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…
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