The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals return home on Saturday night, hoping to shake off the putrid aroma of their visit to Newark on Thursday when they fell to the New Jersey Devils, 6-0. The Devils, a plucky group, don’t scare many folks offensively (even if they do lead the NHL in scoring offense at 5.50 goals per game), yet they abused the Caps for those six goals, the most they scored in a game since they clubbed the Vegas Golden Knights, 8-3, last March 14th.
Saturday’s opponent, on the other hand, will put the fear of God in their foes. The Toronto Maple Leafs are second in the league in scoring offense through Thursday’s games (5.00 goals per game), and they happen to have the only four players in the league with at least ten points. Auston Matthews is tied for the league lead (12 points) with teammate Morgan Rielly, and he leads the league with an astounding nine goals in only five games (that is a 148-goal pace, which would be a record). How hot is Matthews? He is the only player since 2005-2006 to record at least ten shots on goal and a shooting percentage over 50 percent (52.9 percent on 9-for-17 shooting so far). But here is a statistic that amazes. He has taken four power play shots this season, and he scored on all of them. Yes, 4-for-4. Matthews is so hot that he might not be able to melt tungsten (melting point: 6192 degrees Fahrenheit), but he could soften it. And, he has been an equal opportunity abuser of opponents in his brief career to date. Despite a resume with only 149 games in two-plus seasons, Matthews has scored at least one goal against 27 of the other 30 teams in the league (Calgary, Philadelphia, and St. Louis have blanked him so far). In five career games against the Caps, he is 1-3-4, even.
As for Morgan Rielly, he gets far less attention than Matthews and certainly a lot less than one might expect for a fifth-overall draft pick (2012). However, the sixth-year defenseman had an awakening last season, almost doubling his career-best assist total (46, compared to 27 in 2016-2017) and setting a career high in points (52, tied for 15th among defensemen last season). He leads all defensemen in scoring so far (12 points, six ahead of Washington’s John Carlson and Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot), and his nine assists lead all of the league’s skaters regardless of position. Six of those assists have come on power plays, also a league high. Rielly is 1-6-7, minus-5, in 15 career games against Washington.
One rung down on the scoring list for Toronto two players are tied with ten points apiece. Mitch Marner looks as if he might be blown over in a light breeze, but his slight build is hardly an impediment to his production. He went 19-42-61 in his rookie season two years ago and 22-47-69 last season (while playing in all 82 games). What is noteworthy about that is that Marner is one of two players in the history of the franchise to record at least 60 points in each of his first two NHL seasons (Matthews is the other; source: hockey-reference.com). He is well on his way to a third 60-point season, if not a good deal more. Marner is 2-3-5, minus-4, in six career games against the Caps.
The three precocious youngsters (average age is under 23) almost make one forget about the big free agent prize who is the fourth Leaf with at least ten points in the early going. John Tavares, who signed a seven-year/$77 million deal to play in his hometown (he was born in Mississauga, just outside Toronto), has those ten points, but nine of them came in the last three games (5-4-9), including a hat trick in a 7-6 win over the Chicago Blackhawks last Sunday. His 6-4-10 start is quite a bit hotter than it was last season when he went without a point in six of his first seven games with the New York Islanders. The 15 goals Tavares has in 34 career games against the Caps is topped only by the 18 he has against the Philadelphia Flyers (in 42 games) and the 22 goals he has against the Carolina Hurricanes (in 34 games). Overall, he is 15-15-30 in those 34 career games against Washington.
1. Toronto wraps up its four game road trip with this game. Frankly, they might want to stay on the road. The Maple Leafs have scored 19 goals in the first three games of the trip. No team in the league has that many goals overall through Thursday (the Caps and Blackhawks have 18 apiece).
2. What Toronto taketh, they giveth away. No team has allowed more goals than the Maple Leafes (20, tied with Ottawa).
3. As goal-happy as the Maple Leafs are, their goal scoring is quite concentrated. Seven players account for their 25 goals (Matthews and Tavares account for 15 by themselves). Ten teams have more players with at least one goal, including the Caps (eight).
4. The Leafs can be sloppy with the puck. Only Los Angeles has more charged giveaways (56) than Toronto (53). On the other hand, they take it away, too. Their 47 takeaways are second-most in the league (Carolina has 49 through Thursday). But, they do block shots. Toronto’s 83 blocked shots tops the league.
5. Toronto is a somewhat indifferent team when it comes to possession; their 50.49 shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 ranks only 14th. However, they do play with more urgency when behind. Their SAT percentage at 5-on-5 of 65.71 is third-highest in the league (source: NHL.com).
1. The Caps go into this game with a 2-1-1 record. That’s the same record they had through four games last season. And in fact, their shots totals, for and against, look better this time around (123 for, 133 against) than they did at this time last season (99/147).
2. Fo’ Fo’ Fo’… Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson each have four power play points, and they account for five of the six Capitals power play goals (Alex Ovechkin has the other).
3. The Caps are an efficient bunch. Six of the 20 skaters to dress so far are shooting at 20 percent or better: T.J. Oshie (44.4 percent), Carlson (28.6), Kuznetsov (25.0), Ovechkin (23.5), Nic Dowd (20.0), and Brooks Orpik (20.0).
4. The Caps have a productive offense, but one might wonder how much more productive they might be if they could grab possession more assertively in the offensive zone. To wit, the Caps are last in the league in offensive zone faceoff winning percentage (39.8).
5. Teams tend to play with more urgency when trailing, and this is often reflected in shot attempt numbers. But, the Caps are 27th of 30 teams in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (44.95) when trailing. Note, we said “of 30 teams.” New Jersey does not register on this metric because they did not trail at any point in their first two games.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Toronto: Frederik Andersen
The Maple Leafs are going to be a fun group to watch. The scoreboard at Scotiabank Arena might better be replaced by a pinball machine. But that cuts two ways, too. Frederik Andersen is the guy at the other end of the ice watching those skaters wreak havoc on opposing goalies, but he’s the guy who has to deal with the chances such a wide open approach to offense affords opponents. It is early, but he has been challenged. Fifty goalies dressed for games through Thursday, and his 3.28 goals against average ranked 32nd of that group, while his .893 save percentage ranked 30th. Andersen also has to fend off a barrage of pucks on a night to night basis. Since arriving in Toronto from the Anaheim Ducks in 2016-2017, no goalie in the league has faced more shots on goal (4,385), almost 200 more than Cam Talbot (4,210) and almost 500 more than third-place Sergei Bobrovsky (3,909). No goaltender in that span has had more games facing 40 or more shots on goal than Andersen (22). Toronto might score a ton of goals this season, but it isn’t doing their netminder any favors, and it might be that the Leafs go far only if Andersen can keep enough fingers in the dike to keep from having a flood of goals against wash over them. In five career games against the Caps, Andersen is 3-1-1, 2.88, .909, with two shutouts.
Washington: Lars Eller
Who is last on the Capitals in plus-minus so far this season? Who is last among forwards in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 when trailing in games? Which forward has been on ice for most total goals against so far? The answer to all three questions is “Lars Eller.” He was last seen scoring the game-winning, series-clinching, Cup-winning goal for the Caps last June, so a slow start is not necessarily surprising, and it carries with it a “so what” nature to it. You score the Cup-clinching goal, you get free drinks for life and a lot of slack for an iffy start. Nevertheless, Eller is counted on as part of that “deep down the middle” logic behind successful teams. The good news is, Eller didn’t exactly produce fireworks to open last season, either. He did not score a goal until his tenth game of the season (he has one this season) and was 0-3-3, minus-3 over his first nine games. If he is going to breakout, it might be against this team. Eller is 7-10-17, plus-3, in 34 games against Toronto, that point total being the most he has against any team in the NHL.
In the end…
The Caps had an offensive hiccup against the Devils, getting blanked after scoring 18 goals in their first three games. It is on the other side of the puck where concerns lie. It is only four games, but Washington has alternated stinginess with generosity – no goals allowed to Boston, followed by seven Penguins goals, and then just two against Vegas, followed by six allowed to the Devils. If the pattern holds, the Caps will be stingy in this one. However, that might not be the way to bet, and it certainly is not a pattern the Caps want to follow for very long. They were successful last year when paying attention to the details of defensive structure. It is not a new idea, but it is one with which they need to become reacquainted if they are to beat this team and be successful moving forward.
Capitals 4 – Maple Leafs 3