Sunday, April 01, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 80: Capitals at Blues, April 2nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wrap up the road portion of the 2017-2018 regular season with a visit to the “Gateway to the West” and a meeting with the St. Louis Blues.  The Caps won their 20th road game on Sunday night in Pittsburgh for the 13th season in franchise history with 20 road wins, clinching the Metropolitan Division title, while the Blues will be looking for a win in their effort to fend off the Colorado Avalanche for a playoff spot (the Blues have a tiebreaker edge over the Avs before play on Sunday).

The Blues might be righting themselves just in time for the postseason.  After a February that saw them struggle with a 4-8-1 record, the Blues rebounded in March to go 8-3-2.  They did it, not by overwhelming offense or stingy defense as much as they did with better possession numbers.  Their 52.88 shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 was sixth best in the month of March.

Regarding that offense, the Blues scored 37 goals in 13 games (2.85 per game), more than a quarter of the total coming off the sticks of Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrik Berglund, who had five apiece.  They got there taking different paths.

Tarasenko got there in a manner familiar to Caps fans who have watched Alex Ovechkin over the years – shot volume.  With 39 shots on goal in 11 games, he led the team in shots on goal per game (3.55), which made up for a good, if unremarkable, 12.8 percent shooting.  Tarasenko is only in his sixth NHL season, but already he is in the top-ten in franchise history in goals scored, sitting in ninth place with 176.  A hat trick against the Caps would propel him past Alex Steen into eighth place on the Blues’ all time goals list.  However, Tarasenko was once thought of as, if not the player who would supplant Alex Ovechkin as the league’s most dominant goal scorer, than perhaps at least the most prolific Russian entry.  Such was the thinking when, over his first four seasons he had steadily increasing goal numbers, from eight in 38 games as a rookie in 2012-2013 to 40 in 80 games in 2015-2016.  It seemed inevitable that he would challenge the 50-goal mark.  That has not happened.  He slid a bit last season, finishing with 39 goals in 82 games, and this season he has 31 goals in 76 games (he missed two game to an upper body injury in March).  He has four goals in his last five games, although he is without one in his last two contests.  Tarasenko is 6-1-7, plus-5, in eight career games against Washington.

Where Tarasenko got his five goals in March by pounding shots at the net, Berglund did it through efficiency.  His five goals came on just 24 shots, a 20.8 percent shooting percentage.  Call it a hot streak for Berglund, who except for a league-best 23.0 shooting percentage in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season, has been a reasonably average shooter efficiency-wise (12.3 percent for his career).  It seems a bit odd that Berglund has not been a more productive goal scorer than he has been over his ten-year career in St. Louis.  A former first-round draft pick (25th overall in 2006), he counts only three 20-goal seasons in his career and never as many as 25 in a season (he had 23 goals in 2016-2017).  Unless he has an explosion of goals in the last week of the season, he will not get there this year, either (he has 13 in 53 games).  Berglund is 3-3-6, minus-2, in 12 career games against the Caps.

Alex Pietrangelo was the leading point-getter for the Blues (4-9-13), a bit of an odd occurrence that a defenseman would do so.  However, this is a career year for the ten-year veteran.  His 15 goals tops the 14 he had last year for a career high, and his 52 points are one better than the 51 he posted in 2011-2012 and 2013-2014.  He led the team in March in an odd pairing of stats.  He was the power play points leader (1-3-4), and he led the team overall in shots on goal (41), uncommon for a defenseman.  And then there was his ice time.  Only Erik Karlsson averaged more ice time per game (28:05) than Pietrangelo (26:55) among league defensemen.  And the ice time would seem to be an indicator of success for the Blues.  In the 47 games in which he skated at least 25 minutes this season (sixth-most in the league), the Blues are 28-13-6.  They are just 15-16-0 when Pietrangleo skated less than 25 minutes.  He is 1-3-4, minus-2, in 11 career games against Washington.

1.  Only five teams have recorded fewer penalty minutes this season than the Blues (611). 

2.  Keeping with the fives, only five teams have more wins this season when leading after one period than St. Louis (23), and their winning percentage of .920 in such games (23-0-2) is second only to Washington (.963 going into Sunday night’s game against Pittsburgh).

3.  The Blues are almost as good when leading after two periods of games.  Their 31-0-2 record is the third-best winning percentage in the league (.939).

4.  Only Vegas (32) and Boston (33) have more wins when out-shooting opponents than the Blues (31).

5.  Getting off early is not in the Blues playbook.  Their 46 first period goals is second-fewest in the league (Buffalo has 43).

1.  Going into Sunday’s games the Caps had the sixth-fewest number of power play chances on the road (106).

2.  On the other side of that statistic, only four teams were shorthanded more often on the road than the Caps (139).

3.  Going into Sunday, only Toronto had more wins (29) when leading after one period than the Caps (26).  And in an underrated stat, the Caps were a top-ten team in winning percentage when trailing after one period (6-14-0/.300/T-8th).

4.  The Caps out-shot teams only 27 times in 78 games before Sunday night’s game, but they were successful when they did (19-7-1).

5.  Washington had the fourth-best record in the league in one-goal games before Sunday night’s game (20-5-7.,625).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

St. Louis: Jake Allen

Is Jake Allen the goaltender to take the Blues deep in the postseason?  That would appear to be a question without a ready answer.  He has shown glimpses of being a very good goaltender over his five NHL seasons, but he had yet to post elite numbers.  He has one season with a save percentage as high as .920 (.920 in 47 games in 2015-2016).  His best goals against average was 2.28 in 2014-2015 but in only 37 games.  What is intriguing is his postseason record from last year in which he posted a 1.96 goals against average and a .935 save percentage in 11 games.  What is not certain at the moment is whether he is likely to repeat that result this spring.  In his last 11 appearances, Allen is a very good 8-2-1, but it comes with a not quite as good 2.39 goals against average and a very average .909 save percentage.  In two career appearances against the Caps, Allen is 1-1-0, 2.82, .905, with one shutout.

Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Going into Sunday night’s game against Pittsburgh, Evgeny Kuznetsov had already tied his career high in points (77), set in the 2015-2016 season (he recorded an assist on a goal by Dmitry Orlov against the Pens to set a new high in points).  His 25 goals were a career best, as were his 18 even strength goals.  Until he was shut out on the score sheet against Carolina on Friday, he had six straight multi-point games (5-8-13 overall).  Four of his last eight goals have been game-winners, giving him a team-leading eight in that category.  He has become a more aggressive offensive player of late.  There was a period from mid-January until mid-February in which he recorded 23 shots in 14 games (1.64 per game).  But since then, he has 51 shots on goal in 17 games (3.00 per game) before Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh.  And, with the Caps having a 19-9-1 record when he recorded three or more shots in a game, the team might be hoping it is not a passing thing.  Kuznetsov is 2-3-5, plus-3, in eight career games against St. Louis.

In the end…

This is a good measuring stick game.  St. Louis is a solid team that does many things well, capable of posing multiple challenges for the Caps.  But the Caps have not been intimidated by their surroundings in St. Louis, taking a 4-1-0 record in their last five games in St. Louis into this contest.  It is all part of the last week’s aim of getting ready and tuned for the playoffs.

Capitals 3 – Blues 2

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 26

The Washington Capitals started the month of March with a one-point lead in the Metropolitan Division, and that is how they ended it.  Still, how they ended March in Week 26 was part success and part missed opportunity.  For while they can still clinch the Metropolitan Division on Sunday against a bitter rival with a win in regulation, they could find themselves going into the last week of the regular season in jeopardy of dropping from the top perch of the division.

Record: 2-1-0

It was a week of meeting desperate Metropolitan Division clubs, a home-and-home set of games against the New York Rangers and a game on home ice against the Carolina Hurricanes, both clubs on the brink of elimination from the postseason as the week began.  The Caps put the Rangers on the brink with their 4-2 win at Madison Square Garden, and then the idle Rangers were officially taken from the list of playoff eligible when the New Jersey Devils beat the Hurricanes, 4-3, on Tuesday night.  The Caps completed the home-and-home sweep with a come-from-behind, overtime 3-2 win on Wednesday night, leaving the Hurricanes, hanging onto the possibility of a playoff spot by a thread. 

That thread was strong enough to keep the Caps from widening their division lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins to seven points, Carolina winning comfortably at Capital One Arena, 4-1, on Friday night.  When the Penguins beat Montreal, 5-2, on Saturday night, it narrowed the Caps’ lead to three points (the Caps with a game in hand) and gave the Penguins a chance to narrow the gap to the slimmest of margins – one point – when they meet on Sunday evening.  Still, the 2-1-0 week was the third winning week in succession for the Caps, and the team is just one standings point away from posting its 11th 100-point season in club history.

Offense: 2.67 /game (season: 3.09 /game, rank: 10th)

It was not a particularly prolific week for the Caps, made worse by the fact that they scored half of their goals in the first 17 minutes of Week 26.  A pair of even strength goals, a shorthanded goal, and a power play goal chased Rangers starting goaltender Alexandar Georgiev and welcomed relief goalie Ondrej Pavelec in the first period of the Caps’ 4-2 win over the Rangers to open the week. 

It made for a light week in which the noteworthy element was not so much who scored as who did not.  Players without a point over the three games included: Jakub Vrana (in two games), Tom Wilson, Brett Connolly (in two games), and Dimtry Orlov, players on whom the Caps depend for secondary scoring.

At the other end, the centers – specifically, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom – led the way.  Kuznetsov had the only two-goal week for the Caps, going 2-2-4 overall, while Backstrom had a four-assist week to tie Kuznetsov for the points lead.  Alex Ovechkin had a goal, and his shots on goal (15) led the team.  The problem was not so much Ovechkin having 15 shots in three games as the rest of the club being relatively quiet.  John Carlson did have nine shots on goal from the blue line, but after that there was the drop off to Lars Eller with seven and several players with six.  In all, 20 of the 21 skaters for the week recorded shots on goal (Connolly was the only one not to do so), just that there was not a lot of volume among them.

Defense: 2.67 / game (season: 2.92 /game, rank: 16th)

Shots on goal against remain a thing with this club.  They allowed 30 or more in all three games in Week 26, but somehow, they seem to make it work, to a point.  When they allowed Carolina 30 shots on goal, it was the 50th time this season that the Caps allowed 30 or more shots in a game.  While it sounds like a lot, it ranks as the 15th-highest total in the league.  The important point, though, is that the Caps are 30-16-4 in those games.  Only five teams have more wins this season when allowing 30 or more shots on goal, and all of those teams have had more games with 30 or more shots allowed.

The difficulty in Week 26 was the unevenness in the shots allowed by period.  In each game played during the week, the Caps allowed more than 15 shots in one of the regulation periods. On the other side, there were five of nine periods in which the Caps allowed fewer than ten shots, three of them with seven or fewer shots on goal allowed.

Still, it made for a tough week in the shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5.  The Caps finished the week with the seventh-worst shots allowed-for percentage at fives (47.55), seventh worst when ahead (39.77), eighth-worst when tied, and ninth-worst when in close situations.  Only when behind were the Caps in a good position with these numbers, ranking seventh-best (62.96).  The down side of that, though, is that pesky word, “behind.”

Goaltending: 2.34 / .927 (season: 2.76 / .913 / 3 shutouts)

Week 26 was, on balance, a pretty good week.  That is not to say that the embers of the fires of goalie controversy have been extinguished entirely.  Philipp Grubauer had a good outing against the Rangers to open the week, but he sustained a lower-body injury and was held out for the last two games. 

Braden Holtby got the call in the two home games to finish the week, and it was a mixed bag.  He was superb in the second of the home-and-home series against the Rangers, stopping 17 of 18 shots he faced in the first period on his way to a 35-save, 3-2 overtime win.  That performance also featured an excellent 13-for-14 (.929 save percentage facing the New York power play).  He got off to a good start in the last game of the week, stopping all eight Carolina shots he faced in the first period.  But the Hurricanes came out firing in the second period, and after stopping the first eight shots he faced, Holtby finally yielded a goal.  He would allow three goals on the last 13 shots he faced in the 4-1 loss.

The goaltending situation was not any clearer at the end of Week 26 than it was at the beginning.  Holtby has not returned to form and has a recent injury that might or might not be completely healed (hockey teams and players are notoriously close-mouthed about injuries).  Grubauer has not had enough steady work to be convincing as a go-to goalie in the postseason, and he has to deal with a recent injury.  This is the position one wants the least turmoil and uncertainty with as the playoffs get underway, but it seems that the Capitals will not have this situation as the regular season comes to an end.

Power Play: 1-for-8 / 12.5 percent (season: 22.6 percent, rank: 7th)

It was not a good week with the man advantage.  And here is just how bad it was.  The Caps scored a power play goal on their first power play shot on goal of the week (Alex Ovechkin) 57 seconds into their first power play of the week.  After that, they had no power play goals on 12 shots in 12:51 of power play ice time over seven power plays. 

Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie were the only Capitals to record power play shots in more than one game, Ovechkin going 1-for-3 against the Rangers in the first game, and then missing on one shot in each of the last two games of the week (he had the Caps’ only power play shot on goal against the Hurricanes).  Oshie was 0-for-1 and 0-for-2 in the two games against the Rangers.

This was the tenth time among the 19 weeks in which the Caps had three or more games that they had fewer than ten power play chances and the sixth time in the last eight such weeks.  This is a lingering problem.  Despite having among the most efficient power plays in the league – seventh-ranked at week’s end – it does not get enough deployment.  The Caps have the seventh-fewest power play opportunities in the league this season.

Penalty Killing: 9-for-10/ 90.0 percent (season: 80.2 percent, rank: 17th)

The penalty killers saved the week for special teams, killing off nine of ten shorthanded situations and chipping in a shorthanded goal  by Evgeny Kuznetsov against the Rangers in the 4-2 win to open the week.  There was the matter of shots, though.  Specifically, the number of shots allowed on home ice to the Ranger power play in the middle game of the week.  Nine different Rangers combined for 14 shots on goal.

That middle game was the blemish on what was otherwise a very efficient week.  Even with those 14 shots on goal allowed in 9:43 of shorthanded ice time, the Caps finished the week killing nine of ten penalties, allowing only 18 shots on goal in all over 19:43 of shorthanded ice time.  They finished with a flourish, if it could be said in the context of a loss, holding the Hurricanes to a single power play and no shots on goal on that man advantage.

Faceoffs: 82-for-168 / 48.8 percent (season: 50.5 percent, rank: 13th)

The Caps were all over the circle for a week in which they finished just two faceoff wins under 50 percent.  There was the balance in between the ends overall, the Caps taking 58 faceoffs in both the offensive and defensive ends.  There the similarity ended, though.  It was not a good week in the offensive end, where the Caps went 26-for-58 (44.8 percent).  All of it, however, might be a product of the strange week T.J. Oshie had.  All seven of the faceoffs he took were in the offensive end, and he lost all of them.  He had a devil of a time with a Ranger, losing all five draws he took against Kevin Hayes in the two games against the New Yorkers.

Then there was the odd outcome in the defensive end.  Jay Beagle, who normally shines in that area, finished under 50 percent (albeit by a thin 11-for-23 margin), while Evgeny Kuznetsov, who struggles from time to time in this area of the games, was 4-for-7.  That Kuznetsov would finish the week with the best faceoff winning percentage among the four Caps with at least ten draws taken and the only one of the four over 50 percent (20-for-37/54.1 percent) might have been the strangest result of all.

Goals by Period:

If balance is something you look for in goals scored over the course of a game, look elsewhere this week.  The Caps had a rough week in this regard.  Those four goals scored in the first period against the Rangers followed by three in the next eight regulation periods (an additional one in overtime) made for a weak week for balance, the Caps managing only one second period and one third period goal in Week 26.

The flip side of that was, well, flipped.  Washington allowed only one first period goal for the week, but gave up three in the second period and four in the third.  The results extended a recent, and perhaps disturbing trend.  Getting out to leads at the first intermission is important to this team, the Caps being one of three teams in the league without a regulation loss after 20 minutes (Vancouver and St. Louis being the others), and their .963 winning percentage (26-0-1) being tops in the league.  That makes a 5-1/plus-4 goal differential for the week a welcome outcome, giving the Caps a plus-6 first period goal differential overall.  However, those third periods might have a way of coming back to bite them.  They were minus-3 for the week in third period goal differential, making them a minus-5 overall for the season.  There are five teams in the Eastern Conference with worse third period goal differentials, and it is a poor neighborhood: Buffalo (minus-6), Ottawa (minus-19), Detroit (minus-13), Columbus (minus-6), and Montreal (minus-26).  When you look at teams like Pittsburgh (plus-30) or Boston (plus-38), one might be concerned.

In the end…

If you are only as good as your last game, than the Caps were not as good as they could have been.  A 2-1-0 record is welcome, but a win over Carolina on home ice to make it 3-0-0 was something Caps fans could have reasonably expected.  The loss makes their path to a division title and a first-round series against the first wild-card team that much more difficult.  Beating Carolina would have made the regular season end game much simpler for the Caps.  As it is now, if the Caps should lose to the Pens in regulation, they would need four points in their last three games to win the division outright without having to rely on tiebreakers (the first at season’s end being regulation/overtime wins, both teams with 43 before their game on Sunday night), assuming the Pens win out against Columbus and Ottawa.

And it would not be easy to get those four points.  After Pittsburgh, the Caps head to St. Louis to face the Blues on Monday night in the last road game of the regular season.  They follow that up with home games against the Nashville Predators and New Jersey Devils, the former with the best record in the league on Sunday morning and the latter trying to fend off the Florida Panthers for a playoff spot.

Who said it was going to be easy?

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (2-2-4, plus-1, 1 SHG, 1 OT/GWG. 6 shots on goal, 8 shot attempts, 54.1 faceoff percentage)
  • Second Star: Nicklas Backstrom (0-4-4, plus-2, six shots on goal, 11 shot attempts)
  • Third Star: Alex Ovechkin (1-1-2, even, 15 shots on goal, 31 shot attempts, 3 hits, became third player in NHL history with nine seasons with 45 or more goals, joining Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky)