Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 63: Capitals at Blue Jackets, February 26th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

If familiarity breeds contempt, then the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets will be oozing contempt for one another when they face off for the third time in three weeks on Monday night at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.  Washington won the home-and-home series with the Blue Jackets earlier this month, a 3-2 win in Columbus on February 6th and a 4-2 win in Washington on February 9th.  Neither team has been very effective since, the Caps going 3-3-2 in eight games since the home-and-home and Columbus going 4-3-1.

Those two wins over Columbus are the last time the Caps won consecutive games.  In eight games since they have been outscored, 28-25.  Columbus won consecutive games coming out of that home-and-home series against Washington, but they are losers of four of their last six (one in overtime).  They do have a 22-20 edge in goals scored over those four games and have out-shot their opponents by a whopping 299-225 margin.

That many shots and so few goals are indicative of a team with offensive challenges.   And so it is with Columbus, which ranks 29th of 31 teams in scoring offense (2.53 goals per game).  They are one of just three teams without a 20-goal scorer this season (Arizona and Ottawa are the others).  Josh Anderson leads the group with 18 goals, five of them game winners to also lead the club.  The 18 goals are a career high for the four-year veteran, topping the 17 he had in 78 games last season.    His season cleaves into two pieces, though, as far as his goal scoring is concerned.  He had 13 goals in his first 32 games, but he has just five goals in his last 28 games.  The problem might lie in his shooting volume and shooting efficiency, or his lack of either, in this 28-game block.  Those five goals come on just 76 shots on goal (6.6 percent) after he recorded 13 goals on 104 shots (12.5 percent) in his first 32 games.  Anderson has yet to record a point against the Capitals in ten games against Washington, and he is a minus-5.

Columbus has seven players with at least ten goals, and Oliver Bjorkstrand (10) might be the most surprising among them.  A third round (89th overall) draft pick of the Blue Jackets in 2013, his ten goals match the career total he posted over his first two seasons with the Blue Jackets.  His 22 assists so far this season double his career total coming into this year (11).  The odd part of his statistical profile though, is how his goal scoring bears no relationship – at least no positive one – with his ice time.  Bjorgstrand has just one goal in 17 games in which he skated more than 16 minutes.  Like Anderson, he is looking for his first career point against the Caps in what will be his fifth game against Washington.  He is minus-2 in his four career games against the Caps to date.

In the history of the Columbus franchise, 23 goaltenders have dressed for the club in the regular season.  Sergei Bobrovsky is at the top of the list in games played (298), wins (165), shots faced (8,871), save percentage (.922; minimum: 20 games), goals against average (2.37; minimum: 20 games), and shutouts (23).  He has three of the four seasons in team history in which a goalie won 30 or more games (Steve Mason has the other).  And while he appears unlikely to match last year’s total of 41 wins and a league leading goals against average (2.06) and save percentage (.931), last year was a Vezina Trophy winning season, his second in five years.  Still, he is on pace to finish with his fourth 30-win season (he has 26 wins) and his fourth season with a save percentage of .920 or better (currently at .920).  He has had a rough time of it lately, though, or perhaps a bit unlucky.  In his last 15 appearances he is 5-8-2, 2.54, .914.  Bobrovsky is 6-10-4, 3.12, .897 in 21 career appearances against Washington.

1.  For such an offense-challenged team, this team gets shots to the net.  They rank third in shots on goal per game (34.4).

2.  Columbus does spread their power play scoring around.  Three different players have at least ten power play points this season – Seth Jones (13), Artemi Panarin (13), and Pierre-Luc Dubois (11).  If Zach Werenski gets one, it would make four.

3.  Columbus is 22nd in the league in wins in regulation and overtime this season (25), but they have 13 different players with game-winning goals.

4.  John Tortorella-coached teams are usually a hard-nosed bunch, but Columbus has been whistled for fewer penalties this season (189) than all but one team – the Carolina Hurricanes (176).

5.  First periods are generally an uneventful thing in Blue Jacket games.  Their 43 first period goals rank tied for 25th in the league (with Montreal and Colorado), while their 39 goals allowed in the first period are the third-fewest in the league (Nashville has 38 and Colorado has 36).

1.  The eight games the Caps have played open a window into their recent troubles.  They have been outscored by a 28-25 margin. The odd thing is that both the Caps and their opponents shot 10.5 percent in those eight games.  The difference is that the Caps were also out-shot, 266-239 in that span.

2.  The scoring might not be as close as it seems, either.  The Caps have three empty net goals in those last eight games.  Opponents have none.

3.  Special teams have been amazing, efficiency-wise, in the eight games since facing Columbus.  Their 31.3 percent power play and 84.6 percent penalty kill make for a special teams index of 115.9, an outstanding number.  The trouble is, the Caps are merely even in special teams goals scored and goals allowed (five power play goals scored to four power play goals and a shorthanded goal allowed).  Why?  The Caps have 16 power play chances in those eight games (24:51 in power play ice time) to 26 shorthanded situations faced (43:01 in shorthanded ice time).  The Caps have a power play goal in each of the three games against Columbus (3-for-7/42.9 percent), while the Blue Jackets have been blanked (0-for-6).

4.  In three games against Columbus this season the Caps have yet to hold the Blue Jackets under 35 shots (35, 37, and 39 in the three games) while failing to record more than 25 of their own in any game (23, 25, and 17).  Despite the 111-65 edge the Blue Jackets have in shots on goal in the three games, the Caps were winners in each of them.

5.  In a small number of games, official scoring idiosyncrasies pop up in some categories, but the Caps have been credited with 50 takeaways in this eight-game run, while they have been charged with 83 giveaways.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Columbus: Zach Werenski

Zach Werenski had a very nice rookie season for Columbus last year.  He received votes for the Norris Trophy (top defenseman), Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play) and All-Star votes (finishing 19th among 28 defensemen receiving votes).  He finished third overall in Calder Trophy voting for the league’s top rookie, trailing only Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine.  The 11 goals he scored last season tied for seventh-most most among rookie defensemen since the 2004-2005 cancelled season.  Werenski has already matched last season’s 11 goal total in 20 fewer games, but he has fewer than half of the 36 assists he posted last year.  His 15 helpers this season have tended to come in bunches.  He has three multi-assist games that account for seven of his total of 15.  His scoring has been infrequent lately.  He has four assists in his last 14 games, but three of them (a season high) came in a 4-1 win over the New York Islanders on February 13th.  On odd part of his season is the fact that he is 7-10-17, plus-7 on the road, but only 4-5-9, minus-6 on home ice.  Werenski is 2-1-3, minus-1, in eight career games against the Caps.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

It would not be a home-biased opinion to offer that Nicklas Backstrom is among the most accomplished playmakers of this era.  Since he came into the league in the 2007-2008 season, he ranks third among 727 players appearing in at least 250 games in assists (570, trailing only Henrik Sedin (590) and Joe Thornton (581)), and his 0.72 assists per game trails only Sidney Crosby (0.80) in that group.  So what gives lately?  Backstrom has one assist in his last nine games, two in his last 17 contests.  He has taken to calling his own number lately, five of his ten highest game shot totals coming in the 21 games since January 7th, and he has seven of his 13 goals this season from that date.  One thing that hasn’t changed this season is Backstrom’s consistency, at least insofar as his home-road scoring splits are concerned.  He is 7-15-22 in 32 home games and 8-15-23 in 29 road games.  Back to shooting, he might want to do more of it against Columbus.  He has a goal on his only shot on goal in three games against the Blue Jackets this season.  In 28 career games against Columbus, Backstrom is 7-17-24, minus-7.  That minus-7 is his worst career plus minus against any Eastern Conference team (he is minus-8 in 13 career games against San Jose).

In the end…

Columbus started the 2018 portion of their schedule in third-place in the Metropolitan Division.  Now, they are fighting for their playoff lives, two points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes for the second wild card spot in the East as they enter the last 20-game stretch on their schedule.  Combine that with the fact that Monday is trade deadline day – always a day of turmoil for clubs – and this could be a challenge for the Caps.  Not that it wouldn’t under other circumstances, six of the last eight meetings of these teams decided by one goal (two in extra time), but the circumstances make it important for the Caps to find a reservoir of focus and consistency to enable them to win a second consecutive game for the first time since they swept the home-and-home set with this team earlier this month.

Capitals 3 – Blue Jackets 2

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 21

Week 21 for the Washington Capitals was a sandwich.  Not a particularly appetizing one, as it turned out.  Top and bottom were slices of stale bread in the form of the struggling Buffalo Sabres.  Edible, in that both games against the Sabres were wins, and four points are four points, but not fulfilling.  In between, a couple of slices of rancid meat – losses to the Florida teams, the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.  It made for a break-even week that left the Caps clinging to a one-point lead in the Metropolitan Division.

Record: 2-2-0

Week 21 was the second straight break-even week for the Caps, standings points-wise.  It is the first time that the Caps failed to post winning records in consecutive weeks since Weeks 2 -4, when they posted an aggregate record of 3-5-1.

The win against Buffalo to close the week was particularly welcome.  After posting ten straight wins on home ice from the beginning of December through January 9th, the Caps went into their game on Saturday against the Sabres with a 2-4-2 record in eight games at Capital One Arena.

It is part of a difficult February for the Caps in which they are just 5-5-2 going into the last week of the month.  Compare that to last season when the Caps were 9-2-1 in February, and it appears that last year’s team that was starting its finishing kick to the end of a superb season is struggling this month with focus, fatigue, and the ability to finish.

Offense: 3.00 /game (season: 3.08 /game, rank: 9th)

Three goals per game is a pretty good week, but it was eight goals in two games against the struggling Sabres and four in the two games against the Florida teams.  It is one thing to be held to two goals by the Tampa Bay Lightning, who feature a likely Vezina Trophy finalist in Andrei Vasilevkiy in goal, but even with Roberto Luongo in net for the Panthers – a long-time Capitals nemesis – Florida is the 25th-ranked team in the league in scoring defense that doesn’t make it easy on their goaltenders, allowing the second highest average of shots against per game in the league.  If you are going to use one word to describe the week on offense at the team level, it might be “mixed.”

At the individual level, the descriptive term might be “concentrated.”  Only five Capitals recorded goals.  Alex Ovechkin had four of them to lead the club for the week.  It is part of a longer run for the league leader in which he has six goals in his last eight games.  Lars Eller was next in line with three goals for the week, finishing the week with goals in each of the last three games.  It is the second time in the 2018 portion of the season that Eller has compiled a goal-scoring streak of at least three games (he had a four-game streak from January 7th through January 12th).

Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a pair of goals in Week 21, and each of them scored a game-winner among those goals.  Burakovsky seems to be working his way out of a season-long funk.  He is 5-4-9 over his last 13 games.  Kuznetsov ended the week with a bang, going 1-3-4 against Buffalo to finish the week tied with Ovechkin as the points leader (five).  It was Kuznetsov’s fifth career game with four or more points and his second this season.

Defense: 2.50 / game (season: 2.95 /game, rank: 18th)

Strange week on defense.  The shots-allowed problem was reflected in the week’s road games, the Caps allowing the Sabres 34 shots on goal in the 3-2 win to open the week and the Florida Panthers 33 shots in the 3-2 loss on Thursday.  However, they did hold the Sabres under 30 to end the week (29), and they held the Tampa Bay Lighting to just 19 shots on goal – a season-low in shots allowed – in a 4-2 loss.  It was only the fourth time since the 2004-2005 dark season that the Caps held a team to fewer than 20 shots but allowed four or more goals in a game on home ice.

What made is a bit more strange was how the shots allowed broke down by opponent and period.  In two games against the Sabres, the Caps allowed a total of 63 shots on goal.  Almost half of those (28) were allowed in the third periods of the two games.  A more effective offense than that of the Sabres (last in the league in scoring offense) might have made things a bit more difficult for the Capitals.

Of 16 teams that played four games this week, the Caps had the sixth-fewest shot attempts against at 5-on-5.  This led to a shot attempts-for percentage of 54.21 at 5-on-5, the fifth-best mark of the week.  The Caps were especially effective in tied (62.30 percent/third) and close (58.02 percent/second) situations.

Goaltending: 2.53 / .913 (season: 2.82 / .912 / 1 shutout)

Overall it was an average sort of week.  Overall.  By the end of it, the favorite bar discussion, “winter version,” was underway.  In Washington, like a lot of towns, there is often a fan debate over whether the backup quarterback should be starting for the local NFL franchise.  In hockey, that discussion is reserved for goaltenders, and the performances of Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer in Week 21 provided ammunition for those thinking Grubauer should be getting more time, if not replace Holtby at the top of the depth chart.

But before we get too carried away here, yes, Grubauer had a good week – the better week of the two, in fact.  He stopped 60 of 63 shots he faced (.952 save percentage), all of the goals he allowed coming in the third periods of games when he faced 28 of the 63-shot total.  The flip side of that is he faced the worst team in the league in scoring offense – twice.  And that team, the Buffalo Sabres, was missing its top goal scorer in Jack Eichel – twice.  This is not to demean Grubauer’s performance.  No NHL team can be taken lightly, Grubauer gave the Sabres little reason to believe they could take any advantage.  But it should temper, a bit, the conversation about who should be the number one goaltender.

As for the number one contender, it is rather clear at this point that Braden Holtby is in a slump.  His 3.58 goals against average for the week and .865 save percentage is part of a longer slump in which he is 2-4-2, 4.28, .880 in his last eight appearances, two of which he was relieved by Grubauer.  His two losses in Week 21 brought his personal losing streak to five games (0-3-2), and in four of them he allowed four or more goals.  Even in the one game in which he did not, allowing three goals to the Florida Panthers, he allowed two goals in the last 3:52 of regulation (one on a power play) to turn a 2-1 lead to protect into a 3-2 loss.  Fair or not, and Holtby has been a victim of iffy support in front of him this season, he is the goalie of record in that streak, and it is not a good record.

Power Play: 3-for-7 / 42.9 percent (season: 21.7 percent, rank: 7th)

It was a good week with the man advantage.  Pity there weren’t more opportunities to flaunt it.  Seven chances in a week with four games is the fewest in a four-game week since Week 11 when the Caps also had seven power play opportunities.  Nevertheless, the last time the Caps had more than three power plays in a week was in Week 7, when they went 4-for-16 in four games.

Alex Ovechkin, Lars Eller, and Andre Burakovsky had the goals, and seven different Caps had power play points, Ovechkin the only player with two power play points for the week. 

This was the fifth straight week in which the Caps finished over 20 percent on the power play (12-for-38/31.6 percent).  The power play was quite efficient in Week 21, scoring those three goals on 12 shots in 10:55 of power play time and allowing only one shorthanded shot on goal, that to the Panthers in the 3-2 loss on Thursday.

Penalty Killing: 9-for-11 / 81.8 percent (season: 80.0 percent, rank: 17th)

A good, if not great week killing penalties that was a little off from the previous two weeks.   And here, too, the split was between Buffalo (5-for-5 in the two games) and the Florida teams (4-for-6, one goal allowed to each team).  It wasn’t a very surprising result, given that the Sabres finished the week ranked 25th on the power play.

The timing of the power play goals allowing was crushing, though.  One was given up in the third minute of the Caps’ game against Tampa Bay, putting them in a hole that only got deeper when the Lightning sped out to a 3-0 first period lead in a 4-2 win over the Caps.  The other was even more of a gut-punch, coming with less than 30 seconds left in a 2-2 game and barely three minutes after the Florida Panthers tied the Caps, using that late power play goal to sneak out with a 3-2 win.

It was a better week in terms of efficiency.  The Caps allowed their four opponents those two goals on just nine shots allowed in 19:19 of shorthanded ice time.

Faceoffs: 117-for-242 / 48.3 percent (season: 50.1 percent, rank: 17th)

Week 21 was almost an exact replica of Week 20 overall (one fewer win, two fewer losses).  Things were not quite as good, though, looking at zone efficiency.  The Caps were under 50 percent in both the offensive (46.5 percent) and defensive (47.9 percent) zones for the week.  That outcome was the product of one poor performance in one game, albeit in different games.  The Caps were just 9-for-23 in the offensive zone in the 5-1 win over Buffalo to end the week, and they were 3-for-10 in the 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay in the second game of the week.

On an individual level, five players finished the week with at least ten draws taken, four of them – Nicklas Backstrom (52.7), Lars Eller (52.1), Jay Beagle (50.0), and T.J. Oshie (60.0) finishing at 50 percent or better.  Evgeny Kuznetsov managed to win barely 40 percent of his draws for the week (40.5).

Goals by Period:

One first period and one third period.  That was the story for the week in goals by period.  Three first period goals allowed against Tampa Bay and two late third period goals allowed against the Florida Panthers, and there you have the two losses for the week.

It certainly fit a pattern, the Caps allowing goals in only the first or third period in Week 21.  The Caps dominated the second periods of play, outscoring opponents by a 5-0 margin over the four games.  Washington has seen their third period scoring defense deteriorate to the point where they now have a minus goal differential in third periods this season and are tied with the Blues for 23rd in fewest third period goals allowed (68).

In the end…

Perhaps it was a bit much to expect the Caps to have a big middle portion of the season.  Last year they went 30-6-4 over a 40-game stretch from December 5th through March 4th.  The previous season they went 32-5-3 in a 40-game stretch from November 21st through February 22nd.  Right now, the Caps are 13-8-6 in 27 games since December 22nd.  If you are looking for a silver lining, the Penguins were 12-8-3 over a 23-game stretch from January 11th through March 1st before going on to win the Stanley Cup.  The Caps are in a mid-season fog, but there is nothing to say it cannot clear in time for a successful stretch run and postseason.  Then again, it could linger if the Caps can’t find a way to solve lingering defensive problems and/or have trouble negotiating a difficult schedule over the remainder of the season.

The week ahead will have its challenges – a back-to-back set of games against Columbus and Ottawa, followed by the outdoor game against Toronto at the Naval Academy on Saturday.  And, there is the trading deadline on Monday.  Eastern competition is already stacking up there, with the Penguins obtaining Derick Brassard and the Bruins picking up Rick Nash.  The Caps have added a pair of defensemen who might best be described as third-pair types, and whether that will be enough to plug holes on the back end will be something to watch going forward.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Alex Ovechkin (4-1-5, minus-1, 1 PPG, 28 shots on goal, 53 shot attempts, six hits)
  • Second Star: Philipp Grubauer (2-0-0, 1.50, .952)
  • Third Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (2-3-5, plus-5, 1 GWG, 13 shots on goal, 16 shot attempts)