Saturday, March 13, 2021

A TWO-Point Night: Washington Capitals -- Game 27: Capitals 5 - Flyers 4

The Washington Capitals finished their trip up I-95 on Saturday night when they took on the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Arena.  Washington hoped to sweep the two-game set and win their fourth consecutive game while giving the Flyers their fourth loss in five games and burying them deeper in the standings in the East Division.  For the second straight game against this team, the Caps got out to a big lead and then hung on for dear life late as the Flyers tried to find the equalizer.  For the second straight game, the Caps escaped without allowing the Flyers to climb all the way out of the hole they were in, leaving Philadelphia with a 5-4 win, their fourth in a row.

First Period

Washington opened the scoring early in the first period, Daniel Sprong continuing his productive play of late.  Evgeny Kuznetsov started the scoring play by muffling a pass in the neutral zone and feeding the puck forward to Jakub Vrana just outside the Flyer blue line.  Vrana skated down the left side and wristed a puck the hit goalie Brian Elliott in the midsection.  Elliott could not smother the puck though, and it leaked out in front of him.  Sprong cut in past defenseman Travis Sandheim and chipped the puck up, off, and over Elliott’s right shoulder and into the net to make it 1-0, 4:40 into the game.

Justin Schultz took the game’s first penalty when he was sent off for interference at 9:14.  The Caps successfully killed off that penalty, allowing the Flyers two shots on goal in the two minutes they spent shorthanded.

Carl Hagelin doubled the margin just under eight minutes later, finishing a play started when Nick Dowd blunted a Flyer escape from the defensive zone with a poke check at the blue line.  Garnet Hathaway kept the puck in the Flyers’ end, chasing the puck down at the left wing wall and backhanding it out to Nick Jensen entering the zone on the right side.  Jensen stepped up and let fly with a shot that Elliott stopped, but once more he allowed a rebound, and Hagelin got inside position on Shayne Gostisbehere at the top of the blue paint to sneak the put-back between Elliott’s pads at the 13:21 mark.  That would be how the teams ended the first period.

-- Washington outshot the Flyers, 9-8, but the Flyers had the shot attempts edge, 17-15.

-- Alex Ovechkin was the only Capitals with two shots on goal, and he had four attempts to lead the team.

-- Brenden Dillon and Garnet Hathaway led the team with three credited hits apiece.

-- T.J. Oshie led the Caps in ice time with 8:19.

Second Period

It was Philadelphia’s turn to open a period’s scoring when the Flyers’ took advantage of some sloppy attempts at clearing the puck.  A last attempted clear only made it to the stick of James van Riemsdyk at the near edge of the left wing circle from where he spun and snapped a shot past goalie Ilya Samsonov at the 2:36 mark.

That one-goal margin lasted 29 seconds, Nick Jensen getting the Caps on the board. Jensen raced between two Flyers to catch up to a sliding puck in the neutral zone, sped into the offensive zone, and ripped a shot off the post on the long side past Elliott to make it 3-1 at the 3:05 mark.  That ended Elliott’s evening after allowing a goal on the only shot he faced in the period in favor of Carter Hart.

The Flyers got it right back, though, cutting the lead back to one goal when the Caps once more could not get the puck out of their own end.  A loose puck ended up on the stick of Jakub Voracek, who fed Nolan Patrick for a one-timer that hit Samsonov on the left pad and trickled under him into the net to make it 3-2, Caps, 5:47 into the period.

The Flyers had a chance to tie the game when Nic Dowd was sent to the penalty box for holding at 10:23 of the period.  The Flyers lost the man advantage when Travis Sandheim was caught holding at 11:48.  On the Caps’ ensuing power play, Alex Ovechkin took a feed from Nicklas Backstrom and from his office in the left wing circle ripped a shot through two Flyer defenders and past the right elbow of Hart, just inside the near post, to make it 4-2, 13:10 into the period.

That would be how the teams went to the second intermission, 4-2, Caps.

-- Philadelphia outshot the Caps, 15-7, in the period and out-attempted them, 27-15.

-- Garnet Hathaway led the team through two periods with five credited hits, a third of the Caps’ total for the game through 40 minutes.

-- Jakub Vrana had an odd line…13 shifts, but only 7:03 in ice time for the game through two periods.

-- It was the shock troops with the best ratings though two periods.  Brenden Dillon, Hathaway, Nic Dowd, and Carl Hagelin were all plus-2.

Third period

Nic Dowd opened the scoring for the Caps in the final frame, deflecting a Garnet Hathaway drive from high in the middle of the zone down and between the pads of Carter Hart and over the goal line at 4:25 of the period to make it a 5-2 game.

Washington got its second power play of the game when Oskar Lindblom was sent off at the 9:01 mark for slashing. The Caps failed to convert on the power play, T.J. Oshie coming closest when he fired a puck off the post.  The Flyers got their own power play chance shortly thereafter when Jensen went to the box for interference at 12:05.  The Flyers converted when Shayne Gostisbehere fired a puck that tumbled end over end through a maze of players and past Samsonov’s left elbow to make it 5-3, 13:07 into the period.

The Flyers pulled Hart from the net, and it paid off with 2:57 left when Claude Giroux one-timed a shot past Samsonov to make it 5-4.  That would be as close as Philly would get, though, as the Caps hung on for the 5-4 win.

Other stuff…

-- Daniel Sprong’s goal broke an odd pattern of late.  Over a ten-game stretch, he faithfully went goal-no-goal-no goal three times.  With his first period goal, he broke that pattern, going no goal-goal in his last two contests ending with this game.  He did, however, extend his points streak to three games, his longest to date as a Capital.

-- Lars Eller skated three shifts for a total of 1:29 in ice time before leaving the ice for the duration with a “lower body injury.”

-- Alex Ovechkin’s second period power play goal was his 716th goal of his career, putting him one behind Phil Esposito for sixth place all-time in the NHL.  It was his 263rd career power play goal, two behind Brett Hull for second place all-time in the NHL. 

-- This made three straight games with five-goal games, the first time the Caps did it since Games 9-11 last season when they scored five goals in succession against the New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, and Calgary Flames.

-- The Flyers outshot the Caps, 32-23, for the game and out-attempted them, 64-45.

-- Alex Ovechkin led the Caps with four shots on goal, but he also led the team with five missed shots (nine attempts overall).  No Capital taking more than one draw finished over 50 percent on faceoffs.  As a team, they were 21-for-46.

-- Garnet Hathaway finished with a team-high six credited hits.  Thirteen different players shared in the 19 blocked shots for the Caps; Nic Dowd and Zdeno Chara had three apiece to lead the team.

-- Late game troubles… Ilya Samsonov allowed two goals on 23 shots over the first two periods and allowed two on nine shots faced in the third period.

-- John Carlson led the team with 22:37 in ice time, but the absence of Lars Eller for almost the entire game resulted in Nicklas Backstrom (22:31) and T.J. Oshie (22:09) also getting more than 22 minutes among the forwards.

-- The Caps had four multi-point games: Nick Jensen (1-1-2), Garnet Hathaway (0-2-2), Carl Hagelin (1-1-2), and John Carlson (0-2-2). It was Backstrom’s ninth multi-point game of the season, Carlson’s seventh, Dowd’s second, and Hagelin’s second.

In the end…

Another three-goal lead, another nail-biter in the end.  The Caps are playing with matches surrounded by leaking gasoline cans.  Sooner or later, one of them is going to blow up, and it could set the rest ablaze unless the Caps find a way to stop the third period bleeding away of big leads.


For the Washington Capitals - Settling the Unsettled at the Most Important Position

It is the most important position in hockey, the one for which there is no substitute unless things are going badly or, in a season as unique as this, unexpectedly.  Teams have had to scramble and respond to circumstances on the fly with respect to their goaltending situations.  Remember that in the best of times, a team will employ two goaltenders.  And barring injury, trades, or poor play by one or both that require call-ups, waivers, or other front office actions, two goalies is what that team will employ over a season.

But extraordinary actions to add goalies to the mix are an infrequent occurrence, especially early in seasons.  Consider that by December 3rd last season, by which time all 31 teams had completed 25 games of their schedule, 23 teams had two goalies – and only two goalies – dress for those games.  Six dressed three goalies, and two – Colorado and Vegas – dressed four goalies.

COVID and the late-starting season have played havoc with personnel deployment, not least important among goalies.  While not all teams have yet hit the 25-game mark in games played, much of it due to COVID-related adjustments in schedules, 23 teams have hit that mark, and the other eight have played at least 22 games (Dallas having played the fewest).  However, only 14 teams have played only two goalies.  Another 15 have dressed three goalies through Thursday’s games, and two – Vegas and New Jersey – have dressed four netminders.

And this brings us to the experience and the response of the Washington Capitals.  The Caps have been extraordinarily fortunate in their employment of goalies.  From 2015-2016 through last season, the Caps employed two – and only two goalies – in each season:

  • 2015-2016: Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer
  • 2016-2017: Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer
  • 2017-2018: Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer
  • 2018-2019: Braden Holtby/Pheonix Copley
  • 2019-2020: Braden Holtby/Ilya Samsonov

Caps fans knew that as a minimum, the team was almost certain to lose Holtby to free agency, which it did, the veteran signing with Vancouver.  It left the Caps with an inexperienced pair in Ilya Samsonov (26 regular season games of experience, no playoff experience, an injury that ended his 2019-2020 season before he could gain postseason experience) and Vitek Vanecek (no NHL games on his resume).  The Caps shored up their goaltending situation by signing Henrik Lundqvist, a certain Hall of Fame goalie, as a free agent to a one-year/$1.5 million contract to mentor the young goalies and perhaps log minutes as the number one netminder as circumstances dictate.

It was a solid plan, on paper, but things took a turn when Lundqvist announced in December that a heart condition he had required surgery.  It was a situation that would, at a minimum, delay any return to the ice to late in the season and, at worst, end Lundqvist’s career entirely.  The Caps signed 17-year veteran Craig Anderson in January as a fall-back position, but the situation was now one where two goalies with almost no NHL experience were going to be asked to mature quickly on a club with Stanley Cup aspirations.

Even that plan did not survive long.  Samsonov appeared in two games before he and three teammates (Alex Ovechkin, Dmitry Orlov, and Evgeny Kuznetsov) were placed in quarantine for violating COVID protocols.  Samsonov missed 17 games as a result of having contracted the disease, what he would later describe as “a really bad sick.”  In his stead, Vanecek took over and in the games missed by Samsonov, he went 8-4-3 (one no-decision), 2.92, .905. Over that span, Vanecek tied for fifth in the league in wins (tied for first among all 16 rookie goalies to dress over that span), was 25st in save percentage among 41 goalies with at least 400 minutes (10th among rookies), and 26th in that group in goals against average (ninth among rookies).  They were not eye-popping numbers, but under the circumstances, he being the number three option in the Caps’ plans for this season behind Samsonov and Lundqvist, he might have been the Caps most valuable player

But Samsonov has returned to the ice.  While he has not reclaimed the number one spot, he is in the rotation, playing in four of seven games since his return on February 28th.  Although it is only four games for Samsonov since his return, it is an interesting profile.  He is 3-0-0 (one no-decision), 2.06, .929 in those four games.  But while those overall numbers are impressive, they cover a bit of inconsistency in his game.  In three of the games, including one in which he relieved Vanecek for the last 20 minutes in a loss to Boston on March 5th, his save percentage was .905 or worse.  It was a 36-save effort in a 3-1 win over the Flyers on March 7th that bolstered is overall numbers, post-COVID.  Still, Samsonov’s overall record is better in his return than it was before going into COVID quarantine:

  • Pre-COVID: Two games, 1-0-1, 3.36, .868
  • Post-COVID: Four games, 3-0-0, 2.05, .929

There is an odd quality to Samsonov’s post-COVID performance.  One reasonable conclusion one might reach is that with the absence and the effects of the disease on the system, he might fade late in games.  This has not been the case in his four appearances through Thursday.  His first period save percentage is what lags.  In those four games he stopped 29 of 32 shots, a .906 save percentage.   Better than any save percentage by period in his pre-COVID appearances, but significantly below those of his second periods in his last four games (.962/25-for-26) and third periods (.925/37-40).

And there is the matter of how he has responded to situations.  His overall save percentage after his return (.929) is much better than before his quarantine (.868), and this difference has extended to situations.  His even strength save percentage (.929) is 13th among 43 goalies appearing in at least three games since his return, and it is much better than his pre-COVID mark (.860).  Against power plays, his save percentage (.917) is also much better post-COVID than pre-COVID (.875) and ranks 12th among that same set of 43 goalies.

It is a small population of games from which to draw any conclusions.  Put Ilya Samsonov’s performance since his return in the category of “tantalizing.”  He has shown moments, even stretches of brilliance.  On the other hand, there have been those moments when he is not quite at the top of his game, scrambling about as he seems to struggle with the pace of the action unfolding in front of him.  For the Caps, as the trade deadline approaches (now schedule for April 12th), they have 16 games to see if Samsonov can reduce the moments of inconsistency and put the team on his back, fall back to a platoon system with Vitek Vanecek, turn the reins over to Vanecek, or look outside the organization for help.  How this situation unfolds over the next month will go a long way to determining whether the Caps reach the postseason and how far they go if they get there.