Friday, April 06, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 82: Devils at Capitals, April 7th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wrap up their 43rd regular season on Saturday night when they host the New Jersey Devils at Capital One Arena.  The Caps, who saw their chance at a sixth 50-win season in franchise history go by the wayside when they lost to the Nashville Predators, 4-3, on Thursday night, can still end the regular season with the sixth highest win total in club history and sixth highest standings points percentage in the 43-year history of the franchise. 

For both the Capitals and the Devils, who they will face in Round 1 of the playoffs is still an unknown, even heading into this last game of the regular season for both clubs.  As of Friday morning, the Caps could play any of four clubs, all of them Metropolitan Division rivals: Pittsburgh, Columbus, New Jersey or Philadelphia.  The Devils could face the Caps (as of Friday morning, this would be the matchup), Tampa Bay, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or Columbus. 

For the Caps, neither a win nor a loss affects their seeding in the first round.  They get the first wild card team.  A win for the Devils in this game could propel them all the way into second place in the Metro division and a home ice advantage in the first round.  It would also cap quite a finish for the Devils, who bring a four-game winning streak into this game and points in their last eight contests (7-0-1).

The Devils’ success, both over this eight-game run and over the course of the season, starts with winger Taylor Hall.  It has been a career year for Hall, who is in his second season in New Jersey after spending his first six seasons with the Edmonton Oilers.  He has his first career 30-goal season and could, with a goal against the Caps, reach 40 goals for the first time in his career.  His 54 assists tops the 53 he had in 2013-2014 with the Oilers, and his 93 points is 13 clear of the 80 he had in Edmonton in that 2013-2014 season.  His 25 even strength goals is a career high, as are his 13 power play goals (tying the number he had with the Oilers in 2011-2012).  His 24 power play assists are more than twice as many as he had in any other season (ten in 2012-2013 and in 2013-2014).  He has been an absolutely terrifying image to opposing goaltenders over the 2018 portion of the season.  Since recording an assist in a Gimmick loss to the St. Louis Blues on January 2nd, Hall is 27-30-57, plus-17, in 40 games.  Over that span, Hall is second in the league in goals (Evgeni Malkin has 28), tied for 14th in assists, and is third in points (behind Malkin and Connor McDavid, each with 61).  His 25 power play points leads the league in 2018.  He has to be on anyone’s short list to be a Hart Trophy finalist as league most valuable player.  Hall is 3-2-5, minus-3, in 11 career games against the Capitals.

Winger Jesper Bratt poses an interesting, if not confounding contrast in his numbers.  He is fifth on the team in points this season (13-22-35), but he is also second-worst among 30 Devil skaters in plus-minus (minus-16).  What is more, he has had a problem being productive on the road lately, perhaps not altogether unsurprising given his rookie status.  Bratt has one point (a goal) over his last ten road games dating back to February 17th in Tampa.  And, as is the case for second- and third-tier scorers, it matters.  The Devils are 8-4-3 this season in road games in which Bratt recorded at least one point.  Then there is ice time.  Looking at his top eight games this season in time on ice, the Devils lost seven of them, although four of those losses came in the Gimmick (1-3-4).  In three career games against the Caps, all of them this season, he has yet to record a point and is even in plus-minus.

So, what happened to Cory Schneider in goal?  If Caps fans are scratching their heads over Braden Holtby’s troubles in the second half of the season, Devils fans are gouging their eyes out over Schneider’s difficulties.  He missed 16 games with a groin injury from January 25th to February 27th.  Since returning, though, he has only four appearances (none since March 20th, when he was pulled barely 30 minutes into a 6-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks in which he allowed four goals on 14 shots) in which he is 0-4-0, 3.82, .862.  Schneider does not have a win since December 27th against Detroit and since then is 0-9-2, 3.94, .868.  He is 3-8-2, 2.50, .912, with one shutout in 14 career appearances against the Caps.

That would seem to leave things up to Keith Kinkaid in goal, and he has been more than up to the task.  He has not lost consecutive decisions since he dropped three in a row in early February.  Since then, he is 16-3-1, 2.32, .929, with one shutout.  He has made the most of his opportunities this season, his 26 wins overall topping his combined win total over his first four seasons (23) and appearing in a career high 41 games so far.  In five career appearances against Washington, Kinkaid is 2-3-0, 3.95, .864.

1.  Five Devils account for ten Gimmick goals this season.  Four of those five players have at least one game-deciding goal.  The only one to have scored at least one goal without a game-deciding one: Taylor Hall.  Go figure.

2.  Jersey does it with balance.  They have 21 skaters with points in double digits this season.  Ten players have at least ten goals.

3.  Trailing the Devils after the second intermission is a signal to head to the parking lot.  New Jersey has the third-best winning percentage in the league when leading after 40 minutes (.941), and their 32 wins (two extra time losses) is sixth-highest in the league.  They don’t do so badly when trailing after two periods, either.  Their 8-23-2 record in those situations is the third-best winning percentage in the league (.242), the win total being tied for first with Tampa Bay.

4.  You wonder how the Devils do it late in games.  The good news is that the 67 goals allowed in the third periods of games this season is fourth-fewest in the league.  The bad is that their 68 goals scored in the last 20 minutes is tied with Arizona for fifth-fewest.

5.  Road possession numbers have been a challenge for New Jersey.  Their 46.45 percent shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 is fifth lowest in the league.

1.  If the Capitals have a lead after one period in this game, they can make a bit of history.  Since the dark 2004-2005 season, no team has twice gone an entire season without losing a game in regulation when leading after one period.  The Caps went 18-0-8 in 2015-2016 and are one of four teams to have turned the trick in that span (Vancouver could become a fifth in their last game).  If the Caps do it, they would be the first of the group to do it twice.

2.  Over that same span, this year’s Caps team is among the most porous of the teams they iced in third period goals allowed.  The 88 third period goals allowed by this club is second-most by a Caps team since 2005-2006 (93 in that first season after the lockout) and tied with the 2006-2007 club.

3.  One would not necessarily like to have it become necessary, but if New Jersey does score first, this club could become the third since the 2004-2005 lockout to record 20 or more wins when the opponent scores first.  It happened in 2015-2016 (22 wins) and in 2010-2011 (23 wins).

4.  In the “boy, have times changed” category, this team has been whistled for 331 penalties so far this season.  That is the fourth fewest since the 2004-2005 lockout and fewer than half of the infractions for which the Caps were penalized in 2005-2006 (673).

5.  In the Eastern Conference, only Toronto has more wins this season when being out-shot (29) than the Caps (28).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New Jersey: Nico Hischier

Nico Hischier was the first overall pick of the 2017 entry draft last June.  He has certainly justified that selection, at least in the early returns.  Only 11 skaters of that draft have dressed for at least one NHL game this season, and Hischier is the only one to have dressed in all of his team’s games so far.  In fact, after one considers the 72 games played by the Flyers’ Nolan Patrick (taken second overall), Hischier’s total is 20 more than the rest of the class of skaters combined (61).  He is the youngest rookie this season to have appeared in at least ten games, and despite his youth, he is tied for eighth in his rookie cohort in goals (19, with Alexander Kerfoot), fifth in assists (32), and seventh in points (51), despite being 21st in average ice time among rookies with at least ten games played (16:19).  At the moment, he is tied with Adam Henrique (2011-2012) for the fourth-highest point total by a rookie in Devils history and is tied for fourth on that list in goals (Scott Gomez in 1999-2000).  He is closing with a bit of a rush, too, going 6-4-10, plus-5, over his last 14 games going into this contest.  In three games against the Caps this season, Hischier is 0-1-1, minus-1.

Washington: The Fans

One could make an argument that over the span of 43 seasons, no NHL fan base has endured more grief and disappointment than that suffered by the fans of the Washington Capitals.  It is one thing, perhaps the biggest thing that unites fans, management, coaches, media, and players.  From an inaugural season that is, and will likely remain until the sun goes dark, the worst record over a full season in NHL history, to having their guts ripped out by the New York Islanders in the 1980’s and, more recently, by the Pittsburgh Penguins (who, history will note, have never won a Stanley Cup without first beating the Caps in a playoff series).  Not even a conference final in 1990 or a Stanley Cup final in 1998 can do much to bandage the wounds of those disappointing years.  And after the Caps squandered two Presidents Trophy-winning seasons at the hands of, of course, the Penguins, this season was thought by many to be one in which the Caps would lose free agents, take stock of what they had returning, look at some younger players, and perhaps compete for a playoff spot.  The consensus was that they would take a step (or more) back.  

That they finished (ok, will finish) the regular season with their third consecutive Metropolitan Division title has to be considered something of an over-achievement.  Of course, whatever joy one can take with that result might be diminished by what takes place in the weeks ahead, but maybe it is time to take a moment and appreciate just what fans have here.  Only five teams in the league have more wins than the Caps this season.  If offense is your thing, the Caps are still a top-ten offense (ninth in goals scored).  Fans saw a young goaltender emerge, not just as “the best backup in the league,” but to take his place, at least for this season, as one of the best of any netminders in the league in Philipp Grubauer. 

It is tempting to take for granted the accomplishments of Alex Ovechkin, since he has been part of the fabric of DC sports for more than a decade.  There is a considerable number of Caps fans who have never known a team without him on the left wing (or for one season, on the right wing).  But with every milestone he reaches or rung on the all-time leaderboard he climbs, take a moment to appreciate being witness to all of that.  The same goes for Nicklas Backstrom, who might be the best all-around player this franchise has ever known when you look at all facets of the game.  You have to watch him often and sometimes look at a play over and over before you see what he sees and wonder, “how did he do that?”  

John Carlson came of age this season, having what amounted to a dream season for a player in the salary cap era, putting himself in a position any player covets – to be able to control his own destiny from the summit of a career season.  But at the same time, he has grown into one of the cornerstones of the franchise, and many hope there are more years in Capitals red for Carlson.  

Evgeny Kuznetsov has taken his place among the most skilled and most entertaining players in the league to watch, who is now taking his place at the head of the next generation of Capitals in their pursuit of a Stanley Cup.

Braden Holtby, whose rise to the elite level of NHL goaltending was meteoric, experienced the difficulties any player who plays long enough in this league is bound to face, but he did it unflinchingly and with resolve.  There were no tantrums, no complaints, no expressions of the unfairness of it all.  He just kept working at it to find the magic he had over the past few years as a name always in the Vezina conversation.

Caps fans, take a moment, and appreciate what this team has accomplished so far and what a special experience it has been to follow them this season. 

In the end…

And now it’s time to return to the task of slaying the last demon this franchise faces, its heart-wrenching postseason history.  But before that, there is one more item of business for the Caps and for Caps fans.  In what might be "Game 0" of the first round of the postseason…

Capitals 4 – Devils 2