Sunday, March 03, 2019

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 22

The NHL trading deadline came and went in Week 22, and the 31 teams settled in to begin the home stretch.  Teams are sorting themselves out into rebuilders and teams fighting for playoff seeding.  The Washington Capitals can be considered one of the latter group, and having added Nick Jensen and Carl Hagelin in trades, they set forth to incorporate the new elements into a team that was looking a lot like last season’s club.  More “tweaked” than taking on major additions, the Caps had one of their most successful weeks of the season, but how they got there was a little more interesting than fans might have liked.

Record: 3-0-0

The last time that the Caps had a week of three or more games on the schedule and won all of them was back in Week 11, although that week featured a pair of Gimmick wins to propel the Caps to a 3-0-0 week.  This week started with a pair of wins over teams looking toward the future as the lead-in to what could be a playoff preview that ended the week.  The three-game winning streak on which the Caps wrapped up the week was their first of that length since they won Games 41-43 in early January.

The two wins against the New York Rangers and the Ottawa Senators on home ice to open the week brought the Caps to within one win of their 28th season of 20 home wins in team history.  The win at Nassau Coliseum over the New York Islanders to close the week was the Caps’ 18th road win of the season.  Two more, and this club would become the 14th team in franchise history to reach the 20-road win mark.  If they reach both marks, this year’s club would become the 13th in team history to finish a season with at least 20 wins both at home and on the road.

Two of the wins in Week 22 came against Metropolitan Division opponents, lifting the Caps’ record against Metro foes to 11-5-2.  Those wins broke a three-game intra-division losing streak (0-2-1).  This will be something to keep in mind as the Caps head into Week 23 with 10 of their last 17 games coming against Metropolitan Division teams.

Offense: 5.33/game (season: 3.38/6th)

When a team scores 16 goals in a week, chances are that the good times are spread around.  That was certainly the case for the Caps in Week 22.  The 16 goals were spread among 11 players, and 15 of the 18 skaters to dress for the week recorded points.  T.J. Oshie led the Caps with three goals for the week, including a pair against the Ottawa Senators in the 7-2 win on Tuesday, his fourth multi-goal game of the season and second in two weeks.  When he added a goal against the New York Islanders in the 3-1 win on Friday, it was the first time he was credited with “scoring” goals in consecutive games since he did so back on November 5th and 7th in wins over Edmonton and Pittsburgh.  The quotation marks around “scoring” reflect the fact that it was the Islanders’ Josh Bailey who, either trying to leave a pass for teammate Brock Nelson with the goalie pulled or thinking the goalie was still in net and trying to pass the puck back to him in a 2-1 game late in the contest, shot the puck into his own net.  Oshie was credited with the goal, being the last Capital to touch the puck.

Three other Capitals recorded multi-goal weeks – Tom Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, each with two.  Wilson, who has already obliterated his career high in goals (16) with 18 in just 46 games this season, finished the week with four goals in his last eight games.  Backstrom had a two-goal game against the Rangers to open the week, his second multi-goal game of the season and first since he recorded a hat trick in a 6-3 win over the New Jersey Devils on November 30th.  Kuznetsov had goals in consecutive games to open the week, but was not able to match the three-game streak of goals he had in early February when he was shut out by the Islanders.  Alex Ovechkin scored the game-winning goal in the week’s final game, bringing his season total to 45 and becoming the first player in NHL history to record 45 or more goals in ten seasons.

Oshie and Backstrom led the Caps in points for the week with five apiece.  Oshie had points in all three games for the week and two-point games in each of two games to close the week.  He has been on an extended hot streak, going 8-14-22 in his last 20 games.  The odd part of that is he is also a minus-8 in that stretch.  Oshie has multiple point games in seven of his last 18 games.  Backstrom, who had two-point games in each of the first two contests this week, has also been putting up points in multiples of late with three two-point games in his last eight contests.  He has 14 multi-point games this season.  Evgeny Kuznetsov had points in all three games to extend his points streak to four games.  He is 9-12-21, plus-7, over his last 17 games.  The odd man out among the forwards was Carl Hagelin, the only one not to record a point for the week.

Four of the six defensemen to dress in Week 22 recorded points, all of them with two or more.  Dmitry Orlov led the group with three (all assists).  Even Brooks Orpik recorded a pair (both assists).  John Carlson and Michal Kempny posted the goals; Matt Niskanen and Nick Jensen were the only defensemen not to record a point.

Defense: 2.67/game (season: 3.15/21st)

All in all, it was not a bad week for the defense, but the three teams they faced finished the week as bottom-half scoring offenses in the league, too.  So, there is just so much praise to be had here.  It was a troubling start to the week when the Caps allowed the Rangers five goals.  There are two ways to look at that.  One, the Rangers had just come off a game having scored five goals (against the Devils), so they were hot.  On the other hand, the game against the Caps was the second of a back-to-back set of games, and on the road at that, so the Rangers should have been a bit weary.  We lean toward the former, since the five goals they scored on the Caps was the fourth time in six games that New York scored five or more goals, all of them in regulation (they lost to the Caps in overtime) and three of them on the road.

The Caps opened the middle game of the week as if it was a 7:30 start instead of a 7:00 start.  By the time the game against Ottawa was 7:10 old, the Senators had all eight shots on goal, 11 shot attempts, and both goals.  To that point, the Caps had allowed opponents – struggling opponents at that – 39 shots on goal, 64 shot attempts, and seven goals in 71:30 of ice time.  The Caps flipped the off switch on their opponents after that, allowing 36 shots, 69 shot attempts, and one (questionable) goal over the last 112:50 of ice time for the week.

That questionable goal came in the Islander game when, off a risky cross ice pass out of the defensive zone by Dmitry Orlov, the puck ended up on Tom Kuhnackl’s stick.  As he was carrying the puck to the blue line, teammate Leo Komarov was trying to exit the zone to ensure Kuhnackl’s entry would be onside.  As this image (captured from the NHL/MSG feed) indicates, Komarov did not get out before Kuhnackl brought puck into the offensive zone and thus the play should have been deemed offside: 

It was not, and the ensuing goal was counted (the play not being reviewable as a “tag-up” offside).  But for that play, it was a solid end of the week for the Caps on the defensive side of the puck.

Goaltending: 2.60 / .893 (season: 3.00 / .906 / 3 shutouts)

Here is where we make the distinction between “efficiency” and “effectiveness,” and learn that they are not synonymous.  Generally, Braden Hotlby and Pheonix Copley (well, Holtby) were effective, as illustrated by the pair’s overall goals against average of 2.60 for the week.  However, they (well, Copley) were not efficient, posting a combined save percentage under .900 for the week.  That was the charm of the Caps allowing only 75 shots on goal in three games.

Breaking it down, Copley struggled against the Rangers in his lone appearance, especially late, where he allowed three goals on ten shots in the third period, including one in the last 30 seconds to tie the game and send it to overtime.  On the other hand, Holtby was sharp, especially late in the two games in which he appeared.  He stopped 41 of 44 shots for the week (.932 save percentage), including all 22 he faced in the second and third periods, the beneficiary of the Caps’ defense clamping down on the Senators, after Ottawa scored two goals in the first 7:10, and the Islanders. 

The game against the Islanders to close the week was unique in Holtby’s career.  It was just the sixth time in his career that he played a full game facing 21 or fewer shots and the first time he won such a game.  It also happened to be the first time in 28 appearances, regardless of ice time, that he won a game when facing 21 or fewer shots (he was 0-18-0 with nine no-decisions).  At week’s end, Holtby had a .922 save percentage over his last ten appearances.  Unfortunately, he was only 5-4-1 in those appearances.  He did, however, record those two wins in Week 22 to give him wins in consecutive appearances for the first time in almost two months, since winning consecutive appearances on January 6th and 10th against Detroit and Boston.

Power Play: 3-for-7/42.9 percent (season: 22.3 percent/9th)

It did not appear often in Week 22, but when it did, the Caps’ power play was dangerous.  The Caps had only seven chances and spent only 9:21 with a man advantage out of 184:20, barely five percent of the Caps’ ice time for the week.  But the Caps recorded three goals in that 9:21 and eight points.  The goals came from three different players – Tom Wilson, John Carlson, and Alex Ovechkin.  The points came from eight different players, adding to the three above the names of Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The 42.9 percent conversion rate is the team’s best since it had a similar 3-for-7 effort in two games in Week 3.  The only better weekly performance came in Week 1, when the Caps went 4-for-8 in two games (50.0 percent).  The three goals matched the three that they posted last week and is the largest two-week total in the last 18 weeks.  They scored goals in all three games, their three-game power play goal streak being their longest since a three-game streak against San Jose, Toronto, and Calgary in three games ending January and beginning February.  The 35.3 percent conversion rate in that span is third-best in the league, trailing only Toronto (35.7 percent) and San Jose (36.8 percent).

Penalty Killing: 5-for-7/71.4 percent (season: 78.3 percent/23rd)

The penalty killing did not fare quite as well as the power play in Week 22.  The best that be said of it is that the Caps suppressed shots, allowing only five shots on goal in 12:55 of shorthanded ice time.  The next best thing is that they limited opportunities, averaging two and a third shorthanded situations faced per game and allowing more than three only once (against the Rangers). 

The flip side of that is that the Caps allowed power play goals to the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators, two middle-of-the-road power plays (ranked 14th and 15th, respectively, at week’s end), on the only power play shots on goal they recorded in their respective games against the Caps. 

Since the Caps killed off both power plays they faced in the only game they played in Week 18, their penalty kill rate has dropped in each succeeding week.   Only five times in 21 weeks before this one was the penalty kill rate lower.  The low volume of chances was a blessing, and there remains work to be done on the penalty kill.

Faceoffs: 89-for-178 / 50.0 percent (season: 46.0 percent/31st)

Man bites dog, Caps finish at 50 percent on faceoffs for the week, film at 11.  Given the state of the Capitals in the faceoff circle this season, hitting 50 percent for the week has to be considered a measure of progress.  Remember, after all, that they were under 40 percent in Week 21.

But hold off from pronouncing the patient cured.  The Caps clawed their way to 50 percent by dominating the Islanders in the last game of the week (56.4 percent) after finishing the first two games of the week in the 40’s.

The best part of the week in this category was the defensive zone draws.  The Caps were over 50 percent in each of the three games and over 65 percent for the week, a fine performance for any team.  What might have been most remarkable, though, and an illustration of dominance, was the Caps taking only nine defensive zone draws against the Islanders, while taking 25 faceoffs in the offensive end.

Individually, Nicklas Backstrom was a monster.  He took more than a third of all draws (67 of 178) and won more than 56 percent of them.  He was especially dominant in the defensive end, winning 13 of 16 faceoffs (81.3 percent).  It made up for weaker weeks from Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller, who finished a combined 32-for-78 (41.0 percent).

Goals by Period:

One could like the results by period for the week and still be concerned in this area.  On the good side, the Caps ramped up the offensive pressure by period through the week and had the only overtime goal.  And, they doubled up on opponents in the third periods of games, a period that has been an issue for the Caps all season.

On the other side, the Caps allowed the first goal in all three games.  That is not a recipe for success, given that only three teams in the league have a winning percentage over .500 when allowing the first goal (Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, and the Islanders).  Worse, all three of those first goals were scored in the first four minutes of the contest.

Then there is that third period, which deserves consideration on its own.  The Caps took a 3-2 lead into the third period against the Rangers, but they allowed the tying goal just 21 seconds into the frame, matching the time it took Chris Kreider to put the Rangers in front to start the game in the first period.  Then, after regaining the lead and adding to it to make it 5-3, the Caps allowed two goals in the last 14 minutes, the latter tying the game with less than 30 seconds left in regulation and the Rangers’ net empty.  The silver lining there is that the Caps did not allow either Ottawa or the Islanders a third period goal.  Something on which to build.


At the 65-game mark through 22 weeks, the Caps find themselves with the same record they had at the 65-game mark last season: 37-21-7.  Small wonder.  Their goal differential (plus-5) is almost identical to that last year at this time (plus-3).  Power play goals are almost unchanged (42 this year, 43 last season), as are power play chances (188 to 191 last year) and power play conversion rate (22.3 percent to 22.5 percent at this time last season).  Ditto for penalty killing where the differences between this year and last in power play goals allowed (47 to 44), shorthanded situations faced (217 to 218) and penalty killing (78.3 to 79.8 percent).  The similarities carry on to shot attempts at 5-on-5 as well.

And if you want further evidence of this season looking a lot like last year, consider this.  The Caps started the 2018 portion of last season with a 13-8-4 record at the 65-game mark for the season.  This year’s club is 13-10-4.  Everyone in Capitals Nation is hoping that the similarities continue to their ultimate end.

In the end…

The bottom line metric in sports is wins and losses.  Over time, a team must generally play the “right way” to succeed in that metric, but on a game-to-game, or even a week-to-week basis, a team might succeed despite blemishes in their game or fail when their underlying metrics look fine.  The Caps had a good, but hardly a perfect week in the more granular aspects of the game.  They let one struggling team crawl back into a game that should have been decided (the Rangers) and allowed another to get off to a fast start with what was largely a minor-league lineup (Ottawa) before remembering who they were.  That the Caps ended the week with a hard-fought win against their immediate rival for the division lead might have left a good taste in everyone’s mouth, but let’s not hope the Caps choke on that as the action shifts to more divisional games down the stretch.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: T.J. Oshie (3-2-5, plus-4, nine shots on goal, 16 shot attempts, 5-for-10 on faceoffs)
  • Second Star: Alex Ovechkin (1-3-4, plus-1, game-winning goal, 14 shots on goal, 27 shot attempts, six hits, became first player in NHL history to record 45-plus goals in ten seasons)
  • Third Star: Braden Holtby (2-0-0, 1.52, .932, 22-for-22 in second and third periods of games)