Thursday, April 28, 2022

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 82: Capitals at Rangers, April 29th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

And here we are, finishing as we started.  After 198 days since the Washington Capitals defeated the New York Rangers to kick off the 2021-2022 regular season, 5-1, we watch the same two teams ending it facing one another once more.  Their places in the postseason already secured, there is the matter of seeding.  And in this respect, even this season-ending regular season game could be a beginning.  Pending results of the Capitals/Islanders contest on Thursday night and this season ending game, Game 82 of the regular season could be what amounts to “Game 0” of the first round of the playoffs in which these same two teams would face each other.

The Rangers that the Caps are facing in Game 82 is not the team they faced in October.  At the beginning of the season, the Rangers, to the extent they were thought of as a playoff contender, seemed to have a ceiling of “wild card” among prognosticators

The Rangers started the season tougher, with the additions of Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, and Barclay Goodrow.  All were in the Opening Night lineup for the Rangers, none made much of an impact (no points, four shots on goal, but they did combine for nine hits).  Fast forward to now.  Of 22 players to dress for at least 20 games, Goodrow, Nemeth, and Reaves rank ninth, tenth, and 21st, respectively in ice time per game.  They have combined for 20 goals and 53 points.  These are not awful results for bottom-six forwards with a limited role to play, and one could argue Goodrow has outperformed expectations (he is 13-20-33, plus-12, in 78 games).  But have they made the Rangers better by freeing up room for more skilled players?  To say that the answer is unsettled might be overstating their impact. 

Goodrow and Reaves are at opposite ends of the contribution scale here. Goodrow has posted career bests this season in goals (13), assists (20), and points (33), the first time in his career he has posted double digits in goals, reached the 20 assist mark, and topped 30 points.  His 67 penalty minutes is modest compared to his career high, 97 in 70 games split between San Jose and Tampa Bay in 2019-2020.  The reduction in penalty minutes has not come at the expense of expressing a physical edge within the rules, his 129 credited hits being the second-highest total of his career to date (he had 162 in 70 games in 2019-2020).

As one might expect, his secondary scoring is enough of a supplement to the offense to matter.  In the 12 games in which he has goals, New York is 10-2-0.  In the 27 games in which he has points, they are 20-4-3.  There does seem to be threshold of physicality attached to his game.  In ten games in which Goodrow was credited with four or more hits, the Rangers are just 5-5-0.  But three hits seems to be the sweet spot.  New York is 6-0-1 when he recorded that total.  Goodrow is 1-2-3, minus-2, in ten career games against Washington.

The acquisition of Ryan Reaves, in retrospect, seems to have been poorly thought out, then the damage compounded.  He was acquired via trade with Vegas in July 2021 for a third-round draft pick in the 2022 Entry Draft.  That looks like an overpayment for a player who had 49 goals in 686 career games before arriving in New York.  He also had 937 penalty minutes and a reputation as one of the most fearsome fighters in the league.  He also had 75 major penalties in those 686 games, two more than Washington’s Tom Wilson over the same span (Wilson compiled his 73 minors over that period in 569 games).  And Wilson appears to be the reason Reaves was obtained.  In fact, that acquisition, at least from this seat, looks like a response to a pair of games last season.  

The Rangers thought enough of having Reaves to keep the peace (or enhance the chaos) that they signed him to a one-year/$1.75 million contract extension shortly after his acquisition.  A hefty price tag for a 35-year old forward whose skill set is rather limited, especially when compared to a cohort of forwards 32-38 years of age with cap hits from $1.5 to $2.0 million.  The Rangers have been successful when he posted points, but he has only ten games with points in 68 games played (the Rangers are 7-3-0 in those games).  He has been reasonably disciplined this season with only three majors on his record, but in the 17 games in which he recorded penalties overall, New York is just 9-6-2.  And Ranger fans might not want to see him much on the ice.  In 18 games in which he skated at least 12 minutes, New York is 8-10-0.  Reaves is 1-2-3, minus-3, in 19 career games against the Caps.

On a team with its share o=of recognizable names, that of Braden Schneider might get lost in the noise.  He is one of five rookie skaters to play for the Rangers this season and leads that cohort in games played.  In 42 games, the rookie defenseman is 2-7-9, plus-3, in 15 minutes and change in ice time per game.  He ranks fifth overall with nine points among the 11 defensemen to dress for the Rangers this season, fifth in points per game (0.21), and sixth in plus-minus rating (plus-3).

It should be of little surprise that Schneider is contributing at age 20 at a difficult position for a Stanley Cup contender.  He was the fourth defenseman taken in the 2020 Entry Draft and in one of only four defensemen from that draft to date to appear in an NHL game.  After he was drafted he spent a final full year with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League, posting five goals and 27 points in 22  games before heading to the Hartford Wolf Pack in the AHL for a cup of coffee at the end of the season.  He played in 24 games with the Wolf Pack this season, going 0-9-9, plus-6, before graduating to the Rangers.  It would not be unusual for a young defenseman to have a poor relationship of ice time to team success, and such is the case for Schneider.  New York is 9-8-0 in the 17 games in which he skated 15:14 or more, 19-5-1 in the 25 games in which he skated less.  He went without a point and had an even rating in his only appearance against Washington to date.

1.  The Capitals and Rangers have a history.  The Rangers were the first opponent the Caps faced in their history.  The Caps scored first (Jim Hryciuk), but the Rangers broke a 3-3 third period tie to score three unanswered goals in a 6-3 win over the Caps on October 9, 1974.

2.  The Rangers rank second in the league in scoring defense on home ice, allowing 2.28 goals per game (Carolina: 2.10).

3.  New York is tied with three other teams for fewest first period goals allowed on home ice (25).  Only Vancouver has allowed fewer third period goals on home ice (25) than the Rangers (27).

4.  The Rangers have allowed one goal in overtime on home ice this season.  Only Edmonton and Florida allowed fewer (none).

5.  Only Colorado has more wins when scoring first on home ice (26) than New York (19).

1.  This will be the sixth time in Caps history that they faced the Rangers in the season finale.  Their record overall in the first five games is 4-1-0; they are 2-0-0 in New York.

2.  This will be the 236th meeting between the teams, the second-most games the Caps have played against any opponent (they played 240 games against Pittsburgh).  The Caps hold a 113-96-8 (18 ties) edge in the series, 51-4-4 (nine ties) in Manhattan.

3.  In 118 games at Madison Square Garden, the Caps have taken 30.6 shots per game and allowed 30.6 shots per game.

4.  Washington has six overtime goals scored in New York in the all-time series.  They have more on the road only against Montreal and the New York Islanders (seven apiece).

5.  The Caps are 19-19-4 in one-goal decisions all-time against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Rangers: Chris Kreider

It was fitting that the first goal for the Rangers this season would be scored by Chris Kreider on a power play in their 5-1 loss to the Capitals on Opening Night.  Kreider has gone on to post his first 50-goal season (52 going into Game 82), 26 of them on power plays to lead the league in that category.  Until this season, Kreider was a reliable contributor, posting six 20-plus goal seasons of the seven seasons preceding this one, but never as many as 30 goals (he had 28 in 2016-2017 and 2018-2019).  The goals came when he was more assertive shooting the puck, his 255 shots on goal in 80 games far eclipse the 201 shots in 79 games in 2018-2019 that was his previous high in that category, and more efficient in doing so, his 20.4 shooting percentage being the first time he topped 20 percent and ranking fifth in the league among 351 skaters with at least 100 shots on goal.

Krieder’s goals have not been cosmetic additions to pump up Ranger scoring, either.  He is tied for the league lead in game-winning goals (11) with Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, and it is also an outlier total, more than twice as many game-winners as he posted in his next highest season (five in 2014-2015 and again in 2010-2020).  Kreider has goals in 42 of the 80 games in which he has played, the Rangers going 30-9-3 in those games (they are 21-14-3 in games in which he did not score a goal).  He has nine multi-goal games this season, as many as his previous three seasons combined. Unsurprisingly for a prolific goal scorer on a top-ranked team, Kreider’s contributions this season on offense have been one of the key ingredients to the Rangers’ success.  He is 9-6-15, even, in 34 career games against the Capitals.

Washington: Marcus Johansson

If the Capitals are going to go far in the playoffs, they are going to need contributions in layers.  There will be the skill players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and Anthony Mantha.  There will be gritty players like Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, Conor Sheary, Garnet Hathaway, and Nic Dowd.  And then there are the “200-foot players.” Who have to contribute offensively while being responsible and defensively honest in all three zones.  Marcus Johansson might be the epitome of that player for the Caps as they prepare for the postseason.  Head coach Peter Laviolette identified him precisely as such when the Caps traded a fourth-round draft pick in 2022, a sixth-round draft pick in 2023, and Daniel Sprong to Seattle to obtain him at the trading deadline. 

Johansson’s contributions on offense have been modest since his arrival (3-3-6, minus-4, in 16 games).  He has also been on ice for 12 even strength goals against with a minus-2 goal differential at evens, which is probably not what the team was looking for when he came on board.  However, his production has picked up with time.  He went without a point in his first six games in his return to Washington; he was on ice for five goals against at even strength in those six games and had a minu-s3 goal differential.  Since then, he is 3-3-6, even, in ten games, has been on ice for seven goals against at evens, and has a plus-1 goal differential.  One hopes that this is indicative of an adjustment curve as he becomes familiar with the schemes and strategies the Caps employ across all three zones.  But it is his continued improvement in these areas that will be a key ingredient to the team’s success in the postseason.  Johansson is 8-12-20, minus-8, in 33 career games against the Rangers.

In the end…

If this is, in fact, “Game 0” of an opening round series to come against the Rangers, this game will be an opportunity to lock in their focus on their systems and to make a statement that their road record – best in the league in wins (25, tied with four other teams), points (56), and points percentage (.718) – is no fluke.  It could also be an opportunity to plant seeds of doubt about Igor Shesterkin in goal who, despite his phenomenal numbers this season, has only one game of postseason experience (a 4-1 loss to Carolina in a series-clinching Game 3 in the 2020 qualifying round).  It will not be a meaningless game.

Capitals 3 – Rangers 1


Monday, April 25, 2022

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Games 80/81: Capitals vs. Islanders, April 26th/28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals begin their last week of the regular season with a home-and-home set of games against the New York Islanders on Tuesday and Thursday.  This is the only home-and-home that the Caps will play in the regular season, while for the Islanders it will be their fourth home-and-home this season, sweeping a pair of games against the Philadelphia Flyers by 4-1 and 4-3 (in a Gimmick) scores on January 17/18, sweeping a pair of contests against the Columbus Blue Jackets by 4-3 and 5-2 margins on March 29/31, and then splitting a pair against the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning in a Gimmick by a 5-4 score and dropping a 6-3 decision on April 12/14.

To say this season has been disappointing for the Islanders is an understatement.  This was a team that was expected to be competitive in the Metropolitan Division.  For example, nine of the 16 panelists at predicted a division title for the Isles, six pegged them as Eastern Conference champions, and two picked them to win the Cup. 

That dream became a nightmare in short order.  The Islanders played their first 13 games on the road as the finishing touches were applied to their new facility, UBS Arena.  Their 5-6-2 record in those games was not lethal, but coming home would be.  They opened their new palace with a five-game home stand and lost all of them (0-4-1).  It set off a 3-6-4 run (2-5-3 at home) that left them 8-12-6 through 26 games, almost a third of their season.  They dragged themselves up with a 6-1-0 run (the lone loss being to the Caps) to close the old year and begin 2022, but they then sank into also-ran status with a 6-10-2 stretch that left them 20-23-8 and in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division.  Since then, the Isles are 15-11-2, the tenth-best record in the league over that stretch, but the Isles dug themselves far too deep to challenge for a playoff spot.  They were eliminated on April 17th when they lost to Toronto, 4-2, a loss that started a five-game skid that they are bringing to Washington (0-4-1).

If there is any optimism to be had over the Islanders’ 15-11-2 run since March 5th, it is in their core players (well, most of them, but we’ll get to that) playing like core players.  Over those 28 games, Brock Nelson has 17 goals, a total that has allowed him to obliterate his personal best for a season.  His 36 goals to date far eclipse the 26 he had in the 2015-2016 and 2019-2020 seasons and to top the 200-goal mark for his career (he has 204).  If anything, Nelson has been a beacon of consistency in a season of ups and downs.  In his first ten games he had seven goals, three in his next ten, four in his third ten-game segment, five in his next ten games, eight in his next ten, six in his sixth ten-game block, and three in his last ten games, 36 goals in 70 games overall. 

That goal scoring has not had enough support to make it meaningful in terms of making the Islanders that much more competitive, the team going 15-8-4 in the 27 games in which he has goals.  Even his points contributions reflect a considerable burden on Nelson to produce.  New York is 12-3-1 when Nelson had a multi-point game, but even in games in which he had one point, the team did not perform all that well, going 8-10-4 in 22 games.  Then there is the ice time.  In 23 games in which Nelson logged at least 18:42 in ice time, the team is 6-11-6.  And there is offensive engagement.  Nelson recorded three or more shots on goal in 33 games, but the team is just 14-15-4 in those games.  Nelson is 11-10-21, minus-4, in 38 career games against Washington.

Anders Lee is the other Islander posting double-digits in goals over the 15-11-2 run (12).  Over his ten year career, Lee is the leading goal scorer for the Islanders (210, six more than Nelson).  Lee has been a very consistent goal scorer for the club.  His 26 goals this year marks the sixth season in the last eight in which he posted at least 20 goals, and he might have had a seventh had he not sustained a knee injury last year that cut his season short after posting 12 goals in 27 games.  His production has allowed him to climb to high rankings in club history.  His next goal will tie him with Derek King for tenth place on the all-time franchise list, and he ranks 18th all-time in points for the Islanders (363), six short of Stefan Persson and Kyle Okposo for the 16th spot.  He already ranks in the top ten in career power play goals for the Isles, sitting in ninth place with 61 goals.  He needs three power play points to become the 22nd player in team history to reach the 100-point mark on power plays, and h ranks tenth on the Islanders’ all-time list in game-winning goals (33).

Lee, like the rest of the team, got off to somewhat of a slow start this season, going 4-0-4, minus-3, in his first 15 games, but he lit up the scoreboard with six goals in his next eight games.  That was followed by a prolonged slowdown over which he went just 4-4-8, minus-10, over a 23-game span.  He broke out of that slump with a six-game goal streak over which he went 9-1-10, plus-5, including a hat trick in a 6-0 win over Columbus on March 10th. It was his first NHL hat trick.  He has since gone rather dormant, at least in goal scoring, going 3-10-13, minus-6, over his last 21 games.  It has been quite a streaky season for Lee to date.  He is 9-5-14, minus-9, in 30 career games against the Capitals.

The 2014 Entry Draft produced quite a crop of goaltenders – Thatcher Demko, Alex Nedeljkovic, the Caps’ own Vitek Vanecek, Elvis Merzlikins, Ville Husso, Igor Shesterkin, and the Islanders’ Ilya Sorokin.  Of the ten goalies in that class to have appeared in at least one NHL game, only Shesterkin has a better goals against average (2.29) than Sorokin (2.32), and only Shesterkin has a better save percentage (.929 to .924).  Sorokin leads his class in career shutouts (ten).  And all this despite his ranking just sixth among those ten goalies in games played (72) and minutes logged (4,224).

This season, consistency has been Sorokin’s calling card.  Among 50 goalies to start at least 25 games, only Shesterkin has a higher percentage of games with a save percentage of .900 or better (76.5 percent/39 of 52 starts) than Sorokin (72.0 percent.36 of 50 starts).  Only three times this season has ne gone consecutive games with save percentages under .900.  Only twice over his last 16 appearances did he fall short of .900, posting a record of 9-6-1, 2.24, .936, with three shutouts.  He has struggled some with heavy shot volumes, though, but in an odd way.  In 19 games in which he faced at least 35 shots, his underlying numbers have been superb – a 2.70 goals against average, a .932 save percentage, and two shutouts.  But his win-loss record is just 8-9-2.  At the other end, when facing 25 or fewer shots, Sorokin is 7-3-1, 1.98, .913, with three shutouts.  He has faced more than 35 shots in each of his last four outings, stopping 146 of 157 shots overall (.930 save percentage), but going just 1-2-1 in those games. In two career appearances against the Caps, he is 0-2-0, 3.56, .889.

1.  The Islanders have scored 47 goals in the third periods of games on home ice (tied for 12th in the league) but only 33 on the road (tied for 25th).

2.  New York does poorly in one goal decisions regardless of venue.  They are 6-6-5 in one-goal decisions at home, their .353 winning percentage tied for 26th in the league.  On the road, they are 5-3-5 in one-goal decisions, their .385 winning percentage ranking 25th.

3.  At the other end, the Islanders do have ten wins by three or more goals at home, but their winning percentage (.588/10-7) is tied for 16th in the league.  On the road, they have eight wins by three or more goals, but their winning percentage (.400/8-12) is tied for 18th.

4.  New York has scored first more often on the road (24 of 40 games) than they have at home (19 in 43 games).  Their record at home scoring first (13-4-2/.684/18th) is better than that which they have on the road (15-5-4/.625/21st).

5.  Good luck beating the Islanders on their ice if they take a lead into the third period.  They are one of five teams in the league with a perfect record (13-0-0) when leading at home after two periods. On the road is a different story.  While they still have a good record (13-2-2), their winning percentage (.765) is tied for 24th in the league.

1.  Washington has just 15 wins n regulation time on home ice, tied for 19th-most in the league.  On the road, they have 20 wins in regulation time, tied for fourth-most in the league.

2.  The Caps are much more productive on offense on the road (3.54 goals per game/fourth in the league) than they have been at home (3.20/14th).

3.  Washington’s penalty kill has been, as one might expect, more efficient at home (84.4 percent/sixth in the league) than it has been on the road (79.4 percent/11th).

4.  The Capitals have been stingy allowing shots on goal on home ice – 27.8 per game (fourth-fewest in the league).  On the road, they have allowed 30.3 shots per game (seventh-fewest).

5.  Washington has been dominant on the road in one respect.  They are 9-4 in games decided by three or more goals, their .692 winning percentage tied for second in the league with Florida.  At home, they are 7-6 in games decided by three or more goals, their .538 winning percentage ranking 20th.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Islanders: Mathew Barzal

When on his game, Mathew Barzal is an electrifying player – fast, shifty, skilled.  This season, though, the power has been off much of the time, and it is not a one-off phenomenon.  He is a player who has not thrived under Barry Trotz.  Barzal was a first-team member of the league’s All-Rookie Team and its Calder Trophy winner as top rookie in 2017-2018 of a 22-63-85, plus-1 season.  He had five power play goals and 27 power play points.  He shot 12.9 percent in that rookie season.

Barzal has not matched any of those numbers since Trotz took over behind the bench, despite his ice time per game in all four seasons exceeding that which he recorded in his rookie year.  In four seasons since he was rookie-of-the-year, he has not hit the 20-goal mark, and won’t this season with 15 goals and three games left on the Islanders’ schedule.  He has not hit the 50-assist mark after posting 63 in his rookie year.  With 62 points being his high-water mark over the last four seasons, he has not come close to his rookie total of 85.  He has not matched the 12.9 shooting percentage efficiency he posted as a rookie.  Barzal has a total of just nine power play goals over the last four seasons and has not posted as many as 20 power play points in any of those seasons.  Is this Trotz holding Barzal back or something bigger?  He does rank second on the club in points this season (54, to Brock Nelson’s 58), and he does rank second on the team in power play points (17, to Noah Dobson’s 19).  He is getting his share of shots in this scheme, his 155 shots on goal ranking third on the team.  But he has been inefficient as a shooter, his 9.7 shooting percentage ranking seventh among 15 skaters with at least 75 shots for the Islanders this season.  And, his minus-16 rating is worst among the 31 skaters to dress for the Isles this season, and no skater has been on ice for more shorthanded goals against (five).  Barzal finds himself in a curious situation, a gifted player whose gifts are not being displayed as much as one might have expected based on his rookie season.  He is 5-12-17, minus-6, in 23 career games against Washington.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

On Monday, Nicklas Backstrom was announced as the Capitals’ nominee for the Masterton Trophy, an award for the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game.”  It is for his comeback from hip surgery and his coming back despite having missed the first 28 games of the season and 34 games this season overall.  Despite his rehabilitation to start the season and his late start, he is tied for seventh on the team in points (31), fifth in points per game (0.69, a rounding factor less than Tom Wilson for fourth), and fourth in power play points (14).  What he has not been, yet, is efficient shooting the puck, his 9.1 shooting percentage being the second-worst of his career to date (8.9 percent in 2010-2011).

One reason for his diminished production so far is perhaps that his ice time is being managed carefully.  His 17:29 in ice time per game is the second lowest of his career by almost a full minute (18:16 in 2016-2017) and only the third season in his career in which he averaged fewer than 19 minutes per game.  Despite his diminished exposure, his production has been meaningful, the Caps going 15-7-3 in the 25 games in which he has points, but there is that exposure.  The Caps are just 3-6-1 in games in which Backstrom skated at least 19 minutes, but they are 9-0-0 when he skated less than 16 minutes.  It is also worth noting that in those nine games he was a combined 2-7-9, plus-5, an indicator of the management of his time as his load was reduced in winning – and productive – efforts.  Backstrom is 12-44-56, plus-13, in 57 career games against the Islanders.

In the end…

With Alex Ovechkin on the shelf at the moment with an “upper body injury,” the Caps will be short their top goal scorer and point getter.  This might not mean quite as much against a grinding, zone to zone team like the Islanders where goals are at a premium.  These could be games in which the grinders are at least as important as the skilled personnel.  With three games left, the object of the exercise is two-fold.  One, get/remain healthy.  Two, play the “right” way within the system.  That, despite the Caps controlling their own destiny with respect to playoff seeding, is more important than where the Caps finish in the standings.  The Islanders will test the latter of these considerations with their own grinding style of play.

Tuesday: Capitals 3 – Islanders 1

Thursday: Capitals 3 – Islanders 2