similar fashion (form .929 to .909).  Unlike Holtby, though, it is not his even strength save percentage that has suffered as much (from .930 to .922) as it is his save percentage defending opponents’ power plays (from .920 to .850).  But he, too, is facing more rubber, just as is Holtby, though not to the same degree.  His shots faced per 60 minutes has risen from 27.2 in the first half last season to 29.8 so far this season.

If Grubauer has settled into a more consistently productive role, as was his performance last season, he will no doubt get attention from teams seeking to upgrade their goaltending.  But more relevant for Caps fans, it would mean no drop off when Braden Holtby gets a break, and that can’t be bad news for Caps fans.

In the end…

If you had a sliding scale that at one end said “goalie performance” and at the other said “skater performance” and sought to place the marker in an appropriate place to reflect the drop in goaltending performance numbers, it would not lie at either end.  Nor would it be precisely in the middle, if we were determining an appropriate resting point.  The Caps have not been able to keep opponents at bay when it comes to denying shots on goal.  Both goaltenders have faced increased volumes of shots on a per-60 minutes basis, and both goaltenders have seen a higher goals against average and a lower save percentage, both in similar degrees, from last year’s first half.  Not that the goaltending has been as consistently sharp as last season, but we would set that marker on the scale closer to the skater end than the goaltender end.  But was we noted, the goalie gets perhaps too much credit for things going well and too much blame for those times when things don’t go so well.

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 14

Week 14 is as light as it gets for workload.  The Caps started the new year playing one game for the week.  It makes for a light recap of the week, so if you want to know how it went, see the recap of the game they played.  But here is how the Caps ended the week in the larger scope of things.

Record: 1-0-0

Offense: 5.00 /game (season: 3.05 /game, rank: 10th)

Defense: 4.00 / game (season: 2.83 /game, rank: 14th)

Goaltending: 3.87 / .895 / 1 shutout (season: 2.63 / .915 / 1 shutout)

Power Play: 0-for-2 / 0.0 percent (season: 19.2 percent, rank: 16th)

Penalty Killing: 3-for-4 / 75.0 percent (season: 80.3 percent, rank: 21st)

Faceoffs: 27-for-57 / 47.4 percent (season: 51.3 percent, rank: 8th)

Goals by Period:

In the end…

One game, one win. There is something powerful in that.  OK, powerful enough to leave the Caps at the top of the Metropolitan Division at the end of the week.  Better still, the teams pursuing them narrowed the gap some in games played, but they could not make up enough points.  The Caps are three wins clear of the rest of the Metropolitan Division in regulation/overtime wins.  It is a good place to be as the schedule begins to pick up once more.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Alex Ovechkin (2-0-2, GW/OT goal, plus-3, six shot attempts)
  • Second Star: Devante Smith-Pelly (1-0-1, plus-2, 5 shots on goal, 3 credited hits)
  • Third Star: Nicklas Backstrom (0-2-2, plus-1, 10-for-19 on faceoffs)

Washington Capitals: Half and Half - Comparing Seasons at the Half-Way Mark, Part III

In Part II of our comparison of the first half of this season to last, we looked at returning skaters.  Now, we will look at the players dressing in the first half this season who did not last year compared to those they replaced.

The Replacements and the Replaced

Through 41 games, ten skaters have taken the ice for the Caps who did not in the first half of last year’s season.  Those ten skaters have fewer combined man-games on their resume (196) than the group of seven players who skated in the first half last season but are no longer with the club (211).  Further on this theme, none of this year’s group has appeared in all 41 games (Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelly have appeared in 39 games apiece), while three skaters dressed for all 41 games in last year’s first half: Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Karl Alzner.

There is something of a clean alignment among those replaced and those replacing them, a mix of three forwards and two defensemen in each population.  The forwards are Alex Chiasson, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Chandler Stephenson (107 man- games among them) in for Marcus Johansson, Jultin Williams, and Daniel Winnik (113 man-games in the first half last season).  For the defense, it is Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos (65 man-games) in for Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt (75 man-games).  Let’s focus on this comparison for the moment.

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What is surprising is not that the forwards in the core replacement group have a much lower performance level than those they replaced.  After all, is it primarily bottom six forwards replacing two top-six forwards in terms of appearances, if not roles, in Johansson and Williams, and a very productive fourth liner last year in Winnik.  What is surprising, to a point (and we will get to that below), is how much the performance trails the year-to-year change in performance among the defensemen.

This group of forwards has contributed less than half the goals (15) their predecessors posted last season (15), and what they have produced hasn’t been a defining part of games (two game-winners to eight among their predecessors last season).

Part of it is the ice time that goes with a replacement process the Caps have employed.  There are returner from last year who are playing bigger roles among the forwards (Tome Wilson, Jakub Vrana among them), and the replacement forwards here are filling in under that.  It explains how Chiasson, Smith-Pelly, and Stephenson all are averaging 12 minutes and change in ice time per night, while players they replaced on the every-night lineup were getting top six minutes (Johansson: 17:23 in the first half last season, Williams: 15:42).  And, Johansson and Williams got steady power play minutes (2:46 and 2:17 per game, respectively).  The three forwards getting sweaters this season combined for 1:04 per game.

On the other hand, and this should be expected given the roles of the replacements and who they are replacing, “grittership” numbers are higher for the incoming trio of forwards.  Credited hits are higher (111 to 43) and blocked shots are higher (79 to 50).  What they have not been is as skilled in winning faceoffs, combining for a 43.8 winning percentage versus 52.8 percent for last year’s group.


Replacing two veterans with 791 regular season games of experience with a pair of rookies with no NHL game experience is going to be a challenge.  Such is the case for the Caps, trying to get Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos up to speed rapidly with the departures of Karl Alzner (591 games with the Caps) and Nate Schmidt (200).

At some point, one would hope (if not expect) that either or both of Bowey and Djoos would put up bigger number than they have to date, a combined 3-13-16, plus-6, in 65 man-games to date.  But this number isn’t much different than the 4-12-16, plus-20 that the defensive duo of Alzner and Schmidt put up in the first half of last season.  This has to be tempered by remembering that Karl Alzner has spent his entire career as a defensive defenseman, and his numbers were never going to be big in these categories.  As for Schmidt, although he had 200 games with the Caps, he might still have been considered in the end stages of his developmental phase (which the Vegas Golden Knights are taking advantage of this season).

Ice time, as one might expect, also differs quite a bit with the Bowey/Djoos pair and the Alzner/Schmidt pair.  The latter averaged 20:13 and 15:01, respectively, while Bowey and Djoos have averaged less than 14 minutes per contest to date.  Still, accounting for the gap in experience and ice time, the performance of the new pair compared to the old pair is, if not a pleasant surprise, then certainly not the disaster it could have been. 

This is not to say there aren’t issues, at an individual and pair level.  Bowey’s progress so far has been somewhat uneven, perhaps a product of missing some development time in the AHL to injury.  And, he is probably expected to be more of a two-way defenseman with more presence in the defensive end than Djoos.  In those respects, he probably trails Djoos on the progress meter at the moment.  Djoos has displayed talent and flair in the offensive end with a certain confidence that one might not have expected in a true rookie.  But on the other side, one does wonder if his lack of size will be a factor in the second half of the season and his progress going forward. 

All that said, as a pair Bowey and Djoos have performed at about the level at which Alzner and Schmidt performed last season, which is something of a surprise, at the offensive end.  In the other end, in the “grittership” numbers, the picture is different.  The new pair’s numbers are down – credited hits (from 82 to 41), blocked shots (from 95 to 41), takeaways (from 33 to 18).  Not all of this can be explained away by ice time.  Quality of competition might explain a part of it, too, to the extent the new pair has been sheltered from higher-quality opposition, but there appears to be work to be done ahead in any case.


What we do not want to forget here is the matter of depth, those players who fill in for a few games over the course of a season, and in this respect a comparison is not only difficult, it is all but impossible.  If you take out Zach Sanford, who played in 20 games for the Caps in the first half before he was traded later (a player who was on a development arc that could have carried him into a top-six role), the only “fill-in” last season who did not return was Paul Carey, who played in three games.  This speaks to the health that the Caps enjoyed last season, allowing them to avoid players taking the Hershey Shuttle back and forth to and from DC.

This season, Travis Boyd, Tyler Graovac, Anthony Peluso, Nathan Walker, and Aaron Ness have combined for 24 man-games so far.  Out of that group, only Walker has scored a goal (his first in the NHL), and only Ness of the others has a point (an assist).  Although Capitals Nation has a fan’s affection for Nathan Walker, none of this group has worked his way into a position where he is a go-to replacement in the event of injury, let alone asserting themselves as a potential regular over the second half of the season.  If true, the Caps had better hope for better health in the second half.

In the end…

This where the Caps’ failing to make good on their “all-in” approach last year has its consequences.  Rookies, free agent journeymen, and inexpensive role players replacing contributing fixtures in the lineup have their effects, and no one should have expected those effects to be improvements on the ice.  For the most part, they haven’t been.  And in that respect, one might say that it is the improvements among returning players from first half to first half that have the Caps where they are, not the contributions of the replacements, at least compared to the players they replaced. 

This is not to say there haven’t been welcome efforts.  Smith-Pelly has shown an ability to contribute up and down the lines (or at least avoiding being a liability among the top-six).  Chiasson has been a decent, if not standout performer who has received a substantial amount of penalty killing responsibility (2:16 per game).  Walker, who has already done two separate tours with the club this season after being waived, claimed by Edmonton, waived again, and claimed by the Caps, does have the sort of speed and high motor that is valued in the NHL these days.

But will this group raise their performance level in the second half?  The answer to this question is one that, given the closeness of the standings in the Metropolitan Division, could be a, if not the difference in making the postseason and being on the outside looking in.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 42: Blues at Capitals, January 7th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

After a four-day gap in the schedule, the Washington Capitals return to the ice on Sunday afternoon to host the St. Louis Blues at Capital One Arena.  The Caps will be looking to extend their overall winning streak to four games and their winning streak at home to nine games.

The Blues will be wrapping up a two-game road trip having lost the front end of a back-to-back set of games in Philadelphia, 6-3, to the Flyers on Saturday afternoon.  The loss stopped a three-game winning streak for the Blues, but for the Blues it was their fourth loss in their last five road contests.

If there has been a surprise for the Blues in the first half of the season, it might be Brayden Schenn.  The younger of the Schenn brothers (Luke is a defenseman for the Arizona Coyotes), who came to the Blues in trade last June for Jori Lehtera and two first round draft picks (one of them conditional), is tied for the team lead in goals (17, with Vladimir Tarasenko) and tops the team in points (42).  He is on a pace to finish the season with 78 points, which would obliterate his career high of 59 points, set in 2015-2016 when he skated for the Philadelphia Flyers.  His season has not been one of consistent scoring as much as it has been one with a hot streak dominating his numbers.  In an eight game stretch in November, Schenn was 7-12-19, plus-11, posting five multi-point games, including four-point games to start and end the streak.  In 22 games since that streak ended he is a more modest 7-5-12, plus-1.  Schenn’s 17 goals have been consistent with winning this season, the Blues being 11-2-0 in the 13 games in which he found the back of the net.  In 22 career games against the Caps, he is 4-5-9, minus-4.

The player with whom Schenn is tied for the team lead in goals – Vladimir Tarasenko – has firmly established himself as one of the most prolific goal scorers in the NHL.  In his four full NHL seasons, he is the third-leading goal scorer overall (154 of his career 162 goals), trailing only Alex Ovechkin (213) and Sidney Crosby (159).  He is off his game a bit, though, on a pace to finish with 32 goals this season after finishing with 37, 40, and 39 the past three seasons.  He has been in a dry stretch lately.  Since he recorded a pair of goals in an 8-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers on November 11th, Tarasenko has five goals in 22 games.  Like Schenn, his goals and Blues wins go hand in hand, the team going 11-3-0 in games in which he has a goal.  Tarasenko is 5-1-6, plus-4, in seven career games against the Caps.

With Jake Allen getting the call and taking the 6-3 loss in Philadelphia on Saturday, Carter Hutton could be the goalie of choice for the Blues on Sunday.  Hutton has been cast as a backup goalie for most of his six-year career with three clubs (Chicago, Nashville, and the Blues), but he has been a fine performer whatever his role.  He is having a career year this season with St. Louis with a record of 8-3-0, 1.65, .947, with one shutout, the goals against average and save percentage being the best of his career to date.  In his last seven appearances he has a record of 4-1-0 (one no-decision), 1.34, .958 with one shutout.  The odd feature of his record to date is that he has just one full game played on the road (and just 72 minutes in total) since October 27th, a 2-1 loss to the Flames in Calgary on December 20th.  Hutton is 2-2-0, 3.66, .861 in five career appearances against the Caps.

1.  St. Louis averages just 8:04 in penalty minutes per game, third fewest among Western Conference teams.

2.  The Blues lead the league in blocked shots (680)

3.  Only Washington has more wins this season (16) when leading after one period than the Blues (15).  Their winning percentage (.938/15-0-1) is third behind the Caps (.941) and the New York Islanders (1.000).  No team has more wins when leading after two periods than the Blues (20, tied with Dallas), and they are one of six teams unbeaten when leading after 40 minutes.

4.  When St. Louis outshoots an opponent, they win.  They have won more often than any team in the league (19 wins).  Then again, they have outshot opponents 31 times in 44 games, more often than any team in the league.  So there being only one team with more losses when outshooting the opponent (12, one fewer than Arizona) should not be a surprise.

5.  St. Louis is second in the league in third period goals scored (53, two fewer than Los Angeles), and their plus-24 goal differential in the third period leads the league.

1.  Only three teams have averaged more penalty minutes than the Caps this season (10:16) – Boston (10:41), Anaheim (10:49), and Nashville (13:28).

2.  For what it’s worth, only three teams have taken fewer faceoffs than the Caps (2,435) – Carolina (2,416), the New York Rangers (2,415), and San Jose (2,339).

3.  The Caps have been very efficient shooters so far this season (10.6 percent).  Only Tampa Bay (`0.8) and the New York Islanders (10.6 percent) have been better in the East.

4.  Only two teams have fewer losses when outshooting an opponent than the Caps (four) – Nashville (three) and New Jersey (two), but then again, the Caps have outshot opponents only 14 times.  Only five teams have outshot opponents fewer times.

5.  Washington has the third-best winning percentage in one goal decisions (.688/11-2-3), trailing only Vegas (.722/13-3-2) and Toronto (.765/13-2-2).

The Peerless’Players to Ponder

St. Louis: Alex Pietrangelo

In his eight full seasons in the NHL, Alex Pietrangelo has established himself as a top-flight offensive defenseman, even if he doesn’t get as much attention as fellow top-ten scorers like Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Shea Weber, or Kris Letang (Pietrangelo ranks ninth in that group with 328 points in that span).  He ranks 17th in all-time scoring for the Blues (331 points) and is third among defensemen, trailing only Chris Pronger (356 points) and Al MacInnis (452 points).  He is on a pace this season to finish with a career best 55 points.  Pietrangelo does not have a goal since November 9th, a span of 22 games, but he does have 12 assists in that span.  He is a minutes-eater, ranking ninth in the league in average time on ice (25:32).  However, the Blues are just 11-9-2 in the 21 games in which he topped his average.  Pietrangelo is 1-2-3, minus-3, in 10 career games against Washington.

Washington: Lars Eller

Since the end of October, Lars Eller has four goals in 29 games.  That’s not an especially big number, but all of them were recorded in a span of 17 home games.  Eller’s is something of an odd record with the Caps this season.  You might think players active in the offensive end, even if they aren’t scoring, might be associated with wins.  However, the Caps are 12-3-2 in the 17 games in which Eller recorded one or no shots, 6-2-2 when he was blanked altogether in shots on goal.  If there is a personal indicator that links Eller and wins, it is faceoffs.  The Caps are 16-2-2 in 20 games in which he finished at 50 percent or better on draws, 9-10-1 in the 20 games in which he finished under 50 percent.  Eller has yet to record a goal in six games against Central Division opponents this season, so this is an opportunity to fill his division scorecard.  In ten career games against the Blues, the team that drafted him 13th overall in 2007, Eller is 1-3-4, plus-2.

In the end…

Getting four full days off in mid-season might be thought of as equal parts blessing and curse.  It is a chance to recharge and recuperate from injuries (Matt Niskanen, who could return to the lineup for this game) before the long mid-winter push.  On the other hand, four days off is four days of rust that accumulates, and practices do not do much to prevent that.  The Caps, who have had a challenging history against this team (42-40-12-1 all time), have a three-game winning streak against the Blues, outscoring them 19-7.  And goals have not been hard to come by in the Caps’ eight-game home winning streak, outscoring teams by a 34-17 margin.  So, will rust hinder the Caps, or will they win a ninth home game in a row.  Silly question.

Caps 4 – Blues 2