Saturday, February 03, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 52: Golden Knights at Capitals, February 4th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals take a break from their Metropolitan Division-loaded schedule on Sunday afternoon when they host the Vegas Golden Knights at Capital One Arena.  The contest is the only one for the Caps in a five-game stretch in which they face an opponent outside their own division.

This game will end the season series for these clubs, unless of course they meet in the Stanley Cup final.  The Golden Knights won the first meeting, jumping out to a 3-0 lead before the game was 15 minutes old and holding off the Caps to skate off with that margin at game’s end.

Vegas is coming to town to play their fourth game of a six-game road trip, their longest since a six-game trip in late October and early November.  If you are looking back to that trip for some inkling of what might happen here, the Golden Knights lost five of six games on that trip (1-4-1).  They have already done better on this trip, winning two of their first three games, although they did lose on Friday night to the Minnesota Wild, 5-2.

Vegas has a team of well-known goal scorers.  OK, James Neal might be the only one.  But if one were to ask, “which Golden Knight leads the team in goals scored on the road,” how many names would you go through before settling on Erik Haula?  Yes, that Erik Haula, the seventh-round draft pick of the Minnesota Wild in 2009 out of Shattuck St. Mary’s (you know, the team that Penguin played on).  Of his career-high 19 goals so far this season, he has 12 on the road, including one in each of the first three games of this current road trip.  Haula has been a rather consistent performer over his career on a home-vs.-road basis.  He is 32-34-66 in 158 career home games with Minnesota and Vegas, and he is 30-32-62 in 155 career road games.  None of those goals, however, home or road, have come at the expense of the Caps.  Haula is 0-0-0, minus-2, in seven career games against Washington.

Defenseman Nate Schmidt has as many goals on the road this season (three), and almost as many assists (12) and points (15) on the road as he compiled in a full season overall as a member of the Washington Capitals (3-14-17 last season).  The odd statistic is one that might be (at least what Caps fans might hope) is the canary in the coal mine.  Schmidt is plus-12 at home this season, but he is minus-1 on the road.  If you adhere to the Alex Ovechkin “Pool Party Theory” of why the Golden Knights are so successful at home, then Schmidt’s difference in home and road plus-minus might make a little more sense.  Still, Schmidt and his ever-smiling face are having a fine year.  He is tied for second among the team’s defensemen in goals (four, trailing Colin Miller’s seven), second in assists (18, trailing Miller’s 21), and second in points (22, trailing Miller’s 28).  He is one of three Vegas defensemen with a plus-minus in double digits (plus-11, trailing Deryk Engelland’s plus-14 and Brayden McNabb’s plus-13), and he is the only Vegas defenseman averaging more than 20 minutes per game in ice time (22:29).  He and Miller are the only Golden Knight defensemen to appear in all 51 games this season.  He did not record a point in the teams’ earlier meeting this season, his only career appearance against the Caps.

Malcolm Subban got the call and allowed five goals to the Wild in Vegas’ 5-2 loss in Minnesota on Friday night, meaning that the Caps are likely to see an old friend and antagonist on Sunday.  If Marc-Andre Fleury gets the call on Sunday, it will be his 38th career regular season game against the Caps, passing Henrik Lundqvist and tying him with Roberto Luongo for second place among active goalies in games against the Caps (Cam Ward has faced the Caps 41 times).  Only Ward among active goalies has faced the Caps more often in Washington (21 times) than Fleury (Sunday would be his 20th appearance against the Caps in DC). 

In his first year in Las Vegas after 13 years in Pittsburgh, Fleury might be having a career year, at least numbers-wise.  His 1.79 goals against average is half a goal per game better than his next best (2.29 in 2015-2016) and ranks second among 38 goalies with at least 1,000 minutes of ice time.  His .942 save percentage is more than 20 points over his next best (.921 in 2015-2016) and is currently second in that same group of goalies this season.  And, despite missing 25 games to a concussion earlier this season, he has not allowed more than three goals in a game in almost four months, not since he gve up six to the Detroit Red Wings, not coincidentally, the game in which he likely sustained that concussion.  Since returning to the lineup he is 11-3-2, 1.61, .946, with two shutouts, and only three times in those 16 games did he allow as many as three goals.  By the way, that game against the Red Wings is the only one among 20 games Fluery has played this season in which his game save percentage was under .900.  He is 21-12-2 (two no-decisions), 2.53, .915, with four shutouts in his career against the Caps.

1.  No Western Conference team has played fewer games against the Metropolitan Division than Vegas (nine, tied with the Winnipeg Jets through Friday night).  Still, no Western Conference team has fewer standings points earned against the Metro than Vegas (11), except for the Edmonton Oilers (10 in 12 games).

2.  Vegas had the best record in the league when trailing after one period (6-5-3/.428).  They also have the best record in the league when trailing after two periods (5-7-1/.385).

3.  If Vegas scores first, book it.  They have the best record in the league when scoring first, losing just once in 23 games when they did so (22-1-0).

4.  Vegas has out-shot opponents 33 times in 51 games, and they have the most wins in the league when doing so (24 wins).

5.  The Golden Knights like open ice.  No team has more goals at 3-on-3 than Vegas (seven).

1.  The Caps have 18 players in double digits in points so far this season.  They had 19 all of last year.  If they get a 19th, it is almost surely going to be Brooks Orpik, who has eight points (all assists).

2.  The Caps have 15 different players with game-winning goals so far. They had 17 all of last season. 

3.  Winning games when trailing after one period is a relatively rare occurrence in the NHL – no team has a winning record when doing so – but the Caps do it more often than most.  They have the third-best record in the league when trailing after 20 minutes (5-9-0/.357).

4.  When the Caps lost to the Penguins, 7-4, on Friday night, it was their ninth loss by three or more goals this season.  They had eight such games all of last season.

5.  Washington has lost only four times this season when out-shooting the opposition, tied for fewest losses in the league (with Nashville).  Then again, the Caps have out-shot opponents only 16 times in 51 games.  Only the Anaheim Ducks have fewer such games (15).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Vegas: Jonathan Marchessault

With 20 letters, Jonathan Marchessault might have the longest name in the league (it used to be longer: Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, but he dropped the “Audy” in 2013).  But he has demonstrated himself to be an adept offensive player who perhaps does not get the credit he deserves.  It started in junior.  In four years with the Quebec Remparts in the QMJHL, he raised his goal-scoring from 10 to 18 to 30, and finally to 40 in his last season.  League general managers were unimpressed.  He was not drafted.  He signed a pro contract with the Connecticut Whale in the AHL, where he played for a season (24 goals in 76 games) before signing as a free agent by the Columbus Blue Jackets in July 2012. 

He played only two games for the Blue Jackets before he was traded in March 2014 to the Tampa Bay Lightning.  He did play 47 games over two seasons in Tampa before moving across the Peninsula to the Florida Panthers as a free agent in July 2016.  There, he exploded for 30 goals in 75 games, more than tripling his NHL total to date (eight in 49 games over three seasons).  Despite the leading the Panthers in goal-scoring and being just 26 years old, the Panthers left him exposed in the expansion draft, where he was taken by Vegas.  Here is a guy who has performed for the most part very well in terms of putting up numbers, all the way back to junior, but he just has not seemed to inspire the confidence of his front office managers quite enough to make a long term investment in him, at least until he got to Nevada.  Washington sports fans might look at him as hockey’s equivalent to Kirk Cousins.  Marchessault is 0-3-3 even, in seven career games against the Caps.

Washington: Brett Connolly

Last season, Brett Connolly found his goal scoring touch, posting a career high of 15 goals in 66 games in his first season with the Capitals.  Apparently, it was no fluke.  In just 42 games so far this season he is on the verge of matching, if not surpassing that total with 13 goals to date.  His profile looks a bit different this year with nine even strength and four power play goals on his ledger after recording 14 of his 15 goals last season at even strength.  He has been in an odd sort of pattern lately.  Ove his last dozen games he has not gone more than two without a goal.  Seeing as how he is without a goal in his last two contests, he could be due for one against the Golden Knights.  And, given his efficiency, it is not a stretch to think he could add to his goal total.  Among players appearing in at least 20 games this season, Connolly leads the league in shooting percentage (28.3 percent).  It is something that has characterized his play with the Caps over two seasons, posting a 22.0 percent shooting mark in 108 games.  What Connolly did not do in the teams’ first meeting in December was record a shot on goal.  He, like the rest of the Caps, will be looking for his first career point against the Golden Knights.

In the end…

In the teams’ first meeting in December, the Caps started slowly, and it did them in.  Down 3-0 before the game was 15 minutes old, the Caps were never really in it.  Given their slow starts in each of their last two games, falling behind by a pair of goals in each in the first period, it is something to be addressed.  Even if Vegas isn’t quite the team on the road that they are at home, speed doesn’t know time zones, and if the Caps let the Golden Knights dictate pace early, they could find themselves on the short end of the score early in the contest once more.  It is not a position from which teams emerge successfully too often in this league.  Punch these guys in the nose with an early goal or two of their own early on, and let’s see how they deal with it.

Capitals 4 – Golden Knights 2

A NO-Point Night: Washington Capitals -- Game 51: Penguins 7 - Capitals 4


It was like taking a another picture for the family album from hell.  The hell that is the Capitals-Penguins rivalry.  The Washington Capitals fell behind by two goals in the first period for a second straight game and came back from that deficit for a second straight game.  But this was not the Philadelphia Flyers the Caps were playing, a team they would beat despite the early deficit.  This was a deeper, more skilled, more confident (especially when playing the Caps) team on its own ice, and the Caps fell away as the Pittsburgh Penguins skated to a 7-4 win at PPG Arena in what was a “Pretty Preposterous Game.”

Barely two minutes into the game, the Penguins had a lead.  Riley Sheahan skated the puck around the back of the net, and with Capitals galore looking at Sheahan, he found Phil Kessel at the back door for a tap in goal on the far side to the right of goalie Braden Holtby.  Late in the period the Pens had their 2-0 lead on a rookie error.  Christian Djoos took a pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov at the top of his own left wing circle as the Caps were setting for a move up ice.  Djoos looked over his options and dialed up “pass the puck up the middle.”  Bad move.  He put it right on the stick of Carl Hagelin, and Hagelin had an easy time of skating in and beating Holtby at the 15:50 mark to give Pittsburgh a two-goal lead.

It might have remained that way going into the first intermission, but with less than two minutes left in the period, Alex Ovechkin halved the lead.  Ovechkin took a long pass from Djoos at the red line along the left wing wall.  He skated the puck into the offensive zone, treated Kris Letang like a swinging screen door, curled in and beat goalie Matt Murray from the top of the blue paint to make it 2-1 with just 1:50 left in the period.

Pittsburgh regained the two-goal lead in the first minute of the second period.  On a power play that carried over from the first period, the Penguins worked the triangle play that the Caps work so well.  From the top of the right wing faceoff circle, Evgeni Malkin fed the puck low to Sidney Crosby, who fed it out between the hash marks to Patric Hornqvist for a one-timer that beat Holtby 26 seconds into the period to make it 3-1.

The Caps came back to tie the game, though.  Dmitry Orlov got the Caps back within a goal in the fourth minute of the period.  Lars Eller backed the puck down the right side in the offensive zone and found Orlov stepping across the blue line.  Orlov took advantage of open ice to step up and lean into a shot that beat goalie Matt Murray cleanly to make it 3-2 at the 3:08 mark.

Kuznetsov tied the game mid-way through the period.  It was a bit of Harlem Globetrotter work on the part of the Caps, starting with Kuznetsov taking a floater pass from John Carlson and going behind the back to lay the puck out in front of him.  He skated it in, lost it at the top of the right wing circle, and then collected it again along the wall.  He fed Alex Ovechkin for a shot that was blocked into the air.  Tom Wilson dove and got his hand on the puck, which might have been the basis for a hand pass, except Malkin got his stick on the puck just before Kuznetsov swooped in and swept it past Murray at the 11:57 mark.

The teams traded goals in the second minute of the third period, Malkin putting back his own rebound of a shot 61 seconds into the period.  Ovechkin tied the game 49 seconds later, taking advantage of Kuznetsov’s keen eye.  Kuznetsov skated the puck down the right wing wall, and after stopping at the far hash marks, he spied Ovechkin all alone across the ice in his office.  Ovechkin’s one-timer from the left wing circle beat Murray to the near side inside the post, and it was 4-4, 1:50 into the period.

After that came the deluge.  The Penguins scored three goals less than four minutes apart, two on power plays – Bryan Rust, Kessel (his second of the game), and Malkin (his second of the game) – to end the competitive portion of the contest. 

Other stuff…

-- If there is one disturbing fact coming out of this game, it is that the Caps suddenly can’t keep the puck out of their own net on this ice sheet.  This is the third time in the last four games at PPG Arena that the Caps allowed six or more goals after not having allowed as many as six on it since January 2006.

-- Braden Holtby was once a Penguin killer.  In his first 11 career appearances against Pittsburgh he was 5-6-0, 2.42, .925 with two shutouts, but that run ended with seven appearances over which he had a goals against average of 1.44 and a save percentage of .954 with those two shutouts.  In nine appearances since then, he is 3-3-2 (one no-decision), 3.53, .893, and he was pulled three times.

-- Perhaps the oddest thing about the league’s top goal scorer getting a multi-goal game is that even with securing his fifth multi-goal game of the season, Ovechkin still trails Sean Couturier, Anders Lee, and John Tavares, each with six.

-- With a three-point game, Ovechkin is also one behind the leader in games with three or more points this season.  Ovechkin had four, Blake Wheeler has five.

-- Dmitry Orlov had a goal and an assist for his first multi-point game of the season.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov (goal, assist) had his 12th multi-point game of the season and second in three games.

-- The Penguins had three power play goals, the second time they pulled that off this season.  They had three power play goals on six chances in a 3-2 win over the Caps on October 11th.  It was the third time this season that the Caps allowed an opponent three goals, allowing three on six chances to the Vancouver Canucks on October 26th.

-- Unlucky?  The Caps allowed 13 shots on goal in each of the first, second, and third periods.

-- T.J. Oshie did not have a shot attempt in this game, one of three Caps to draw a blank (Brooks Orpik and Devante Smith-Pelly being the others).

-- John Carlson had something of an odd night.  Not bad, just odd.  A minutes-eater for much of the season, he finished with just 14:09 in even strength ice time.  Orpik (14:50), Orlov (20:19), and Matt Niskanen (20:45) had more, and Madison Bowey was close (14:06).

In the end…

Click… there’s the Penguins scoring early.  Click… there’s the Pens scoring on a giveaway.  Click… there’s the Pens scoring on a power play.  Click… and another power play.  Click… and another.

The Capitals had better find a way to control this team and, at the same time, stop shooting themselves in the foot.  Because this team looms in front of them once more, the annual obstacle to a deep playoff run, and it would seem for the moment that they have the Caps' penalty killing figured out.  It is as if the Penguins have figuratively chambered another round and pointed it at the Caps’ playoff hopes.