The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals continue wrapping up their regular season series in advance of the postseason, the Pittsburgh Penguins being next on the list with two games at Capital One Arena to close out the season series. The teams have not met in more than two months, but time does not diminish the flame of this rivalry, made more intense in this instance as the two teams battle down the stretch for the top spot and top seed in the East Division.
The Caps and Pens last met on February 25th, a 5-2 Capitals win that featured six third period goals, two of them empty netters by the Caps that provided the final margin. Since that loss, the Penguins have the third-best record in the league (22-8-2) and the sixth-best points percentage (.719).
Pittsburgh has done it largely without the services of Evgeni Malkin, who has been out of the lineup on long-term injured reserve since suffering a lower body injury on March 16th. Only recently did he return to practice in a non-contact jersey. In Malkin’s absence, Sidney Crosby stepped up. In 21 games since Malkin left the lineup, Crosby is third on the team in goals scored (nine), tied for first in assists (18, with Kris Letang), first in points (27), tied for second in game-winning goals (two, with Jake Guentzel), leads the team in first goals scored in games (three), leads the team in takeaways (23), has taken more faceoffs (517) than the next four Penguins over that span (467) to a 54.2 winning percentage, and leads all Penguins forwards in ice time per game (20:36). He is tied for seventh in the league in scoring (27 points, with Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog, 11th in points per game (1.29), and tied for fifth in power play points (10). Crosby is the active leader in career points against the Caps, going 28-52-80, minus-2, in 58 career games against Washington.
Kris Letang occupies the top spot in almost every meaningful statistical category among defensemen in Penguins history – first in games played (857), first in goals (134), first in assists (443), first in points (577), first in power play goals (44), first in overtime goals (six), first in game-winning goals (26), first in shots on goal (2,225), first in minutes played (20,571 since 1997-1998, when the league began capturing that statistic), first in blocked shots (1,278, since 2005-2006), first in takeaways (440, since 2005-2006), first in first goals scored in games (25). Letang is another player who stepped up in the absence of Malkin, going 2-18-20, plus-6, leading all Penguin defensemen in points and fourth in points among all NHL defensemen over that span. Against the Caps, though, Letang has struggled over the years. He is tied for second among Pittsburgh defensemen all-time in goals scored against Washington (seven) and is third in career points against Washington (26) in 46 career games (first all-time among Penguin defensemen against the Capitals), but he is the worst of 159 defensemen to dress for the Penguins against the Caps in plus-minus (minus-27).
The Penguins are gambling on a question with regard to its goaltending. Is “good enough” actually good enough? Tristan Jarry appears to have claimed the number one goaltending spot for the Penguins, but his overall numbers to not impress. Jarry is tied for third in wins among goalies (21, with Marc-Andre Fleury and Connor Hellybuyck), but among 47 goalies with at least 1,000 minutes played, he ranks 26th in goals against average (2.71) and 22nd in save percentage (.911). Among 43 goalies appearing in at least 20 games, he ranks 17th in even strength save percentage (.921) and 33rd in save percentage against power plays (.838). It has not been better recently. Since April 1st, Jarry ranks 23rd of 46 goalies logging at least 250 minutes in goals against average (2.51) and 22nd in save percentage (.914). Among 48 goalies dressing for at least five games since April 1st, he ranks 16th in even strength save percentage (.929). On the other hand, Jarry is 6-1-1 in nine appearances in April, but the question is whether he can step up when the games get tighter in the postseason. Jarry is 2-2-0, 2.77, .914 in four career appearances against the Caps, all of those appearances coming this season.
If Alex Ovechkin does not play, Sidney Crosby could take over the number two spot among active players in career points in the NHL. Crosby has 1,319 points to Ovechkin’s 1,320. Joe Thornton leads active players in career points with 1,523.
2. The Penguins have dressed 12 defensemen this season, but they have played 21 consecutive games with the same six defensemen in the lineup – Kris Letang, Mike Matheson, Cody Ceci, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, and Marcus Pettersson.
3. No team has more wins on home ice this season than the Penguins (20), and their points percentage (.808) on home ice ranks third in the league. Their road record is less impressive. Their 12-11-1 record on the road is tied for 12th in wins, 17th in standings points earned (25), and their points percentage (.521) ranks 16th. They are, however, 4-1-0 in their last five road contests.
4. The Penguins rank 25th in the league in scoring defense on the road (3.33 goals against per game) and have allowed 29 goals in their last seven road contests (4.14 per game). Only one of those games was against a playoff-eligible team (a 7-5 loss to Boston on April 3rd).
5. Only New Jersey has a worse penalty kill on the road this season (66.7 percent) than Pittsburgh (67.7 percent). It has been even worse of late – 61.1 percent over their last seven games (11-for-18).Washington leads the league in power play efficiency on home ice (33.9 percent).
2. No team has allowed more shorthanded goals this season than the Caps (eight). Half of them (four) have been allowed in April.
3. The Caps lead the league in one-goal wins (17), fewest one-goal losses in regulation (one), and winning percentage in one-goal games (.773/17-1-4).
4. Washington leads the league in goals scored at 5-on-5 (120).
5. If the Caps win on Thursday night, they will even the all-time series with the Penguins at 103 wins and 103 regulation losses.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Pittsburgh: Jeff Carter
At the age of 36, Jeff Carter is coming to the end of the road. This might not be his last season, but he can see it from here. And one of the most prolific scorers of his generation is limping a bit to the end. Since coming into the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2005-2006, Carter ranks eighth among all players in goals scored (393). Consistency has been a hallmark of his game. That career goal total was complied despite only topping 40 goals in a season once (46 goals with the Flyers in 2008-2009) and topping 30 goals only four times in 16 seasons. But since he posted 32 goals in 2016-2017 with the Los Angeles Kings, he has played in only 211 of 294 possible games and scored 54 goals over that span (a 21-goalpace over 82 games). He lost games to an assortment of injuries – ankle, upper-body, lower-body, core muscle.
When the Penguins acquired Carter for a pair of mid-round draft picks at the trading deadline, he was not expected to be more than a support scorer. However, with the absence of Evgeni Malkin for the foreseeable future, there is a bit more pressure on him to produce in the offensive end. Reviews are mixed in that regard. Since joining the Pens lineup on April 15th, Carter is 3-1-4, plus-3, in eight games, tied for third in goals and tied for eight in points for the Penguins. All three of his goals have come in the last five games, Carter alternating games with and without goals over that short span. Carter is 15-15-30, plus-3, in 34 career games against Washington.
Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov
Twenty seven players in Capitals history have combined to score 32 overtime goals in the postseason. Series clinching overtime goals are more rare – Dale Hunter against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 in 1988, John Druce in Game 5 against the New York Rangers in 1990, Brian Bellows in Game 6 against the Boston Bruins in 1998, Joe Juneau in Game 6 against the Buffalo Sabres in 1998, Joel Ward in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins in 2012, Marcus Johansson in Game 6 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017. And then there was Evgeny Kuznetsov, scoring perhaps the most satisfying series clinching goal in Capitals history:
It was part of a postseason that ranks as the best of any skater in Caps history. Unfortunately, Kuznetsov’s game has lacked a certain consistency since. In 178 regular season games since that magical postseason, he is 49-103-152, plus-13, in 178 regular season games. Good, certainly (a 23-47-70, plus-6 scoring line per 82 games), but something has just seemed “off” about his game. His points per game dropped in each of the three regular seasons since that 2018 postseason (from 1.05 PPG to 0.95, to 0.83, to 0.72 this season), and he is 4-7-11, minus-5, in 15 postseason games over the last three seasons.
But after stumbling a bit coming out of the gate for the 2020-2021 season (2-4-6, minus-2, in his first 14 games), Kuznetsov has seen his production improve over his last 25 games. In that span he is 7-15-22, plus-10, tied for third in goals on the team, third in assists, tied for second on the team in points, tied for third in plus-minus, and first in game-winning goals (four). And, he is 2-5-7, plus-2, in his last five games, including Tuesday’s game against the New York Islanders, when he was held to 14:21 of ice time due to an injury that limited him to seven minutes of ice time over the last 40 minutes of the 1-0 win.
If there is one thing the Caps would like to see improve in Kuznetsov’s performance, it might be his production on home ice. He is 3-8-11 in scoring on home ice this season, tied for ninth in goals and seventh in points. He does not have a point in his last four games at Capital One Arena after going 3-6-9 in his previous seven games on home ice. Kuznetsov is 2-3-5, minus-1, in six games against the Penguins this season and 6-13-19, minus-1, in 32 career games against Pittsburgh.
In the end…
The Caps have an opportunity here. Two games at home against a good team that struggles some on the road, with a one-point lead in the standings and a game in hand. A sweep, and the Caps will hold a five-point lead on the division with five games to play. But hockey, like all team sports, is played one game at a time. Win one, then think about winning another.
Capitals 5 – Penguins 4
Capitals 5 – Penguins 3