Sunday, December 23, 2018

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 12

Recording two wins in three games is not a bad week.  However, for the Washington Capitals, the week did have the faint whiff of disappointment over with whom that loss was recorded.  Nevertheless, the Caps finished the week with a two-game winning streak and a spot at the top of the Metropolitan Division going into the Christmas holiday break, a place they did not occupy at the break last season.

Record: 2-1-0

Going into the Christmas break last season, the Caps were in second place in the Metropolitan Division, one point behind the New Jersey Devils, and the Devils had two games in hand.  Winning the week allowed the Caps to remain at the top of the Metro, four points clear of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  That the Caps went 2-1-0 for the week against three Eastern Conference teams – Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Ottawa – should hardly be surprising.  The Caps go into the Christmas break with a 14-5-2 record against Eastern Conference teams, slightly better than last season’s 13-6-1 record heading into the break.  The two wins against Atlantic Division teams left the Caps with a 7-2-1 record against that division, not much different than the 8-3-1 record they posted last season at the break against the Atlantic.

The disappointment was in the loss to a Metropolitan Division opponent, the archrival Pittsburgh Penguins.  It was a milestone loss of sorts, the 100th time in the history of the regular season series that the Caps lost in regulation to the Penguins.  They lost an opportunity to get even between wins (they have 98) and regulation losses.  Of current relevance, the loss allowed the Penguins to climb within five points of the Caps at the break, although the Caps do hold a game in hand on Pittsburgh.

Offense: 2.33/game (season: 3.60/game, rank: 3rd)

There is the old “glass half full/glass half empty” theme to deal with in this category in Week 12.  In the glass half full portion, the Caps had seven different goal scorers.  Glass half empty?  None of them had more than one goal.  Glass half full?  The Caps had 12 different players record points.  Glass half empty?  None had more than two, and there were only three of them.

What was odd for the Caps was the lack of production at the top of the shot column.  Alex Ovechkin…12 shots on goal, no goals.  Evgeny Kuznetsov… 10 shots on goal, no goals.  Jakub Vrana…nine shots on goal, one goal.  John Carlson…eight shots on goal, no goals.  The top four Caps in shots on goal combined for one goal on 39 shots.  There was, at the other end, Chandler Stephenson, who recorded a goal (shorthanded) on his only shot on goal for the week.  Go figure.

The Caps got two of their seven goals for the week from defensemen, those coming from Matt Niskanen and Michal Kempny.  What is noteworthy about that is who was – and remains – missing from the goal scoring register.  When the Caps skated off the ice after their 4-0 win over Ottawa on Saturday to end the week, it marked the two-month mark since John Carlson last recorded a goal.  In 26 games since he lit the lamp, part of a three-point night for Carlson in Vancouver in a 5-2 win over the Canucks, he has no goals on 67 shots.  Not that he hasn’t contributed.  Carlson has 22 assists over that span, third in the league among defensemen, trailing by one only Brent Burns and Mark Giordano.  He is also a plus-16 over that span, seventh-best in the league among defensemen.

Defense: 1.00/game (season: 2.91/game, rank: 15th)

The Caps allowed 30 or more in all three games – 30 to the Penguins, 37 to the Sabres, and 35 to the Senators.  The odd part of it all, though, was the Pittsburgh game.  The Caps allowed the Pens only 38 shot attempts at 5-on-5, by far their lowest total for the week (and the only game in which the Caps were on the “plus” side of that ledger).  Washington allowed Buffalo 55 shot attempts at fives and then 60 by Ottawa to end the week.

There was a sense of variety in the shots allowed profile.  Against Pittsburgh, it was the middle frame in which the defense allowed the most attempts to reach the net (13 of the total of 30).  Against Buffalo, it was the third period (17 of 37), and against Ottawa it was the first period (13 of 35).

Tom Wilson had perhaps the most interesting week on the defensive side of the puck.  His 11 hits led all players, as did his five takeaways.  And there was defenseman Tyler Lewington, who dressed for his first game in the NHL, getting 13 minutes and change against Ottawa to end the week.  Four hits and a penalty made for an eventful debut, despite not recording a point.  Fun Lewington fact…he became the first player in team history to wear jersey number “78.”

Goaltending: 1.01 / .971 / 1 SO (season: 2.75 / .913 / 3 SO)

Week 12 was the best week of the season for the netminders.  When the number one netminder stops 64 of 67 shots (a .955 save percentage), and that is the second-best performance of the week, it says a lot about the total effort.  That was Braden Holtby’s week, taking the 2-1 loss against the Penguins but following that up with superb 36-save effort in the 2-1 win over Buffalo in the middle game of the week.  His .962 save percentage at even strength was fourth-best in the league among the 36 goalies appearing in at least two games.  It was part of an oddly inconsistent month for Holtby, who in seven appearances in December allowed five or more goals twice and two or fewer goals four times.

Holtby’s performance was quite a set up for the end of the week, when Pheonix Copley got the nod in Ottawa against the Senators.  The Caps scored on their first and last shots of the first period, and inbetween Copley had 12 saves on 12 shots (he had 13 for the period).  So, one might have thought it would be a good night for the Caps.  What one might not have foreseen was that Copley would stop all 35 shots he faced to earn his first NHL shutout.  The win gave Copley a record of 8-1-1 in his last 11 appearances with a goals against average of 2.34 and a .921 save percentage.  The odd part of that record was his no decision.  It was the only time in the 11-game run in which he allowed four or more goals, giving up four on 22 shots before being relieved after 21 minutes by Braden Holtby, who took the 5-4 loss against the Montreal Canadiens on November 19th after the Caps came back to tie the game.  Fun Copley fact…through Week 13, he has a better even strength save percentage (.927) than does Henrik Lundqvist (.926)…and Andrei Vasilevskiy (.924)…and Ben Bishop (.923)…and Matt Murray (.918)…and Sergei Bobrovsky (.917).

Power Play:  0-for-12/0.0 percent (season: 23.4 percent, rank: 8th)

When does a power play go from “slump” to just “bad?”  Those are the same players out there as who put together a 32.7 percent power play through the first six weeks of the season.  But over the past six weeks, the Caps’ power play is at 15.3 percent, 20th in the league over that span.

Week 12 was the worst week of the season.  It marked the first week this season in which the Caps failed to record a single power play goal.  It was the first time that they did not record a power play goal in a week’s worth of games since Week 23 last season, when they went 0-for-6.  It was the first time that they failed to record a single power play goal in a week in which they had ten or more chances since Week 12 of the 2016-2017 season, when they went 0-for-12.

The Caps just seem to be in a rut, perhaps in need of a new wrinkle.  Whatever it is, Week 12 was not very good from a shooting standpoint.  They managed only 14 shots on goal in 21:07 of power play ice time.  Low shot volume, high minutes, makes for an unsuccessful week on the man advantage. 

One thing to note on the shooting numbers.  Of the 14 shots the Caps recorded, only one – that from T.J. Oshie, came from the middle of the 1-3-1 set-up, a reflection of either not getting pucks there or defenses doing a good job collapsing around it.  The other 13 shots came from perimeter players – Evgeny Kuznetsov (five), Alex Ovechkin (four), and John Carlson (four).  Ovechkin has only one power play goal in his last 15 games, two in his last 21 contests.

Penalty Killing: 9-for-10 / 90.0 percent (season: 76.4 percent, rank: 26th)

There has been nothing mediocre about the Caps’ penalty kill lately.  It has been either very good or very bad.  Consider a 9-for-10 week one of the very good variety.  It was the third time in seven weeks that it was 90 percent or better.  That matches the three times in that span that the Caps were under 75 percent.

As inefficient the Caps were on the power play getting shots to the net, the penalty killers were efficient at denying shots on goal.  In 16:37 of shorthanded ice time, the Caps allowed only nine shots on goal.  And that goal allowed was a bit flukish.  A shot-pass from Evgeni Malkin to Sidney Crosby at the left of goalie Braden Holtby was redirected off Crosby’s stick and then of the toe of his right skate behind Holtby.   Had he not gotten his toe on it, the redirected puck appeared to be going wide.  And, the little things.  On that goal, Jonas Siegenthaler, a rookie defenseman, had responsibility down low on that play and drifted to the middle to allow Crosby to set up unchallenged at the left side of the crease.

Faceoffs: 68-for-157 / 43.3 percent (season: 47.7 percent, rank: 27th)

There is a technical term for what was the Caps’ performance in the faceoff circle in Week 12.  That term would be, “yuck.”  They lost all three zones for the week, and they were under 40 percent for two of the three games.  The good points… Washington was 28-for-51 against Buffalo in the middle game of the week.  On the other hand, the Sabres finished the week 26th in the league in faceoff winning percentage (one spot, it turns out, ahead of the Caps).  Pittsburgh and Ottawa were the teams holding the Caps under 40 percent, but those clubs are middle-of-the-road in faceoff winning percentage (14th and 16th, respectively, at week’s end).  If you looked at the zone statistics through a rose-colored lens, you could say that it was the neutral zone winning percentage (38.1 percent) that pulled down the week’s numbers, and that is what the numbers say.  But they also say that the Caps were under 50 percent in the ends, too.

On an individual basis, Nicklas Backstrom saved the week from being an utter disaster in the circle.  He was over 50 percent in all three zones and had a 59.3 winning percentage overall.  Of the other three skaters who took ten or more draws, only Nic Dowd finished over 40 percent.  And none of the four had a stranger week than Lars Eller, who was over 50 percent in the neutral zone and over 60 percent in the offensive zone, but was 2-for-18 in the defensive zone (11.1 percent).

Goals by Period:

This was where the Caps were most consistent for the week, although in a low scoring week overall, it was not dominating.  However, the Caps did not lose any period for the week, and they held opponents to a single third-period goal in three games, an area in which the Caps have had intermittent issues so far this season.

Year over Year:

As the Caps head into the Christmas break, this season looks a lot like last season.  There are the 22 wins through 35 games last year and this, a two standings points difference, a one-goal difference in goals allowed.  There just do not appear to be any overly significant swings, good or bad, in the range of statistical categories from last year to this with the lone exception of penalties/penalty minutes, where there is an 11 percent reduction in the number of penalties and a 19 percent reduction in penalty minutes. 

In the end…

There are worse things to say than “this year looks like last year at this point,” especially given the way that last season ended for the Caps.  But to that add the fact that there have been significant absences from the lineup by important pieces – Brooks Orpik (25 games and counting), Tom Wilson (19 games), T.J. Oshie (11 games), Christian Djoos (seven games and counting), Evgeny Kuznetsov (six games).  This is a team that has learned to grind out wins and do it in different ways.  How many people would look at Alex Ovechkin with one power play goal in his last 15 games, and the Caps having a 12-3-0 record in them?  Or the Caps with an 18-7-1 record in the games John Carlson played since he last scored a goal?  This is a team that has shed its reputation of one that wilts in the face of adversity.  Winning does that.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Pheonix Copley (1-0-0, 35-save shutout (first in the NHL))
  • Second Star: Tom Wilson (1-1-2, plus-3, 1 GWG, 11 credited hits, 3 blocked shots, 5 takeaways)
  • Third Star: Braden Holtby (1-1-0, 64 saves on 67 shots (.955 save percentage))