Friday, February 23, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 62: Sabres at Capitals, February 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals return home on Saturday to host the Buffalo Sabres and hope to stop skidding through their schedule like a car with bald tires in an ice storm.  The Caps are 4-5-2 in the month of February and just 2-4-2 in their last eight home games as they prepare for Buffalo.

It has been just five days since the Caps last faced this team, the last team they defeated.  And it is a team that struggles scoring goals on the road.  Despite playing the seventh-highest number of road games this season (31), the Sabres rank 21st in goals scored (79/2.55 per game).  Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly lead the team in road goals with 10 apiece, a number that has them tied for 40th in the league in goals scored on the road this season.

We focused on Kane in the prognosto for the last meeting, but O’Reilly deserves some attention.  O’Reilly has been a reliable scorer over the last six seasons coming into this one.  In the five full seasons preceding this one (not including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season), he topped the 50-point mark in each one with a high of 64 points with the Colorado Avalanche in 2013-2014.  He seems a good bet to do that again this season, having posted 44 points in 60 games.  He also is one of the most “gentlemanly” players in the league.  In 630 NHL games he has a total of just 84 penalty minutes, only two in 60 games so far this season.  If he finishes with fewer than ten penalty minutes this season it would make four seasons in the last six in which he did so.  O’Reilly has received votes for the Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play) in five of the last six seasons, winning the award in the 2013-2014 season.  He combines this with a reputation for defense, despite an odd progression of numbers.  O’Reilly has been a “minus” player in each of the last seven seasons coming into this one and seems assured of an eighth (he is currently minus-12).  However, he has received votes for the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in each of those seven seasons, finishing as high as sixth in 2013-2014.  He is 0-5-5, minus-2, in 15 career games against Washington.

It was Rasmus Ristolainen who got our attention for his offensive contributions in the prognosto for the most recent game against the Caps, but among Sabre defensemen Marco Scandella deserves some attention, too.  Scandella is in his first season in Buffalo after spending seven seasons with the Minnesota Wild.  If there is a rough comparison with whom Caps fans might be familiar, it might be former Caps defensemen Karl Alzner.  Take away Scandella’s 11-goal season in 2014-2015, and his seasons look a lot like Alzners – a low single-digit goal scorer and in the low- to mid-teens in assists.  At the moment he is second among Sabre defensemen in road goal scored (2), assists (7),and points (9), his plus-4 being best of those defensemen on the road.  And, he has logged 24:05 in 31 road games, second to Ristolainen on the team.  Scandella is without a point in nine career games against the Caps.

Victor Antipin is not your usual rookie.  First, he turned 25 years old in December, a bit on the older side for an NHL rookie.  Second, he came to the NHL after spending six seasons skating for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL (he was not drafted by an NHL club when coming eligible).  Two of those clubs won the Gagarin Cup as KHL champion, so he does come from a winning tradition that the Sabres haven’t been able to match in quite some time.  He left Metallurg for the purpose of moving to the NHL, signing a one-year contract last May with the Sabres.  He has been in and out of the lineup for health (missed six games in January to illness) and being worked gently into the roster – he has dressed for 36 games this season.  However, he seems to have earned a spot on the big club, skating in 12 of the team’s last 14 games (one of those missed was against Washington last Sunday).  His opportunity is a product of injuries suffered by the blue line, but he does have six assists in those 36 games for which he has dressed.  He did skate against the Caps in the November 7th meeting won by the Sabres, 3-1, and did not register a point, although he was plus-2 for the game.

1.  Buffalo’s defense has been a medical staff’s nightmare.  Only one defenseman has appeared in all 61 games for the Sabres this season (Marco Scandella), and only two others have appeared in at least 45 games (Jake McCabe, who is currently injured, with 53 games, and Rasmus Ristolainen with 52 games).  The club has dressed 13 defensemen overall.

2.  You would think a team struggling as are the Sabres would be integrating a lot of rookies, or at least giving rookies a long look.  Not so.  As noted, Victor Antipin has 36 games played, but only three other rookies have dressed – Nicolas Baptiste, Brendan Guhle, and Kyle Crisciolo – and only for a total of 22 games among them.

3.  The Sabres are the only team in the NHL not to participate in the Gimmick on the road this season. 

4.  One thing the Sabres are adept at – shorthanded goal scoring on the road.  They have five, tied for second-most in the league (Colorado: 7).

5.  If the Caps are going to get well, shots-wise, it is going to be against this team.  Buffalo is minus-218 in the shot attempt differential at 5-on-5 on the road.  That is the third-worst differential in the league (Ottawa: minus-224; Minnesota: minus-247).

1.  The Caps had better watch out for Buffalo’s shorthanded goal scoring ability on the road.  Only three teams have allowed more shorthanded goals on home ice than Washington (4).  On the other side of the ledger, only three teams have scored fewer shorthanded goals on home ice than the Caps (1).

2. Alex Ovechkin might lead the league in goals overall (36), but he is just tied for sixth in goal scoring at home (17) and tied for 18th in even strength goals on home ice (10).

3.  Ovechkin leading the club in home goals is not a surprise, but Lars Eller second with ten?  That qualifies.

4.  Only the New York Rangers (minus-87) have a worse shot attempt differential at 5-on-5 than the Caps (minus-81) when the game is tied.

5.  Six different Capitals have empty-net goals on home ice, none of them with more than one: Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, Alex Chiasson, Jakub Vrana, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Nicklas Backstrom.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo: Kyle Okposo

When the Buffalo Sabres signed forward Kyle Okposo away from the New York Islanders to a seven-year/$42 million contract in July 2016, they were probably expecting a player who could score 29 goals a season, not 29 goals in 124 games over two seasons with the club.  And this season has the makings of a less productive one than last year, when Okposo recorded 19 goals in 65 games.  So far this season he has 10 goals in 59 games, putting him on a pace to finish this season with 14 goals.  He has just one goal in his last dozen games, although he does have six assists in that span.  One other problem has crept into his game, that being even strength performance.  He is minus-8 in his last seven games and has not been a plus player for 13 straight contests, not since he had a pair of assists and was plus-1 in a 5-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers on January 23rd.  The production has resulted in his ice time being pared back.  He has not skated as much as 20 minutes in his last nine games, and he hit the 15-minute mark only once in his last four contests.  Okposo is 11-11-22, plus-4,in 30 career games against the Caps.  The goals scored against Washington is the second most he has in his career against a single club (he has 14 in 43 games against Pittsburgh).

Washington: Christian Djoos/Madison Bowey

When the Washington Capitals acquired Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek in separate deals with Chicago and Montreal, respectively, perhaps Caps fans could be forgiven for thinking the rookie experiment on the blue line was coming to an end.  Never mind that both are among the top scorers among rookie defensemen in the league, Djoos ranked eighth (3-11-14) and Bowey ranked ninth (0-12-12).  It left the Caps with the only team in the league with two rookies among the top-ten scorers among rookie defensemen.  Both, however, have seen scoring dry up a bit of late.  Djoos has only one assist in his last eight games after posting a four-game points streak.  Bowey is without a point in his last nine games after consecutive games with points.  While both have had low minute burdens, one has done reasonably well in possession numbers, given the team context, while the other has struggled.  In February, Djoos is second on the club in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (47.83 percent), while Bowey is last in that category for the month (38.46 percent).  But here’s the thing.  Djoos and Bowey have combined for 103 games played in these, their respective rookie seasons.  Kempny and Jerabek have combined to appear in 107 games in their respective NHL careers to date.

In the end…

Caps fans are watching the team’s seeding, if not their playoff hopes, slip away in slow motion.  The Caps have not been awful of late, but they are just a single point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers at the top of the Metropolitan Division, and they are only ten points ahead of the ninth-place New York Islanders.  A losing streak of any length would drop the club off the division pace and place their playoff position in jeopardy.  When one considers that the Caps still have their three-game California trip ahead of them and 11 of their last 20 games on the road, the schedule does become challenging down the stretch.  They simple have to win games they should win.  They did not do it against Florida on Thursday – their second late-game collapse in barely a week – but they need to do it against the Sabres.

Capitals 4 – Sabres 2

Washington Capitals: How a One-Point Lead Stayed a One-Point Lead in 2018

 Some things change over the course of a season, and some things don’t.  And sometimes they don’t, but they do.  That is how an 82-game season evolves.  An example of the latter can be found in the change in Metropolitan Division standings in games played since New Year’s Day:

The Washington Capitals held a one-point lead in the division when the sun came up on January 1st, but that lead was over the New Jersey Devils.  The teams representing Pennsylvania were last and next to last in the division.  Fast forward to Friday morning, and the Pennsylvania teams have replaced the Devils one-point behind the Caps.  It has not been an accident.  How it happened is in the details.  We can look at them from a high perch, descending into the nitty-gritty.

The Basics: Wins and Losses

The standings from January 1st show clearly that the Pennsylvania teams – the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins – have been the class of the division. 

In fact, as the standings indicate, it is not that the Caps have been awful.  Their 10-7-4 in the 2018 portion of the season is still third-best in the division.  And it is 94-point pace over a full season, so even with a “slump,” it is a playoff pace, but we will get back to this in a moment.

The Pennsylvania teams have been just so much more successful in the new year, the Flyers and Penguins well clear of the rest of the division with 127- and 129-point paces, respectively.  Only Flyer and Penguin fans would consider either number sustainable, and they wouldn’t think so for the other of the two clubs.

But back to the Caps on this point.  The 10-7-4 record includes a three-game winning streak to start the new year, the trailing portion of what was a five-game winning streak.  The 7-7-4 record since then should be of some concern as the Caps head into the home stretch.

The Nuts and Bolts: Scoring

What seems clear from the scoring in the division in the new year is that with the exception of the Pennsylvania teams, the rest of the division (with the notable exception of Columbus) has forgotten how to play defense, how to tend goal, or both, five of the clubs (including the Caps) allowing three or more goals per game since January 1st.

The poor defense (again, Columbus being a special case because they can’t hit the lake off their own dock shooting the puck) is the fault line in scoring, the two teams that can actually balance good scoring defense with good scoring offense being the only teams with a positive goal differential in the new year.  However, is Pittsburgh really that good to average beating opponents by almost a goal and a half per game?  Is Philadelphia really good enough up and down the roster to score almost three and a third goals per game over the rest of the season?

But back to the Caps.  Their scoring defense is the concern here.  Giving up 3.33 goals per game since January 1st is actually a little better than it is upon closer inspection.  Take away the three-game winning streak to start the year, and that average goes up to 3.44 per game.

The Flair: Special Teams

Looking at the Metro special teams performance in the new year, it just doesn’t seem to matter on a fundamental level in win-loss success.  Sure, there are those Penguins, with the best special teams index (STI: power play plus penalty kill percentages), but given their record and the scoring differential dominance overall, it is either a luxury or overkill, depending on where you sit in terms of rooting interest in that team.  Being a product of having both the best power play and the best penalty kill in the division since January 1st just makes one love/hate them even more, again, depending on your rooting interest.

With respect to the Caps, their STI is over 100, the standard of performance for this measure, a good thing.  But what tempers this is the fact that the Caps have the second-worst differential in power play opportunities and shorthanded situations, having five more of the latter (65) than the former (60), although in what might be the oddest fact here, the Penguins have the worst differential (minus-6).  What it means is that while the Caps have a positive special teams goal differential (plus-3, the last column in the table), that is a product of the two shorthanded goals they scored in 2018 as of Friday morning.

The Last Line of Defense: Goaltending

Pittsburgh is on top of this area, too, having both the best save percentage and goals against average.  What makes it a bit odd is that the numbers improve as one goes down the depth chart in this span of time – Matt Murray (2.52/.922 in 11 games), Tristan Jarry (2.43/.923 in seven games), and Casey DeSmith (2.03/.939 in five games).  And not only has Pittsburgh’s goaltending overall been the best, at least among the usual top-end numbers, it has been substantially so.  On the other hand, given the scoring defense of the rest of the division, it might be that the division is experiencing a wide-spread goaltending slump.

As for the Caps, only the New York teams – the Rangers and Islanders – have worse overall goals against averages, although the Caps are in the middle of the save percentage pack.  What Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have faced is as high volume of shots, the 33.71 per 60 minutes being the third-highest of the division.  Still, expectations are higher than a .904 save percentage and a 3.24 goals against average at this point of the season. 

The teams in the division one has to shake their head at, though, are Philadelphia and the Islanders.  In the Flyers’ case, can they keep holding teams to 27.84 shots per 60 minutes, best in the division?  Given their .904 collective save percentage, higher shot volumes could burst the balloon than has lifted them to within a point of the Capitals.  With the Islanders it is a case of non-support.  They are allowing 40.11 shots on goal per 60 minutes in 2018, almost six more shots per 60 minutes than the Rangers (34.55).  It is a team that has already allowed teams 50 or more shots on goal four times since January 1st.

The Fancy: Five-on-Five Shot Attempts

If there is a pattern or a relationship to be found here, they are hiding themselves rather well.  The best that might be said here is that over a sufficiently large population of events, shot attempt percentages will align with success.  Here, we apparently have an insufficiently large population of events for that relationship to express itself.  How else are we to account for Carolina leading the division in overall 5-on-5 shot attempts-for (SAT) percentage and the Flyers a shade under 50 percent?   Not to mention they are at the top of this category when ahead, tied, or close.  And in the strange, there is Columbus being awful when ahead and very good (perhaps in the desperate sense) when behind.

What should concern Caps fans is how the team is overperforming (in terms of wins and losses) their numbers in this category.  The number that stands out is the shot attempts for at 5-on-5 – dead last in the division in total and next to last per game (ahead of only the Rangers) since the first of the new year.  The Caps have had an issue with these numbers for most, if not all of this season, and it has yet to bite them.  However, given the Caps 10-7-4 record (and 7-7-4 in their last 18 games), perhaps the reckoning is at hand.

In the end…

The Flyers and Penguins have done well to drag themselves out of the basement to challenge for the division lead.  However, given the number of games played in 2018 so far and those that remain until the end of the regular season, the question for them is whether their performance is sustainable.  Scoring almost four goals a game, especially when it is fueled by a better-than-30-percent power play and a shooting percentage north of 12 percent as a team (12.1, tops in the division over this period) seems rather extraordinary, not to mention difficult to sustain over a half-season, from January into April. 

For the Flyers, the secrets of their success are not obvious.  Both their scoring offense and scoring defense have been good, but not so good to dismiss either as being impossible to sustain.  Their special team index is unimpressive, and it is unbalanced – a good power play (25.4 percent power play, 71.7 percent penalty kill).  Their goaltenders are, as a group, middle of the road in this division, and they are breaking in a new one (Petr Mrazek) due to injuries.  Their 5-on-5 numbers do not excite.  One wonders if the Flyers not having to depend on an outlying number makes their performance easier to sustain over games to come. 

For the Capitals, the situation is a strange one.  They are actually shooting more efficiently since January 1st (11.2 percent overall) than they did in the season to that point (10.4 percent).  Their power play has been good (25.0 percent).  Then again, offense is not their problem.  Only the New York teams – the Rangers and Islanders – have allowed more goals per game than the Caps.  Only those teams have allowed their goaltenders to face more shots per 60 minutes, and only those teams have allowed more shot attempts against at 5-on-5 per game than the Caps. 

Defense was always going to be the big issue with this team this season, despite losing a couple of top six forwards and their offensive contributions.  It remains the big issue.  The Caps simply have allowed too many shot attempts, too many shots, and too many prime scoring opportunities to be able to keep their distance from the Penguins and Flyers.  If the Capitals cannot correct this problem, at least in part, then Capitals Nation had better hope that what the Flyers and Penguins have done in the new year is not sustainable.