Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 69: Capitals at Sabres, March 9th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wrap up their longest remaining road trip of the regular season when they head to Buffalo on Monday night to face the Sabres.  The Caps split the first two games of this road trip, losing in overtime to the New York Rangers and beating the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Washington will be looking to extend its points-earned streak on the road to four games.  On the other side, Buffalo will be trying to end a six-game losing streak that has seen them sink under .500 in standings points percentage for the first time this season.

Then and Now…

The Caps and Sabres will meet for the 163rd time in their all-time regular season series on Monday night.  Washington has a 58-84-5 (15 ties) record against the Sabres overall, 26-46-2 (six ties) in Buffalo.  Since 2005-2006, the Caps are 28-18-4 against the Sabres overall and 11-11-2 in western New York.  This game will complete the two-game season series between the teams, the Caps having won the first meeting, 6-1, in Washington on November 1st.

Active Leaders vs. Opponent…

Noteworthy Opponents…

When Sam Reinhart takes the ice on Monday night, he will do so for the 400th time as a Buffalo Sabre, the 44th skater in team history to dress for 400 games with the franchise.  Reinhart was the second player taken in the 2014 Entry Draft, a solid draft by NHL standards, having produced such noteworthy players as Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Aaron Ekblad (the top overall pick), Brayden Point, Kevin Fiala, and the Capitals’ Jakub Vrana. 

It can be easy for a player, even a highly drafted one, to get lost among franchises among the smaller cities in the league, especially those that have had such limited success as the Sabres have had since he came into the league in 2014-2015.  But in addition to his about to dress for his 400th game with the Sabres, Reinhart is slowly climbing the franchise’s all-time statistical lists.  His next goal will tie Dale Hawerchuk for 28th place on the all-time franchise list (110).  He is four short of 150 assists for his career, and his 255 points ranks 35th on the team’s all-time list. 

What he has not yet become, contrary to what might be expected of a second-overall draft pick, is an elite scorer.  His career high is 25 goals in 2017-2018, although with 22 goals in 68 games so far this season he is on a pace (26 goals) to top that mark.  He has hit the 50-point mark for the third straight season, but with 50 points he seems unlikely to match last year’s career-high mark of 65 points.  He is a minus-15 this season, and while he seems in no danger to match his worst year in that category (minus-24 in 2017-2018), he is one of ten players to post a combined minus-60 or worse over the last four seasons.    Reinhart goes into this game on a cold streak, going without a point in his last seven games and only two points in his last ten contests.  Reinhart is 5-4-9, minus-5, in 13 career games against the Caps.

Sometime later this season, Rasmus Ristolainen will become the 11th defenseman in Sabres’ history to dress for 500 games with the club (he has 492 at the moment).  He has not been an elite scorer from the position, but he has been a consistent one.  It would take a push on his part, but with 32 points in 68 games he has an outside chance of hitting the 40-point mark for the fifth straight season.  If he did so, he would tie Jerry Korab for the second-most 40-point seasons by a defenseman in team history, trailing only Phil Housley, who did it eight times for the Sabres.  As it is, Ristolainen ranks eighth among defensemen in team history in points (226), only two behind Jim Schoenfeld for seventh place.  His 42 career goals with the club are tied for 11th place among defensemen in Sabres’ history with Bill Hajt and only three from tying Schoenfeld and Tyler Myers for ninth place.

Ristolainen is another of the Sabres who have seen their offensive output shrink over the second half of the season.  He has one goal in 22 games since January 12th, and he does not have a goal on home ice since December 21st, a streak of 17 games without one.  He goes into this game with just one point in his last seven games.  One odd part of his game this season is the degree to which his physical engagement, or lack of it, matters.  In nine games in which he was not credited with a hit, the Sabres are 2-6-1; in 19 games in which he did not block a shot, they are 4-12-3.  Ristolainen is 0-7-7, minus-6, in 15 career games against Washington.

Carter Hutton is learning that tending goal in Buffalo is not all unicorns and accordions.  In his second season with the Sabres since arriving as an unrestricted free agent from St. Louis, Hutton is likely to post his second career and second straight season with a goals against average of 3.00 or higher (currently 3.18; 3.00 last season), and he is on pace to finish this season with a career worst .898 save percentage over a full season.  What it has meant is that he has split time with Linus Ullmark in goal, Hutton getting 30 starts this season to 33 for Ullmark. 

Ullmark is in his fifth NHL season after being drafted by the Sabres in the sixth round (163rd overall) in the 2012 Entry Draft.  That happened to be a solid draft for goaltenders, yielding the likes of Andrej Vasilevskiy, Matt Murray, Frederik Andersen, and Connor Hellebuyck.  This is Ullmark’s second straight season with 30 or more starts, and he has improved over last year’s numbers, cutting his goals against average from 3.11 last year to 2.72 so far this season, and he has lifted his save percentage from .905 last year to .914 so far this season.  Ullmark has been hobbled lately by a leg injury suffered when he caught his skate in a rut in a game against the Ottawa Senators on January 28th.  He has not yet been cleared for game action.  Which leaves Jonas Johansson as Buffalo’s backup for the moment.  A third round pick of the Sabres in the 2014 Entry Draft, he has gotten a brief look by the club with six appearances over which he is 1-3-1, 2.94, .894.  If it comes down to Hutton in goal for this game, he is 3-3-2, 3.19, .888 in nine career appearances against the Capitals.

1.  A struggling team might struggle more as the season wears on.  Since January 1st, Buffalo is 12-14-1, their 25 standings points earned being tied for third fewest in the league over that span.

2.  Since January 1st, only the Detroit Red Wings have averaged fewer shots on goal per game (25.4) than the Sabres (27.6).

3.  The Sabres have not dealt with the long change of second periods well, scoring only 19 second period goals in 27 games since January 1st, tied with the New York Islanders for third-fewest in the league.

4.  Buffalo is one of two teams to go 3-0 in overtime games since January 1st (Vegas is the other).

5.  Only four times in 27 games since January 1st have the Sabres out-shot an opponent.  They are 3-0-1 in those games.

1.  The Caps net power play (accounting for shorthanded goals allowed) of 11.4 percent is fifth-worst in the league since January 1st.

2.  Since January 1st, the Caps have the second-worst faceoff winning percentage (46.3 percent) in the league.  The only team that is worse is the Sabres (46.2 percent).

3.  The Caps have scored 38 third period goals since January 1st, second-most in the league (New York Rangers: 44).

4.  The Caps and the Penguins lead the league in wins when trailing after two periods since January 1st (four apiece).  The Caps’ winning percentage in such games (.308) is best in the league.

5.  Washington has played “heavy” since January 1st, their 26.15 hits per 60 minutes ranking third in the league in that span.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo: Rasmus Dahlin

He was the top overall pick of the 2018 Entry Draft, he is the third leading scorer of his draft class (82 points), and he leads all defensemen of his draft class in goals (13), assists (69), and points.  But playing on a club that would draft such a player first overall also means he is second-worst in plus-minus in his draft class (minus-21).  Rasmus Dahlin might be thought of as being pretty much on schedule as a top draft pick.  Defensemen are not generally drafted first overall in the NHL Entry Draft, he being only the third defenseman over a span of 22 drafts when he was selected (Erik Johnson in 2006 by St. Louis and Aaron Ekblad in 2014 by Florida being the others).  And even that has been a mixed bag of success, Johnson having played in more than 750 NHL games over 12 seasons without receiving votes for a major post-season award, and Ekblad laboring for a club that has made the playoffs only once in his five seasons in the league before this one and failing to win a series in that postseason.

In his second season with the Sabres, Dahlin has had an uneven sophomore season.  After dressing for all 82 games last year and finishing as a Calder Trophy finalist for the top rookie award (he finished third) on a 9-35-44 season in scoring from the blue line, he has dressed for only 58 games so far this season, missing ten games to a concussion and an upper body injury.  When he has been in the lineup, his per-game production is out-pacing last years in assists (fro 0.43 per game to 0.59 this season) and in points (from 0.54 to 0.66 points per game).  His shooting is down, from 2.16 shots per game to 1.53 shots per game, which likely accounts for a drop in goal scoring (from 0.11 goals per game last year to 0.07 goals per game so far this season).  He has run hot and cold lately as well.  After putting up a six-game points streak in February (1-6-7), he has just one point (an assist) in his last seven contests.  Dahlin is 2-3-5, minus-3, in four career games against the Capitals.

Washington: Nicklas Backstom

It has been a bit of an odd season for Nicklas Backstrom.  On the one hand, he has averaged 0.90 points per game for the eighth time in nine seasons (0.90 points per game in 60 games).  On the other, he has a minus-1 rating that, if sustained through the end of the season, would be his first “minus” season since 2013-2014, when he was a career wort minus-20 in 82 games.  His shooting percentage has been off, his 9.1 percent conversion rate being his lowest since he finished at 8.9 percent in 2010-2011.  He has yet to record a game-winning goal, something he has never done over a full season in his 12 seasons preceding this one.  There even seems to be the quiet ferocity in his game missing over past seasons, his 14 penalty minutes in 60 games being his lowest penalty minutes per game (0.23) of his career to date.

One cannot help but wonder if Backstrom is playing through an injury.  Since he went 2-2-4 in a 6-3 win over the New Jersey Devils on December 20th, he has just four goals on 68 shots in 32 games (5.9 percent shooting), putting him on a pace to finish with fewer goals per game over a full season (0.20) since his rookie season in 2007-2008 (0.17).  And, his faceoff winning percentage is just 48.6 percent, an odd turn from a player who is a career 50-percent plus faceoff winner.  He has shown signs of coming out of that slump recently, going 1-8-9 over his last nine games and posting his first goal in 11 games when he netted one against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.  Backstrom is 8-21-29, plus-2, in 41 career games against Buffalo.

In the end…

Good teams take advantage of teams that are young and/or are struggling.  On that basis, the Caps should win this game and should do so with reasonable comfort.  But the Caps and Sabres have alternated wins over their last six meetings in Buffalo.  The losing team in each of the six games has struggled to score, at no time scoring more than two goals.  In that respect, watch to see if the Caps get out to a lead on the Sabres as they did against the Penguins on Saturday.  If they do not, it could be a long and disappointing evening.

Capitals 5 – Sabres 2

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

Week 22 was an odd week for the Washington Capitals.  They lost ugly to a division rival, lost in overtime to another division rival while allowing a player to score five goals against them for only the second time in team history, but bookending the week were a pair of wins, including one over their arch rival, to give the Caps a second-straight winning week that felt like anything but.

Record: 2-1-1

A second straight two-win week, while hardly the stuff to inspire handsprings, is encouraging after three straight losing weeks.  The problem, though, is that the Caps went 1-1-1 against Metropolitan Division opponents.  The Caps might be bending that curve a bit, though.  Their overall record against the Metro at the end of Week 22 stands at 11-12-2 with three games remaining (at Columbus, at Pittsburgh, and hosting the New York Rangers).  The Caps’ three games in Week 22 against Metro teams went loss/overtime loss/win.  When added to a win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 23rd, the Caps are 2-1-1 against Metro teams after losing four in a row against division rivals.  On the other hand, and in a strange twist of fate, the Penguins are the only Metro team that the Caps have beaten since January 18th, having done so twice.

What should not get lost in the divisional noise in Week 22 is that the Caps beat the Minnesota Wild on the road to open the week.  That win broke a four-game road losing streak for the Caps that had been their longest of the season.

Offense: 4.00/game (season: 3.44/2nd)

It is hard to find fault in a week in which the Caps scored four or more goals three times in four games.  Ten different Capitals shared in the 16 goals scored.  Alex Ovechkin led the club with four goals, posted in two-goal games against Minnesota and the New York Rangers.  His second goal against the Rangers forced overtime in that game and gained the Caps a standings point; it also lifted into a tie with Boston’s David Pastrnak for the league lead in goals (47), although Pastrnak reclaimed the lead with a goal against Tampa Bay on Saturday night.  The two multi-goal games gave Ovechkin a league-leading 13 multi-goal games this season and 145 for his career, fourth all-time.

Three other Caps had multi-goal weeks.  Richard Panik, Nic Dowd, and Garnet Hathaway had a pair apiece.  Dowd had the first multi-goal game of his career when he posted a pair in the Caps’ 5-2 win over the Penguins to end the week.  Hathaway’s two goals gave him goals in three of his last six games at week’s end after suffering through a 24-game streak without a goal.  Panik’s two goals, one to start the week against Minnesota and the other to end it against Pittsburgh, ended a slump in which he went without a goal for 13 straight games.

The Caps had 15 skaters record points for the week, Richard Panik leading the way with six (2-4-6).  The six points over four games gave him his longest points streak as a Capital (four games) and matched his point total over his previous 14 games.  The balance was evident with Ovechkin registering five points (4-1-5), and four different Caps posting four points: Carl Hagelin (1-3-4), Nic Dowd (2-2-4), Nicklas Backstrom (1-3-4), and Ilya Kovalchuk (1-3-4).

In an odd result, Hagelin matched Ovechkin’s shot total for the week (11), aided by Ovechkin not recording a shot on goal in the 5-2 win over the Penguins to close out the week.  John Carlson added ten shots on goal of his own.  He also had three assists to hit the 60 assist mark for the season, a career-high and making him only the second defenseman in Caps history to hit the 60-assist mark.  Scott Stevens did it twice (60 assists in 1987-1988 and 61 assists in 1988-1989).  Carlson became just the fourth defensemen since 2005-2006 to post at least 15 goals and at least 60 assists in a season (15-60-75), joining Nicklas Lidstrom (16-64-80 in 2005-2006), Erik Karlsson (16-66-82 in 2015-2016), and Brent Burns (16-67-83 in 2018-2019).

Defense: 4.00/game (season: 3.09/T-18th)

The Caps have had their problems on the defensive side of the puck.  It went from bad to worse when the Caps started the week allowing three goals to the Minnesota Wild, then five goals to the Philadelphia Flyers, and finally six goals to the New York Rangers, five of those goals scored by Mika Zibanejad, including the overtime game-winner in the Rangers’ 6-5 win.  It was only the second time in Capitals history that the club allowed a player to score five goals in a single game.  Sergei Fedorov scored all five goals, including the overtime game-winner, on December 26, 1996 when the Detroit Red Wings beat the Caps, 5-4 in Detroit.

The 6-5 overtime loss to the Rangers made it ten consecutive games that the Caps allowed an opponent three or more goals and the sixth consecutive game of three or more goals allowed on the road.

The week had an odd twist to it in that the Caps were either stingy, twice holding the Flyers and Penguins under 30 shots (29 and 28, respectively), or generous, allowing Minnesota 40 shots and the Rangers 39 shots on goal.  The Caps have been a bit leaky in this regard lately, allowing opponents more than 30 shots in six of nine games through Week 22.  The Caps did limit the Flyers and Penguins to fewer than 40 shot attempts at 5-on-5 (34 and 39, respectively), ending a six-game streak in which they allowed 40 or more shot attempts at fives.

Goaltending: 4.02 / .882 (season: 2.93 / .902 / 1 shutout)

When the defense struggles, the goalies’ numbers take the hit, and both goalies did just that in Week 22.  Braden Holtby got the call three times for the week, and what distinguished his performance, not in a good way, was how his save percentages deteriorated from period to period -- .929 in first period (26 saves on 28 shots), .909 I second periods (30 saves on 33 shots), and .861 in third periods (31 saves on 36 shots).  The detail was a bit different, though.  Holtby faced fewer than ten shots in five of nine regulation periods he played this week and was perfect in four of them (he allowed two goals on four third period shots against the Flyers).  In the four regulation period in which he faced more than ten shots, he stopped 57 of 65 shots (.877 save percentage).

Ilya Samsonov was in goal for one game this week and allowed six goals on 39 shots in a 6-5 overtime loss to the Rangers.  It was his fifth straight loss over six appearances (0-4-1) in which he stopped 133 of 153 shots (.869 save percentage).  It is quite a reversal from his 11-win streak from November 20th through January 31st over which he stopped 278 of 297 shots (.936).

Power Play: 1-for-10/10.0 percent (season: 19.5 percent/17th)

The Caps are in a serious slump on their power play.  Week 22 was the fifth time in the last eight weeks that they finished under 15 percent for the week.  Over those eight weeks they are 13-for-83 (15.5 percent), 24th in the league over that span.  Only once in that span did they score two power play goals in a game (February 13th at Colorado).

The Caps did not apply a lot of power play pressure in Week 22, at least in terms of shot volumes.  They had 15 shots on goal in 18:15 of power play ice time.  Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson had four shots on goal apiece, although they got to them in different ways.  Ovechkin got his over the first three games of the week, while Wilson recorded all of his in the game against the Rangers.

Ovechkin scored the Caps’ lone power play goal of the week on the Caps’ first power play of the week, that on a 5-on-3 advantage against Minnesota.  They then went 0-f0r-9 over the remainder of the week.

Penalty Killing: 14-for-20/70.0 percent (season: 82.8 percent/5th)

Twenty shorthanded situations faced is quite a volume for a week’s work.  The Caps have not faced that many shorthanded situations in a single week since Week 18 of the 2015-2016 season when they went 17-for-20 on the penalty kill.  The impressive, for lack of a better word, part of the penalty kill in Week 22 was that the Caps spent more than half a game – 34:31 in ice time – killing penalties.  The heavy penalty killing workload pushed the Caps over 400 minutes in shorthanded ice time, the only team in the league to top that mark through Week 22 (409:02).

The Caps went shorthanded five or more times three times this week, bringing their total of such games to 17 for the season.  They are 10-5-2 in those games, but it is a dangerous way to play.

Faceoffs: 104-for-232 / 44.8 percent (season: 48.4 percent/28th)

Another week, another under-50 percent effort in the circle, but Week 22 comes with a twist.  The Caps finished the week over 50 percent in the offensive zone (32-for-61/52.5 percent), but they took 36 fewer draws in the offensive end of the ice than they did in the defensive end, where they were just 38-for-97 (39.2 percent).

On an individual level, there was the good and the bad, and there was a pattern to it.  Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller, and Evgeny Kuznetsov all finished over 50 percent in the offensive zone, but in the other end, they all finished under 50 percent.  On the other hand, Nic Dowd struggled in both ends, finishing under 50 percent in both, but did top 50 percent in neutral zone draws.

Goals by Period:

The Caps did well in first periods, even if they were a bit misleading.  Of eight first period goals scored for the week, the Caps had three of them in the 4-3 win over Minnesota to open the week, and they had three more in the 5-2 win over Pittsburgh to wrap up the week. 

The progress by period of goals against was another matter and not as pleasant to contemplate.  The Caps were leakier as games went on, allowing seven goals in four third periods for the week, almost half of the week’s total goals allowed.  Those seven goals allowed in the third period brought the Caps’ total for the season to 74, placing them in the top-ten in third period goals allowed (tied with Florida, Ottawa, and Los Angeles, ot a neighborhood in which they might want to find themselves).

The saving part of the week is that the Caps did get out of it with 93 third period goals scored for the season.  That is tops in the league, five more than the Rangers.


The recent struggles of the Capitals have brought this year’s team into an almost identical record as last year’s club through an equivalent number of games.  Unsurprisingly, the similarities between last year and this extend to the scoring for and against, this year’s club scoring only four more goals than last year’s club and the scoring defense now being identical for the two years.  The Caps are continuing to limit 5-on-5 shot attempts this year compared to last, and the possession effects appear in the lower blocked shot and takeaway numbers.  Credited hits run counter to that trend, with this year’s club running almost ten percent ahead of last year’s club, an unexpected result if a team is better at dominating possession.

In the end…

Week 22 had a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty quality to it.  The Caps went 2-1-1, which continues the improvement from their three-week streak of losing weeks, but losing twice to division rivals, including the one now in a flatfooted tie with them in record (the Flyers) hurts, and is part of a year-long struggle against Metropolitan Division teams.  But any week that includes a win over the Penguins is not all bad, especially when it is the win that closes a week and leaves fans happy.  But with only 14 games left in the season, the Caps are going to have to show more, especially in the defensive end of the ice, to suggest they have a deep playoff run in the cards.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Richard Panik (2-4-6, plus-5, one game-winning goal, five hits, three blocked shots, plus-5 on-ice even strength goal differential)
  • Second Star: Nic Dowd (2-2-4, plus-4, first career multi-goal game, nine hits)
  • Third Star: Ilya Kovalchuk (1-3-4, plus-4, eight hits, plus-4 on-ice even strength goal differential)

Captain rates the week…

Two puppers