The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
Finally! Tonight, 311 days after the 2019-2020 regular season’s last game was played by the Washington Capitals, they return to the site where they wrapped up their regular season. The Caps visit Buffalo on Thursday night to face the Buffalo Sabres ten months after they dropped a 3-2 Gimmick decision in what was the last game of the 2019-2020 regular season.
Much has changed since that night for the Caps. Gone from that last game’s lineup for the Caps include winger Ilya Kovalchuk, and goalie Braden Holtby (defenseman Radko Gudas, who did not dress for that game, is also departed). Meanwhile, they have added forwards Conor Sheary and Daniel Sprong, defensemen Zdeno Chara and Trevor van Riemsdyk, and goalies Vitek Vanecek and Craign Anderson (taxi squad). To that, add Ilya Samsonov as the unchallenged number one goaltender to start the season, and there is a “retool” look to this team around its veteran group of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller, and Dmitry Orlov.
The Caps will be opening the season with a pair of games in Buffalo against a Sabres team with which they split two decisions last season, the 3-2 Gimmick loss to close the regular season and a 6-1 win in Washington on November 1, 2019.
On the other side, the Sabres are looking to snap a nine-year absence from the postseason, longest in franchise history. Not since 2010-2011, when Buffalo finished second in the Northeast Division under head coach Lindy Ruff, did the Sabres reach the playoffs. Since then, Buffalo has gone through five head coaches, the last of which starts his second season with the club tonight. Ralph Krueger went 30-31-8 in his first season with the club, finishing sixth in the Atlantic Division. Krueger also has a year behind the bench in Edmonton, going 19-22-7 with the Oilers in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season.
Buffalo returns one of the elite talents in the league this season in Jack Eichel. Entering his sixth NHL season, he is already in the top 20 in Sabres history in goals (137/20th) and points (337/19th), and he would seem to be a lock to finish this season in the top 20 in Sabres history in assists (200/currently tied for 26th, 27 behind Pat Lafontaine in 20th place). Last season, Eichel led the club in goals (36), assists (42), and points (78), and his 1.15 points per game ranked 12th in the league (minimum: 20 games). He had almost a third (nine) of the team’s 27 game-winning goals and half (three) of the overtime goals (six) scored by the Sabres last season. In 11 career games against the Caps, Eichel is 3-5-8, minus-4.
1. The last Sabres’ playoff team featured three players who did or would play for the Capitals: Mike Grier, Shaone Morrisson, and Mike Weber.
2. Buffalo would like to get off to better starts this season. Last year they finished tied for 25th (with Ottawa) of 31 teams in first period goals scored (55).
3. Speaking of better starts, that includes goals allowed. The 68 first period goals allowed last season were tied for fifth-most (with Philadelphia).
4. Even when being reasonably successful in their starts, Buffalo could not sustain success. They won 13 games when leading after one period, fifth-fewest in the league.
5. What the Sabres could do last season was hold a lead. Their 23-1-0 record when leading after two periods was fourth-best in the league by win percentage (.958).
2. The Caps were the third best team in the league last season when leading after one period, going 20-1-2 (.870 winning percentage). Only Anaheim (18-1-1) and Carolina (19-0-1) were better.
3. The Caps finished games well on offense, their 95 third period goals being tops in the league last season.
4. Doing the little things not so well – the Caps finished 28th of 31 teams in faceoff win percentage last season (48.3)
5. The Caps were on the wrong side of the rule book last season, their net minus-21 in penalties drawn and taken being fifth-worst in the league.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Buffalo: Taylor Hall
Has as talented a player as Taylor Hall moved around so much in his career before he reached the age of 30? The first overall pick of the 2010 Entry Draft takes the ice for his fourth club in his 11 year career when he pulls on the Sabres’ sweater. More to the point, this is Hall’s fourth club in six seasons (Edmonton, with whom he spent his first six seasons; New Jersey, with whom he spent parts of four seasons; Arizona, which whom he finished last season; and now Buffalo). Despite moving around as frequently as he has, Hall ranks third in his draft class in career goals scored (218, behind Jeff Skinner (258) and Tyler Seguin (279)) and second in points (563, behind Seguin (635)).
In some respects, though, Hall has been an underachiever in the context of his draft selection, despite being a Hart Trophy winner as most valuable player in 2017-2018. Since he arrived in the NHL in 2010-2011, he ranks 32nd in total goals scored (218), 23rd in total points (563), and 23rd in points per game (0.90; minimum: 100 games). He is on a one-year/$8.0 million deal that is among the more expensive “show-me deal” you are likely to see. In 14 career games against the Caps, Hall is 3-5-8, minus-3.
Washington: Ilya Samsonov
As we put it in our preview of his season, “it is his net now.” In fact, if you want to see who might be the player worthy of the most “pondering” this season, take a look at that preview.
In the end…
The Caps start the season with a new format that will characterize the entire abbreviated 2020-2021 season, a pair of game against the same opponent before moving on to the next city. It makes for a “playoff-lite” sort of dynamic in which animosities can fester. The Caps do not have a particular deep or rich rivalry with the Sabres, but that can change quickly. Getting off to a good start against a team that has struggled in recent years is an important thing for the Caps to take advantage of in a tough re-engineered division
Thursday: Capitals 4 – Sabres 3
Friday: Capitals 5 – Sabres 2