Sunday, April 08, 2018

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 27

The 2017-2018 regular season came to an end for the Washington Capitals in Week 27.  The last week was, like the first week, a winning one.  For what should have been a meaningless week, the Caps having already clinched the Metropolitan Division title and a first round home-ice advantage, it was a week chock full of developments, almosts, and, as it turns out, unsettled issues.

Record: 3-1-0

Week 27 was the ninth four-game week of the season, and with a 3-1-0 record, Washington posted their fifth winning week with the heavy schedule.  In fact, the week was the eighth straight four-game week in which they split or won a majority of the available standings points since they went 1-2-1 in four games of Week 2.  The week was also the fourth straight winning week overall for the Caps, over which they went 11-3-0 to finish with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Tampa Bay and Boston.  The Caps tied in standings points with the Toronto Maple Leafs but won the tie-breaker (regulation/overtime wins).

The schedule of opponents provided an interesting contrast.  Washington wrapped a pair of Metropolitan Division rivals around two Central Division opponents – Pittsburgh and New Jersey to start and end the week, respectively, and St. Louis and Nashville in the week’s middle games.  The 3-1 win over the Penguins to start the week earned the Caps a split of the four games against Pittsburgh this season, each team splitting both the home and road pairs of games.  The 4-2 win over St. Louis on Monday gave the Caps a sweep of their two games against the Blues, while the 4-3 loss to Nashville gave the Predators a sweep of the Caps in their pair of games on the schedule.  The Caps' win over New Jersey to end the week gave Washington points in all four games and a 3-0-1 record against the Devils.

The back-to-back set of games against Pittsburgh and St. Louis to open the week was the 14th set of back-to-backs this season.  It was the Caps’ third sweep of back-to-back games and their second sweep in a row of such games (they swept the New York Islanders in a home-and-home back-to-back on March 15th and 16th).  Their other sweep came back in November against Tampa Bay and at Toronto.

The 4-3 loss to Nashville on Thursday ended the Caps’ chance for a third-straight 50-win season, but the 49 wins with which they finished was the sixth highest win total in franchise history.  Of those six seasons, Barry Trotz was head coach for three of them (56 and 55 wins in the two seasons preceding this one).  The others on that list are Bruce Boudreau (54 wins in 2009-2010 and 50 wins in 2008-2009) and Brian Murray (50 wins in 1985-1986).

Offense: 3.75 /game (season: 3.12 /game, rank: 9th)

The Caps scored three of more goals in all four games of the week, making it 12 out of their last 14 games with three or more, averaging 3.79 goals per game in that span.  They spread things around fairly well with nine different skaters recording at least one goal.  Perhaps as important, the Caps got the lion’s share of contributions from players who are expected to, and in fact will have to show up in the postseason.  Alex Ovechkin, Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom were the skaters who finished the week with two or more goals.

The Caps had 16 skaters recording points in Week 27, one of those points posted by Shane Gersich – an assist on a Michal Kempny goal in the Caps’ 5-2 win over New Jersey to end the week.  The primary assist was Gersich’s first NHL point.  As for the top of the points list, Kuznetsov and Backstrom led the team with six apiece, both players recording two goals and four assists.  Backstrom was the only skater to record more than one multi-point game, going 1-2-3 against St. Louis and then 1-1-2 against the Devils.  Kuznetsov was the only player to record a point in each of the four games of the week. He finished the regular season with a rush, going 7-12-19 in his last 11 games and 11-17-28 in his last 19 contests, recording 10 multi-point games.

Another good sign was the Caps getting points from six of the seven defensemen to dress during the week.  John Carlson led that group with three points (all assists).  Only Christian Djoos, who appeared only in the 4-3 loss to Nashville, did not record a point among the blueliners.  Dmitry Orlov got one of the two goals from the defense, becoming the 11th skater this season to record 10 or more goals.  Michal Kempny was the other defenseman to score a goal in Week 27.

Defense: 2.50 / game (season: 2.90 /game, rank: 16th)

The strange number for the Caps on defense in Week 27 is “72.”  That is the number of blocked shots they recorded for the week, tied with the San Jose Sharks for second-most in the league (the Colorado Avalanche had 74).  San Jose’s number is a bit stranger in that their 72 blocked shots came in only three games.  There were 19 different skaters who had at least one blocked shot, John Carlson (14) and Brooks Orpik (10) the pair reaching double digits.  Carlson’s total tied for the league lead for the week (Chicago’s Brent Seabrook being the other).

Another number of note was “36.”  This was the number of credited takeaways the Caps had for the week, third-highest in the league (Florida had 47, Winnipeg had 37).  John Carlson had six of them to lead the club, tied for the third-highest individual total for the week (Aleksander Barkov had eight for Florida, Boston’s Torey Krug had seven).

The Caps also ranked high on the hits list, finishing with the sixth-highest total for the week (85).  And that brings us to Tom Wilson, who had a unique week.  Wilson had 15 hits to lead the team.  With his five takeaways, he was the only player in the league to finish the week with at least ten hits and at least five takeaways.

Put it together, and it is not surprising that the Caps were below 50 percent in shot attempts-for at 5-on-5.  However, they did not play to their season rankings in that area, finishing the week at 49.87 percent for the four games, considerably better than the 47.98 percent with which they finished the season (24th).  However, the shot-attempts against part of that equation did not paint quite as good a picture.  The 190 shot attempts against at fives was the sixth-highest in the league and in the upper half of the 15 teams that played four games.

Overall, the Caps did finish the week with consecutive games holding opponents to fewer than 30 shots, the first time they did that since a five-game streak in Game 65-69 in early March.

Goaltending: 2.54 / .922 (season: 2.75 / .913 / 3 shutouts)

Are the Capitals entering the postseason with a goaltending controversy?  If they came into the week with one, the matter was not settled in Week 27.  The overall numbers for the week were good, and there was little difference between the pair of Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer.  Holtby finished the week with two wins, a goals against average of 2.52, and a save percentage of .919.  Grubauer split his two decisions, had a goals against average of 2.56, and a save percentage of .924.  If you are looking for daylight between the goalies and their respective performances, it is in the opponents each netminder faced.  Grubauer beat Pittsburgh and lost to Nashville, teams that in the minds of some will meet in the Stanley Cup final for a second straight year.  On the other hand, Holtby won his two decisions against St. Louis and New Jersey, teams that were fighting to clinch a postseason ticket (the Devils are in, the Blues are out), neither of them thought of as being among the elite teams in the league.  You could argue that Grubauer was facing better “on-paper” teams with little, if anything to play for except seeding, both teams having already clinched playoff spots.  You could also argue that Holtby allowed five goals to two unimpressive offenses in the league (New Jersey finished the week 15th in scoring offense, St. Louis finished 24th).

With so few games in the population, period-by-period results do not reveal a lot, but the two goalies did seem to go in opposite directions.  Grubauer’s weak period was in the third in which he allowed three goals on 25 shots over two games (.880 save percentage).  Holtby’s was the first periods of the two games, over which he allowed two goals on 16 shots (.875).

It was not a defining week in terms of settling on a goalie to enter the postseason.  If one has to look further back, to the season series with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Caps’ first round opponent, Holtby was 3-1-0, 3.32, .913 in four appearances, but four of the 11 goals he allowed came in the first period of a 5-1 loss to Columbus in the last game of the season series, the only one of the four that the Caps lost.  Grubauer stopped all 18 shots he saw in a shade under 39 minutes in relief in that last game of the series.

Power Play: 3-for-14 / 21.4 percent (season: 22.5 percent, rank: 7th)

The Caps finished Week 27 with their 15th week with a power play over 20 percent.  The week on the power play capped a 2018 portion of the season in which the Caps had the fourth best power play (25.6 percent; if Boston has a power play and fails to convert in their season finale against Florida on Sunday, the Caps would jump to third).

Alex Ovechkin had two of the three power play goals for the week, bringing his season total to 17, second in the league to Patrik Laine’s 20 for the Winnipeg Jets.  Small wonder he led the team in goals for the week; Ovechkin had nine power play shots on goal, more than the combined total of the other five players recording at least one (seven). 

Evgeny Kuznetsov added the other man advantage goal for the week.  In retrospect, his might have been the goal that kept Ovechkin from finishing with 50 goals for the season.  In the seventh minute of the second period of the Caps’ game against Nashville, after Ovechkin had already scored a goal (his 47th), the Caps had a power play.  From the goal line extended to the left of goalie Juuse Saros, Kuznetsov tried to snap a pass across the top of the crease to Ovechkin, ready and waiting to unleash a one-timer from low in the left wing circle.  Defenseman Ryan Ellis, trying to block the pass across, slid feet-first on his stomach and had his skate redirect the pass through Saros’ pads, Kuznetsov credited with the goal.  Ovechkin finished that game without another goal and then had two against New Jersey to finish with 49.

As a team, the Caps were not especially efficient.  They scored their three goals on 16 shots in 20:00 of power play time.  What was noteworthy about that was the lack of anything out of the middle of the power play.  T.J. Oshie skated 9:45 on the power play, and Brett Connolly added 8:31, both skating in the middle of the 1-3-1 power play.  Neither recorded a power play shot on goal.

Penalty Killing: 10-for-12 / 83.3 percent (season: 80.3 percent, rank: 16th)

If you wanted to describe the Caps’ penalty kill over the second half of the season, the word you might use would be “consistent.”  Not great, not awful, just “consistent.”  The 10-for-12 week had two things going for it.  The first, in keeping with the “consistent” theme, meant that the Caps spent the last 15 weeks of the season oscillating between a season penalty kill rate of 79 and 81 percent.  Never higher, never lower.  The other thing to keep in mind is that their 80.2 percent kill rate over those 15 weeks, while a shade lower than their overall season rate of 80.3 percent, was nevertheless the 11th best in the league, better than the 16th-ranked penalty kill with which they finished the season.  The week would have been a lot better, though, without allowing Nashville power play goals on both of their opportunities, one of which tied the game in the third period before the Predators went on to win.

The Caps were lit up for 12 shots in 8:40 of shorthanded ice time against Pittsburgh to open the week, but the Penguins could not solve Philipp Grubauer.  Over the rest of the week, the Caps allowed just 11 shots in 12:20 to finish allowing 23 shots in 21 minutes of shorthanded ice time, marred only by the two power play goals Nashville scored three shots in 2:23 of power play ice time.

Faceoffs: 124-for-254 / 48.8 percent (season: 50.4 percent, rank: 13th)

In an odd coincidence, the Caps had a second consecutive “48.8” week, their faceoff winning percentages last week and this.  Going underneath the top-end numbers revealed an odd sort of week.  The first thing to notice was the nature of performance by zone.  Washington won 54 of 86 offensive zone draws (62.8 percent) but managed only 34 wins in 91 defensive zone faceoffs (37.4 percent).

The next thing to notice was that the Caps were under 50 percent in the first three games of the week, under 45 percent in the games against St. Louis and Nashville, perhaps not that much of a surprise since Nashville finished the week third in the league in faceoff winning percentage and St. Louis finishing 11th.  The Caps dominated the Devils in the last game of the week (32-for-54/59.3 percent), which might not have been surprising, either, the Devils ranking 30th in the league at week’s end.

Individually, four of the five Caps to take at least ten draws finished at 50 percent or better.  Only Evgeny Kuznetsov, who took the most draws for the week, finished under 50 percent among that group.  Missing from the 10-and-over group was Jay Beagle, who won two of five draws in just 3:22 of ice time against the Penguins in the first game of the week before sustaining an upper-body injury that kept him out for the remainder of that game and the three contests to end the week.

Goals by Period:

It was the middle period in which the Caps did most of their offensive damage in Week 27.  They scored second period goals in each of the four games, two in the middle frame against St. Louis and Nashville.  It was the third period in which the Caps had some leakage, allowing goals in the last three games of the week (two to the Predators in that lone loss).

The Caps finished the week as a top-ten offense in first period goals scored (76/ninth) and second period goals (87/tied for tenth).  The defense finished the regular season in an odd sort of way.  The 73 second period goals allowed was tied with Vegas for sixth-fewest in the league.  But the rankings in the first and third periods went in the other direction entirely, the 70 first period goals allowed ranking 17th and the 89 third period goals allowed ranking 24th.

In the end…

Week 27 was quite a week for a season-ending week with no standings implications.  The Caps took care of business to win three of four games, they saw Nicklas Backstrom continue his torrid second-half points pace (45 points in his last 44 games), Alex Ovechkin come within a whisker – a missed shot on a breakaway in the third period against New Jersey – of finishing with his eighth 50-goal season, and John Carlson getting a point to finish the season at the top of the points rankings among defensemen, but they also failed to settle the matter of who is the clear number one goaltender heading into the postseason.

As it was, the Caps had 16 winning weeks in the 2017-2018 regular season and another seven weeks where they earned half the available standings points.  They had four losing weeks out of 27, only two of which came after Week 3.  There is a line of thinking that the Caps have over-performed their season possession numbers, that they allowed a disproportionate number of scoring chances, that their underlying numbers in general point to another disappointing early exit in the postseason.  But we do wonder about such things when we look at shot attempts.  The Caps finished the week 24th in the league in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (47.98).  One spot above them are the Arizona Coyotes (48.10).  The Coyotes won 20 fewer games than the Caps and finished 35 points behind them. 

This is not a comprehensive argument poking holes in the predictive power of shot attempts as a proxy for possession, and overall possession numbers can be subjected to finer analytical detail to reveal trends.  What it suggests is that the Caps have a skill advantage over the Coyotes (and perhaps a number of other lower-third dwellers in the shot-attempt rankings).  Over 82 games of a regular season against the population of 30 other NHL teams, the Caps would use that skills advantage to take advantage of opponents, even with unfavorable possession numbers.  In that respect, Week 27 provides a clue and a caution to what lies ahead.  The Caps were better than Pittsburgh and New Jersey in shot attempts at five on five.  Pittsburgh was coming off clinching a playoff spot and might not have been at their sharpest.  The Caps will not encounter the Pens in that situation again this season.  The Devils are not nearly as skilled as Washington, Taylor Hall’s sublime season notwithstanding.  On the other hand, the Caps lost that differential to Nashville, a more balanced and deeper team on paper, and St. Louis, a team in virtual playoff mode battling for a postseason spot.

The question as the Caps put Week 27 in the rear-view mirror and head to the postseason becomes whether their skills advantage is going to be sufficient to offset their season-long battle with their own underlying numbers against teams much closer to, if not superior to the Caps in skill.  That’s why they play the games.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Nicklas Backstrom (2-4-6, plus-5, 9 shots on goal, 14 shot attempts, 20:15 average ice time)
  • Second Star: Alex Ovechkin (4-0-4, minus-1, 2 power play goals, 1 game-winning goal, 21 shots on goal, 48 shot attempts, seventh Richard Trophy as top goal scorer)
  • Third Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (2-4-6, even, 1 power play goal, 14 shots on goal, 18 shot attempts)