Sunday, February 23, 2020

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 20

And now, we slump.  Week 20 was a lost week for the Washington Capitals, quite literally with three losses in three games.  At week’s end, the Caps found themselves in the unenviable position of looking up at the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Metropolitan Division standings and look down at the fast-rising Philadelphia Flyers in the Metro, now just three points behind the Caps for second place in the division.

Record: 0-2-1

A winless week.  It has not happened to the Caps since Week 17 last season when the club also went 0-2-1.  Three straight losing weeks.  That has not happened to the Caps since they opened the abbreviated 2012-2013 season with three straight losing weeks (note: they finished that season with 11 straight non-losing weeks).  As if to put an exclamation point on the week, the Caps lost to the New Jersey Devils, a team 24 points behind the Caps in the standings going into the game, leaving the Caps with a 5-8-0 record against Metropolitan Division teams since Christmas and a four-game losing streak within the division.  The Caps play seven of their last 21 games against division opponents, three of them against the Pittsburgh Penguins, starting on Sunday afternoon.  That schedule will bear watching.

Offense: 2.33/game (season: 3.44/5th)

Week 20 was a repeat of Week 19 at the offensive end of the rink for the Caps, which is to say, “not good.”  Seven goals in three games, coming in pairs.  T.J. Oshie had a pair, Tom Wilson had a pair, and Alex Ovechkin had a pair, the latter of which made some history:

Lars Eller had the other goal to round out the week’s goal scoring.  It was the group not scoring a goal that bears watching, though.  Jakub Vrana, 0-for-the-week and 11 straight games without a goal.  Nicklas Backstrom, 0-for-the-week and four straight without a goal.  John Carlson, 0-for-the-week and five straight without a goal.  Dmitry Orlov, 0-for-the-week, and 24 straight without a goal.  Evgeny Kuznetsov, 0-for-the-week.  The fourth line – Garnet Hathaway, Brendan Leipsic, and Nic Dowd – 0-for-the-week and two since Christmas (both by Dowd).  Backstrom was the only Capital to post three points for the week (all assists), the Caps getting a pair each from Vrana, Carlson, Oshie, Wilson, Ovechkin, and Kuznetsov. 

It was hardly a surprise that the Caps finished the week with seven goals.  Their offense at even strength shrank over the course of the week with diminishing shot attempts at fives – 50 against Vegas to open the week, 44 against Montreal, and 35 against New Jersey to end the week.  Worse, they did not muster the urgency to apply more pressure in games in which they trailed, finishing a minus-7 against Montreal in even strength shot attempt differential when trailing, minus-8 against New Jersey in that situation.

Defense: 3.33/game (season: 3.03/16th)

Week 20 was a repeat of Week 19 on the defensive side of the puck as well, ten goals allowed in three games.  The odd part here was that it was not so much a bad week as it was an uneven one.  The Caps allowed Vegas only 39 5-on-5 shots attempts for the week and 29 shots on goal.  Against New Jersey, those numbers were 40 and 29.  Not bad in the general scheme of things. 

In fact, the Caps allowed three goals in regulation in each of the three games for the week (they lost to Montreal, 4-3, in overtime), extending a streak of games allowing three or fewer goals in regulation to five after allowing 12 goals over two games earlier this month, their longest streak of three-or-fewer goals allowed since they went seven straight games in late November/early December.  Unfortunately, to the extent the scoring defense has improved, it has not translated into more win-loss success, the Caps going 1-3-1 in those last five games.

As for Capitals one would not want to have been this week, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson might qualify.  Each were on ice for half (four) of the even strength goals scored against the Caps (eight) this week, and Carlson was on ice for half (five) of the ten total goals allowed.

Goaltending: 3.42 / .889 (season: 2.88 / .903 / 1 shutout)

Week 19 had a silver lining in this category with the solid play of Braden Holtby, who looked to be coming out of a significant stretch of uncharacteristically weak results.  Not so in Week 20.  Holtby took a step backward in Week 20, losing twice (once in overtime) and stopping just 54 of the 61 shots he faced (.885 save percentage).  It was, as much as anything, slow starts.  Holtby stopped 19 of 22 first period shots faced (.864) while stopping 35 of 38 shots over the second and third periods he played for the week (.921).  And, he stumbled back into a rut in which he has found himself for too much of this season.  Holtby stopped 49 of 56 shots at even strength, his .875 save percentage ranking 41st among the 56 goalies to dress for the week.  It brought his season save percentage at evens to .904, 51st among 55 goalies to appear in at least 20 games.

It was no better for Ilya Samsonov.  He got the last game of the week and took the loss in the 3-2 decision to the Devils.  It was his first loss on the road of his career after opening with ten straight wins (one no-decision) in his first 11 career appearances on the road.  It was not as if he played altogether poorly in the loss, which ended up being a bad present for his 23rd birthday, but it extended a string of mortal performances on his part.  He stopped 26 of 29 shots in that loss, bringing his totals to 96 saves on 111 shots over his last five appearances over which he is 1-3-0 (one no-decision).

Power Play: 2-for-10/20.0 percent (season: 20.5 percent/15th)

The power play was, like so much in Week 20, just enough to keep the Caps close in games without being the thing to push them over the top for a win.  The effort against the Devils to wrap up the week was especially frustrating.  The Caps had six power play chances against the Devils, the fifth time this season that they had six or more power plays in a single game and the first time they suffered a loss in regulation in such a game.

The shot frequency didn’t seem to matter much, either.  Washington managed two shots in 5:09 against Vegas and scored one power play goal.  They were shut out on shots in their only power play over two minutes against Montreal.  They followed that up with 14 shots in 10:27 of power play time on the Devils with one goal scored for a total of two goals on 16 shots in 17:36 for the week.  What was telling was that John Carlson and T.J. Oshie combined for 10 shots (fie apiece) of the 16 the Caps had in total, and Alex Ovechkin, who teams were favoring in their penalty kill schemes, managed just one unsuccessful power play shot on goal for the week.

Penalty Killing: 4-for-6/66.7 percent (season: 83.3 percent/4th)

The best that can be said of the penalty kill was that it had to be deployed infrequently.  The six shorthanded situations faced for the week stand as the fewest the Caps faced in any week to date this season.  And that, coupled with the Caps’ performance in the first two games, when they killed all three shorthanded situations they faced against Vegas and Montreal, had the makings of a great week of penalty killing.  But the Caps gave up two power play goals to the Devils, the 23rd-ranked power play in the league at week’s end, on just three shorthanded situations faced to close the week on a sour note.  All in all, the Caps allowed their three opponents 11 shots on goal in 11:24 of shorthanded ice time, but seven of those shots came in just over five minutes of shorthanded ice time against the Devils.

Faceoffs: 76-for-178 / 42.7 percent (season: 48.3 percent/28th)

At the rate they are going, it would hardly be a surprise if the Caps finished the season at the bottom of this statistical category.  They have some work to do to “catch” the league-worst Buffalo Sabres (46.2 percent), but they do seem intent of taking a run at it. 

Once more, the Caps were weak in each game.  They managed to hit 50 percent only against the Devils, one of the few teams ranked lower in this area (46.7 percent and 29th in the league at week’s end) and were under 50 percent in each of the three zones for the week.  They were under 40 percent against both the Golden Knights and Canadiens, making it four times in seven games that the Caps were under 40 percent in faceoff wins.

Among the six Capitals to take ten or more draws for the week, only T.J. Oshie finished above 50 percent (7-for-10/70 percent).  Evgeny Kuznetsov and Travis Boyd finished the week under 30 percent (28.6 percent and 27.3 percent, respectively).

Goals by Period:

It was another disturbing week for the Caps in this area, characterized by slow starts (four first period goals allowed) and furious finishes with no reward (four third period goals scored, but no wins).  In their 11-12-1 slide since December 23rd, the Caps have a minus-12 first period goal differential (18 scored, 30 allowed) and a plus-11 in the third period (34 scored, 23 allowed), a reflection of the poor start-furious finish that has led to such a mediocre record.


Over 61 games, this year’s club still has advantages over last year’s in most categories, but the margin is shrinking.  Nowhere is this more important than in the top numbers: wins and losses, and goals scored and allowed.  In these respects, this year’s club and last year’s are losing their distinguishing characteristics, this year’s Caps with only a three-win/five-point advantage over last year’s club, and this year’s team holding a plus-15 goal differential advantage over last year’s team.  Even with the remaining significant advantages this year’s club has over last year’s team in shots and 5-on-5 shot attempts, these advantages are becoming more and more dissociated from win-loss success.

In the end…

The Caps are close to, if not already at a point no one might have expected as recently as a month ago.  They are playing poorly, and they seem to have no clear answer as to how to reverse this trend.  The question can be asked, does the coaching staff have an answer?  If not, are we at a point with a team where “win now” is not just a saying, where a change has to be considered.  This seems unlikely, given the patience with which this team has managed coaching and management personnel over the years, but that such a notion is even entertained, even in our lonely corner of Capitals Nation, is an indicator of how things have changed over the last two months for this club.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Alex Ovechkin (2-0-2, even, 13 shots on goal, 27 shot attempts, 11 credited hits, four blocked shots (led all forwards), became the eighth player in NHL history to post 700 career goals)
  • Second Star: John Carlson (0-2-2, minus-3, eight shots on goal, tied Calle Johansson for most career points by a Caps defenseman in team history (474))
  • Third Star: Tom Wilson (2-0-2, plus-2 (led team), 13 shots on goal, 18 shot attempts, 16 credited hits, four takeaways (tied for team lead))

Captain rates the week…


A Slumping Team in a Win Now League

There are times when the “NHL” stands for the “Now Hockey League.”  As in “win…NOW.”  The circumstances for each team chanting that mantra might differ, but the NHL is an impatient league, which is not surprising given the pace at which the game is played.

Our concern at present is with the circumstances that make “win now” something on the minds of Capitals Nation.  Those circumstances were brought into sharp relief this weekend when Alex Ovechkin posted his 700th career goal, the eighth player in NHL history to do so, yet the Capitals lost the game win which he did it, 3-2, to the lowly New Jersey Devils.  The loss gave the Caps an 11-12-1 record in 24 games since they dropped a 7-3 decision to the Boston Bruins on December 23rd.  That record ranks 26th in the league over that span in standings points earned.

As remarkable as Ovechkin’s achievement is, and he seems to be hitting career milestones every other week these days, he is playing on the back nine of his career.  He will almost certainly sign a new contract with the Capitals sometime before his current deal expires at the end of next season, but that is as equally almost certain to be his last NHL contract before he takes his records, trophies, and championships (hopefully plural) into retirement. 

Add to this the fact that Braden Holtby might be playing in his last games as a Capital before he leaves for a new club as an unrestricted free agent this summer, Two defensemen likely to get big minutes in the upcoming postseason (Radko Gudas and the just acquired Brenden Dillon) will be unrestricted free agents.  To add more to this smoldering fire, the Capitals are not particularly deep in their prospect pool, making it difficult to sustain, as it is for any team in a salary-capped league, the success level to which Caps fans have become accustomed over the past dozen years.

What has added a measure of urgency to the current situation is that 11-12-1 slump in which the Caps find themselves.  A question that might be asked, given how the Caps have avoided lengthy or crippling injuries this season, is whether the current coaching staff can lead this club back a level of performance that at least approximates the white-hot 26-6-5 start to the season before the current slump set in.  The shorter version – do the coaches have an answer?

As simplistic as it sounds, we have been a supporter of the notion that “offense is skill, defense is will.”  Looking at the Caps over the last 24 games, almost a third of a regular season, it is hard to find a consistent level of “will.”  Since December 23rd, only three teams have a worse scoring defense than the Caps (3.46 goals against per game) – Ottawa (3.48), Toronto (3.54), and Florida (3.59).  Their penalty kill (79.0 percent) and net penalty kill (80.3 percent) rank in the bottom half of the league.  They allowed seven shorthanded goals, tied with Detroit for most in the league in that span.  Their defensive zone faceoff winning percentage (45.2 percent) ranks 28th in the league.

It doesn’t get any better at the individual level, either, especially among the top-tier skaters.  Wins and losses are the ultimate measure to evaluate success, and that is a product of goal differential   In the 11-12-1 slide, a lot of Caps who get paid a lot of money to dominate opponents a lot of the time are not doing it.  Take the on-ice even strength goal differential, as basic as the “for and against” gets.  Tom Wilson: minus-5.  Lars Eller: minus-5.  John Carlson: minus-4.  Evgeny Kuznetsov: minus-3.  Alex Ovechkin: minus-2.  That group includes a big chunk of the top two forward lines and the presumptive Norris Trophy winning defenseman based on the first half of the regular season.

And let us not absolve the netminders.  True, both Braden Holtby and Ilya Samsonov have suffered some iffy play in front of them in recent weeks, but neither has done much to bail out teammates by lifting their respective games.  Since December 23rd, Holtby has stopped just 354 of 408 shots (.868 save percentage), and Samsonov has stopped 252 of 275 shots (.916), but just 96 of 111 shots (.865) in his last five appearances.

What makes things more confounding is that the same things seem to sabotage the Caps from game to game and week to week lately, especially on defense – giving up shorthanded goals, allowing teams to convert stretch passes out of their defensive zone into scoring chances at the other end, indifferent to ineffective play in front of their own net.  Throw in the odd offensive slumps and inconsistent power play, put it all together, and the persistence of poor results and the sameness with which the Caps seem to be losing of late has been met with little effective response on the part of the coaching staff.

The failure to win now in this league, whatever the circumstances, leaves the ice littered with the broken clipboards of coaches relieved of their duties.  There are 15 head coaches in the NHL who were hired into their current positions after the end of the 2018-2019 regular season.  The longest tenured head coach at the moment – Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper, will celebrate his seventh anniversary of his hiring by the Lightning on March 25th, less than two presidential terms in the United States.  And the impatience that some teams have can manifest itself in odd ways with odd results.  Consider that the Pittsburgh Penguins won two of their last three Stanley Cups after making an in-season change behind the bench, Dan Bylsma replacing Michel Therrien for the last 25 regular season games of the 2008-2009 season before winning the Cup, and Mike Sullivan replacing Mike Johnston for the last 54 games of the 2015-2016 season before winning the Cup (and then winning it the next season for good measure).  And there are the St. Louis Blues, the most recent Cup winner, who replaced Mike Yeo with Craig Berube 19 games into the 2018-2019 season before skating to the Cup.

After last season’s first round exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes, this might have been thought of as the “do over” season for the Caps, players and coaches.  We might be past the point of no return for any changes behind the bench for the Caps this season with only 20 games left after facing the Penguins on Sunday.  But if the Caps lose on Sunday afternoon, or worse, lose badly, to an archrival in front of a national audience, all bets are off with a general manager in Brian MacLellan (assuming the decision would rest with him) who gives appearances of being unsentimental when making personnel decisions.  With the team’s stars in their late prime and an ever shrinking window of opportunity that will only accelerate as players age or leave, the “win now” notion takes on special meaning for this team, right now.  You don’t get a chance to do over your “do over.”