The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
And, it is gone. On December 27th, the Washington Capitals had a ten-point lead on the Metropolitan Division field. When they lost in overtime to the New York Rangers, 6-5, on Thursday night, and the Philadelphia Flyers beat the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-1, that lead was gone, the teams in a flatfooted tie in record (both 40-20-7) and the Caps holding the edge by virtue of the third tie-breaker criterion -- the greater number of games won, excluding games won by the Gimmick—and that by the slimmest of margins, 36 to 35.
The Caps will try to at least hold on to that thin reed of a lead when they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday afternoon. The Caps will be trying to avoid a third consecutive loss, while the Penguins will be seeking their third consecutive win.
Then and Now…
This will be the 228th meeting of the clubs in the regular season. Washington is 99-102-10 (16 ties) in the series overall and 41-58-5 (seven ties) in Pittsburgh. Since 2005-2006, the Caps are 25-24-9 against the Pens overall and 12-11-5 on the road. The teams split their first two meetings this season, both of them in Washington. The Penguins took the first meeting, 4-3, on February 2nd, while the Caps came out on top, 5-3, on February 23rd.
Active Leaders vs. Opponent…
So there he was, settling in after three full seasons with the Penguins as a reliable 15-goal, 35-point player (46 goals and 101 points over those three seasons). It was entirely consistent with his output in his brief stint in the AHL, where he was 16-17-33 in 61 games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins over the 2014-2016 and 2015-2016 seasons. But then something happened to Bryan Rust, and one wonders if it is a late bloomer blooming or a one-off. Rust leads the team in goals this season with 27, far exceeding the career 18 he had last season. But here is the thing. Yes, he is getting more ice time (19:51 per game this season compared to the 15:18 he averaged over his first three full seasons). Yes, he is shooting more often (2.83 shots on goal per game versus the 1.89 shots per game he averaged over his first three seasons). But on the other hand, he is shooting 18.4 percent this season, compared to 12.3 percent over the last three seasons.
The Pens certainly hope Rust continues his efficiency and his effectiveness. They are 18-2-2 in the 22 games in which he had a goal, 25-4-4 in the 33 games in which he had a point. Rust has been a terror on home ice, too. In 25 games on home ice so far, he has points in 18 of them (16-19-35) and has nine-multi-point games. Rust is 4-5-9, plus-1, in 15 career games against the Caps.
Dan Marino is a Marino that Pittsburghers knows and remember from his football days and second career making commercials. John Marino, a native of North Easton, Massachusetts, is one that fewer folks might recognize in Pittsburgh. However, John Marino is second among Penguin defensemen in goals and points this season, his six goals and 26 points trailing only Kris Letang (14 and 42). Marino was a sixth-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2015 Entry Draft who made his way to Pittsburgh in a July 2019 trade for a sixth-round pick in the 2021 Entry Draft. The former Harvard University blueliner seems to be a steal so far in his rookie season in the NHL, ranked fifth in goals scored among rookie defensemen, fourth in points, tied for third in plus-minus (plus-16, with Minnesota’s Carson Soucy), and he is one of only four rookie defensemen to average more than 20 minutes per game (20:19).
Marino has been a consistent performer regardless of venue, posting a 2-10-12, plus-9 scoring line on home ice and a 4-10-14, plus-7 scoring line on the road this season. And, he shook off a slow start to post those solid numbers, going without a point in his first nine games, but averaging 0.59 points per game since then. As is often the case with second or third level scorers, his contributions might not be as frequent as a Sidney Crosby or a Kris Letang, but they have been meaningful. Pittsburgh is 17-3-2 in the 22 games in which Marino has a point this season. He goes into this game with points in five of his last eight home games (1-4-5). Marino had an assist in his only appearance against the Caps in his career to date and was a plus-1.
Matt Murray has the Stanley Cups, and he has 19 wins this season. Tristan Jarry was named to this year’s All-Star Game and has 20 wins this season. Jarry also has the 2.31 goals against average (Murray’s is 2.83), the .924 save percentage (.900 for Murray), and has three shutouts (one for Murray). The differences are just as stark on home ice, where Jarry is 13-4-1, 2.05, .932, with three shutouts, while Murray is 10-2-3, 2.58, .918. What has changed, though, is the calendar. Since the calendar flipped over to the new year, their respective numbers are much closer, with a slight edge to Murray (8-4-1, 2.60, .911) over Jarry (7-6-1, 2.84, .907).
The odd part of their respective records is Murray’s record on home ice. He has not lost a game in regulation at PPG Paints Arena since October 8th, going 9-0-3 (one no-decision), 2.48, .921. Nine times in those 13 appearances he allowed two or fewer goals. On the other hand, Jarry’s numbers are better over that same span (2.05 GAA and .932 save percentage on home ice). Murray is 8-5-0, 3.56, .887 in 13 career appearances against the Caps, while Jarry has never faced the Caps in his career to date.
1. Only Philadelphia has more wins on home ice (24) than the Penguins this season (23, tied with St. Louis), and the Pens’ .758 points percentage on home ice ranks third, trailing only the Flyers (.788) and Boston (.779).
2. The Pens have built a fine home record on solid play at both ends of the ice. They are top-ten in scoring offense (3.55 goals per game/fifth), scoring defense (2.45/sixth), power play (24.0 percent/eighth), net power play (23.1 percent/seventh), net penalty kill (88.8 percent/sixth), and shots on goal per game (33.3/tied for tenth).
3. Pittsburgh has a knack for erasing leads on home ice. Their 8-4-2 record (.571 winning percentage) when surrendering the game’s first goal is second-best in the league on home ice.
4. The Penguins have not lost a game in regulation on home ice when leading after two periods (14-0-1).
5. Teams struggle to start fast at PPG Paints Arena. The 21 first period goals allowed by the Pens are tied for fifth fewest in the league (with Vancouver), and finishing strong is a problem for visiting teams as well, the 23 third period goals allowed by the Pens being fourth-fewest in the league.
1. The entire four game series against the Penguins this season is being played in early afternoon. The Caps play nine games at 1:00pm or earlier this season, four of them against the Penguins.
2. Since starting the season 16-3-1 on the road, the Caps are 6-7-1 in their last 14 games away from Capital One Arena.
3. Caps’ road problems, Part One… their ten first period goals scored over their last 14 road games is tied for 24th in the league (with Minnesota), while the 19 goals allowed in the first period are tied for third most (with Vancouver).
4. Caps’ road problems, Part Two… the Caps are 3-0-1 when scoring first in their last 14 road games, but the key point there is scoring first only four times in 14 games. They find themselves in an early hole too often.
5. Caps’ road problems, Part Three… In their last 14 games on the road, the Caps have had few chances to hold a third period lead. Only twice have they taken a lead into the third period, winning on both occasions. They are 2-5-0 when trailing after two periods over that span on the road.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin came into the league together, and here we are 15 seasons later and both are chasing down records. Crosby hit a milestone in the Penguins’ most recent home game, posting his 800th career assist in a 7-3 win over Ottawa last Tuesday. He became the 32nd player in league history to hit that mark and the sixth-fastest in league history to do it, posting that 800th assist in his 980th career game (for the record, the faster to 800 are: Bryan Trottier (969 games), Adam Oates (919), Paul Coffey (880), Mario Lemieux (661), and Wayne Gretzky (527)). Crosby is already the franchise’s all-time leader in games played (981), second in goals (461, to Lemieux’ 690), second in assists (800, to Lemieux’ 1,033), points (1,261, to Lemieux’ 1,723), second in plus-minus (plus-177, to Jaromir Jagr’s plus-207), third in power play goals (140), fourth in game-winning goals (64), and fourth in points per game (1.29).
This has been a difficult season for Crosby, who has been limited to 38 of the Penguins’ 66 games due to core muscle surgery. But since his return on January 14th, he is 10-18-28, fifth in the league in points over that span, and his 13 power play points are ranked third over the period. He has been especially productive on home ice since his return. In nine games at PPG Paints Arena since coming back, he is 5-17-22, and he has five games with three or more points. He has multi-point games in 11 of the 19 games he has played on home ice this season. If Crosby goes multi-point, book it in the win column. Pittsburgh is 13-0-0 in games in which Crosby recorded two or more points overall this season. With two points in this game, he would tie Eric Staal as the active leader in career points against the Caps (74). In 51 career games against the Caps, Crosby is 25-47-72, minus-3.
Washington: Alex Ovechkin
On the other side of the Great Rivalry of the 21st Century, Alex Ovechkin is now just a hat trick away from tying Mike Gartner for seventh place on the all-time NHL goal scoring list (708). There is an odd part about his goal scoring this season that might say more about his teammates than it does about him. In 13 multi-goal games this season (tops in the league), the Caps are 10-1-2. That is not especially surprising. However, in 17 games in which he scored a single goal, the Caps have just a 9-7-1 record. Not a lot of goal support from teammates in those instances. And in the 36 games in which he was held without a goal entirely, the Caps are 20-12-4. Guess the moral here is “score a lot or not at all.”
But there is a darker side to those games in which he did not score a goal. Since January 8th, the Caps are just 2-9-0 in those games in which he did not score one. This after going 18-3-4 in games Ovechkin did not score a goal to that point. In that respect, the team seems to have disintegrated around him.
Ovechkin goes into this game with two-goal performances in each of his last two road games (at Minnesota and at the New York Rangers) and four multi-goal performances over his last nine road contests, including a hat trick against the New York Islanders to start the run in a 6-4 win on January 18th. Here is why that matters. If Ovechkin records a multi-goal game on Saturday, he will tie Wayne Gretzky for the most multi-goal games on the road in NHL history (83). In 58 career games against Pittsburgh, Ovechkin is 35-24-59, plus-13.
In the end…
The Capitals find themselves in a place they have not occupied in quite some time – a horse race. Tied with the Flyers in record, three points ahead of the Penguins, the Caps are not just in danger of losing their grip on the Metropolitan Division lead, they are in jeopardy of losing a first round home-advantage playoff matchup, a spot they in which have not found themselves since opening the 2012 playoffs in Boston against the Bruins.
The Caps have 15 games to get themselves right again, but they are running out of chances to do so at the expense of Metropolitan Division teams directly. Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh will be one of only four that the Caps have against division opponents over that last 15-game stretch. Two of those four games will be against the Penguins (the teams meet in Pittsburgh on March 22nd), but for the Caps the chore is to win, win again, and win some more to put pressure on the Flyers and Penguins to match them from a distance. If they do not, starting with Saturday’s game, one would like their chances a lot less to find their game once the postseason begins. As if this rivalry needs yet another layer of flavor to it.
Capitals 4 – Penguins 3