Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 67: Capitals at Flyers, March 6th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals continue check another club off their “Metropolitan Matchup” schedule of late when they visit Philadelphia on Wednesday night to face the Flyers.  Philadelphia is a city that has shown little in the way of “brotherly love” to the Caps over the years.  This will be Washington’s 111th regular season visit to Philadelphia, and they have won there only 35 times (35-62-7, with six ties).  It has been an especially inhospitable place for the Caps recently, as they sport a 3-6-5 record there in their last 14 games dating back to March 2012 and were outscored in their last two games there by a combined 14-5 margin.

The Flyers will be returning home after a successful three-game road trip on which they went 2-0-1, all against Metropolitan Division clubs.  Washington will be their fourth Metro opponent in a run of five straight intra-division games for the Flyers, who have closed to within five points of a playoff spot.  It has been quite a climb for the Flyers who as recently as January 8th, after a loss to the Caps, found themselves dead last in the league standings (15-22-6) and trailing Montreal by 15 points for the last playoff spot.  Since that loss to the Caps, the Flyers are 17-4-2, the best record in the league over that span through Monday’s games.

James van Riemsdyk leads the Flyers in goals over this 23-game run with 13.  It is quite a turnaround from a sluggish start in which he had six goals in his first 27 games.  Van Riemsdyk is in his second tour with the Flyers.  He was taken by the Flyers as the second-overall pick of the 2007 entry draft and played three seasons in Philadelphia before he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for defenseman Luke Schenn in June 2012.  After six seasons with the Maple Leafs, van Riemsdyk inked a five-year/$35 million contract with the Flyers last July 1st.  He got off to a rocky start in his second tour with the Flyers.  In just his second game of the season, against the Colorado Avalanche, he took a clearing attempt off his right knee, putting him out of that game and the next 16 contests.  That would be a rough stretch for the Flyers who went 8-8-1 in his absence, including the game against the Avalanche in which he was injured.  He will go into this game looking to extend his home goal-scoring streak to three games.  Van Riemsdyk is 7-11-18, minus-6, in 27 career games against the Capitals.

The Flyers have a quartet of young defensemen with potential on their roster.  None of Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Robert Hagg, or Travis Sanheim have reached their 25th birthday.  All have appeared in at least 63 games this season, all have more than 15 points, and all are averaging more than 17 minutes per game.  In this latest 17-4-2 run, Sanheim leads all defensemen in goals (five, more than the other seven defensemen to dress combined) and points (16), and he has the only power play goal scored by the defense in that span of games.  Sanheim was the fourth defenseman selected and the 17th overall pick of the 2014 entry draft out of Calgary in the Western Hockey League.  He completed his first year in the NHL last season with two goals and ten points in 49 games.  This season, he found his goal-scoring touch after a slow start.  Not recording a goal in his first 25 games this season, he has nine in his last 41 games.  The odd part of his goal scoring is that in the seven games in which he has goals, the Flyers have points in every game, but they have lost four times, each one in overtime.  Sanheim is without a point and is minus-2 in two career games against Washington.

Since Ron Hextall, the all-time leader in games played by a Flyer goaltender (489), last suited up for the orange and black in 1999, the Flyers have dressed 29 goaltenders.  None have appeared in half the games that Hextall did as a Flyer (Steve Mason: 231), and six of them appeared in a single game.  As a group, they have a combined record of 789-564-225, 2.58, .909, with 97 shutouts.  Not bad, not great.  It has been the great quest (or, from another angle, the great indifference) for the Flyers for 20 years, finding a goaltender who can anchor the defense for a decade, or at least a few years.

Enter Carter Hart.  With 22 games (all starts) on his resume in this, his rookie season, he already ranks 16th in appearances among that group of 29 post-Hextall goalies.  He tied for 14th in that group in wins (13, with Sean Burke).  His save percentage (.917) already ranks third among that group, trailing only Mason (.918) and Roman Cechmanek (.923).  That he would become the “goaltender of the future” for the Flyers was set in motion when he was the first goaltender taken in the 2016 entry draft (second round/48th overall).  After two more seasons with the Everett Silvertips in Canadian junior, he appeared in 17 games with the AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley Phantoms to start this season.  Then, with injuries and performance issues ravaging the Flyers’ goaltenders, he was called up to the big club in mid-December. 

When he got his first NHL start, a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on December 18th, he became the sixth goaltender to dress for the Flyers this season (they are up to eight, a league record).  He won his next start, but by the time he had nine appearances, he was 3-5-1, 2.53, .916; not bad numbers, but he was getting no goal support (he did not win a game in that stretch whenever allowing more than two goals).  Things got better fast.  He ran off an eight-game winning streak with a 2.35 GAA and a .934 save percentage.  Lately, though, he has looked more like a rookie.  In his last five appearances, Hart is 2-3-0, 4.50, .876, and he logged just over ten minutes in each of his last two appearances, allowing three goals on nine shots in each.  If called upon (he has an ankle injury), this would be his first career appearance against the Caps.

1.  Small wonder that the Flyers have been good over their last 23 games.  They are a top-ten scoring team (82 goals/fourth) and top-ten defensive team (62 goals/ninth-fewest).

2.  Philadelphia’s power play ranks third in their 17-4-2 run (26.6 percent).  They might have been even more successful with more chances.  Their 64 opportunities rank just 17th in that span.

3.  A surprising fact about this run, given the reputation of the team, is that their 54 shorthanded situations faced is the third-fewest in the league in that span.  Only Detroit (50) and Buffalo (45) have faced fewer.

4.  From the “out of left field” file… the Flyers lead the league in blocked shots in this 17-4-2 run (418).  That’s not the out of left field part.  What is, is that they are one of only two teams in the league whose blocked shot total in that span is within 50 of their hit total (the Flyers have 465 credited hits).  Calgary is the other club (344 hits, 300 blocked shots).

5.  The Flyers have not done it with possession.  In going 17-4-2 in their last 23 games, they have the second-worst shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (45.05), ahead of only New Jersey (44.53), and they are tied with the Devils for the worst 5-on-5 shot attempt differential (minus-220).

1.  The Caps have a 5-2-0 road record after posting a four-game losing streak away from Capital One Arena.

2.  In that 3-6-5 record the Caps have posted in Philadelphia in their last 14 games there, the Caps have had a fine power play (13-for-47/27.7 percent), but they gave almost all of it back on penalty kills (33-for-45/73.3 percent).

3.  In those 14 games, the Caps have been out-hit by the Flyers, 426-371, but they have had the better of the Flyers in blocked shots (251-231) and fewer giveaways (100-142).

4.  Washington has been underwater in shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 in those 14 games (47.43 percent/minus-66 differential).

5.  Blowouts have been a thing.  Seven of the last 14 games played by the teams in Philadelphia were decided by three or more goals, the Caps winning three of them.  The last three games in Philadelphia have been decided by three or more goals, the Caps losing the last two.

Philadelphia: Gritty

For 40 years, the Phillie Phanatic held an unchallenged place at the summit of City of Brotherly Love mascotdom.  Described simply, yet elegantly, as a “large, furry, green creature,” it resembled a giant overripe avocado with hair, dressed in an ill-fitting jersey, too-small baseball cap, and oversized green shoes.  One looked at its oddly shaped mouth parts and wondered if the inspiration wasn’t the tardigrade:

But on September 24th, a new creature was unleashed upon the sports community of Philadelphia: “Gritty.”  Described as simply and elegantly as is The Phanatic – a furry orange creature with googly eyes who wears Flyers’ gear – he took his place as the first mascot for the Flyers since 1976, when they had a mascot named “Slapshot,”  who lasted only one season…not a surprise:

With Gritty, though, the Flyers seem to have hit a home run (or scored a hat trick).  He has become a sensation that transcends hockey, but not in all quarters.  It seems mascots are a twitterverse unto itself.  And it has little use for Gritty…


This will be Gritty’s first career appearance against the Caps.

Washington: Matt Niskanen
Matt Niskanen has had a difficult year.  There are times when he looks and plays like the 12-year veteran he is, and there are other times when he looks less familiar with the position than one might expect of a 12-year veteran.  One indicator of that is his minus-9 for the season.  It is his worst plus-minus rating and only his second minus rating over a full season since he was minus-15 with the Dallas Stars in 2009-2010, the difference being that this Caps team has already won more games (38) than that Dallas team won all of that year (37).   

Most of the problem seems to have come in the 2019 portion of the schedule.  In 28 games in 2019, Niskanen is 3-4-7, minus-10, and has been on the plus side of the ledger only seven times, half the number of times he was in minus territory.  Add to that the fact that his offense has dried up (ten straight games without a point), and it has been a difficult time for Niskanen.  It is important to the Caps that he find more of his game, since he continues to be a minutes-eater.  He ranks second among defensemen in time on ice per game (22:04), and he has skated less than 20 minutes only five times in 64 games.  In 35 career games against Philadelphia, Niskanen is 5-9-14, plus-1.

In the end…

The last time the Philadelphia Flyers won a Stanley Cup, in May 1975, the top single was “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind, and Fire; the film “W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings” had just been released; Arthur Hailey’s “The Moneychangers” topped the New York Times best seller fiction list; the Phillies were on a six-game losing streak; and gasoline averaged less than 60 cents a gallon.  It has been awhile.  In fact, their 42-season drought is the fifth longest in the league (Toronto, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Vancouver have been waiting longer). 

This Flyers club might have crawled back into contention for a postseason spot, but if last year’s threshold of standing points for a playoff spot hold, they would need 25 points in their last 16 games, a very heavy lift.  The Caps have a chance to swing the hammer to pound that last nail a little further into the lid of that coffin that holds the Flyers’ playoff chances, but they will do so in a place that has considered the respective rankings in the standings between these teams an irrelevance.  It has been almost universally unkind to the Caps over the last seven years.  Even having parted with forward Wayne Simmonds at the trading deadline, this is a formidable opponent that is playing with a sense of purpose and desperation.  This season almost certainly will end worse than Flyer fans might hope, but the Flyers can make things difficult for a Caps team that is looking to hold on to a razor-thin lead in their division.  In that sense, this game will be “gritty” indeed.

Capitals 3 – Flyers 2