The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Michael Corleone spoke this line in “The Godfather, Part III,” but in an odd way it applies to the Washington Capitals early in this NHL season. Just when you think the Caps are coming out of their early season fog, they get pulled right back into the inconsistency that has plagued their start. The latest instance of this came on Friday night when the Caps dropped a 2-1 decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets, ending a two-game winning streak (their only one of the season) and wasting an opportunity to climb into the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
The Caps get a chance to get back on the winning track with a late afternoon contest against the Arizona Coyotes on Veterans Day. For a while there, the Coyotes were just about the hottest team in the league. They peeled of a five-game winning streak to close October and open November. The streak came to an end by dropping both ends of a home-and-home set of games against the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday and Thursday. They will take the ice for the second game of their current road trip against Pittsburgh on Saturday before arriving in Washington for the back half of a back-to-back set of games.
Arizona is a team that struggles in the offensive end. The 2.86 goals per game scoring offense ranks 24th in the league, and only two teams have scored fewer 5-on-5 goals than the Coyotes (22) – Detroit (21) and Los Angeles (20). Centers Brad Richardson and Clayton Keller lead the club with five goals apiece. Richardson is an experienced (in his 14th season), well-traveled player (Arizona being his fourth team). He has been, for the most part, a forward with a bottom-six profile, averaging 13-plus minutes per game over his career and a per-82 game scoring line of 10-15-25, minus-4. He has established himself as a dangerous penalty killer this season, his three shorthanded goals tied for the league lead and more shorthanded goals by himself than 25 teams had through Friday’s games. He has four goals in his last six games (4-2-6), two of those goals coming shorthanded. In 11 career games against Washington, Richardson is 1-1-2, minus-1.
Clayton Keller is on the other end of the experience spectrum from Richardson. The seventh-overall pick of the 2016 draft, the 20-year old is in his third season with the Coyotes. Last year, in what was his first full season, he made a strong case for being named rookie of the year, posting 23 goals (fifth among rookies), 42 assists (second), 65 points (second), six power play goals (tied for fourth), 20 power play points (fourth), two overtime goals (tied for second), and 18:05 in average ice time (first among rookie forwards). He finished third in the Calder voting behind Brock Boeser and the winner, Mathew Barzal. Keller has been productive at even strength and with the man advantage, but in different ways. All five of his goals have come at even strength, while four of his six assists have come on power plays. He comes into this game as perhaps the hottest player for the Coyotes on the offensive side of the ice. After starting the season with only an assist in his first five games, he is 5-5-10, plus-3, in his last nine contests. Keller is 2-1-3, plus-2, in two career games against Washington.
Goalie Antti Raanta is apparently both on injured reserve and “day-to-day.” Such is the state of injury reporting in the NHL. Be that as it may, it means that the goaltending duties fall to Darcy Kuemper for the time being. Kuemper is in his second season with his third team in the NHL (Minnesota and Los Angeles being the others), managing to appear in 136 career games primarily as a backup netminder (31 games played in 2014-2015 with Minnesota is his career high). Last season, after coming over from the Los Angeles Kings in February, Kuemper had his worst career numbers. In ten games, he was 2-6-2, 3.22, .899, that goals against average being his first season over 3.00, and his save percentage being his first season under .900. Even though he has appeared in only five games so far this season, it looks like two different seasons. He opened the year going 2-1-0, 1.34, .957 in his first three games, but he took the loss in both games in the home-and-home with the Flyers, stopping only 55 of 64 shots (.859 save percentage). Kuemper has on career appearance against the Caps. On February 26, 2016, with the Minnesota Wild, he stopped 24 of 27 shots in dropping a 3-2 decision in Washington.
1. The five-game winning streak the Coyotes had earlier this season was their longest since posting a five-game win streak in Games 12-16 in the 2013-2014 season. The odd thing about that streak was that the last three wins all came by way of the Gimmick.
2. The name change the Coyotes made, from the “Phoenix” Coyotes to the “Arizona” Coyotes in 2014-2015, did nothing to change their fortunes in terms of wins and losses. Their 125 wins over those four-plus seasons are fewest of the 30 teams that played over that span (Vegas, in their second season, has 58 wins).
3. Arizona struggles on offense, but they don’t struggle on offense while on defense. The Coyotes have only 40 goals scored this season. Only three teams have scored fewer, but of those 40 goals, nine...NINE...are shorthanded. They have three games with two shorthanded goals. Only 13 teams in the history of the league have had more multi-shorthanded goal games in a single season (Edmonton has the record of six in 1985-1986). There are 17 teams with one or no shorthanded goals for the season.
4. The Coyotes are one of two teams without a major penalty this season, fighting or otherwise. The other team is…wait for it…wait for it… the Philadelphia Flyers.
5. The Caps had better get a lead early. Through Fridays’ games, only Toronto had more wins when leading at the end of the first period (six) than Arizona (five, tied with six teams).
1. The one goal scored against Columbus on Friday night was a season low on home ice for the Caps.
2. Washington has won five of their last six games against the Coyotes on home ice, outscoring them, 26-18.
3. The Caps make teams pay in the middle periods of games. The 25 goals they scored in the second periods of games so far this season is tops in the league. The Caps and the Colorado Avalanche are the only teams plus-10 in the second periods of games this season.
4. Washington could do a better job at the start of games. They have scored the game’s first goal only six times in 15 games. They have a 5-1-0 record when doing so.
5. The Caps are one of seven teams that are under 50 percent in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 in all situations: ahead (45.83), behind (48.42), tied (48.85), close (47.16), and overall (47.58).
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Arizona: Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is in his ninth NHL season, all of them with the Coyotes organization. He has quietly built an impressive resume of the sort that makes him one of the more underrated players in the league. His 590 games played is third highest among defensemen in team history, trailing only Zbynek Michalek (612) and Teppo Numminen (1,098). He trails only Numminen in goals scored in team history (104 to 108), and he is one of only six defensemen in team history having recorded 300 points. He has been a remarkably durable player, missing a total of 12 games over the last seven-plus seasons, and starting with his sophomore season he has not averaged less than 22 minutes of ice time a game. He has been consistent, too. Only once in the last six-plus seasons (including this one) has he averaged less than half a point per game, and that was 0.49 points per game in 2014-2015. Ekman-Larsson comes into this game on a four-game points streak (2-3-5) and is 2-8-10 in his last nine games after opening the season without a point in his first five games. He has faced the Caps 11 times in his career and is 2-4-6, even.
Washington: T.J. Oshie
When T.J. Oshie puts up crooked numbers on the score sheet, good things happen. The Caps are 6-0-1 when he scored at least one goal in a game this season, 7-0-2 when he recorded a point. It is not as if this is an aberration. The Caps were 11-1-2 when he scored a goal last season, 22-9-4 when he recorded a point last season. He appears to be well on his way to posting his third 20-plus goal season in four with the Caps after hitting that mark only once in seven seasons with the St. Louis Blues (21 goals in 2013-2014). His goal scoring success this season is a product of efficiency, producing those eight goals on only 33 shots (24.2 percent). That is not likely a sustainable number, but two seasons ago, when he scored a career high 33 goals, he did so on only 143 shots, a 23.1 percent shooting efficiency that led the league among players with more than 20 shots on goal. The odd thing about Oshie’s season so far is that the Caps are only 1-2-2 in the five games in which he skated more than 20 minutes. He is 6-12-18, plus-5, kin 25 career games against the Coyotes.
In the end…
The Caps are trying to fight off having a disappointing five-game home stand. A 3-1-1 finish would look a lot better than 2-2-1 before heading off on a four-game road trip. Washington gets a bit of a break, facing a team that struggles on offense while the Caps are missing Brooks Orpik and perhaps John Carlson on the blue line. However, Arizona is a good defensive team insofar as scoring defense is concerned (2.43 goalls against per game, second-best in the league), and their penalty killing is best in the league at 91.1 percent, not to mention those nine shorthanded goals scored. But the Coyotes will be coming off a game in Pittsburgh on Saturday and have some issues in goal that the Caps need to exploit to make this a successful home stand.
Capitals 5 – Coyotes 2