Sunday, June 03, 2018

Washington Capitals: Three Games In and Breaking New Ice

Three games into the Stanley Cup final, and the Washington Capitals are in a place they have never been – a two games to one lead in the last playoff series of the season, win or lose.  Capitals Nation is hoping for the “win” part of that phrase, and we are thinking about those first three games and whether there is anything that stands out.  Let’s take a look…

-- The Caps have dressed the same 18 skaters in the three games so far.  While this sounds a bit trivial, consider that the Caps are nursing injuries.  Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov undoubtedly are grinding through lingering “upper body” injuries (likely hand for Backstrom, wrist for Kuznetsov).  These are the most recent examples of just what hockey players endure at this time of year to keep moving forward toward their goal of a championship.  That these injuries would hit the top two centers in a manner most likely to affect the strength of their respective games (healthy hands for an offensively-productive player are something of a necessity) speaks to how much this team is determined to see things through.

-- Time on ice.  There are several things that stand out here.  First, that at evens, it is the second forward line getting most of the action.  T.J. Oshie leads the team's forwards with 16:21 in even strength ice time, and Nicklas Backstrom is second (16:08).  Lars Eller, getting mostly third line minutes in this series, is third with 15:39.  The flip side of this is the top line.  There is Tom Wilson leading that trio of forwards with 15:24 in even strength ice time per game.  Alex Ovechkin, in perhaps his most productive (in an efficiency sense) postseason ever, is fifth among the 12 forwards to dress so far with 14:36 in even strength ice time per game.  The last member of that top line trio – Evgeny Kuznetsov – is averaging only 11:55 at evens through three games, but that number is depressed by his skating just 4:26 (all at even strength) in Game 2 before departing with an injury.

-- More time on ice.  The defense so far reflects a distinct pecking order with respect to ice time.  At even strength, there is the top pair of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov, who are averaging 22:58 and 22:27 in even strength ice time per game, respectively.  Then there is the second pair – John Carlson (19:56) and Michal Kempny (18:07) – followed by the third pair of Brooks Orpik (11:59) and Christian Djoos (8:57).  The stratification extends to average shift time.  Niskanen and Orlov are averaging 56 second per shift overall apiece.  Then there is the second pair (Carlson at 51 seconds, Kempny at 47 seconds) and the third pair (Orpik at 46 seconds and Djoos at 34 seconds).

-- Speaking of defense, there might be an as-yet untapped vein of potential production there.  Through three games, neither Orlov nor Niskanen have a point.

-- The Caps are extending a pleasant team stat into the first three games of this series.  In the opening round against Columbus, the Caps outscored the Blue Jackets at even strength, 14-13.  Against Pittsburgh in the second round, the Caps had a 15-9 goals edge over the Penguins.  In Round 3 against Tampa Bay, the even strength goals edge for the Caps over the Lightning was 19-9.  Through three games of this series, the Caps have a 9-7 edge in even strength goals.

-- There is an “all-in” character with this team that shows up in the “grittership” stats.  For example, 17 of 18 skaters have been credited with blocked shots (Evgeny Kuznetsov is the lone skater without one).  All 18 skaters have at least one credited hit.  Nine of the 18 skaters have a takeway-to-giveaway ratio of at least 1.00:1.

-- Devante Smith-Pelly scored the big insurance goal in Game 3.  It was his first shot on goal of the series.  In fact, he’s scored on his last two shots on goal.  His last shot/goal came in Game 6 against Tampa Bay on what would be another insurance goal, bumping a 1-0 lead to 2-0 on the way to a 3-0 Caps win.

-- Balance, balance, balance.  Nine Caps share the ten goals scored through three games (Ovechkin has two).  Fourteen skaters have points, six of them tied for the team lead with three.  Seven players have a shooting percentage of 20 percent or better.

-- The goaltending battle between Braden Holtby and Marc-Andre Fleury is slowly tilting in favor of Holtby.  Both he and Fleury had difficult times in Game 1, Holtby stopping just 28 of 33 shots (.848 save percentage) and Fleury turning aside 24 of 28 shots (.857).  But where Holtby has stepped up his game considerably in Games 2 and 3 (combined .951 save percentage). Fleury has continued to struggle (.885 combined save percentage). 

-- In fact, Fleury is under .900 in save percentage in all three games, the first time he has gone three consecutive games under .900 in the postseason since he went three straight games under .900 against the New York Rangers in their second round series in 2014.  Fleury had gone 40 consecutive playoff games without suffering three in a row with a save percentage under .900.  Caps fans will be hoping the pattern Fleury followed in that 2014 instance is a case of history repeating itself.  Fleury won the first game in that 2014 string before dropping two in a row.  He lost a third consecutive game and had a fourth straight game without topping .900 in save percentage, stopping 18 of 20 shots (.900) in a 2-1 loss that ended the Penguins’ season.

A few overall notes…

-- Last night the Caps played in their 22nd game of this postseason, surpassing their previous high in games played in a single postseason, 21 in 1998.

-- The Caps are averaging 3.45 goals per game in this postseason, their highest goals-per-game in a postseason since 1995 (3.71 per game in seven games).  Their goal differential per game (plus-0.90) is second best for a postseason in team history (1986: plus-1.33 in nine games)

-- Washington’s 27.3 percent power play to date is their third best in the postseason in franchise history.  The 1993 team was 34.6 percent in six games, and the 2001 club was 31.8 percent in six games.

-- Until this postseason, only John Druce recorded more than ten goals in a single postseason for the Caps (14 goals in 1990).  The Caps have two such players in this postseason.   Alex Ovechkin tied Druce for the most in a single postseason with his goal to open the scoring in Game 3.  Evgeny Kuznetsov’s goal  -- the game-winner in Game 3 – was his 12th of this postseason.  Should Ovechkin score another, he will tie Sidney Crosby for the most in a single postseason since 2005-2006 (15 in 2009).

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov had the game-winning goal in Game 3, making him the fifth Capital with two game-winning goals in this postseason.  Nine Caps share the 14 game-winners.  That Jay Beagle, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Brooks Orpik are among those nine skaters says something about the balance and depth the Caps have had in this postseason.

In the end...

It is "first to four" not "first to two."  But getting to two in three games is a lot better than having to win three of the last four games of this series to win it.  The Caps are in an enviable position, but that can change in 60 minutes.  It puts a premium on putting the Game 3 win in the rear view mirror and focusing on Monday night.

Photo: Jim Rogash/Getty Images