The Washington Capitals wrapped up Week 21 by putting the last of their six-game road trip, their longest of the season, on the books. It was up and down, inconsistent, and ultimately, leaning to disappointing. Meanwhile, the team made three personnel moves, one of which was surprising, the others reminiscent of a move they made last year that was among the most consequential in recent team history. It was part of a season in which the Caps are hoping history, in many respect, repeats itself.
A pair of 3-2 wins, a pair of 5-2 losses. That the Caps got out of the week with four points might be considered fortunate, the team not particularly explosive on offense and woefully inconsistent on defense. The two three-goal losses are particularly disturbing on one level, not so much on another. The two three-goal losses brought the Caps’ season total to 12 such decisions. Only five times since 2005-2006 have they posted more, and they are threatening to hit the high-water mark since they returned to the playoffs in 2001-2008 (17, in 2011-2012). On the other hand, they are on a pace to finish with 16 such losses which would not look a lot different than the 14 they posted last season on their way to a Stanley Cup. And note, four of those losses by three or more goals came in the Caps’ last 20 games last season.
Then there are those two one-goal wins. That brought their total this season to 15. Only twice in 13 previous seasons have the Caps recorded fewer one-goal wins, nine in 2006-2007 and 13 in the abbreviated 48-game season in 2012-2013. On the other hand, they are on a pace to finish with 20 one-goal wins, which would match their total from last season. On the good side, the Caps have only four one-goal losses in regulation this season, at the moment the fewest they have recorded since 2005-2006.
Caps fans had better hope that there is not a regression to a mean with respect to one-goal decisions. At week’s end the Caps found themselves in the familiar second-place spot in the Metropolitan Division that they have occupied for a while now. However, they have only a three-point lead on the Pittsburgh Penguins, who sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, the highest-ranked non-playoff eligible team at the moment.
Offense: 2.50/game (season: 3.29/9th)
The Caps were consistently mediocre on offense against teams with mediocre scoring defenses in Week 21. That the Caps did not score more than three, nor fewer than two goals against the likes of Anaheim (16th in scoring defense at the end of the week), Buffalo (17th), Los Angeles (19th), was disappointing. Even scoring three against the eighth-ranked Toronto Maple Leaf scoring defense was somewhat disappointing, given that the Caps jumped on Toronto for two goals in the second period, but had to rely on a shorthanded goal, the first that they scored on the road this season, for their winning margin.
One problem on offense for the Caps was the utter lack of balance. Half of the team’s goals for the week were posted by Alex Ovechkin (five). Those five goals extended his goals scored streak to five games, and he has goals in six of his last seven contests (seven goals overall). When he scored the game’s first goal against the Anaheim Ducks in the first game of the week, he became the fourth player in NHL history to record ten 40-goal seasons in his first 14 years in the league. He is tied with Marcel Dionne and Mario Lemieux for the second-most 40-goal seasons (ten), trailing only Wayne Gretzky (12). Ovechkin and Lemieux are the only players in history with ten or more 40-goal seasons for one franchise.
Brett Connolly was the other Capital with a multi-goal week, posting goals in consecutive games in Los Angeles and in Toronto. Perhaps not coincidentally, those were the Caps’ wins for the week, illustrating the benefits of secondary scoring. After that, it was Wilson (shorthanded game-winner against Toronto), Andre Burakovsky (his first goal in more than two weeks), and John Carlson (his first goal since before the All-Star Game break).
The overall lack of production and absence of balance were not especially surprising, given the Caps’ inability to get pucks to the net. They averaged only 26.8 shots on goal for the week. If there was anything odd about that, it was that while Ovechkin finished with 21 of the 107 total shots on goal, it was Nicklas Backstrom who finished second (15). Backstrom has been shooting in bad luck. He does not have a goal since before the All-Star Game break and is 0-for-32 shooting over his last 12 games.
Defense: 3.50/game (season: 3.18/23rd)
When the ledger was closed on Week 21, the Caps had allowed five goals in a game twice more, bringing their total for the season to 16 games allowing five or more goals. Only five teams have allowed five goals in more games, and no other playoff-eligible team at the end of the week allowed that many or more goals more than 13 times (San Jose, St. Louis). That might not be surprising, either, the Caps allowing opponents an average of 36.8 shots per game for the week. Every team the Caps played for the week out-shot their season averages.
That the Caps had a shot differential at 5-on-5 for the week of minus-49 was not surprising in this context. What was surprising was that they finished with the second worst shot differential to the team in front of them in the division standings. The New York Islanders were a minus-68 in only three games. This might be an emerging issue for this team (and one they might hope will be addressed by the personnel moves this week). The Caps have been a “minus” team in 5-on-5 shot differential in seven straight games (in four of which going minus-10 or worse) and 11 of their last 13 games. Only once since New Years have the Caps been plus-10 or better than their opponent on the road (at Detroit on January 6th) and only five times all season.
Goaltending: 3.27 / .911 (season: 3.02 / .907 / 3 shutouts)
The split in games – three for Braden Holtby and one for Pheonix Copley – was expected. The results were expected, to a point. Holtby (.907 save percentage) and Copley (.929) were close to or better than their save percentages over the season. However, Holtby in particular had a difficult week. He faced more than ten shots in seven of the nine periods in which he played, more than 15 shots twice. For the week he faced an average of 39.6 shots per 60 minutes. It is one thing to thrive, as Holtby seems to do, with heavy shot volume, but this was just too many shots faced. And, it had the predictable results over periods. He had a .951 save percentage in the first periods of games for the week, .903 in the second periods of games, and a .870 save percentage in the third periods of games.
Nevertheless, here is another emerging issue. Holtby has not won consecutive appearances since early January. Since those wins over Detroit and Boston, Holtby is 4-6-2, 3.45, .898 in 14 appearances (two no decisions). If these numbers do not improve, the Caps might find themselves fighting for their playoff lives before the season is over.
On the other hand, Copley won his third straight decision when he backstopped the 3-2 win over Los Angeles last Monday. The three-game winning streak is his longest in the 2019 portion of the season in nine appearances. It was his 22nd appearance of the season. While he does not appear in a position to challenge Philipp Grubauer’s 35 appearances last season as a backup/sometime number one netminder, is on a pace to challenge being only the third Capitals backup goaltender to appear in 30 or more games since the 2005-2006 season (in addition to Grubauer, Brent Johnson appeared in 30 games behind Olaf Kolzig’s 54 games in 2006-2007).
Power Play: 3-for-10/30.0 percent (season: 21.5 percent/12th)
On the plus side, there is that 30 percent conversion rate on the power play in Week 21. It is only the second week in the last ten that the Caps converted 30 percent or more of their power play chances. On minus side, there are those ten chances in four games. The power play opportunities track with the offense generally, not more than three, nor fewer than two in any of the four games over the week. Again, though, it was an uneven performance. The Caps recorded two of those power play goals – both by Alex Ovechkin (on the only power play shots the Caps recorded in the game) – on two chances against Los Angeles and went 1-for-8 otherwise. And, Ovechkin had that power play goal, too (against Toronto). The three power play goals for the week gave Ovechkin 14 for the season, tied for fourth in the league with Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl. Four of Ovechkin’s last seven goals have come on power plays.
The Caps were reasonably efficient, if unbalanced. Ovechkin was 3-for-6 on power play shots, the rest of the team going 0-for-8. The 14 shots on goal came in 16:01 of power play ice time.
Penalty Killing: 10-for-13/76.9 percent (season: 78.6 percent/22nd)
It was, more or less, a typical penalty killing week in terms of efficiency. The 13 shorthanded situations faced, however, leaned on the high side of volume. That should not be surprising. The Caps finished the week with the sixth-highest number of shorthanded situations faced on the road (106). It mattered, at least coincidentally. The Caps lost both games for the week in which they faced four shorthanded situation, and they won the other two in which they faced fewer than four. It also happened to be in those two games in which they allowed those three power play goals – two to Anaheim and one to Buffalo in a pair of 5-2 losses.
There was the shorthanded goal scored by Tom Wilson, though, which was the game-winner against Toronto. It was the first shorthanded goal scored by the Caps on the road this season and the fourth time in four games in which they had one that the Caps won.
It was a case of just a little too much opportunity for opponents. The Caps spent 23:27 killing penalties for the week and allowed 21 shots. More than 13 minutes of the shorthanded ice time was spent in the two losses. Going short had its consequences.
Faceoffs: 80-for-206 / 38.8 percent (season: 45.8 percent/31st)
There is bad, and there is whatever Week 21 was for the Caps in the faceoff circle. Over a population of draws, winning percentage does not mean much. But like insurance, you don’t need it until you need it, and if the Caps find themselves faced with an important draw late in, say, a postseason game, there isn’t anything in their performance to date to suggest they can draw on that skill for an advantage.
The Caps were under 50 percent in three of the four games and in all three zones for the week, but the most disturbing part was the individual performances. Five Caps took at least ten draws for the week, and only Nic Dowd finished over 50 percent. Better still, he was over 65 percent in the ends (66.7 percent in the offensive end, 69.2 percent in the defensive end). After that, though, things took a turn. Only T.J. Oshie topped 40 percent for the week, barely (41.2 percent). The most disturbing of all, though, was Evgeny Kuznetsov who, even by his standards, had a ghastly week. No Capital took more draws for the week (62), but he won barely 30 percent of them and was under 30 percent in the offensive zone. Relying on puck retrieval was a non-starter here, since Kuznetsov had only one point in four games for the week.
Goals by Period:
Third periods are just killing this team. They had an edge in the first period of games, and they had an edge in the second periods of games, but they were throttled in the third periods of the four contests, allowing nine of the 14 goals allowed for the week. Washington finished the week with a minus-21 goal differential in third periods this season, the second-worst goal differential in third periods in the league (Florida is minus-24). The 76 goals allowed in the third periods of games puts the Caps on a pace to allow the most third period goals in their history since 2005-2006 (they allowed 93 third period goals in 2005-2006, when they lost 41 games and finished with only 70 standings points). If they should hit the 100 third period goals allowed mark, it would be the first time they did so since 1992-1993 (103).
The difference in wins and losses this season is Saturday’s loss to Buffalo. Had the Caps won that game, they would have precisely the same record this year as last through 62 games (35-20-7). As it is, their scoring is up a bit, but so are the goals allowed, perhaps a function of more scoring generally across the league. Special teams differences between last year and this continue to be small. In other respects, the Caps are putting up higher volumes in other measures this season, both good and bad, with the exception of penalties/penalty minutes, which continue to track below last year’s pace.
In the end…
In the prognosto to Saturday’s game against Buffalo, we stated, “Going 3-3 on a road trip is not the worst outcome, given the length of the trip. However, how a team gets there matters. If the Caps get there by losing to the Sabres, a struggling team at the moment, it would be a disappointment.” The Caps lost, not really making much of a game of it, and it was a disappointment. But more to the point, they lost a chance to keep pace with the New York Islanders, who shut out Vancouver to take a four-point lead with a game in hand on the Capitals. It makes the short two-game home stand coming up this week especially important, since upon completing it, the Caps head to Long Island to take on the Isles to begin the March schedule.
In that respect, it makes for finding out in short order how well the personnel moves will address weakness and production issues. Devante Smith-Pelly, one of the heroes of the 2018 postseason run, was waived and sent to Hershey when he cleared, a casualty of weak performance over the past couple of months. Then there were the additions – Carl Hagelin (obtained in trade from Los Angeles) and Nick Jensen (obtained in trade from Detroit) -- who need to hit the ground running (or the ice skating) to fit in and shore up some of the weaknesses (penalty killing, third period performance, possession) as the stretch run begins in earnest. The Caps hope that those two under-the-radar moves recreate the success they had in obtaining defenseman Michal Kempny last season in a trade that stands as one of the most important in the recent history of the franchise.
- First Star: Alex Ovechkin (5-0-5, plus-1, 3 PPG, 21 shots, 30 shot attempts, 12 hits, became fourth player in NHL history with ten 40-goal seasons, became 14th player in league history to reach the 650 career goal mark)
- Second Star: Tom Wilson (1-1-2, plus-2, SH/GWG, 14 PIMs, reached 30-point mark for second straight season)
- Third Star: Brett Connolly (2-0-2), minus-2, tied career high in goals scored (15, equaling total in each of previous two seasons))