Friday, February 26, 2021

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Games 20/21: Capitals at Devils, February 27/28

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals open a five-game road trip with a visit to Newark, New Jersey, where they will face the New Jersey Devils on Saturday and Sunday at Prudential Center.  The Caps head out having taken three of four available standings points in two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins to extend their recent run of success to 4-1-1 and tie the Boston Bruins in standings points at the top of the East Division.  Meanwhile, the Devils are treading water and slowly sinking under the waves, going 1-3-0 in their last four games, although the win came in their last outing, a 4-3 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres.

The Devils are a team in transition, but there are signs that they are making progress toward becoming a team t be reckoned with.  Looking at the team’s February scoring, it is evident that the youngsters are taking over.  Sure, there is Kyle Palmieri, who turned 30 on February 1st, tied for the team lead in goals for the month (three), but the other goal scorers for the month are sprinkled with players in their mid-20’s or younger.

Pavel Zacha is in that group and tied with Palmieri for the lead in goals scored this month and leading the team in points (eight). Now in his sixth season, Zacha is finally showing the skills that made him the sixth-overall pick of the 2015 Entry Draft. He started the season slowly, going without a point in his first four games, but since then Zacha is 5-7-12, plus-3, and he has a four-game points streak going into the weekend games against the Caps.  The odd part of his four-game streak is that he had no shots on goal in two of them, his first two games without a shot on goal this season.  Nevertheless, Zacha is on a pace that would build on last season’s career year in points (8-24-32 in 65 games).  He is on a pace to finish this season 19-26-45, plus-7, which would be career highs in each category.  Zacha is 0-4-4, plus-3, in 12 career games against the Caps.

Nico Hischier is another one of the youngsters on whom the Devils are learning to depend, but he has struggled a bit this month and all season, for that matter, although his participation has been limited to four games due to rehabilitation for a leg injury and COVID protocols. Hischier has only one point (a goal) in those four games played to date, but his coming around would seem to be a “when,” not “if.”  He has been a consistent goals scorer in three seasons preceding this one, averaging 0.24 goals per game in his rookie year, in 2017-2018, 0.25 goals per game two seasons ago, and 0.24 goals per game last season. 

That lone goal Hischier has might be a signal.  It came in his last game, a 4-3 overtime win over Buffalo on Friday. In addition to recording his first point of the season, he took his first penalty, and he recorded a season high four shots on goal (he had a total of four over his first three games).  Hischier’s slow start did nothing to prevent his being named the 12th captain in Devils’ history, a position that was vacant since Andy Greene, now of the New York Islanders, was captain in the 2018-2019 season.  When named to that position, he became the youngest captain in the league and second youngest in Devils’ history (Kirk Muller).  Hischier is 4-5-9, minus-3, in 11 career games against Washington.

The effort to get younger by the Devils is not limited to skaters.  Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood is another player in that effort, currently the sixth youngest goaltender to appear in at least one NHL game this season. Blackwood was the second goaltender taken in the 2015 Entry Draft (second round/42nd overall, 20 spots after the Caps’ Ilya Samsonov).  His 78 NHL games to date lead his draft class in that category, as does his .917 career save percentage over two-plus seasons.  This season, Blackwood ranks third among 50 goalies with 400 minutes played in save percentage (.932), trailing only Andrei Vasilevskiy (.935) and Marc-Andre Fleury (.942).

There do seem to be cracks in his performance recently, though. After going 5-0-1, 1.94, .945 in his first fie appearances, , Blackwood is 1-2-0, 3.04, .907 in his last three games.  The odd part of his career to date is that he is a reflection of just how much Martin Brodeur dominates the Devils’ lifetime statistics.  For instance, Brodeur won 688 games with the Devils, while the other 49 goalies in team history combined for 834 wins.  Blackwood is already tenth on that wins list in Devils history 37), and he could pass Johan Hedberg (38) for ninth place with a pair of wins this weekend.  In four career games against the Caps, Blackwood is 1-3-0, 3.43, .890.

1.  New Jersey ranks dead last in the league in faceoff winning percentage (42.4 percent).  None of the four Devils taking at least 100 draws is at 50 percent or more, and only Nico Hischier among 11 taking at least five draws is over 50 percent (32-for-53/60.4 percent).

2.  For a team with a long history as a “defense-first” sort of club, the Devils have found offense.  In six of their last eight games they scored three of more goals and scoring five twice.

3.  The Devils do not do it with a physical edge.  They rank 26th in credited hits per 60 minutes (17.48), and they average 3.41 penalties taken per 60 minutes (24th).

4.  New Jersey does not do much in terms of drawing penalties, either.  Their 3.14 penalties drawn per 60 minutes rank 27th in the league.

5.  New Jersey has more wins when out-shot (four) then when out-shooting opponents (three).

1.  Washington has a 47-47-7 (with seven ties) record against the Devils in their lifetime series.

2.  The Caps lead the league in second period goals scored (29), while in the first and third periods combined, they have only 34 goals.

3.  The Caps’ defense falters late.  They have allowed only 15 first period goals this season, but they have allowed 23 goals in each of the second and third periods of games.

4.  Washington ranks dead last in the league in penalties drawn per 60 minutes (2.95), and their net penalties per 60 minutes (minus-0.62) is second-worst in the league.

5.  The 5-2 win over Pittsburgh on Thursday night was only the Caps’ second win by three or more goals this season.  The other was January 28th, a 6-3 win over the New York Islanders.  In both games, an empty net goal provided the three-goal margin.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New Jersey: P.K. Subban

Over a six season stretch ending with the 2017-2018 season, P.K. Subban was one of the most prolific defensemen in the NHL.  Over that period he played in 422 games with two teams (Montreal and Nashville), ranking ninth among all defensemen in goals 68), third in assists (233), third in points (301), tied for fourth in power play goals (29), second in power play points (135), and eighth in average ice time per game (24:56).

Since then, his production has diminished.  In his last 146 games over two-plus seasons in Nashville and New Jersey, he has 17 goals (tied for 36th among defensemen over that period), 38 assists (tied for 78th), 55 points (72nd), five power play goals, tied for 31st), 18 power play points (tied for 50th), and has averaged 22:23 in ice time per game (43rd).

Age should not be a factor in Subban’s drop in production. He will not turn 32 years of age until May.  And, this year’s production on a per-game basis (1-5-6 I 15 games) is an improvement overall over last year (7-11-18 in 68 games).  However, he does not yet have an even strength goal, and his one goal (on a power play) has come despite averaging 2.53 shots on goal per game.  Only once in four seasons preceding this one did he average more (2.67 shots per game in 2018-2019).  Subban is 1-4-5, plus-2, in his last eight games, so he might be returning to a level of play with which fans are more familiar.  He is 1-8-9, minus-3, in 30 career games against Washington.

Washington: Nick Jensen

Yeah, yeah, Nick Jensen has not scored a goal since John Quincy Adams was in the White House.  At the moment, it might be in the back of Jensen’s mind, but it has not hurt his play of late.  It was not surprising that Jensen had only two assists in his first ten games.  What he has is three assists in his last six games, including this superb feed through the Penguin defense on Thursday setting up this goal by Nicklas Backstrom:

At the other end, if you discount Jonas Siegenthaler not being on ice for any even strength goals against in one game played this month, Jensen has been on ice for the fewest number of even strength goals scored against the Caps among defensemen (four in ten games, tied with Justin Schultz in seven games).  His on-ice even strength goal differential for the month among defensemen (plus-3) is best among eight Caps defensemen playing in February.  His 15 blocked shots leads that group in February, and perhaps surprisingly, his 14 credited hits are third among Caps defensemen this month.  For what might be the first time since Jensen was acquired by the Caps along with a fifth-round pick in the 2019 Entry Draft for Madison Bowey and a 2020 second-round draft pick, Jensen is displaying the skills he was brought to Washington to provide.  Jensen is 1-2-3, even, in 14 career games against the Devils.

In the end…

The Devils are an easy team to look past, if one looks at their standings position (sixth in the East Division) and their recent history (one playoff appearance in the last eight seasons).  But in the East, it is a dog-eat-dog battle to get through 56 games, and New Jersey is one of six teams with a points percentage over .500).  They have struggled lately (4-5-1 in their last ten games overall) and at home this season (2-4-1, worst home record in the division), but if the Caps look past this team to their matchup with Boston for two games to follow, it could bite the Caps.

Capitals 5 – Devils 2

Capitals 4 – Devils 3