In the end, the ride came to a stop right where it started with a two-win two-loss week and the Caps still in charge in the Metropolitan Division.
A four-game week featuring three of the best and/or hottest teams in the league and the other an old rival who remains desperate to get back into the playoff conversation would make for a difficult week for any team, including a division leader such as the Caps. That Washington split the week was not the worst of outcomes in that context.
Looking back on the week and trying to look ahead, the Caps beat Winnipeg to earn a split in the season series at a win apiece, each team winning on home ice. The loss to the Penguins was, as it always is, hard to swallow, but the significance is that the Caps lost three of four in the season series to the Pens (1-2-1). The Caps took their third game in a row this season against the Flyers with one game remaining in the series, that on March 24th in Washington. Washington wrapped up the week with the first of three meetings against the Tampa Bay Lightning to be played over a two-week period. The loss to the Bolts gave the Caps a 5-4-1 season record against four playoff or near-playoff quality teams.
The two wins for the week pushed the Caps past the 90-point mark for the 11th consecutive full season of hockey (not including the shortened 2012-2013 season). They remain on a pace to finish this season with more than 100 points, which would be the fifth straight season topping 100 points.
Offense: 3.50/game (season: 3.39/7th)
It was a good week on paper for the Caps, even if the goal total was padded a bit by a pair of empty net goals. They all count. The Caps have been remarkably consistent over the past few weeks. Not only have they scored at least three goals in 12 of their last 13 games, they have scored exactly three goals in eight of those games, going 6-2 in them in the process. Both of the losses in three-goal games came this week against two of the more high-powered offenses in the league in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.
As for the Caps, they spread things around on an individual basis. Nine players accounted for the 14 goals scored in Week 24, five of them with two apiece: Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, John Carlson, and Alex Ovechkin.
Ovechkin’s two goals brought him to 655 for his career, one short of Brendan Shanahan for 13th place on the all-time NHL goal scoring list. His power play goal in the 6-3 loss to Tampa Bay on Saturday was the 246th of his career, tying him with Phil Esposito for fifth place on the all-time list and brining him to within one of Luc Robitaille for fourth place on that list.
Vrana’s two goals and Tom Wilson’s lone goal of the week put both players in the 20-goal club for the first time in their respective careers and brought the Caps’ total of 20-plus goal scorers this season to four. Last season, the Caps had only three 20-plus goal scorers all season (Ovechkin with 49, Evgeny Kuznetsov with 27, and Nicklas Backstrom with 21). Vrana and Wilson joined Ovechkin (48) and T.J. Oshie (21) in the 20-goal club this season. Three other players are within striking distance: Connolly (19), Kuznetsov (18), and Backstrom (18).
Carlson led the team in overall scoring for the week (2-3-5), while Dmitry Orlov led the club in assists (four). Orlov also had a team-best plus-4 rating for the week. For Carlson, the five-point week pushed him past the 60-point mark for the second straight season. He became the fourth defenseman in Caps history to post consecutive 60-point seasons. Mike Green was the last to do it, in the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 seasons, while Larry Murphy (1985-1986 through 1987-1988) and Scott Stevens (1986-1987 through 1988-1989) each did it three years in a row.
Defense: 3.50/game (season: 3.11/20th)
The Caps faced four productive offenses in Week 24, and the results were better than the goals per game would suggest. For instance, they allowed 123 shots in the four games, an average of 30.8 per game, a number that is below the team’s average for the season (31.9 shots allowed per game). Further, there were the shot attempts at five on five. The Caps enjoyed a considerable advantage in that regard, winning that battle three times in four games, finishing a week with a plus-33 and a shot attempts-for percentage of 54.81. That shot attempt differential was fourth-best among teams playing four games in Week 24.
Goaltending: 2.80 / .908 (season: 2.93 / .907 / 4 shutouts)
That the goaltending was more or less a typical week overall is not the best news when looking at the detail, although quality of competition needs to be considered. Pheonix Copley got the call to open the week, and he had a very effective game against the Winnipeg Jets. He allowed a single goal on 34 shots faced to win his fifth straight decision. It was the best performance he had in that five-win run, over which he has a goals against average of 2.92 and a save percentage of .908.
Braden Holtby got the call in the other three games, and his results were uneven. He was, for the most part, very good in his first game of the week, facing the Penguins. That is, except for a span of 1:48 in the second period during which the Pens scored on three consecutive shots to turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-0 lead that they would not relinquish. Take that away, and he was 25-for-26. He was consistently solid against the Flyers in his second game of the week, holding a club that scored 33 goals in its previous eight games to a pair of goals on 24 shots. Against Tampa Bay he suffered the fate a lot of goaltenders have this season, giving up four goals on 33 shots (the 40th time this season a goaltender allowed four or more goals to the Lightning).
Overall, the netminders finished games better than they started them. There were 34 saves on 38 first period shots faced (.895 save percentage) and 36 saves on 41 second period shots faced (.878), influenced by that three-goal surge the Penguins had in the second game of the week. Third periods were much better, with 39 saves on 41 shots (.951), although there were the three empty net goals that do not count against the save percentages.
Power Play: 2-for-11/18.2 percent (season: 21.8 percent/9th)
It was something of an odd week for the Capitals, but panning out for a wider shot, it might have been simply a reflection of the league these days. The Caps had a four-game week, which should have meant a high power play opportunity total, even if the average of opportunities per game was not. Eleven chances in four games (2.75 per game) seemed light in that context. However, the Caps tied for the fifth-highest number of chances overall and tied for the fourth-highest total among teams playing four games.
That the Caps converted only two of those chances was disappointing, considering that three of their opponents in Week 24 ranked among the bottom 13 teams in the league in penalty killing at week’s end (Pittsburgh: 19th, Winnipeg: 23rd; and Philadelphia” 26th). The Caps were 1-for-7 against those three teams. The bright spot was in converting one of four chances on the road against the best penalty killing team in the league in Tampa Bay (85.6 percent).
The Caps looked disjointed on the power play at times over the week and it showed up in the form of inability to get shots to the net. Washington managed only 12 shots on goal in 18:27 of man advantage ice time, including getting blanked in shots in four minutes of power play time against Winnipeg. It was not a problem of getting the puck to the preferred target. Alex Ovechkin had nine of the 12 power play shots on goal, converting one of them. Three other players had one apiece: John Carlson (a goal), Evgeny Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie.
Penalty Killing: 15-for-17/88.20 percent (season: 79.8 percent/21st)
The Caps played with fire in this category all week. No team was shorthanded more often in total or in times per game for Week 24 than Washington. That the Caps allowed only two goals, both of them to Pittsburgh, was an achievement. In fact, those are the only power play goals that the Caps have allowed over their last eight games, going 26-for-28 in that span (92.9 percent, tied for third among all teams).
The Caps did a reasonably good job of limiting shots, considering all the time they spent shorthanded. In 26:38 spent shorthanded (third-highest for the week, behind only Anaheim and the Rangers), the Caps allowed two goals on 20 shots.
Faceoffs: 91-for-223 / 40.8 percent (season: 45.5 percent/31st)
At this point, with ten games left in the season, one hopes that the Caps do not find themselves having to win an important draw in the last seconds of a game, because if they do, there just is not enough success memory here to give anyone confidence they can do so. In the larger scheme of things, faceoff do not matter in the sea of plays a team will experience over the course of a season. But there can be that instance in which an outcome boils down to performing the game’s most basic play well.
Week 24 was another week of poor performances in the circle. That they finished barely over 40 percent is not unusual, but the two games under 40 percent made it four times in seven games they failed to hit that mark for a game, and they have only two games over 50 percent in their last 16 contests.
The Caps did not hit 50 percent in either end in any game this week, while twice in the four games they were over 50 percent in the neutral zone. Not surprisingly, it was in the neutral zone where they fared best overall (44.0 percent), while going 40.5 percent in the offensive zone and 36.7 percent in the defensive end.
Individually, Chandler Stephenson was the only player among the five taking at least ten faceoffs to win at least half of his draws, going 6-for-11 for the week (54.5 percent). If one is looking for a silver lining here, Evgeny Kuznetsov won 14 of 27 offensive zone draws to finish over 50 percent there for the week (51.9 percent).
Goals by Period:
It was a balanced week in this category with the goals scored and goals allowed spread almost evenly among the periods. The Caps scored first in the first period in three of the four games (winning two of them) and took a lead to the first intermission twice (winning once), that Pittsburgh game being the problem, the product of a brief, but intense second period collapse. Third periods were odd in that they featured so many empty net goals. Each game for the week featured at least one, the Caps scoring empty netters in their two wins and allowing empty netters in both losses (a total of three goals, two by Tampa Bay). It brought to five the consecutive games played by the Caps that featured at least one empty net goal.
What still stands out, though, is how little of the Capitals’ offense comes in the third periods of games. With 67 third period goals scored so far, only nine teams have fewer, and among them only the St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets are currently playoff eligible. And, when one considers that the 86 third period goals allowed by the Caps is tied for third-most overall, that minus-19 third period goal differential should be cause for some concern.
The Capitals have spent a lot of the 2019 portion of the season hovering around numbers comparable to those they put up in equal volumes of games the previous season, and it is no exception at the end of Week 24. One win and two points better than last season, special teams production virtually identical to last season, the Caps resemble last year’s team in the big respects. That might not be surprising for a club that had so few changes in their roster, year over year. The Caps continue to be ahead of last year’s pace in the grittier aspects of the game – hits, blocked shots, turnovers for and against. Two categories continue to trail last year’s pace – penalties/penalty minutes and faceoffs. This is neither surprising, nor should it be expected to change much in the last few weeks, given that the changes reflect absences – Tom Wilson at the start of the season (suspension) accounting for most of the difference in penalties/penalty minutes and Jay Beagle, who took his faceoff skills to Vancouver in the off season.
In the end…
Week 24 for the Caps was the first of four weeks of a brutal schedule that features 12 of 14 games against playoff eligible teams or teams on the edge trying to get in. That the Caps split the four games for this week was a decent result, given that three of the games were on the road. However, the unforgiving nature of the remaining schedule does place their top-seed in the Metropolitan Division in jeopardy. When one considers that the Caps were one shot away from earning at least a point in Pittsburgh and a pipe struck in the last minute away from earning at least a point in Tampa Bay, one cannot help but think that the Caps are going to have to stop leaving spare change in the cushions as the schedule heads into its final three weeks if they are to keep their top seed, or perhaps even keep home ice advantage for the first round.
- First Star: John Carlson (2-3-5, plus-1, one power play goal, nine blocked shots, 25:21 in average ice time)
- Second Star: Alex Ovechkin (2-2-4, minus-1, 18 shots on goal, 37 shot attempts, 15 hits, 246th career power play goal, tying Phil Esposito for fifth place all time; became the 49th player in league history to record 1,200 career points)
- Third Star: Brett Connolly (2-2-4, even, game-winning goal)