The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
Sunday, the Caps wrap up a back-to-back weekend of games when they host the New Jersey Devils at Capital One Arena. The game is part of the NHL’s “guess who is playing who” portion of the schedule. The Caps were originally scheduled to face the New York Rangers in the second of back-to-back games against the Blueshirts, but COVID issues in and around the league intervened, requiring a substantial rearrangement of place cards. The game against the Rangers has been rescheduled for March 20th, and the matchup with the Devils, originally scheduled for March 7th, will be played on Sunday.
New Jersey is one of the teams that was most impacted by COVID-driven changes in the schedule. After beating the Buffalo Sabres, 5-3, in Buffalo on January 31st, they did not take the ice again until they visited Madison Square Garden and beat the New York Rangers, 5-2, on February 16th. They added a 3-2 win in Boston against the Bruins last Thursday to take a three game winning streak into Saturday’s game against the Sabres in Newark, their first home game in more than three weeks.
Miles Wood has had an odd NHL career. Starting with one game played in the 2015-2016 season, Wood played in 200 games over four seasons and went 37-36-73, with 261 penalty minutes. By age 23 he was positioning himself as a player with an edge who could chip in some offense. A parallel to the Caps’ Tom Wilson would not be entirely out of bounds. But then something happened last season. His penalty minutes dropped to 57 in 68 games, the first time in four full seasons he did not average more than one penalty minute per game. But unlike Wilson, who has matured into picking his spots to display his physical skills while improving his offensive production, Wood posted only 23 points in 68 games and was a minus-19. He has rebounded in the early going, leading the Devils in goals (five) and posting eight points in 11 games. He has had a bit of inconsistency creep into his game, though. After starting the season with a three-game points streak (3-1-4), Wood is 2-2-4 in his last eight games going into Saturday’s action, but three of those points (two goals, one assist) came in the 5-3 win over Buffalo in the last game for the Devils before their COVID hiatus. In 13 career games against the Caps, Wood is 4-1-5, minus-6.
He was drafted ahead of Mathew Barzal. He was drafted ahead of Kyle Connor. He was drafted ahead of Brock Boeser, Sebastan Aho, and Travis Konecny. Pavel Zacha was the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft, but in 277 games with the Devils, he has topped ten goals in a season once (13 in 2018-2019) and 30 points once (32 points last season). He has had intermittent injury issues (facial injury in 2016, concussion in 2017, upper body injury in 2019, COVID protocol absence this season), but he still has not lived up to his lofty draft status in what is now his sixth NHL season.
There are signs, though, that Zacha might be making progress toward becoming an upper echelon player. In 11 games this season he has four goals, second on the team, and he has six points to average more than half a point per game. What is more, his production has improved since a slow start. He started the season without a point in his first four games and had a minus-1 rating. Since then, he is 4-2-6, plus-2, in seven games while averaging a little over 16 minutes per game. He is one of two Devils forwards with a power play goal this season (Jack Hughes is the other). Extending his production back to the end of last season, Zacha is 6-7-13, plus-4, in his last 21 games. He is 0-3-3, plus-3, in 11 games against the Caps in his career.
Yegor Sharangovich is not a player one might pay a lot of attention to, but he is unique in some respects. First, he was taken in the fifth round of the 2018 Entry Draft (141st overall) and remains the only player in the fifth round of that draft to have dressed for an NHL game. Second, his first NHL goal was a game winner with 1.7 seconds left in overtime, against Jaroslav Halak and the Boston Bruins in a 2-1 win in the Devils’ first victory of the season on January 16th. Third, his other goal scored this season was also a game winner (he is the only Devil with two game winning goals), that on February 16th in a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers. And, he wears number “17,” formerly worn by Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored 89 goals in 222 games over four seasons with the Devils. Sharangovich has shown flashed of goal scoring ability, posting 15 goals in 38 games with the Belarus U-20 squad in 2016-2017 and with 10 goals in 57 games with the Binghamton Devils in the AHL last season. This would be his first career appearance against the Caps.
No team has allowed fewer goals at 5-on-5 than the Devils (13, four fewer than the Dallas Stars), and their 1.18 5-on-5 goals allowed per game is fewest in the league.
2. Early scoring has been an issue for New Jersey. Only two teams have posted fewer goals than the seven New Jersey has going into Saturday’s game (Buffalo: 5; Dallas: 4). Late scoring has been an issue as well. Only Washington (nine) and the New York Rangers (eight) have fewer third period goals than the Devils (ten).
3. Just don’t count on scoring early against the Devils. They have allowed five first period goals, fewest in the league.
4. The Devils do not draw penalties with any frequency. Their 3.29 penalties drawn per 60 minutes rank 27th in the league.
5. Blocking shots is not New Jersey’s thing. Their 10.93 blocked shots per 60 minutes rank 29th in the league.Washington still plays a “heavy” game. The Caps’ 25.26 hits per 60 minutes rank fifth in the league.
2. The Caps lead the league in second period goals scored (25).
3. The Caps are just 3-2-3 when leading after one period. No team has lost more games (regulation and extra time) when leading after one frame.
4. Through Friday, Washington has four wins and two regulation losses when outshooting opponents, four wins and two regulation losses when they are outshot. The difference is in the extra time losses. The Caps have not lost in extra time when outshooting opponents but they have three extra time losses when outshot.
5. Only two teams have spent less time on power plays than the Caps (64:04 through Friday): Florida (63:41) and New Jersey (50:07).
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
New Jersey: Ty Smith
Ty Smith was taken by the Devils with the 17th overall pick in the 2018 draft, the sixth defenseman taken in that draft. Rasmus Dahlin (first overall) got most of the attention when drafted, Quinn Hughes (seventh overall) has emerged as a foundational component of the Vancouver Canucks’ blue line, Adam Boqvist (eighth) and Noah Dobson (12th) have played in more games. But Smith has made enough of an impression to be in the conversation as top rookie in the East Division so far this season and is getting some attention as a Calder Trophy candidate as top rookie in the league.
Smith came to the NHL with quite a pedigree. In five seasons with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League, he finished with the second highest career goal total (45) and career point total (235) among defensemen in Chiefs history. He made the jump directly from Canadian juniors to the Devils this season where he is tied among rookie defensemen in goals (two), tied for the lead in assists (six), and is the leader in points (eight). However, like some rookies, a hot start has given way to a more modest level of production. He started his NHL career with points in his first five games (1-5-6, plus-5), including a goal in his NHL debut against Boston. But in his last six games he is 1-1-2, plus-1, although his ice time has been ramped up over those six games (20:03 per game, compared to 15:31 in his first five games). This will be Smith’s first appearance against the Caps.
Washington: Richard Panik
It has been an up and down year for Richard Panik. No points in his first three games, one (an assist) in his first seven contests. He then had points in consecutive games, including his first and only goal of the season, but then he went five more without a point. That stretch included a minus-4 rating in a 7-4 loss to Philadelphia, the last of three games over which he was a combined minus-8. He had his first multi-point game (two assists) in the Caps’ 3-1 win over Pittsburgh on Tuesday, but he went without a point in the Caps’ 3-1 win over Buffalo on Thursday.
The odd thing of it all is that despite the fits and starts in his offensive production, Panik is second on the club in personal shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (56.1 percent, minimum: five games). But even here there is a certain up and down quality. Panik has been on ice for eight goals against at even strength in February, fourth-most on the team. Part of that might owe to he and his third line linemates facing strong opponent lines, but it is an unfortunate statistic. Panik has a slow start last season, too, even slower than this one. He went without a point in his first 12 games and was just 2-0-2 in his first 23 games, but in a short season, a slow start gets magnified, even if he is “playing” the right way. Panik is 1-3-4, minus-5, in 15 career games against New Jersey.
In the end…
The Caps have won two straight going into their Saturday matchup with the New York Rangers, and the Devils have won three in a row going into their Saturday game against Buffalo. If the Caps can win both weekend games, they can put some distance between themselves and the fifth-place (first non-playoff qualifier) team, the Penguins. If New Jersey can win both of their weekend games, they can jump right into the playoff conversation (currently five points behind the New York Islanders). Despite what it says on the calendar, this game has meaning. The Caps cannot afford to “play down” to an opponent who might be in sixth place in the division, but one that still sports a 6-3-2 record and a better points percentage (.636) than the Caps (.633).
Capitals 5 – Devils 3