Monday, April 09, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: 2018 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal, Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Sixteen teams in search of sixteen wins and one rather large silver cup.  That is now what we are down to, and for the Washington Capitals it is their 28th visit to the postseason in franchise history.  They will face the Columbus Blue Jackets in their pursuit of a first-round series win for the 14th time in club history.  It will be Washington’s first ever meeting with the Blue Jackets in the postseason.

Washington Capitals (49-26-7)
Columbus Blue Jackets (45-30-7)

Then and Now I

Comparing this year’s Capitals and last year’s in terms of their regular season performance, the odd thing to note is that despite losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Daniel Winnik, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and Kevin Shattenkirk (and the 68 goals they recorded), the Caps scoring offense this season (3.12 goals per game) was just slightly off last year’s pace (3.18).

As expected, the defense was leakier, allowing 2.90 goals per game this season compared to a league-best 2.16 goals per game allowed in 2016-2017.  And the Caps could not score their way out of their defensive problems this season.  Not that could do so in 2016-2017, but they had so many fewer instances of having to.  In 2016-2017 the Caps allowed four or more goals in regulation/overtime 15 times and had a record of 3-11-1.  All three wins came in overtime.  This season, they allowed four or more goals 23 times, but could not improve on their win total, going 3-16-4, one win coming in regulation (6-4 over Montreal on March 24th), another in overtime (against Carolina to open the 2018 portion of the season), and the third in a Gimmick (that one on Opening Night against Ottawa).  This has some potentially ominous implications for the Caps, because Columbus leads the entire NHL in goals scored since March 1st (74 in 19 games/3.89 per game).

The same pattern appears in the special teams.  The 2017-2018 power play (22.5 percent) was not far off the 2016-2017 edition (23.1 percent), and the opportunities were almost identical to a scary degree – 131 home power play chances in each year and 113 chances on the road this season compared to 116 last year.  This year’s home power play was much more efficient (25.2 percent compared to 21.4 percent last season), while last year’s road power play was substantially better (25.0 percent to 19.5 percent this season).

What sticks out are the shot attempt numbers, and this year’s club does not compare favorably to last year’s.  The 5-on-5 shots attempts-for percentages in every situation posted among the NHL statistics were worse this year than last.  Overall (47.98 to 51.81), ahead (45.17 to 48.87), behind (53.35 to 54.96), and in close situations (46.59 to 53.85).

Then and Now II

These teams know one another.  Since Columbus joined the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division in the 2013-2014 season, the teams have faced off 22 times as division rivals, the Caps holding a 14-5-3 edge.  The 2017-2018 series reflected a similar dominance by the Caps in terms of wins and losses, Washington winning the first three games of the series before dropping the season series finale in Columbus in late February.

How Caps of you to notice…

Since the 2008 playoffs, when the Caps returned to the postseason for the first time since 2003, only six teams in the league have won more postseason games than the Caps (47).  All six of those teams have been to at least one Stanley Cup final – Pittsburgh (90), Chicago (76), Boston (59), Detroit (56), the New York Rangers (55), and San Jose (52).  Alas, the Caps have not.

How Caps of you to notice II…

Since the Caps first reached the postseason in 1983, no team in the NHL has more losses on home ice, although they are in decent company. Their 66 losses over that span are tied with the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens.  The difference is that Detroit has 108 home wins in that span, and Montreal has 82.  The Caps’ 64-66 all-time record on home ice in the playoffs is one of seven teams with a sub-.500 record on home ice in the postseason since 1983 (.492), and none of those seven teams have played more games on home ice in that period than the Caps.

Never, until now…

The Columbus Blue Jackets will be the 13th team that the Caps have faced in the postseason.  The Caps do not have an enviable record when facing a team for the first time in the playoffs.  Starting with their first appearance against the New York Islanders, in the best-of-five Patrick Division Semifinals in 1983 and most recently in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017, the Caps have a 4-8 series record against teams they met for the first time.

It might not be as bad as all that, though.  Those early playoff years were rough.  From 1983 through 1991 the Caps faced a team for the first time in the postseason six times and lost five of those series.  Only in the best-of-five Patrick Division semis in 1984 did the Caps come out on top of a team they were facing for the first time, sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers, a series memorable for current Caps TV analyst Craig Laughlin scoring the game-winning goal in the second and third wins of that three-game sweep.

The last first-timer series in that early period was a five-game loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1991 Patrick Division Finals.  The Pens went on to win their first Stanley Cup and have rained grief and disappointment on the Caps in the decades since.

After that loss to the Pens in 1991, the Caps did not face a team they had not already faced in the playoffs until 1998.  After dispatching the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals (the Caps were swept by the Bruins in the 1990 Wales Conference Finals), the Caps faced in the next three rounds teams they had not yet faced in the post season.  They defeated the Ottawa Senators in five games to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they beat the Buffalo Sabres in six games to advance to what was, and remains the only Stanley Cup Final in which the Caps have participated.  There, they fell to the Detroit Red Wings in a four-game sweep, ending their modest two-series winning streak against teams the faced for the first time.  Detroit was the third, and to date last team to beat the Caps in their first postseason meeting and go on to win the Stanley Cup.  The Islanders did it in 1983, and the Penguins did it in 1991.

That loss to the Red Wings set off a three-series losing streak against first-time opponents, the Caps dropping a six-game series to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2003 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals and a seven-game loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 Eastern Conference quarters that stands as perhaps the most stunning postseason loss in team history.  

Series involving teams the Caps play for the first time tend not to be dull affairs lacking drama.

Never Ever

The Caps have never…ever swept a best-of-seven series.  Only three times have they won a series in five games (1990 against the New York Rangers, 1998 against the Ottawa Senators, and 2011 against the Rangers).

Odd Capitals First Round Fact

Over the last three seasons, no team in the NHL has played more first round playoff games than the Caps (19).  No team has more wins, either (12), the product of being the only team in the last three years to have three first round series wins.  Turns out it’s not “one and done,” but “one is fun!”

Singing for the Unsung

Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Philden Holtbauer or Bralipp Grultby.  Caps fans will expect these players to make significant contributions in the postseason.  But star-power, while necessary, is insufficient for winning a postseason series.  Look back to last year.  The top of the scoring list was populated by the expected suspects: Nicklas Backstrom (6-7-13), T.J. Oshie (4-8-12), Evgeny Kuznetsov (5-5-10), Alex Ovechkin (five goals).  The Caps did not get that “surprise,” that player who breaks through unexpectedly to make critical contributions.  Andre Burakovsky had six points in 13 games, and it says something that the Caps were 3-1 in the games in which he recorded at least one point.  He just didn’t do it often enough.  Lars Eller did not record a goal.  He was one of three forwards who appeared in all 13 games only to be shutout in goals scored (Daniel Winnik and Jay Beagle were the others.

And that raises the question, who among the Capitals who are not stars might be the hero of a series or a deep run?  Put us down for “Tom Wilson.”  He was not an especially big contributor last spring, recording three points, all goals, in 13 games, one of them an overtime game-winning goal against Toronto in the first round.  But this season he showed a much deeper all-around game than merely the “bruiser” role he played over much of his first four seasons.  He set a career record for goals (14), matching his combined total over the previous two seasons.  He also had career highs in assists (21) and points (35).  His plus-10 was a career best, as were his 123 shots on goal and his 11.4 shooting percentage. 

It was more an expansion of his game than a replacement.  His physical edge was still quite evident, Wilson finishing the season with 250 hits (second highest of his career) and a career high 187 penalty minutes.  But it is that expansion in his game, presenting more of an offensive threat that puts Wilson at the top of the list in terms of possible dark horse heroes.  The Caps were 9-1-0 in games in which Wilson recorded a goal this season.  It is his combination of grit and new-found offensive production that can be especially important against a team of lunch pail guys like the Blue Jackets and a coach in John Tortorella who preaches that ethic.

And who might that be for Columbus?

Yeah, Artemi Panarin is the go-to goal getter; he had three of the team’s 12 goals against the Caps this season to lead the team.  Seth Jones is developing into a monster on the blue line.  Nick Foligno has been hurt, but he’s gritty and is the beating heart of this team.  Sergei Bobrovsky has a Vezina Trophy on his resume (two actually).  Those are the guys who are going to have to show up in the postseason for the Blue Jackets to move past the Caps.  Who might be that under the radar guy who could end up being and unsung hero of whom songs are sung in a couple of weeks? 

Here is where we go out on a limb and pick Sonny Milano.  For those of you who have not been paying attention to young Mr. Milano, and chances are you haven’t, he finished the season with 14 goals, good for 16th among rookies this season.  Not impressed?  He did it playing in only 55 games; 42 rookies appeared in more contests.  Still not impressed?  Starting with scoring the game-winning goal against Washington in Columbus’ 5-1 win on February 26th, Milano went 6-3-9 over his last 20 games (the six goals on just 33 shots, 18.2 percent) while averaging just 13 minutes of ice time a night.  Still not impressed?  That run, modest as it might look, roughly corresponded with Columbus’ run since March 1st as the top scoring offense in the league.  And, the Blue Jackets are 13-4-3 in the 20 games in which he recorded at least one point this season.

Specialty of the House

Special teams are always a fertile area for consideration as a deciding factor in a series.  And power plays have been powerful for each of these teams down the stretch.  Since March 1st, Washington was sixth in power play efficiency (25.4 percent), while the Blue Jackets were ninth (23.1 percent).  It might have been even better for each team had they enjoyed more opportunities.  The Caps were tied for ninth in power play chances since March 1st (55), while Columbus was tied for 17th (52).

The top unit for the Caps was effective down the stretch and surprisingly balanced in terms of goal scoring.  No surprise that Alex Ovechkin led the Caps in power play goals since March 1st (5), but Evgeny Kuznetsov had four power play goals of his own, while Nicklas Backstrom added three more.  Meanwhile, John Carlson led the Caps in power play assists in that span with nine, while Backstrom added seven.  The Caps scored power play goals in nine of the 18 games since March 1st and won eight of them.  Avoiding the Caps’ power play will be high on the to-do list for the Blue Jackets.

Columbus did not have the high end total among their power play goal scorers of an Alex Ovechkin, but their power play scoring was more balanced since March 1st.  Seth Jones led the club in power play goals with three in just 15 games played of the 19 on the Columbus schedule.  Pierre-Luc Dubois was the other Blue Jacket with multiple power play goals (2).  Five other players scored one apiece.  Jones also led the club in power play assists over that span with six, followed by Artemi Panarin (five).  The Caps might want to avoid the Blue Jacket power play, knowing that Columbus was 6-0-2 in the eight games in which they scored power plays from March 1st forward.  They also finished with a flair, going 7-for-15 in their last five games (46.7 percent).

While the power plays have been similar in overall effectiveness down the stretch, the penalty killing shows differences between the teams.  Since March 1st, the Caps were 11th in penalty killing (83.0 percent), while Columbus was just 75.0 percent (tied for 21st with the Dallas Stars).  It was in the total shorthanded situations faced that the teams were almost equal, the Caps going shorthanded 53 times in 18 games since March 1st, the Blue Jackets facing 52 shorthanded situations in 19 games.  If the Caps can get the Blue Jackets on the short side of the manpower situation, that might be an advantage for the Caps more than it would be for the Blue Jackets if the situations were reversed.

You have to be this tall to ride this ride

Rookies can make a mark in the post season, but it would not be the way to bet.  Since the dark 2004-2005 season, only two rookies finished a Stanley Cup tournament with more than 20 points – Ville Leino was 7-14-21 for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, and Jake Guentzel was 13-8-21 for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.  Guentzel and Brad Marchand (11 goals in 2011) are the only rookies in that span to finish with ten or more goals as a rookie in the postseason.

That said, do either the Caps or the Blue Jackets have rookies to keep an eye on as pivotal players in this series?  Washington had four rookies appear in more than 50 games this season, two forwards (Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana) and two defensemen (Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey).  If there are contributions to be made from this cohort, it would seem to be more likely from the forwards than the defensemen, neither of whom are certain to get a regular spot in the lineup in this series.  Stephenson and Vrana have entirely different profiles, the former being more of a checking, bottom-six contributor, while Vrana is a skill player who needs to be productive on offense to maximize his contributions.  Vrana did finish tied for 17th in this rookie class in goal scoring (13). However, after scoring ten goals in his first 32 games this season, his production dried up with just three goals in his last 41 games, and his appearances in the lineup became more infrequent.

Columbus dressed five rookies for ten or more games, but only Pierre-Luc Dubois and Sonny Milano dressed for more than 50.  Their contributions had bigger footprints than any Capitals rookie.  Dubois, the third-overall pick in the 2016 entry draft, would appear to bear watching.  He finished with 20 goals (tied for seventh in this year’s rookie class with New Jersey’s Nico Hischier) and 48 points (eighth). 

The Tender Mercies of ‘Tender Tendencies

This might be the most intriguing series in the first round if you like goaltending drama.  Three of the last five Vezina Trophies are represented in this series, Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky with two and Washington’s Braden Holtby with one.  Both have been among the finalists twice over the last five seasons.  And yet, there is Holtby around whom uncertainty swirls at the moment.   After winning both ends of a home-and-home against Columbus in early February, Holtby finished the season going 6-6-2, 3.79, .880 in 14 appearances and was pulled early from games three times.  His only win in six road appearances in that sequence was in his last road game, a 34-save effort in a 4-2 win in St. Louis against the Blues on April 2nd.  On the good side, he is 5-1-0, 2.68, .911 over his last six appearances.

Holtby’s performance opened up a lane of opportunity for Philipp Grubauer, and he drove through it.  Of 39 goalies in the league to log at least 1,000 minutes since January 1st, Grubauer is second in the league in goals against average (2.14) and save percentage (.931), both to Arizona’s Antti Raanta (1.84/.942).  And here is your interesting Grubauer fact.  Since he came into the league in the 2012-2013 season, none of the 61 goalies logging at least 5,000 minutes has a better save percentage than Grubauer (.923), and he is in a virtual tie with Raanta and Anaheim’s John Gibson for the third best goals against average (all three at 2.29).  It has made for an unexpected – and as of Monday morning unresolved – goaltending controversy.

There is no similar controversy in Columbus, where it is a betting lock that the Blue Jackets will live or die with Bobrovsky between the pipes.  This will not be a Vezina Trophy season for the netminder, now in his eighth NHL season and sixth in Columbus, but replicating last season’s Vezina Trophy and third-place finish in the Hart Trophy voting for league most valuable player would have been a heavy lift.  As it is, his 2017-2018 season is quite respectable.  Among 45 goalies logging at least 1,500 minutes, Bobrovsky finished 10th in goals against average (2.42), 11th in save percentage (.921), and tied for fourth in shutouts (5).  He ramped up his performance down the stretch, going 12-2-1, 2.33, .926, with one shutout. 

But then again, there is his playoff record.  In four trips to the postseason, Bobrovsky is 3-10, 3.63, .887 in 18 appearances, 14 of them starts.  And it is not as if he has improved with time.  Last season he allowed 20 goals on 170 shots (.882 save percentage) in a five-game loss to Pittsburgh.  More strange, perhaps, is that the Penguins were his opponent in each of his last three trips to the postseason.  Much might be made of his 3-8, 3.73, .889 record in 12 games against Pittsburgh, but it is not as if he had more success against the other two teams he has faced in the playoffs – Boston and Buffalo (0-2-0, 3.23, .877 in six appearances).  He has his own spring demons to exorcise.

Management Matters

This series brings together two of the most experienced head coaches in league history.  Barry Trotz has 762 career regular season wins (fifth all-time) in 1,524 games coached (also fifth all-time).  John Tortorella has 575 wins (19th all-time) in 1,175 games coached (18th all-time).

That is where the similarities end, though.  Where Trotz is, by outward appearances, an even-keeled sort who might fairly be characterized as a “players’ coach,” Tortorella is more mercurial in personality, bordering on the volcanic.  Post-game media press conferences can be must-see TV to see how he might respond to a question he deems insufficiently appropriate.  But more important are the performance differences in the post season.  Trotz has made ten playoff appearances as a head coach with Nashville and Washington, posting a record of 39-50 in 89 games.  In each of his last five appearances in the postseason – two with the Predators and three with the Caps – he led his teams to the second round.  None would go further.

Tortorella has had more post season success, but that does come with a caveat.  Nine times he coached teams in the postseason – four with the Tampa Bay Lightning, four with the New York Rangers, and once with Columbus.  He won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004 and went to a Stanley Cup final with the Rangers in 2012.  However, he failed to reach the postseason in his only season with Vancouver, and he is 0-for-1 in series behind the Columbus bench.  His overall record of 44-50 in 94 games is not that impressive as a total body of work, and he has been “one-and-done” in five of his last seven trips to the postseason.  One wonders if perhaps his most successful days in the postseason are in the rear view mirror. 

The Caps will win if…

One of their goaltenders is the real deal.  Is Philipp Grubauer the “real deal” version of what he was in the 2018 portion of the season?  Or, is Braden Holtby the “real deal” of the postseason netminder he has been over most of his career (last year being a noteworthy exception)?  If not, the Caps have to hope that all of their stars shine on offense and get some second and third tier support.

The Blue Jackets will win if…

Their run since March 1st has not been a mirage.  That league leading scoring offense was the product of a league leading 12.4 percent shooting percentage, more than full point better than the next best team, who happened to be the Caps (11.2, second in the league).  The difference is, that 11.2 percent for the Caps is a lot closer to their season norm (10.8 percent overall) than Columbus’ 12.4 percent was to theirs (8.5 percent overall, 23rd in the league).

In the end…

These are two teams that are coming in hot into the postseason.  Since March 1st, Washington is 13-5-0 in 18 games, while Columbus is 13-4-2 in 19 games.  Both teams have formidable power plays over that span – The Capitals are 25.4 percent, the Blue Jackets at 23.1 percent.  But one cannot help but wonder if the Blue Jackets aren’t sitting atop a bubble about to burst.  Since March 1st, Columbus has seven skaters who appeared in ten or more games with shooting percentages over 16.0 percent.  That is more than eight percent of the league total over that period.  If Columbus’ shooting bubble bursts, the pressure shifts to a goaltender yet to realize any success in the postseason.  There is also the matter of the Blue Jackets and their own history of playoff disappointment.  It is not nearly as long or storied as the Caps, but they are 0-for-3 in postseason series in franchise history.

For the Caps, the problems are the usual.  Saying the past doesn’t matter long ago sounded like whistling past the graveyard.  Now, it’s a whole brass band.  And until the Caps win something beyond the second round, the same demons will keep rising up every spring.  But they cannot get there until they win one.  And this team is one that a lot of folks in the world of hockey don’t put a lot of faith in to win one, at least not so much as teams of the past couple of years.  Perhaps that will release the valve behind which so much pressure has built over the years.  It just seems as though the Caps’ foundation coming into this series is of sturdier stuff than Columbus’.  It won’t be easy – for the Caps it never is – but they will advance.

Capitals in six