Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 50: Capitals at Maple Leafs, January 23rd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The curtain comes down on the traditional “first half” of the regular season for the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night when they head to Toronto to face the Maple Leafs in the last game before the All-Star Game break.

Some folks might look at last night’s 7-6 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks and say, “gee…tough luck,” but the Caps earned their fate, failing to close out a two-goal lead in the third period.  Finishing games weakly has been an issue all season and might be something deserving fans’ attention in Wednesday’s game.  Meanwhile, the Leafs are stumbling into the break, losers of four of their last five games and 3-7-0 since they had a five-game winning streak in late December.  Since that ten-game run started on December 29th, that record is the league’s worst.

Offense is an issue.  The good thing about it is balance.  The Leafs have had 14 different players record goals over the last ten games.  The bad thing?  Ten of them have only one goal in that span.  One of them happens to be Auston Matthews.  Once upon a time this season, Matthews was being talked about as the next great goal scorer.  It was understandable.  He started the season scoring goals in each of his first six games (ten overall).  And even though he was slowed by a shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup for a month from late October to late November, he had 16 goals in the first 16 games in which he played this season.  Since then, however he has only four goals in 18 games and that lone goal in his last ten contests.  It matters.  In 34 games played this season, Toronto is 11-2-0 when Matthews scores a goal, 9-10-2 in the 22 games he played and did not score a goal.  He has only one goal at home in the last nine games he played at Scotiabank Arena .  Matthews is 2-4-6, plus-1, in six career games against Washington.

Another player whose offense has dried up in this ten-game slide is defenseman Morgan Rielly.  His start to the season mirrored that of Matthews in terms of points.  He had points in each of his first six games this season (3-10-13), and he maintained that frenetic scoring pace well into the season, going 13-31-44 in his first 37 games this season.  Those 44 points led all defensemen by a wide margin going into the Christmas break (Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot had 37 points).  But then, after the break, Rielly suffered a three-game streak without a point, his first pointless streak of that length this season.  He has only four assists on his ledger over his last 11 games and has been shut out in goals on a total of 29 shots over that span.  Rielly is 1-7-8, minus-3, in 16 career games against the Caps.

Frederik Andersen was having a nice start to his season in goal.  In his first 30 appearances, through December 22nd, he was tied for the league lead in wins (20, with Marc-Andre Fleury), eighth in goals against average among 44 goalies with at least 750 minutes (2.50), seventh in save percentage (.923), and had a shutout.  However, December 22nd was the last he would play for a while, sitting out eight games with a groin injury.  He returned to the lineup on January 14th against Colorado, but he has not yet discovered that early season rhythm.  In three appearances since his return he is 1-2-0, 3.04, .913. 

Pace is important for Andersen, at least so far this season.  A hectic pace.  In 14 games in which he faced more than 35 shots, he is 11-3-0, 2.21, .942.  In 19 appearances in which he faced fewer than 35 shots, he is 10-8-1, 2.75, .901, with one shutout.  The Caps might do well to try to put Andersen to sleep, if he gets the nod.  In six career appearances against the Capitals, he is 4-1-1, 2.72, .912, with two shutouts, the Caps being the only team in the league against which he has recorded more than one shutout.

1.  Toronto not only has the worst record in the league since December 29th, they are tied for 29th in goals scored, 30th in shots on goal, last in power play goals (one),  last in power play chances (18), and last in power play efficiency (5.5 percent).  This might be the most surprising and unexpected turn in the league at this point of the season, Toronto’s offense disappearing over the last three weeks.

2.  Give the Leafs credit, they are entertaining.  Or not.  In 48 games this season they have played in games settled by margins of three or more goals.  They are 10-9 in those games.

3.  On the other hand, Toronto does not play in very many close games.  Only 11 times in 48 games have they played to a one-goal decision, going 6-3-2.  Only three teams have fewer one-goal wins (St. Louis, New Jersey, and Colorado), and only four have fewer one-goal losses in regulation (Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Carolina, and Tampa Bay).

4.  It is best to score first against Toronto.  Only two teams have more wins than the Maple Leafs (22) when scoring first – Nashville and Calgary have 23 apiece.  They’re .786 winning percentage in such games (22-5-1) is fourth-best in the league.

5.  There is one area in which the Leafs are strong where the Caps have been weak – finishing games strong.  Toronto has a 63-48 goal differential (plus-15) in the third periods and overtimes of games this season.

1.  The Caps have allowed 50 goals over their last 12 games.  That is as many goals as they allowed in the 21 previous games.

2.  Washington has allowed 15 goals in their last two road games.  In their previous eight road contests they allowed only 18 goals and had two shutouts.  But even there, the writing was on the wall.  In two of those games they allowed five goals, which brings us to…

3.  The Caps have allowed five or more goals in five of their last 12 road games.

4.  Four times in their last 12 games, the Caps allowed opponents 40 or more shots.  Only five times have they had 30 or more of their own.

5.  The overtime loss to San Jose was the third straight time that the Caps lost in extra time (all in the overtime period).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Toronto: Patrick Marleau

Is there any more “under-the-radar” player over the last 20 seasons than Patrick Marleau?  Yes, 20 seasons.  Well, 21 actually.  Marleau, who entered the NHL the same season that the Caps appeared in their first Stanley Cup final (1997-1998) is among the active leaders in:
  • Career games played (1,623/1st)
  • Goals (546/2nd)
  • Assists (605/5th)
  • Points (1,151/4th)
  • Even strength goals (361/2nd)
  • Shorthanded goals (17/T-8th)
  • Game-winning goals (106/1st)
  • Shots on goal (4,090/2nd)

Almost as amazing is his uncommon durability.  In 21 NHL seasons, Marleau has never missed more than eight games in a single season, and he has appeared in 80 or more games 14 times.  He appeared in every regular season game 11 times, including the abbreviated 48-game season in 2013.  The last time he missed a game was in the 2008-2009 season, when he missed five games to a lower-body injury late in the season.  He brings a 754-game streak into this game, second among active players (Keith Yandle: 763).  However, he, like a lot of his teammates, has been in a scoring slump lately.  The goal and assist he posted in a 4-2 win over Tampa Bay last Thursday are his only points in his last 12 games.  Marleau is 9-14-23, plus-6, in 31 career games against the Capitals.

Washington: The Fans

When a team goes on an extended losing streak, their fans get impatient, and memories are set aside.   Over the course of an 82-game season, a team earns its record, good or bad.  However, there is a difference between being in a slump and being bad.  But between the two there might be a gray area where effort, focus, and attention lie.  And it is here where the Caps are coming up short, characterized by taking shortcuts and displaying lack of commitment to the things that made them successful last season.  Fans might be a bit too quick to call for trading this guy, or sending that guy down to Hershey, bringing that other guy up, or (the go-to-solution for fans) making a coaching change.  But the Caps stand squarely in that gray area at the moment, and they have less than half a season to figure out if they are a good team that was merely in a slump or a team whose expiration date has passed.

In the end…

Good teams that are focused play to the final horn.  Last night the Caps were a good team without focus.  There has been a lot of that in the last month.  Good teams that are focused play hard to the break in the schedule.  We’ll find out where the Caps stand on that matter on Wednesday night.

Capitals 3 – Maple Leafs 2

A ONE-Point Night: Washington Capitals -- Game 49: Sharks 7 - Capitals 6 (OT)

Frustration mounts in Capitals Nation.  The Washington Capitals blew a two-goal third period lead in the last ten minutes of regulation, the latter of the two goals scored by the San Jose Sharks coming with one second left in regulation.  The Sharks went on to grab the extra standings point in overtime to send the Caps to a sixth-consecutive loss.

First Period

It was a wild first period, but hardly surprising for two teams who give up goals recently as if they could claim them as charitable deductions.  Joe Pavelski opened the scoring off a faceoff win in the offensive zone, gathering a rebound of a Brent Burns drive to the net and backhanding it past goalie Braden Holtby just 12 seconds into the game.  It was a sign of things to come.

Alex Ovechkin tied the game mid-way through the period on a power play when he jumped on a loose puck to the right of goalie Martin Jones, pulled the puck off his backhand to his forehand, and chipped it past Jones at the 10:41 mark.  And the deluge was on…

Andre Burakovsky scored 90 seconds after Ovechkin when he altered his skating line to give him shooting room through a defender and wristed the puck through Jones… Tomas Hertl tied the game barely two minutes later, converting a nifty passing play among Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and himself…T.J. Oshie scored less than a minute after Hertl to restore the lead, taking a backhand centering feed from Ovechkin, deking Jones to the ice, and slipping the puck past Jones’ right pad…

…and the first period finally came to an end, the Caps ahead, 3-2.

- San Jose had a 24-21 edge in shot attempts and a 15-14 edge in shots on goal.

- T.J. Oshie led the Caps with four shots on goal in the first period.

Second Period

And the rains came once more…

….Evander Kane tied the game once more just 52 second in as a power play expired… Evgeny Kuznetsov put the Caps in front again two minutes later by being patient, collecting a loose puck at the goal line to Jones’ right, pulling it back for a shooting angle, and snapping a tough-angle shot past a lunging Jones,,, Ovechkin gave the Caps a two-goal lead less than three minutes later by waiting until he could use two Sharks as a screen and snapping a shot past Jones just 5:41 into the period. 

The damage… the two clubs combined for seven goals (the Caps with five) over a 15:00 span across the first and second periods.  But it was not over…

Just after a Caps power play expired, a turnover led to a not one…not two… but a THREE-on-0 break for the Sharks, Logan Couture converting with a backhand between Holtby’s pads 14:39 into the period to make it 5-4.  And quiet settled over the land for the second intermission.

-  Six different Caps had points in the second period (Kuznetsov and Ovechkin with goals; Vrana, Wilson, Backstrom, and Oshie with assists).

-  Dmitrij Jaskin was the only Capital without a shot attempt through two periods.

Third Period

The teams traded goals less than five minutes apart to open the third period.  Ovechkin completing the hat trick 5:52 into the period when he took a cross-ice feed from Jakub Vrana and swept the puck from the left wing circle past Jones.  Hertl got the Sharks back to within a goal on a replay of the first period power play goal he scored, this one off superb passing to set it up from Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski at the 10:02 mark.  But it was not over…not nearly.

Evander Kane tied the game with one second left in regulation when he got free on the weak side, camped at the far post to Holtby’s left.  Pavelski threw the puck at the net, and it squeezed through to Kane, who swatted it in to force overtime.


Hertl got the hat trick, snapping a shot under Holtby’s right arm and into the far side of the net 1:48 into the extra frame, and the Caps left a point they seemed sure to have earned on the table.  Caps fans hope that point won’t matter in April.

Other stuff…

-  This was the 334th multi-point game of Alex Ovechkin’s career, 18th on the all-time list and third among active players (Joe Thornton: 380, and Sidney Crosby: 350).  It was his 105th career game with three or more points, breaking a tie with Doug Gilmour for 16th all-time and tying him with Peter Forsberg for 15th on the all-time list.  He trails only Crosby (133) and Thornton (110) among active players.  It was his 26th four-point game, tied with Forsberg and Eric Lindros for 18th-place all-time and third among active players (Thornton: 28; Crosby: 31).

-  Ovechkin’s hat trick was his 23rd of his career, breaking a tie with Teemu Selanne for third place all-time.  He leads all active players (Eric Staal: 14).

-  T.J. Oshie also had a multi-point game, his 44th as a Capital, breaking a three-way tie for 25th all-time with Sylvain Cote and Scott Stevens.  It was his 14th three-point game as a Capital, 19th on the all-time franchise list.

-  Andre Burakovsky’s goal broke a personal 14-game streak without one.

-  The last time that the Caps allowed seven or more goals in consecutive games… October 7-8, 2005 (Ovechkin’s second and third career games). A pair of losses to the Atlanta Thrashers on consecutive nights, 7-3 and 8-1.

-  Nicklas Backstrom had a pair of assists, his 226th career multi-point game, second in franchise history and tied with Jason Spezza for eighth place among active players.

-  That’s three times in four games that the Caps allowed seven or more games.

-  The Caps allowed 43 shots on goal, the highest total for an opponent since Montreal recorded 44 in a 5-4 overtime win for the Caps on November 19th.

-  Evgeny Kuznetsov had a goal and an assist, his first two-point game since January 6th and only his second since December 11th.

-  Until this season, Braden Holtby had not allowed seven goals in a game.  This was the second time this season in which he did.  The first one also ended in overtime, a 7-6 loss to Pittsburgh on October 4th, the second game of the season.

In the end…

The Caps are a mess in their own end.  They cannot score enough to spackle over all the holes on defense and in goal.  It is arguably the worst sustained defense/goaltending performance over a series of games since the earliest games of the Ovechkin era, when the Caps just didn’t have much talent.  This team does not have that excuse.  Scoring 11 goals in consecutive games and getting one standings point out of it might be an aberration, but it doesn’t matter.  It has to end, and end soon, or this is going to be one long, frustrating winter.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 49: Sharks at Capitals, January 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals close the books on the home portion of their pre-All-Star Game schedule on Tuesday night when they host the San Jose Sharks at Capital One Arena.  The Caps are stumbling in the run-up to the break, carrying the burden of a five-game losing streak overall and a three-game losing streak on home ice.

The Sharks are visiting Washington in the back half of a back-to-back set of road games that wrap up a four-game road trip. They dropped the front half of that set, 6-2, in Florida to the Panthers on Monday night.  The loss extended San Jose’s own losing streak to three games.  It is a slap in the face for the Sharks, who before their current losing streak won seven in a row and nine of ten contests.

San Jose, their current struggles notwithstanding, have been among the better teams in the league since December 1st.  Their 16-7-2 record over that span is fifth-best in the league.  The Sharks have done it with an uncommon mix of volume and balance in their scoring.  In those 25 games since December 1st, six skaters have at least 20 points.  That group is led by defenseman Erik Karlsson, who has 28 points in only 21 games played, but he is being shut-down until after the All-Star Game break with a lower-body injury.  With Marc-Edouard Vlasic having been absent from the lineup since January 3nd with a wrist injury (he was placed on injured reserve on Monday), the Sharks are thin on the blue line.

They still have Brent Burns on the back end, though.  Burns has stepped up in a big way over the last 25 games, going 6-21-27, second on the team to Karlsson in points over that span.  Not that this should be surprising.  Burns leads all NHL defensemen in overall scoring (53 points) and is tied for eighth in goals (nine).  He is second in power play scoring (20 points) to Florida’s Keith Yandle (24) and is tied for third in power play goals (five, with Florida’s Aaron Ekblad and Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty). 

Burns has produced at a consistently high level in recent years – tied for second in points among defensemen last season (67, with Dallas’ John Klingberg) to Washington’s John Carlson (68); he led the league’s defensemen in scoring in 2016-2017 (76 points); he was second in scoring in 2015-2016 (75 points) to Karlsson (82 with Ottawa); tied for second the previous year (60 points).  You get the point.  In fact, over the last five seasons, no defenseman has more goals than Burns (94) or points (331).  Burns is 6-9-15, plus-1, in 16 career games against Washington.

Tomas Hertl leads the club in goals (13) since December 1st.  He had a big night recently.  Recall that in only his third NHL game, against the New York Rangers on October 8, 2013, he had four goals in a 9-2 win over the Blueshirts.  He would go 367 games without another hat trick.  Until last Tuesday night, that is.  Hertl put the hurt on the Pittsburgh Penguins with a hat trick, the last goal being an empty-netter, in a 5-2 win over the Pens.  It was also his 100th career goal.  He became the 12th player in Sharks’ history to hit the 100-goal mark for the club, and his next one will put him in the top-ten, tying him with Mike Ricci and Ryane Clowe for 10th on the team’s all-time goal scoring list.  Hertl is 1-1-2, plus-1, in eight career games against the Caps.

Goaltending might get overlooked when a team is scoring four goals a game over a 25-game stretch, but Martin Jones has not been playing up to his level of performance over his first three years in San Jose, and it is part of a season-long problem.  In those three seasons he posted save percentage in the mid-.910’s, but this year his save percentage has dropped.  Of 46 netminders with at least 1,000 minutes, he ranks 38th at .897.  It has not been much better recently, Jones posting a .901 save percentage in 20 games since December 1st, 29th of 44 goalies with at least 500 minutes played.  That he leads the league in wins over that span (13, tied with Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury) is a product of the goal support he is getting.  Nine times in 19 appearances since December 1st he allowed three or more goals, 11 goals on 47 shots in his last two appearances (.766 save percentage).  Jones is 4-2-0, 1.51, .944, with two shutouts in six career appearances against the Caps.

1.  San Jose is the only team in the league to record 100 goals since December 1st.  They have exactly 100 in 25 games.

2.  If the Sharks do not want Jones to start back-to-back games in goal, Aaron Dell would get the call.  Here is the thing about that.  Since he posted shutouts in consecutive appearances in November, his record in seven games he started and finished is 2-4-1, 4.41, .844.  At the moment, goaltending is an issue for this club.

3.  The Sharks are not being rewarded for tilting the ice in their favor on the road.  They have out-shot opponents by a 918-783 margin in 26 road games and are second in the league on the road in shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 (55.33 percent).  In spite of that, only three teams have allowed more road goals than the Sharks (98) – Chicago (99), Florida (103), and Ottawa (103).

4.  What special teams giveth, they taketh away for the Sharks.  Their power play on the road (25.0) ranks fifth in the league, but their penalty kill (78.3 percent) ranks 22nd).

5. San Jose is a rude visitor.  Their 264 penalty minutes on the road is third-most in the league, trailing only Florida (266) and Edmonton (267).

1.  The Caps can’t win for losing.  The five goals they scored against Chicago on Sunday were more than they scored in their previous four games (four).  They lost anyway, 8-5.

2.  Here’s one to impress your friends with.  The eight goals allowed on Sunday to Chicago was the 73rd time in team history that Washington allowed eight or more goals.  Total standings points earned over those 73 games?  OneThey scratched out a point in an 8-7 overtime loss to Pittsburgh on January 16, 2017.  Their 0-72-1 record includes an overtime loss to the New York Islanders in 1983, but standings points were not awarded for overtime losses back then.

3.  Only two teams in the Eastern Conference have committed more minor penalties on home ice than the Caps (85) – Montreal (88) and New Jersey (91).

4.  Montreal and Tampa Bay are the only teams in the East with more power play chances on home ice (86 and 91, respectively) than the Caps (84).

5.  Since December 1st, forwards Lars Eller, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Devante Smith-Pelly have combined for a total of five goals in 83 man-games.  T.J. Oshie has five goals in 19 games (and he’s fourth among forwards on the team since December 1st).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

San Jose: Evander Kane

It took a while, but Evander Kane might finally have found a place where he could produce consistently and with a minimum of issues.  Injuries and off-ice issues were a feature of his early career with the Atlanta Thrahsers/Winnipeg Jets and Buffalo Sabres, but since he was acquired by the San Jose Sharks in a trade with Buffalo for Daniel O’Regan and two conditional draft picks last February, he is averaging 0.41 goals per game in 68 games, a higher average than any of his previous stops in the NHL (that is a 34-goal pace over 82 games).  Kane has been especially effective on the road of late.  In his last 11 road contests he is 7-5-12, plus-1. 

However, there is the matter of timing, and Kane’s was poor in the Sharks’ loss to the Panthers last night.  His double-minor penalty for high-sticking less than two minutes into the third period of a 2-2 game led to power play goals scored by Florida just nine seconds apart on the ensuing power plays.  He then took an unsportsmanlike conduct and ten-minute misconduct penalties with under a minute to play, the Panthers converting that power play into their last goal in their 6-2 win.  It brought his penalty minute total over those same 11 road contests to 36, and his total this season to 74 penalty minutes on the road, most in the league.  Kane is 14-6-20, minus-3, in 30 career games against the Caps.

Washington:  Jakub Vrana

If there is one thing one might be picky about in Jakub Vrana’s performance this season, it is his production on home ice.  The youngster already has a career-high 15 goals in 48 games, surpassing the 13 he had in 73 games last season, his first full-time season in the league.  However, only six of those goals have come in the 24 games in which he has played at Capital One Arena.  That total is tied for fifth on the team with Tom Wilson (whose production has come in only 13 games on home ice).  It is not for a lack of shooting.  He has 50 shots in 24 games on home ice (a 12.0 percent shooting rate) and 46 shots on goal on the road (19.6 percent).  Half of that home ice goal production came over two games straddling the end of the old year and the beginning of the new, breaking what was a stretch in which he had just one goal in 12 home games, but he will go into this game without a goal in three straight games on home ice.  Vrana is 1-0-1, even, in three career games against San Jose.

In the end…

In the baseball movie, “Bull Durham,” Crash Davis tells pitching phenom Nuke LaLoosh the secret of getting out of a slump…

“You know what the difference is between hitting .250 and hitting.300?  I got it figured out.  Twenty-five hits a year in 500 at bats is 50 points. Okay?  There's six months in a season, that's about 25 weeks -- you get one extra flare a week -- just one -- a gork, a ground ball with eyes, a dying quail -- just one more dying quail a week and you're in Yankee Stadium!”

For the Caps, score one off a post, ricochet one off a skate, a shot from the point with eyes that snakes through a maze of players, and you’re back in the lead in the division, or at least closer to it.  That might be what it takes more than some fancy tic-tac-toe passing play or a deke-and-a-shot off a breakaway.

Capitals 4 – Sharks 3